Last month, I had to put down my chihuahua mix, Clifford. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
I had adopted Clifford four and half years ago after finding him, a terrified, mangled, 8 year-old creature, hiding amongst some chickens at a dinky shelter in Brooklyn. Clifford spent our first twelve hours together maiming various of my body parts, but even so, it was love at first sight. It makes sense: We were two lost, highly sensitive boys with anxiety problems. We each seized on the rare gift of a kindred spirit. We got each other. After our first trying day together, Clifford hopped into my bed, fronted like he hadn’t just sliced my pinky open with his infected fangs, curled up next to me, and the rest was history.
In the year prior to Clifford’s passing, he’d been very sick, both physically and mentally. He was down to one eye, mostly blind, and pretty much deaf as well. He had degenerative heart condition which, in tandem with a collapsed trachea, produced a severe hacking cough that required narcotic cough medicine lest he choke to death. Things were dark, quiet and very, very stoned for Clifford towards the end.
The final straw was that he’d developed dementia. He would stand in the middle of my living room for hours, staring into space, staring at the wall, staring at nothing in particular while his body would slowly collapse. He’d wake up in the middle of the night crying desperately, not knowing where he was or who I was, unable to relax without a high-grade tranquilizer. This was no life for any living being and I, with my family’s help, finally realized the time had come.
When I made the call, my whole clan–mom, sister, dad and I–gathered around, stroking Clifford softly as he lay on my mother’s daybed and the vet loaded up the shot that would end his life “quickly,” she said. As she inserted the needle tip into the back of Clifford’s thigh, each of us broke. I saw my dad cry for the first time in my entire life. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized it wasn’t just me– Clifford’s passing was a serious loss for every member of my family.
Well, every member but one.
The caveat to this otherwise gut-wrenching story is that Clifford and my love affair–so deep that his passing brought my whole family to the depths of our emotional capacities–was actually more of a triangle. Our third was Stewie, the cat.
Stewie, a grey, privileged Persian, used to belong to my parents. My mom scooped him up on a whim at pet store in a White Plains strip mall while I was in middle school. And for the first few years of his life, she’d taken the store at their word: We all believed Stewie was a lady. My mom named him Madonna and nicknamed Supermodel for his delicate features and elitist runway prance. She even attempted to breed him with some gnarly looking Persian males she’d found through her vet.
When Madonna’s pregnancy failed to take, a quick vet appointment revealed that, surprise! Madonna was a dude. Madonna was quickly rechristened “Stewie” (My mother had just discovered Family Guy) and Stewie spent the next seven years living a posh life, the life he was probably meant to live, in my parent’s Westchester home.
Stewie and I began shacking up while I was still in college in New York City. My younger sister had also just left for school, and my mother decided she was over the suburbs. I was living alone and when Stewie threw a diva fit after moving, along with both of their dogs and my mother’s two businesses, into my parent’s decidedly smaller East Village digs, my mom figured it would be a good for both of Us Queens if Stewie and I became roommates.
Even though I’d always been a dog person at heart– dreamt of the day I’d have my own dog– Stewie and my first few years together were pretty blessed. On move-in day, I sensed that he was pissed about the material downgrade of his living situation (if you take facial expressions at face value, you’d likely figure that Stewie’s been pissed for his entire 15 years). But as he realized that living one-on-one meant less chaos and more attention for him, he adjusted. We settled into a very happy three years together in my studio apartment.
Having a cat is easy. You basically change their litter every few days, feed them gross smelling food, and pet them every once in awhile on their head. That’s literally it. And that was perfect because as a self-absorbed college student by day and a self-absorbed DJ by night, it was all that I could handle.
In fact, I wouldn’t walk in the door until 4am numerous times a week and Stewie didn’t mind at all. He would just be chilling on the armchair when I got home, excited for me to pick him up, feed him his nasty food, and curl up next to me in bed while we watched Real Housewives and I stroked his head. It was a simple life and a simple love.
Everything changed for Stewie and me, though, once Clifford came into the picture. I was a dumbass: when I finally decided I was ready for the dog I’d always wanted, I didn’t do my homework. As I sat in the Uber home from the shelter with Clifford nipping at me, I figured naively that Stewie would be as thrilled as I was about our new housemate. I imagined that the dog and cat would happily greet one another, and we’d all settle in as a blissful little gay, gender-fluid fraternity.
I was so, so wrong. The minute Clifford walked into the apartment and saw an unsuspecting Stewie sitting on his chair, he went straight for the jugular, figuratively speaking (I think). Clifford lept onto Stewie’s chair and began barking aggressively, terrifyingly, in his face, flashing his teeth as Stewie cowered in the corner of the chair, hissing to no effect. It was shocking and awful to watch. Stewie darted into my room and hid under the bed.
And there he stayed for the better part of month. Despite my best efforts to rectify this highly incorrect way to introduce a new, mildly insane rescue dog into a household with a cat who’d never experienced abuse of any kind, the damage was already done. Stewie and Clifford’s relationship would never recover. And neither, it would seem, would Stewie and mine.
Of course, cats are smarter than dogs, and Stewie quickly wised up to Clifford’s macho bullshit. He would study him from a perch on the kitchen table, wait until his back was turned and jump from chair to chair so as to always have the high ground. He chose new, more elevated sleeping spots but napped always, it seemed, with one eye open. I did what I could to help, moving Stewie’s food up on to that kitchen table after Clifford decided that he much preferred Stewie’s to his own. And I yelled and screamed at Clifford with every attack, to no avail.
At one desperate point, I even hired a trainer to help. He had me tieing Clifford up for hours whenever he went for the cat and crating him at night. But Clifford was stubborn as nails, and had one operative: Defend this guy who saved me from the shelter and the chickens. That is My Guy. No amount of training could stand up to that impulse.
But those weren’t even the saddest parts for poor Stewie. After Clifford claimed his spot on the bed with me that first night– a moment which I admit is one of my most cherished memories– he felt pretty strongly that it should just be the two of us. Every night when the cat tried to settle into his normal spot, Clifford would spring into action, chasing him off the bed and out of the room. No amount of screaming, reprimanding, or crating Clifford had any long-term effect.
And, Honesty Policy, I selfishly didn’t want to give up sleeping with Clifford. It wasn’t that I loved him more than Stewie. It was just that a dog is a dog and he was the dog of my dreams. He was my right-hand man, my everywhere companion. He came with me to my friend’s houses, out to dinners, and to visit my grandparents in Vermont. He went bezerk when I got home, doing backflips at the sheer sight of me and licked my face when I was depressed. I loved Stewie, but Clifford and I were in love.
Moreover, Stewie bashing aside, I got a real kick out of Clifford’s whacked-out desire to protect me from literally everything. Being a bullied middle-schooler will do this to you– it’s hard to be mad when a dude finally stands up in your honor, and Clifford did that for me in spades. He bit the feet of pretty much anyone– friends, family, enemies, lovers– who dared set foot in our space. Shoes became mandatory at our house.
After taking vicious jabs at every person who crossed our threshold, he’d look at me with eyes that said, “See! Didn’t I do a good job, Dad!?” It was awful and outwardly I’d run over to my friend, perilously perched on a chair and sometimes bleeding from their toes and apologize. “God, I am so sorry! I don’t know what I’m gonna do with this monster!” But secretly, I found it fucking adorable. I didn’t care how many of my friends (and former friends) hated Clifford. I loved the whole crazy package. No man had ever done that for me before, and none have since.
I felt seriously shitty, though, about Clifford’s most tragic victim. I felt powerless, or maybe just decided I was, to stop what was happening between Clifford and Stewie. I did, however, eventually become numb to our new way of being. Namely, that everything pretty much sucked for Stewie. He had to live in fairly constant fear, learning to tailor his life around not getting bullied by our own little canine Norman Bates.
It wasn’t all bad. After a few months, Stewie figured out how to sneak into my bed after he was sure Clifford had passed out. We’d share a secret moment together, like old times. But it didn’t feel the same. Our little world had been shattered, it seemed, and I was stuck between my responsibility to Stewie and my doting, borderline psycho obsession with Clifford.
After a year or so, Stewie and Clifford’s relationship reached some sort of statis. Clifford would still chase him around, almost by force of habit, but became decidedly less viscous. It seemed to morph into a more typical brotherly relationship, where one sibling felt compelled to grab his balls and beat his chest but didn’t actually want to hurt the other. Stewie kept more to himself and was understandably hesitant to join Clifford and me in bed while watching Real Housewives, despite my concerted efforts to bring him over and put him on my lap. At a certain point– and I’m not proud of this– I just accepted it.
Recently, as Clifford’s state declined, Stewie, still the picture of health at fifteen, slowly began to regain his footing. As the dog’s faculties began to fail him, it became nearly impossible for him to retain his domineering position and Stewie, rightfully so, revelled in this. I would often catch him sitting back on his favorite chair (he’d reclaimed it after Clifford’s blindness made it hard for him to jump up there) and watch Clifford stumbling around pathetically. I read Stewie’s inner monologue as, “Ha! This is what you get, and I don’t feel one bit bad for you, Fuck Face!” I was happy for Stewie’s little victory.
During Clifford’s last days, Stewie became even more brazen. When I walked in the door, he’d be waiting in front of the stumbling, confused dog, meowing for attention. In fact, Stewie became borderline aggressive, head-butting me day and night, as I tried to work, eat or sleep. It was incessant. The Stewie that emerged had totally dropped the highbrow, untouchable cool shtick from his Supermodel days. I realized that after years of having to abate his own needs and, I must confess, a certain amount of neglect on my part, he was desperate for attention. It was gut-wrenching and it began to hit me how much I’d fucked up.
The night I came home after putting Clifford down, Stewie was there, waiting for me at the door as he’d begun doing. And I looked at him and started weeping. For all of it. For Clifford’s loss, but also for Stewie. I picked him up and he sat in my arms. We sat together in living room and I realized that after four and half crazy years, it was just us again. It was a weird feeling, but somehow felt right, like I’d always known at some point we’d have to face one another again.
And I suddenly remembered what it had been like with Stewie before Clifford: The simple kind of love we’d shared. I held him while I cried and apologized to him with my face very close to his grey furry ear. He purred. Luckily for me, cats are more forgiving than humans. The night, Stewie came into my room and lept into my bed, settling into his old position as if nothing had even happened. We curled up together and fell asleep.
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