Every night when I go to bed, my cat follows me into the bedroom, leaping up onto the comforter after I crawl underneath. At hardly more than 5 pounds, I can barely feel her there; she’s like a hollow-boned bird, all quivering ribs. She rubs her furry head against my hands, closing her robin’s-egg-blue eyes in pleasure as I scratch between her apricot ears.
I adopted Ginger Spice in May, 2006. Her shelter name was Little Sweetheart. At the time, I lived with two roommates in Logan Square next to an abandoned laundromat that would eventually turn into a hipster pizza place. She was my first pet that was mine alone–not shared with siblings, a boyfriend, or anyone else. She came from the streets of southern Illinois where she was scooped up by Animal Control, then rescued by a group that placed dogs and cats in no-kill shelters. When I brought her home, she was young, fluffy, and gorgeous–a “flame-point Siamese,” the foster dad told me. She had bright blue eyes and cream-colored fur with ears that turned red at the tips, so I named her after a famous redhead (Colors of the world!).
Ginger Spice (the cat, not the pop star) stayed true to her roots as a street smart kitten. Early on, I learned that we needed a garbage can with a tight lid after discovering her diving so deep into our kitchen garbage can that only her back paws stuck out. And much to my roommate’s disgust, she had a habit of shoving an entire front leg down the shower drain to play with the soap scum and hair balls before daintily licking her paw clean.
Her picture was the first I ever Instagrammed.
I moved from the 3-bedroom apartment in Logan Square to my boyfriend’s condo in Horner Park, where Ginger became step-siblings with his 22-pound tuxedo cat, Checkers. They became snuggly best friends. 5 months later, Checkers passed away at the age of eleven-ish from cancer. Ginger wandered from room to room, meowing, looking for him.
Years later, we adopted another black and white cat, Esteban, then a mixed-breed dog, River. Ginger and Esteban coexist civilly, but her relationship with River is a sisterhood for the ages. They cuddle in the same dog bed, chase each other around the house, and nuzzle affectionately. The two of us humans got married and moved with our three furry creatures to a new house, with more stairs and rooms and corners where the animals can chase each other and hide. Right after the move, Esteban cowered in fear in a dark cabinet in the basement for two days. But Ginger was brave. Right away, she explored her new surroundings. She was excited about the expansion of her little mammal universe.
Ginger has had health issues over recent years. She’s vomited and peed on so many rugs and carpets that we’ve given up having them in the house. We’ve had the vet run a gamut of tests and I don’t want to think about the vacations we could have taken with the equivalent amount of money. I knew that her age was a big guesstimate when I adopted her. At her most recent vet appointment, the doctor noted her fraying irises. Her red ears had paled.
“I think she’s over 11 now,” I said.
“I’d actually say she looks closer to 15 or 16,” the vet replied, and I felt my stomach drop.
When the vet felt the lump in Ginger’s abdomen that my husband discovered 2 days ago, prompting the appointment, I saw her face fall. “I don’t have a good feeling about this,” she said gently, and then mentioned the c-word. She told me about the options; an ultrasound could tell us absolutely, but she thought she could feel multiple tumors. She looked at me with sympathy and asked me what I wanted to do.
“There’s no right answer,” she said.
I stayed calm and collected; I expected this. I checked out at the front desk, making light-hearted jokes with the administrative assistant who ran my credit card, then I carried Ginger in her carrier to the car. I set her on the passenger seat next to me. She meowed at me from behind the mesh window. I started the engine and the radio came back on. The DJ’s voice drifted away and a new song began, Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt.” Are you kidding me right now, universe?? But I couldn’t turn it off. I drove down Irving Park Road as Johnny sang, “What have I become, my sweetest friend? Everyone I know goes away in the end,” and the tears rolled down my cheeks.
Next to me, Ginger meowed.
I got home and let her out of the carrier. I told my husband what the vet said, and cried again.
Tonight, I’ll go to bed and feel her land on the comforter near my feet. She’s the first pet that was all mine.