Robin Williams died yesterday. He was a huge personality, well loved, respected by his peers and massively talented. I saw him perform before he went to Hollywood, when he was just a local San Francisco Bay Area comedian. After his ingenious, unique, hilarious show at the College of Marin, the school that Robin had attended and in which I was currently enrolled, I was exhilarated. A few months later he was on TV, Mork and Mindy, and I thought it was a typical sit-com made bearable by his presence. I didn’t know what had happened to the amazing iconoclast I’d seen few weeks before. It was obvious that he was now owned by the “Industry”.
Six months ago Philip Seymour Hoffman died and there were the same outcries and expressions of sorrow and anguish that I’m hearing now.
Sad guys; depressed, I guess. Dead from suicide and suicidal overdose.
“Can’t stop crying?”
That’s one I saw yesterday. I want to ask, “Why can’t you stop crying? Lots of people die every day in much worse circumstances, with fewer resources, and we don’t care. If someone you only know from TV or the movies or magazines dies, tragically or naturally, and you are plunged into such misery that you can’t stop crying then you are fucked up and will spend a lot of time feeling shitty and probably feeling sorry for yourself, too. Get help. Now.”
Jesus. Nice, huh? I wonder why I can’t seem to work up the sadness and empathy that I hear other people expressing? It’s not that I haven’t experienced some of the same despair as Williams and Hoffman. I survived, they didn’t. That’s the difference. I can't be that cold, can I?
I felt bad, really bad, when my cat Fred died. He belonged to my first wife and was four years old when I moved in. Fred was orange and white, like a 50-50 ice cream bar. He was gentle, funny and all the rest of the cat stuff that crazy people write about. As as soon as I settled in he adopted me. He’d sprawl on my lap and I’d stroke him while I read epic novels deep into the night, until 1 a.m., or later.
Every twenty minutes I would have to disturb him to get another drink. If I was tapping a razor blade on a pile of cocaine, chopping it into a consumable powder, cutting it into lines, Fred would often stand right over the blow and try to stick his paw into it. I’d brush him off the table and he bounce right back. I soon learned that I had to sneak my cocaine when the cat wasn’t looking. In fact, near the end of my drug days, that’s the way I always used dope. Alone and secretively. No one knew how much I used. Not even Fred.
There were times when I’d dump a pile of coke on the tile counter in the kitchen, snort it up quickly and head back to the TV. Once I turned around and saw Freddy licking up the residue. I wondered, for a second, if it was possible for a cat to become addicted to drugs. I certainly was, and I knew that scientists made addicts out of monkeys, so why not a housecat? How much coke was Fred consuming on a weekly basis? I felt fairly shitty about it and decided that I’d lock myself in the bathroom to hide my drug use from Fred. He still suspected though. Everyone did.
I took good care of Fred. Better than myself.
He drooled. Lots of cats drool. He would lie on my chest while I watched TV and I’d stroke his long back. His eyes would close and he’d gently knead my stomach and drip cat saliva onto my shirt. It was disgusting so I kept a paper towel next to me and I’d wipe his mouth occasionally to keep the spit from soaking me. Fred was ecstatic. He enjoyed being touched and he reflexively pawed me. I didn’t have a lot of people who let me touch them back then. If I was drinking and met someone in a bar, we’d do a few hours of touching, but innocent, non-judgmental, loving touch was rare. Fred touched me and I patted him and I mopped up his drool, too. I always had a paper towel when I sat with Fred.
Fred’s been gone for over twenty years and I still carry paper towels in my pockets. For cleanliness, wiping up spills. Sometimes I wonder if the towels are symbolic of a desire for intimate contact. To clean up afterwards. If I reach in my pants pocket I always have a paper towel. Be prepared.
I got older, so did Fred. He went from bouncing up the stairs with me when I got home from work to sitting at the bottom of the driveway and letting me carry him. When I allowed him to walk by himself I saw that he couldn’t jump from step to step any longer. He was 18 years old. My wife told me that healthy cats don’t have to be carried up stairs.
The vet, Dr. Barboni, said that Fred was old and in pain. That hurt me and I was sorry for Fred. There weren’t many choices. It was over.
I gave the veterinarian the nod. Do it.
Dr. Barboni was a kind and compassionate man with a steady gaze and a calming voice and he asked if I wanted to stay in the waiting room and I said that I’d rather be with Fred at the end.
I held my cat. He looked up at me as the doctor slipped the needle through the orange fur and under the loose skin near his flank.
Fred blinked a few times, his eyes closed and he was still.
Dr. Barboni took care of the body and all the rest. I was sniffling and by the time I got to my car I was crying uncontrollably.
In the console of the car there was always a bottle of brandy and two or three grams of cocaine. I was always ready.
For the rest of the night I drove aimlessly, fast, and drank deeply of the brandy and used up the coke while listening to a late night jazz show on the radio. I’d never felt so bad in my entire life. I was in my forties and had lost plenty of friends, lovers, jobs, cars. I understood loss, but this was a whole new classification of agony. Fuck.
Why did I feel so wretched? Why do I still carry paper towels in my pocket? I no longer have pets. Too painful.
A year later I got sober, stopped using dope, began the rocky road away from depression and despair and back to sensibility and humanity. I didn’t sneak cocaine or drive around drunk any longer. I often wondered why I mourned Fred the cat more than I had mourned friends who had died, my dead dad, family members and lovers, and why, whenever another celebrity dies of suicide, overdose, accident, disease, old age, I have a hard time caring about it for more than a minute or two.
I finally determined, to my surprise, that I had loved Fred without restriction. Of course, I try to talk myself out of imagining that an animal can love or can feel anything remotely human but sometimes I pretend that Fred loved me, too, without limitation or expectations. I’m a bit ashamed to admit it, but Fred was the most functional relationship I’d had up to that point in my life. All I needed to do was sit in a chair and dab at his drooling mouth every few minutes.
A small price to pay.