Anise and the tomatoes

Anise and a catnip-stuffed tomato toy.

For a few years, I kept tomatoes as well as cats. Eight years ago I sliced open an overripe heirloom tomato and found sprouts growing inside, a live birth. The viviparous sprouts did not thrive outside of their dark, sugar-saturated tomato host, but the nascent roots had snared other seeds which grew where I planted them. So I tended tomato plants in a tiny greenhouse on top of my bedroom dresser in an apartment with no yard or patio.

Tomatoes are poisonous to cats, and my cat Anise was always hungry for both plants and trouble. No, that’s not completely true. Anise was an unusually good cat, one who understood that the human world has rules, and followed them. But sometimes there is a gray area where the rules are not clearly defined, and she felt compelled to explore those. The narrow shelf that she walked onto and had to moonwalk out of. The half-wall that afforded her access to a secret ledge but kept her penned high over a staircase for an afternoon, until a catsitting friend came to her rescue. The space behind the washing machine, so many times. Anise the inquisitive.

And sometimes there is a green area full of tender tantalizing plants, and she felt compelled to eat those. Any potted plant. Any piece of lettuce or kale that fell to the floor in my kitchen. Once I turned my back on a colander full of cilantro for five minutes and returned to find her face buried in the greens. She looked up when I cried NO, and she still had a sprig of cilantro caught in her teeth. Anise the clever, Anise the bold.

Anise, thinning out a pot of parsley.

So when the tomatoes flourished and outgrew their plexiglass shelter, I devised ways to catproof them. I threaded stakes into the pots for the vines to climb and secured them with velcro garden tape. I extended the height of my tabletop greenhouse with cling wrap. I grew pots of oat grass as both consolation and misdirection for Anise and her sister Ascher, who fell upon this delicacy and shredded it with the completely wrong teeth for this purpose. The tomatoes grew and grew, and Anise didn’t seem curious about them beyond her first cursory sniff of their plexi-cling wrap enclosure. I became complacent.

And then one day Anise threw up all over the living room, and I rushed her to the vet in a panic. The vet gave her fluids and X-rayed her stomach and made a fuss over her–nurses and vets loved Anise, she was an impenitent sycophant–but they could not identify the source of her gastric distress. When we got home, she coughed once more and produced a wilted tomato leaf. Anise the intrepid, Anise the sly. I uprooted all my tomato plants that same day; the tallest vines were longer than my 6-foot tape measure.

So I stopped keeping houseplants. That’s how it goes when you share your life with other creatures. In sixteen years of living together, Anise and Ascher and I adapted to one another; we formed habits and culture for a society of three. With Anise in the house, I did not keep houseplants, except a few succulents in the one window she couldn’t reach. I did not leave food or water glasses or warm laundry baskets unattended. When I started working from home, I arranged my computer so that she could lay between my keyboard and the monitor. I still don’t open active windows on the lefthand side of the screen, where she liked to sit. I still don’t sleep on the righthand side of the bed, where she liked to sleep. Anise the affectionate, Anise the omnipresent, Anise with a heart like the sun. Since we lost her, the texture of every day has been pocked with sudden absences: places where she should be and some places where she shouldn’t be, and isn’t.

Anise died early on a Friday morning in September. She was 17 years and one month old. She had lived with inflammatory bowel disease and stage 2 kidney disease for three years, but enjoyed an enviable quality of life and a commendable level of litter box dignity thanks to a daily regimen of prescription food, steroids, and no green plants or roughage at all. The steroids kept her comfortable and active, and also likely masked any early symptoms of the carcinoma that bloomed in her lungs and liver. Up until a few days before her death, she was still surveilling the neighborhood from behind my curtains and lurking in windowsills to see if I would leave my lunch unattended. She was still sweeping my pens and Post-Its off of the computer table with her stubby tail and rubbing her face on the microphone during Zoom calls. She could still be counted on to wedge her body into the crook of my elbow or hip whenever possible, so that I usually slept or woke or read with one arm around the soft heap of her. When she stopped doing any of the above, or eating, or breathing without visible effort, it seemed to happen all at once. She spent two nights in a little oxygen tent like a premature baby, and when her biopsy results came in–inoperable, untreatable–I took her back home.

What other people will tell you about putting their pets to sleep is that you’ll know when the time is right. For me, that certainty never came. For days afterward, my heart would catch like a skipping record and I would forget to breathe for a minute, wondering if I had made a mistake. It seems wrong that the decision was mine to make, cruel that the person most responsible for safeguarding her quality of life was also responsible for scheduling its conclusion. For the entire sleepless night we spent in the bed that I made on the floor, where she lay in the crook of my hip with her chin hooked around my wrist, I bargained. If she would eat something, we would be fine. If I administered her steroids a little early and her breathing quieted, she would be fine. But she would not eat and her white muzzle was flecked pink from coughing. So I reasoned that I could call the vet and make an appointment, and then we would still have the amount of time left before the appointment. But the vet said I should bring her anytime, anytime at all. So I whispered paeans to her–Anise the beautiful, Anise the brave–until the hour of death appointed by me. Which fell between 7 a.m., when we took a car back to the vet, and 8 a.m., when I sat in the drizzling rain waiting for a coffee shop to open so that I would have something hot and bitter to hold on my lonely bus ride home. 

There was the rest of the day to contend with.

I went to campus and took a required COVID test for work, the kind where you spit in a tube. I went to the library and got stuck in the turnstile when I tried to scan my transit card instead of my university ID. I went home and washed dishes, fumbling them from the teetering stack in one sink to the running faucet in the other.

When I had cleared both sinks, I saw that half a dozen pale stems were sprouting up from the drain on one side, pallid leaves lifted to catch the wan sunlight that improbably filtered through the curtains and unwashed dishes. Tomato sprouts, sprung from opportunistic seeds that fell from some late summer scraps and germinated in the moist, nourishing detritus that clings to a mesh strainer.

Originally, that was going to be the end of this post. It’s a problem I have, both as a writer and a person. I want to tie things up neatly. I want to end on an obligatory note of hope, or at least a big TO BE CONTINUED placard if the situation looks dire. I look for comfort and usually find it. The morning after my father died, I went into the yard of my childhood home and saw that an early hyacinth had pushed up and bloomed in the chilly March air, indigo and lavishly perfumed. Look, it seemed to say, there is still beauty, there is still abundance. So I cut it the way my mother taught me and put it in a vase for her. I felt a similar throb when I saw the sprouts in my sink: an involuntary uplift, the way I felt when I woke up to tomato plants on my bedroom dresser in the winter, illuminated in the cold morning light, and tousled their leaves to release their grassy sunlit smell. Look, there is still life, there are still miracles. You can still love something into flourishing.

That’s true, but incomplete. Ascher and I are doing all right, considering. I make lists and I do most of the things on them. Ascher eats well, plays with her toys, and fussily arranges herself on the righthand side of the bed at night. Ascher the resilient. But Ascher lived her entire seventeen years on this earth with another feline heart beating next to hers; I know she feels the absence. She takes up a little more room now; she makes more noise. Some days she wakes up yowling; some days she calls and calls plaintively, even when I’m right there trying to entice her with toys and brushing. When I can think of nothing else to do, I sit on the couch and she clambers up next to me and grumbles herself to sleep.

We’re not okay. We have no idea how to live with just each other. We are not flourishing. But we are fine.

As for the tomatoes: I kept them, obviously. They and Ascher are safe from one another. Ascher doesn’t even jump onto the righthand side of bed–she ascends, with great dignity, using a set of cat stairs–and anything higher than the couch is of no interest to her. So I have started to fill my windowsills with an assortment of houseplants rescued from clearance racks, disinterested owners, and overabundant spider plants. I guess I am a plant person now.

It hurts to look at them. But it helps, too.


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