Sunday, February 12, 2012

Cat Tales

Last night, for the first time in 25 years, I did not have a cat to curl up with me when I went to bed. I have always been a cat person. Despite my affection for the dogs I have owned, I am much more drawn to cats. Since I was ten years old, when I begged and begged my mother for a cat, I have always had at least one "inside cat". Yesterday, I had to make the decision that it was time to put down my dear Ernesto, due to profound illness. While I had known this time was coming for several weeks, it was still a sad choice. And it made me reflect on the five cats that were my companions over a quarter century.

Louie was a tiny yellow kitten when my mother finally agreed that I could have a cat. He rapidly grew from a little ball of fluff to an imposing 20(!) pound beast! Louie never found a morsel of food he did not enjoy, and his idea of exercise was walking to the food bowl. Unfortunately, for an inside cat in the 1980s, Frontline was not yet an option. Every summer, fleas would plague Louie. After one season of battling them as best we could (combing, shampoos, etc), my mother decreed that Louie was receiving a new hairstyle . . . and out came the clippers! I think my mother got a secret joy out of what became Louie's annual spring shearing -- and quite honestly, the fat cat seemed to like the removal of his winter coat! Over the years, this endeavor began to show Mum's creativity: Louie kept a handsome lion's mane, had little fur booties over his feet, and maintained a sleek tail with a tuft on the end. For the fat cat, it was pure bliss that he no longer had to waste energy grooming himself in the summer!

The calm demeanor that Louie always exhibited -- even in the face of clippers -- did not prepare me whatsoever for the cat that became his partner-in-crime: Laura. I found a little, sick kitten in the barn, when Louie was about two years old. She was pure black, and her tiny eyes were infected. My mother's patience was undoubtedly tested, but she hauled her daughter and this kitten to the vet for care. I became a cat-nurse, adding drops to the kitten's eyes. With proper nutrition, Laura began to flourish, and one of her eyes healed. The other eye, however, remained matted and nasty . . . until the day I found something lying on the kitchen floor, and realized Laura's eye had fallen out! Even with one eye, Laura was a terror! She could jump anywhere and get into anything. She particularly enjoyed terrorizing our annual Christmas trees. Her energy was twice that of a normal cat -- and far beyond Louie's! Louie, Laura, and I were companions all through my school years.

While I was in college, Laura began to age markedly. She passed away in her sleep at the age of about ten. Louie continued to chug along. After university, I accepted a position at the State of Ohio's Federal Office in Washington. My apartment search yielded one in Silver Spring, Maryland, that accepted cats. I decreed that Louie would join me, and he made the journey to my new home. Louie appeared to enjoy the vantage point of our 4th floor apartment, and spent a great deal of time observing the world. After a few months in Washington, Louie became ill. I spent more than I should have on vet treatments (lesson learned), and still lost Louie within a few days of illness. He was old, he was fat, he hated exercise. But he was still my beloved cat, and I wanted him buried on the farm. Unfortunately, I was not planning a return to Ohio for several weeks. When I called my mother to tell her of Louie's passing, she asked what I had done with him. I don't think she expected to hear, "Oh, he's in the freezer!" And a few weeks later he went in a cooler, and we undertook his funeral procession back to the farm!

By the time I buried Louie, I knew I wanted another cat. And actually, I wanted CATS. Louie and Laura had been playmates. With my "real job" that took me away from the apartment all day, I thought it best that a cat would have a companion. Thus, I made a visit to the local animal shelter in Silver Spring. I told the volunteer that I was looking for two cats, and preferably adult animals. I did not need a cute kitten; I could provide a home to an older animal that needed one. It turned out that two brothers had been dropped off at the shelter the previous day. They were seven years old, and black as coal. This is how Robey & BoBo came into my life. Jean Phillipe Robilliard carried on Louie's fat-cat tradition, while Behemoth Azazello Koroviev was just as hyper as Laura had been. When I moved back to the farm, Robey & BoBo came with me.

In 2001, my mother found a sick kitten in her barn. Being a complete sucker for needy kittens, I agreed to take it in. Thus, Ernest Austen McMurty came to join me, Robey, and BoBo. Ernesto was the most beautiful cat I ever owned. He had white fur with gray tips and eyes as blue as Bill Haley (I have never known a person with bluer eyes than my father!) Ernesto was a sweetheart. For several years, we were a happy feline clan. As the years passed, all the boys matured. In May 2010, Robey passed away peacefully in his sleep at the age of 17. I found him laying in a sunbeam. Last summer, I observed behavior in Behemoth that made me speculate he had suffered a stroke. He hung on steadily for several weeks, and then went downhill over a three day period in August.

At first, Ernesto flourished as an "only cat". He seemed to revel in the attention I gave him. After my return from Germany, I observed that he had lost weight. Despite adjusting his diet, Ernesto continued to fail. He was quite low over the holidays, bounced back a bit in January, but then began to decline rapidly. My amateur diagnosis was an internal cancer, possibly intestinal. I told myself I would provide him reasonable care for as long as I could. On Friday night, I was up with him four times during the night: he could not keep food down, nor control his bodily functions. I knew it was time, but it was still hard to look at those beautiful blue eyes and realize our time together was ending. I had Ernesto put down on Saturday afternoon. I brought him home, and as soon as the ground thaws, he will join his feline brothers buried under the shade tree.

After so many years, it is odd to open my door and not have a cat greet me. I continue to anticipate the leap of a cat onto my bed to curl up next to me. Times change, however, and there are enough barn cats at Harrison Farm to satisfy my need for affection. The barn cats have my respect for their work as hunters, ridding our barn of vermin. I will not replace Ernesto with another house cat, but I will always treasure my memories of the cat companions who have been in my life!

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