In praise of pets

Long before there were these strange things known as blogs, I would sometimes write up a little essay to commemorate something important that had happened in my life and send it to people who I knew would appreciate it.

Coach Kevin is coming to terms with the imminent loss of his parents’ nine-year-old golden retriever. His posts about the experience prompted me to dig out what 10 years ago would have been a blog post. Here it is.

Saturday, 10 July 1999

We have suffered a great loss today. Our cat, Stumpy, died this morning. On Wednesday evening he suffered something called a “thrombosis,” or a blood clot which lodged at the base of his spine, paralyzing his back legs, and sending him into shock. He spent the next few days at the vet’s office, where he recovered from his shock and even very briefly regained a bit of strength and sensation in his legs, but they almost immediately returned to full paralysis.

The vet took him out of his cage early this morning and exercised his back legs a little, looking for signs of improvement, but found none. Stumpy went back to sleep upon being returned to his cage, and died sometime later this morning, in his sleep, presumably by the formation of another blood clot.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), we hadn’t seen him since bringing him in Wednesday night, since we were told that he would probably be further traumatized if he were to see us and then be abandoned by us again. A part of me thinks that Stumpy may have somehow chosen to spare us from having to make the decision to end his life if his condition wasn’t ever going to improve. Or maybe he simply couldn’t abide by it himself and gave up.

I wrote the following in an effort to cope with the sudden shock of losing him.

I have only good memories of Stumpy. In fact, I still clearly remember the day I discovered him. The art department I worked in on Madison and 32nd had an adjacent open roof area, a little 30 foot square patch of grimy tarmac braced by three walls and our window, in the middle of which sat an ominous, blackened piece of building machinery illuminated by a narrow, creeping shaft of sunlight.

One afternoon, someone pointed out that there was a black and white cat playing on the roof. Peering out the window, I could see the cat batting a scrap of paper around the perimeter of the square with great enthusiasm. He happened to look up and see me staring at him, at which point he ran over and hopped up onto the window ledge to peer back at me through the glass. He then began to strut back and forth along the ledge, rubbing against the glass and wedging a paw under the crack of the open window in an effort to touch me.

At such close range, I could see that he had a serious injury: all but the first four inches of his tail was gone, and the remaining span was a gangrenous, bloody mess. I suspected the giant piece of machinery of having initially served as a warm place to sleep, only to prove itself a massive Cuisinart as far as the cat’s tail was concerned. Yet, he seemed oblivious to the injury. I reached my fingers under the window and he happily rubbed his face against them. He was purring so loudly, I could hear him through the thick glass. When I pulled my fingers back in, the tips were coated with soot and grease.

For the rest of the day, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the window. Every time anyone went to look at the cat, he would leap up to the ledge and engage in the same campaign for attention and affection. Since he lacked a collar (and a tail), it was pretty clear that he was in need of help.

That evening I went home and engaged in my own campaign with Jonathan, which I began with by saying, “You see, there’s this cat…”

The cat was on his way home with me the next day, after a quick trip to the ASPCA in Manhattan, where a staff vet declared him “a fixed female, about three years old. She’s had some kittens.” Stumpy must have made a trip to Sweden at some point because, in actual fact, he was a neutered male, about a year and a half old. Whatever he was, he really seemed to enjoy the ride home on the Staten Island ferry at sunset.

After a few hundred dollars for a garden-variety tail amputation and industrial strength shampoo and blow dry at a Staten Island vet’s office, the cat was good as new thanks to me and MasterCard. Since his new stub of a tail was his most notable feature, we took to calling him “Stumpy” affectionately while we debated on a “real” name. Eventually, the nickname stuck.

Stumpy was the most unique cat I’ve ever known. I’ve had three other cats, and Stumpy was the best of the lot. I think this is mostly attributable to his being so atypical of a cat. Cats are emotionally aloof; Stumpy was constantly giving and asking for affection. Cats often prefer to spend their time alone, elsewhere in the house; Stumpy always wanted to be around me, and would follow me from room to room, settling down to sleep wherever I happened to be. Cats do not often come when called; Stumpy always did. When I came in the door, he would run up to greet me. When I drove into our driveway, he would be sitting on our walk, waiting to say hello. For all intents and purposes, this cat was a dog.

He absolutely loved people. We recently held a birthday party for our friend Adele, in which there were close to 25 people in our living room. I assumed Stumpy would be afraid of all the noise and bodies and would surely spend the evening under the bed in the guest room, his traditional hiding place from thunderstorms and vacuum cleaners. But at one point during the evening, I noticed him sauntering around the room, mingling with the guests and moving from lap to lap, settling on the lap of whoever would have him, for as long as they’d have him. In his own mind, he seemed to consider himself as having equal stature to anyone else in the room, and may have even assumed the party was for him, had the cake not read “Happy Birthday Adele.”

Stumpy was the sole daily constant who persisted through Jonathan’s and my years together as a couple. Part of the reason losing him has proven to be so devastating to both of us is that adopting Stumpy was the first really important thing I asked for from Jonathan, and he gave it to me without hesitation, despite the fact the he had no desire to own a cat, and in fact had never even had a pet. I moved in with Jonathan in November of 1990. Stumpy joined us in the early spring of ’91 and has accompanied us through every terrible and wonderful ripple and wave of the past eight or so years.

Over those eight years, Jonathan’s affection for Stumpy grew to equal my own, even though he would still occasionally sternly mumble exclusionary observations such as, “Your cat wants to go out.” But we both knew he was our cat, not just mine anymore.

When we both began to work together at home, Stumpy became an even more attached to us, and we to him; he spent as much time in our studio as we did, often stealing my chair if I left the room for a few moments, or sleeping on our sunny window sill, waking indignantly at the sound of crows or squirrels who dared tread on his property. If we insisted, he would allow us to put him outside during the day, but he would sit just outside the front door, ready to leap back inside the house to be with us again if we let him.

Stumpy’s love of people extended through all facets of his behavior. He wanted to meet everyone who came into the house. He was amazingly sensitive to moods, comforting us if we were upset or sick, getting distressed when we were angry, wanting to be in the middle of things if we were laughing.

When our vet first met Stumpy he couldn’t help but comment on how gentle and friendly a cat he was, how he’d obviously been the recipient of a lot of love over the years. Most cats are totally uncooperative on the vet’s table, squirming and scratching and meowing. But Stumpy was acquiescent and amenable, calmly allowing his temperature to be taken in that most unpleasant manner, resigned to accepting shots and all the other necessary annual pokings and proddings. Like all animals, he wasn’t happy at the vet’s, but by all accounts he wasn’t unhappy there either.

He was such an innate charmer. I found out recently that over the years he was regularly given preferential treatment there, where he was also boarded. While we were away on vacation, agonizing and feeling guilty about shutting Stumpy off in a tiny cage in a room full of other imprisoned cats all day, the reality of how he spent that time was actually quite different. In fact, he spent the majority of his days wandering freely around the vet’s rooms, most of the time hanging out in the reception area where the action was. Somehow it seems appropriate that if he couldn’t be with us when he died, that he was there, where he was equally appreciated and cared for.

One of the worst things about losing someone suddenly is the fear that your primary memory of them will always be the final, overwhelmingly negative one. I do hold a horrific memory of my last hour with Stumpy in which he, Jonathan and I are all equally distressed. But minutes before Stumpy became ill, I was sitting with him out on the driveway (where he liked to spend cool summer evenings, lying on the warm pavement), talking to him and helping him stalk a tiny green grasshopper. And so I’ll choose to hold those five minutes of our last hour together as the very last of thousands of memories that began to accumulate on that lovely spring day in Manhattan in 1991.