Archive for the ‘Felines’ Tag
The day my cat died…
He was put down. Or put to sleep. Or any of those other euphemisms that mean nothing – until you watch him mainlined to a quick and peaceful death as part of veterinary procedure. The small patch of fur shaved – an annoyance that at any other time would have inspired an irritated swipe of his paw. Reliably followed by a gummy, knuckle-gnawing bite that would wrinkle his nose while serving as warning: the full sharpness of his teeth saved for the next time you were foolish enough to overstep the mark. This time nothing… only muted resignation. His warm, softly-wrinkled pink skin exposed in readiness for the calculated overdose of the anaesthetic injection. His nose slumping onto still paws then head rolling gently as if in slow motion onto the cushion of his favourite sofa bed. Quiet; unresponsive: cold. His transport out of this world complete and the vet’s calm confirmation as if coming from another place; another reality Then the sudden tearful void… when the guilt that you have killed him kicks in. As your world changes – subtly at first; but irrevocably.
He seemed indestructible. A spirit and heart that – despite a murmur identified many years before – coped with the list of ailments and conditions that come with age in much the same manner as he brushed off unwanted attention. As with all things – engagement was on his terms or not at all.
His name was Nutmeg. He was a moggy; an alpha male: a big tom cat. It was a bright and breezy October day and his passing wasn’t out of a clear blue sky. It was reluctantly expected as his powerful back legs – the ever reliable springboard of ligament and tendon that made him cock of the local walk succumbed to the passage of time. An inconvenience unwillingly accepted as the slowly failing kidneys – that it seems every elderly cat is to be cursed by – eroded his weight and imperious prowl.
The changes to his behaviour came like shadows in autumn. The high spot in the window he usually coveted was suddenly out of reach – even with the positioning of an extra chair as a launch pad. The toggle of a jacket usually irresistible was now worth only a perfunctory tug. String became an indulgence easily ignored. The journey to his favourite sofa cushion eased by stepping stones of occasional furniture that rose to the occasion.
His strength began to fade but it never cut his desire to go outside and seek the sun that was his lifeblood. Nutmeg could find the sun on a two-pence piece and his passage around a summer garden – both mine and those directly adjacent – was an exercise in hedonism to shame the most devoted Mediterranean sun worshipper. A passing dog walker and her husband whose daily ritual was enhanced by his presence in the early morning rays confided they had christened him Mr Sunbather. It was almost possible to set your watch by his calculated progress.
He had been on his own for two years… the last of the gang of four who have shared my house and life for nearly a quarter of a century. There’s little doubt they contributed more to the realm of human happiness than that similarly christened bunch of Chinese political scoundrels. Nutmeg certainly had an inscrutable gaze that started just above his stubbly broad pink nose and ended with green eyes that peered deep into your soul. It also put you firmly in your place. It was as if he was letting you know that you were the lucky one to have him… but I knew that already. And that he was ultimately tolerating you – not the other way round. Tenuous connections apart… a hint of communism intruded only in that I did my best for the common good; to give all four a great and – in all but one case, which was mainly relative to the extreme longevity of the other three but still exceptional in any generalised consideration of moggy maturity, a long life.
“Anyhow; trying to rap my arms around that big firm belly to attempt a pick-up always felt as if there were three of us involved in the operation and that two weren’t co-operating.”
Capitalism reigned supreme… toys were bought: mice of course, spiders and other unrecognisable scraps of man-made fur that dangled and enticed; and colourful cushions and Scandinavian bean bag beds and perches constructed from wood, rope and carpet tiles that were supposedly the last word in feline entertainment centres. The last word came from them as they exercised choice like children at Christmas – discarded cardboard boxes providing the most fun and as in any relationship what was mine – the sofa and the armchairs and my bed were theirs but what was theirs was a waste of money.
I often felt it was only a matter of time before the call – no; not the big man upstairs but from representatives of the main pet food manufacturers. I imagined them ringing for my valuable opinion: keen for the inside track on pussy preference. Twenty-five years gives anyone a unique insight into the developments in the market. The packaging of cat food went from bog standard large tins of pink/brown gristly composition to sachets of adulterated pink/brown composition called mousse, culinary casserole and pâté; often alive with herb tastes; all disguised as human dishes and full of delight – apparently – to what are in any case genetically pretty limited taste buds.
In their lifetimes they, and I – because I had to carry the considerable weight home from the supermarket every week: more pallets than palate – witnessed the gourmet makeover of cat food. The circle was complete as their ailments took in expensive, special vet-approved – veterinary available only – urine and kidney diets. My social life was booming – check out that cute veterinary nurse in her crisp white polyester – along with my muscles as the weekly supermarket trip now involved a regular detour to the surgery. Some people went to the pub on a Friday night… hmmm… The new emphasis on quality was reflected in the ever decreasing portions. The tin opener discarded for ring pulls and foil trays. A quick inspection of the proportions of the ingredients suggested emperor’s new clothes with added vitamins.
As well as the developing power of marketing this also serves to illustrate the remarkable quality of feline hearing. Their ears could pick up the sound of a cupboard opening, or a tin being shifted from plastic bag to said cupboard from what seemed the deepest of sleep and against a cloak of the loudest of music/TV soundtrack. What one of them didn’t eat the other did which was a wonderfully convenient natural order of service; as what today was nectar to the palate, tomorrow – in that maddening way given to all cats – was as tasty as cat litter.
Nutmeg was the least frenetic at mealtimes. He had a control; a patience to his demeanour that eluded his three housemates. Open the door after a group night out and he was always last to amble in… He didn’t hang from the kitchen draw handles like Tarzan (Alfie) with a tail made from jungle vine or twist in and out between my legs (Sid) while using them as a scratching post. Neither was he small enough to wriggle under the others in expectation like a longhaired reptile (Marmite). He was cool – and just cool with it.
For him feeding time was punctually observed – unless it was a summer’s evening when a few more rays could be crammed in as he turned his coat a distinctive and predominantly lighter sandy colour. Any attempts at postponement on your part were not welcomed however. Delay then produced his characteristic meow; except it wasn’t a meow more a quadruple syllable a-rat-a-row given extra stress with the typically accompanying nod of his round head that punctuated the customised rat and the row. His only preference beyond the norm was for dry cat food – the biscuits whose rattle in the box brought him from anywhere; a habit of a few laid on the backdoor step enlivened his movements at any time of the day or night.
Despite a heavy build he had a studied disdain for being carried even in his twilight years. Anyhow; trying to rap my arms around that big firm belly to attempt a pick-up always felt as if there were three of us involved in the operation and that two weren’t co-operating. He always magically arrived to slump and roll at my feet for a belly rub as if appearing from nowhere by dint of mystical all seeing eyes. I didn’t always know exactly where he was but he knew where I was with that special sense that is given only to animals – and cats in particular. Life with cats is as much about sixth senses as nine lives. They are acutely aware of your movements and habits as you are of theirs despite their genius at affecting disinterest. Like living radar they operate in a rarefied sphere beyond the hours of the day spent with us mere mortals who must appear clumsy and needy to them at the best of times.
Those to whom such things are important or who are overly concerned with pedigree and breed might call him red or a marmalade tabby… but he was ginger – and proud! An orange glow on a dull grey evening, a flaming meteorite at twilight and in winter like an out of season African marigold. Unlike his cousins on an African plain he hunted out of genetic default rather than feeding necessity; warping our games of chase – which were only ever preambles or practice for the main event – into that particular cat mix of feline ballet and ritualistic torture; a grand brutality that never let you forget which gene pool he had been dipped in. I attempted rescue many times – sometime with success – more often than not simply prolonging the agony. That’s when the full meaning of letting nature take its course became evident. I also reluctantly had to engage in mercy killing which gives your conscience precious little mercy in the following days.
All of the gang of four were unique characters… Alfie, Marmite, Sidney and Nutmeg – none of which were names of my own choosing – each came to live with me as young cats from troubled, chaotic unwanted beginnings of varying degree. A broken home that as cats they probably – if not helped to break – then certainly frayed at the edges when no one was looking. Each was to become as much a part of the fabric of my life as any other family thread. There was a reason they all made the journey to my doorstep. And the cat grapevine must have been hot about the sucker at number five who could always be relied upon. They might not initially have been the chosen ones but they definitely chose me.
Even the pet names became shortened to er, pet names: Nutmeg answered to Ginger Nut, Meggy, Nut, Nutty, Nutgut – when he obtained his 8kg plus supersize in the prime of his life – and Snuggers when resplendent in full winter coat and a ball of a face with thick ruff on his cheeks and on the top of his head. Even though a big cat vertically his tail was to always drag the ground in horizontal pose as a legacy of the unexplained lump at its base. Caught once in a door perhaps? Other than that he always seemed caught on a catwalk: as he strolled toward you with the tell-tale swing of his back which was appreciably higher to contain those already mentioned powerful back legs. All became painful and marked as age, weight loss and frailty took hold and his demeanour and movements resembled a pinched old man – which at twenty-one he was. To see him run at his peak was comical – back legs kicking sideways in unison much as a cartoon character; round belly; tail flying. A ginger looney tune running on as the music played in my head. That’s all folks is now a painful reality.
“I still find an odd ginger hair that has got into the most unlikely of places – a miniature replica of him in life. Now their discovery is just a small tributary to an ocean of melancholy.”
There are those who don’t get it. There’s no point feeling sorry for them. They betrayed themselves when they asked – as his hold on life was getting increasingly tenuous – if I was going to get another cat; much as you do a new sofa. These were the sort of people to describe another human being as an animal for the fundamentally evil excesses that an animal would never do. It was sad to lose him – sadder still for this sub-species who can’t or are somehow inhibited or afraid to make that connection. Sometimes he met these people… I could always tell – it was nothing that an hour skulking and breathing with relief in safe familiarity behind the sofa didn’t cure. Ego and security reinstated he’d come out like nothing had happened – a resilient ball of fur always bouncing back. Contrary to the last – bin lorries, speeding cars, sirens and fireworks never bothered him in his daily rounds and meditations. And blackbirds hopped around him more intent on worms than avoiding the slow dying light of his physical disinterest and disinclination.
There have been moments when I prefer animals to people: with the exception of those with designs on a new sofa – who hasn’t? There are times when anything is preferable to people. It’s the love that’s different that’s all; certainly not better or worse but unique and special because they are 24-7 companion; point of reference; unabashed physical contact, welcome mat, guardian angel, sounding board, solace provider, source of motivation, comfort, precursor to the best in you, exercise partner and playmate. The ultimate stress-buster guaranteed to lower blood pressure – furry physicians with the perfect bedside manner. They don’t argue; they’re almost always willing and free with love and unlike humans don’t say things to cut you to the core just because they can. Which they can’t… but that’s beside the point. Plus it’s always easier to forgive those eyes and that appealing big-eyed bundle of fluff anything. They’re loyal and there at any time of the day and night. Especially if food’s involved! But hey; that’s the positive exchange mechanism for a good home and a good relationship: right?
So it’s goodbye Nut… from the kitchen window I can see his resting place by the side of the greenhouse – in his favourite strawberry patch. The last in the line: the last on the escape route from next door to die. Refugees never found a better life. Every two panes of glass a cat is buried. That’s the maths. But numbers don’t do the reflections justice.
I stuck a lone Rudbeckia in the top of his grave – the late bloom of a poor summer. And what was an even poorer season for his passing. It reminded me of him – the sunshine boy: a walking/sleeping reason for optimism – an animal almanac. From thin strip of grass at the front of the house; by garden gate or dividing conifer hedge to the hot glass top of the cold frame; brief sojourn in the greenhouse on in-between days – out when it became too uncomfortable – and into the strawberry patch on the straw bed laid to protect the fruit that was a yielding duvet for a summer afternoon’s idling. From there to the concrete and tarmac for a quick top up of heat reserves as the sun disappeared. Summertime he was straight out after breakfast – winter required more thought and logistics: the sun a less reliable friend. Unlike most cats the rain held no fear. When it drizzled or poured he would sit impassive just under the hedge, often in the middle of the lawn; that thick coat and thick skin impervious.
The house and the garden is now empty but for the gliding impish ghosts of memory. There’s not an inch of bed, or floor, or sofa, or armchair, or shelf, or wardrobe, or airing cupboard, or hallway, or plant, or tree, or fence, or path, or blade of grass that doesn’t tell a story of fond traffic and daily passage and yet none can convey the whole drama… the privilege of having shared my life with them. It hurts more because he is the last of the gang of four and yet it hurts no more than as each of them was lost.
So goodbye Nutty – no more disdainful looks as I interrupted your progress to somewhere really important. No more timely comfort when he just knew; no more taking over half the sofa while squirming on a broad back – an illustration of his total trust in me – and then a cheesy smelling, hot foot with burning pink pads protruding onto my newspaper. No more fishy sweet yawns. No more fiddle played – double bass with his long legs: nor laidback contented washes that had the same calming effect on me as I watched. No more keeping the radiators warm as mobile insulation unit.
No more cries at two in the morning as if in distress – only for you to yowl excitedly while proudly displaying the mouse you caught: a brief moment of shared triumph as you marched in the front door deposited the bundle at my feet for the accolades and then exited just as quickly out the back. No more mealtimes; or wet feet to be wiped – collapsing on the door mat as part of the ritual. No more wanting to be on the other side of a shut door for any other reason than it wasn’t shut before or waiting imperceptibly for me to settle before you simply had to go outside. No more – he’s behind you! – as you crept up on me unnoticed. No more lofty perch on the shed roof like a lion up a tree in a savannah documentary.
“He was a moggy; an alpha male: a big tom cat. It was a bright and breezy October day and his passing wasn’t out of a clear blue sky.”
No more rising panic when he didn’t appear or that comes with every squeal of brakes. No more ginger fur on my clothes to be found during the day: raising a gentle inward smile. No more wake-up calls three times a night; no more turning up – just as I was going out or being there waiting to mark goodnight when I came in late. No more meow at six in the morning: better than any alarm clock as you peered up to the stubborn shape in my bed. No more head nodding double cries of recognition or demand. No more surreptitious little nudges for action, or acknowledgement; or simply shared moment. No more cool nose warm bodied love. No more vet visits; cat basket psychology; worry of operations and the accompanying unsettled days at work waiting on a call; or cat food expeditions, or concept of feeding times even though the clock now seems to be missing a hand; or checking out the window to see him settled and that all was right with the world. No more interruptions at any time. Has a decent night’s sleep ever been such a poor trade-off?
Of course there were occasions to get annoyed – but never angry. Pet owners everywhere will recognise the false chastisement, the mock lectures as to future behaviour that is part of the game… going through the motions was never more pleasurable. A cat is much like a mirror… the two-way devotion even when you don’t like what you see. It’s not all sunshine – only when they’re around.
Old age turns cats into dogs: with a kind of creeping gentle dementia he increasingly sought reassurance any time of the day or night with random cries like a child in distress. It’s a deeper relationship that evolves: it becomes more intuitive with an older cat – we both understood each other’s actions completely and could anticipate accordingly.
The striding oligarch aloof and determined to do his rounds transformed into the wise old man when the spells of just sitting and looking gained a whole new currency. He had perfected the twenty yard stare to a level of reflective meditation that required several seconds stood in front to break… only then came the familiar greeting. Our communication definitely went up a notch. He nodded and talked all the time: asking directly for things – like the water can to be delivered to his tired body when he needed a drink outside. We had more and more subtle chats built on intonations on a few syllables as complex in emphasis as an Eastern language. It’s like making peace with an elderly relative; a renegotiation of a relationship.
Although in the pet shop window of life kittens are the big draw the relationship with an elder cat is uniquely special with abundant examples of trust and expectation: the days of all-nighters fulfilling instinct, chasing string, bounding upstairs three steps at a time, pulling along on his back underneath the bed by his claws and the unexplained animal presents might have disappeared but hints remained of this to the end. A few weeks before he died he triumphantly caught a mouse and still forced his wobbly frame into a valedictory display of what passed for a chase as an intruder was spotted on his territory and dispatched over the fence.
Goodbye Nutmeg… I buried him at a spade depth so that he would be undisturbed by cultivation or construction of any temporary garden structure… A clod of soil bounced from the nearby heap onto his fur – disturbed as I lowered his lifeless body into the dark from on my knees. As I let go of him at the full extent of my arm he curled naturally in the tiny space at the bottom of the hole as if settling routinely on any of the scores of evenings we shared. I stupidly, forgetfully stretched and brushed it off… a few seconds later after a last lingering look and a final resolve to get on with it – three quick shovels of sand and stone covered him completely and deprived him of the sun for the last time. I placed the rest of the soil from where it came carefully, reluctantly; tearfully as if not wanting to hurt him. As with digging any hole there is some spoil left; enough to suggest his supersize bulk. I scattered it around among the garden and the memories.
I still find an odd ginger hair that has got into the most unlikely of places – a miniature replica of him in life. Now their discovery is just a small tributary to an ocean of melancholy. After the long winter the spring heralds of gentle warmth and days stretching out – Nutmeg days. What I wouldn’t give now to disturb him and his three sleeping bed fellows as the strawberry plants gain new life by the greenhouse glass.
The swish of a flower head; a bird’s flight or just an object left out of place only to creep into my peripheral vision makes my heart sing – then my stomach turn still. It’s not him or Alfie; or Marmite; or Sid. There they are reflected at the back of the mind: a fleeting image on the retina; a stop motion film from what now seems so long ago – looking for food, fussing, fighting, exploring, hunting, playing or just hanging out; making time suspend in the special way that only a cat can. And there’s truly nothing peripheral about that…