Friday, February 23, 2007

My Cat Says It's Your Fault

I grew up in dog country. I didn't even know anyone with a cat until I was a high school senior, and I never had one in my life until my first marriage. Since then, sundry kitties have sauntered into and out of my life. The most notable among them has been Cowboy Bob, solid black and full of himself. Here, among other feline tales, is the story of how he lived and died more than once.

Before Gina found me she found Cowboy Bob “when he was the size of an Oreo”. She patiently nursed him to health with milk from an eyedropper. By the time she and I first met, Cowboy was still more kitten than cat. My first memory of him is watching him crouching behind weeds and pouncing like a little mad thing at bugs and shadows.

One story she tells from those early days before we were married still brings a smile to my heart. She had a veterinary prescription for him that needed to be filled and she took it to the local drug store. This was “back in the day” before HIPPA privacy laws, so that when a prescription was filled the pharmacist would announce it over the store public address system. When the words, “Cowboy Bob Bailey, your prescription is ready” boomed across the Eckerd’s, boot-clicking, gum-smacking, red-headed Gina attracted a lot of looks as she strode to the back of the store to retrieve the pills. I’m sure lots of people imagined some very exotic story lines about the history and health of the mysterious Cowboy Bob Bailey.

One of Gina’s other great cat stories is the “Bulimia Kitty” incident, involving two cats she owned prior to Cowboy. One day she accidentally left out a large serving bowl of banana pudding she had just made. By the time she came back home at the end of the day, she was greeted by scores of little piles of kitty throw-up all around the house. It quickly became apparent that both cats had filled their tiny tummies with pudding, staggered off to disgorge it in various locales, and then calmly repeated the binge-purge process throughout the day. It was a long time before she made any more pudding.

Jump forward 10 years. I’m now married with a couple of kids, and Cowboy Bob is a true feline veteran of life, with two battled-scarred ears to prove it. Then the day came when we brought our adult rescue dog, Nala, into our lives. Cowboy was not impressed in the least, and he let us know it by swiping Gina across the arm when she tried to introduce them. He then took off down the driveway.

For years he had regularly engaged in a succession of “walk-abouts”, leaving us suddenly to return a few days later for us to speculate about the nature of his adventures.

This time, though, he stayed away. One week went to two, then three, then four. We slowly came to the realization that he was gone. Two months went by, then three. We posted fliers around the neighborhood, but to no avail. Our house was situated near a large fenced area containing a county water tower, with fairly deep woods all around where a family of foxes lived. Our working assumption was that Cowboy Bob finally picked a fight with the wrong species, and left this world in the manner of a true warrior.

Finally, after a respectful six month period of mourning, it was time to fill the cat-shaped hole in our lives. I went to a local kitty adoption agency to confront a room full of available cats of every conceivable age, size and disposition. The staff there immediately recognized a soft touch when they saw one, and it didn’t take them long to convince me that I should adopt two cats to keep each other company. So into our lives came Dylan and Merlin, and slowly we began adjusting to the new configuration.

Then, 6 months and 2 weeks after walking off in a huff, Cowboy Bob simply re-appeared, sitting as calmly as Buddha at the foot on our driveway, patiently waiting for dinner!

If life with two cats is full, life with THREE cats is downright crowded. The cat adoption agency told us that the key to multi-cat harmony is to have more catboxes than cats, and to keep at least two food bowls full at all times. For awhile I felt like a concierge in an upscale hotel full of finicky guests. To alleviate some some of the kitty congestion we even bought a fancy (read expensive) “cat tree” with lots of levels, perches and hidey-holes to provide some of the much-needed “vertical room” that cats are supposed to crave. Our guys sniffed it once and then never came near it unless we physically placed them there, in which case they remained for a second or two.

The slow process of feline attrition has worked its influence upon our household. Merlin one day went outside and never came back. After a year and a half I don’t expect a repeat of Cowboy’s Return of the Prodigal Kitty. We have a neighbor who is vociferously anti-cat, and I have a sneaking feeling Merlin may have had an encounter with the business end of a .22 rifle one dark and stormy night. I noticed some of that neighbor’s flowers grew exceptionally tall that year.

And then, last February, after months of declining weight and increasing irritability, I took Cowboy to the vet to learn that he was dying. There was talk of exploratory surgery and various regimens of expensive injections and other advanced medical protocols, but the bottom line was that he was a good old cat whose time had come. I talked with the kids that night and through the tears and hugs we each came to our personal acceptance that it was time to say goodbye.

The next day, Valentines Day 2006, Gina came home early from work and we gathered up the kids. Lincoln had just turned 11 the day before and Casey was just about to turn 7. Holding little light Cowboy between them (I think he was going back to being an Oreo), we made our way to the fine folks at Lavista Animal Hospital. The procedure itself was quick and painless, for him if not for us. With each of us holding and petting a part of him, the veterinarian applied the tourniquet and administered the injection of lethal sedative. Cowboy Bob simply closed his eyes and then his heart stopped beating. It was like turning off a light. It was also one of the few times I have ever witnessed my son sobbing.

We wrapped his body in a dish towel and placed it in a shoe box for the short ride home. There, Lincoln and I dug a hole in our garden and I placed Cowboy’s carcass into it. Then each one of us took turns scooping dirt into the hole, and Casey covered it with a flower she picked from a nearby bush. Weeks later we placed a small statue of a sleeping cat on the location where he is buried. I’m proud of my kids for how they faced death that day, for in so doing they learned a little more about the preciousness of life.

After that we were back to one cat: Dylan. He’s a fine, loving little fellow who doesn’t seem much interested in hunting down birds or shrews like both Merlin and Cowboy enjoyed doing. He actually hangs out in the front yard and scampers to greet the many people in our neighborhood who enjoy walking. One neighbor has a small child who calls him “Follow Kitty.”

Dylan, like most cats, seems to have four primary operating modes. I call them “I’m busy”, “Because of My Wonderfulness”, “I do it like this”, and “It’s your fault.”

I’m busy” occurs when he is sleeping or sitting stolidly, singularly unperturbed and unimpressed with anything else going on in the world. “Because of My Wonderfulness” is evident when he is purring contentedly, sometimes even chirping, which often happens when he is being petted. I’ve decided that it’s not so much that he is happy being loved on. His pleasure is more in his delight in himself for graciously letting others bask in his wonderfulness.

I do it like this” is the name for when he is showing off, such as when he demonstrates his fierce prowess in defeating a bottle cap or ballpoint pen in epic battle. Finally, “It’s your fault” is the catchphrase that emanates from him whenever something displeases His Majesty. If he’s left outside when it’s cold he’ll scold me clearly and loudly in cat language that “It’s your fault!” Locked in the closet? “It’s your fault!” Something going on in the hidden kitty dimension not to his liking? Well, surprise, it’s YOUR fault!

I feed him some canned food once a day, and he certainly has no illusions as to when it’s feeding time. I have noticed that often, right at the moment when I lower the spoon of nasty glop into his bowl, he will accuse me of my culpability, but for a long time I wasn’t sure of my crime. Then it dawned on me that the second before I feed him is the absolute longest time since I last did so, marking it as the worst, most egregious sin commitable.

The bottom line is that he’s a great cat. As long as I remember that he’s busy, he’s wonderful, he does it like this and it’s my fault, everything will be right with our relationship.

When the day comes that my body is placed in the human vesion of a dish towel and lowered into the ground, I hope my soul comes back to earth as a cat.

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