The Internet needs another item about cats the way I need another 20 pounds, but I’m going to add to that list anyway. This is a therapeutic effort for me as much as anything, so I beg your indulgence. Continue at your own risk, because I cried a few times writing this.
My cat Sam died yesterday. It wasn’t a sudden death, and in some ways that is better, but in other ways it was worse. I called him The Best Cat Ever for years, because to me that’s what he was. Let me tell you his story.
Growing up, our home always had cats. Of course when you are a little kid you are susceptible to loving small animals, and I suspect the cat gene installed itself in me at a young age. I still have a barely visible scar on my right forearm where my grandmother’s cat scratched me severely when I was about 5 years old after I foolishly tried to play with him when he was asleep in the sunshine in the yard. He was an ornery old black tomcat that I was told later had been a vermin-hunter for her in a previous residence, and was not a cuddly cat. Over 50 years later I can still see the two streaks on my arm if I look hard enough.
But that didn’t change things for me. There was always a cat in our household growing up and that cat always slept on my bed. Why, I do not know, but it just seemed to happen. When I finally moved away from home when I was in my early 20s I had pet-free apartments and that’s when cat ownership ended. As a young guy who travelled and was often away on business it made sense anyway. But the gene remained, lurking.
By the time I bought my house in 1997 things had started to change. I was no longer on the road, I could see my future a bit more clearly, and possibly a return to having a cat around was more likely. A couple of years later I was working at NS Finance for the remarkable Gillian Wood, who also had the cat gene. So did one of her daughters. Alison had adopted two kittens, littermates simply but usefully named Blackie and Whitey. She had relocated to a small studio apartment at The Carleton Hotel and could not keep them. Gillian began doing the hard sell on me, saying that having two cats was better than having one anyway, and eventually negotiations began. I went up to The Carleton to see them, and they were adorable, probably 5 or 6 months old, bouncing around like a couple of Mexican jumping beans. Eventually a deal was done and they moved to Dartmouth. Gillian organized a “cat shower” for me with my co-workers a short time later so that I could be given some of the necessities of cat parenthood. It was probably as close to the real thing as I would ever get.
The names could not stand, so over the first few days I studied them with the thought of giving them new handles. Blackie was a sleek, shiny, mostly black Tuxedo cat, and he reminded me of a seal, so he became Sammy (the seal), soon shortened to Sam. His brother Whitey was what I later came to call a Holstein cat, white with dark blotches like a Holstein cow. Thankfully I hadn’t made that connection right away or who knows what I might have named him. Instead, he reminded me of a panda bear, so he became Bear.
They soon settled in and became quite the tag team. Being littermates they liked each other, did many things together, and there was none of the hostility that two stranger cats often demonstrate. Their play-wrestling matches never failed to entertain early on. They had boundless energy and could play with each other and with me for hours. They were both very affectionate, but had distinct personalities that emerged quickly. Bear was much more independent while Sam was a bit more timid and liked sticking closer to me. Sam also had the most pronounced purr I had ever heard from a domestic cat. He would lay down next to me while I was talking on the phone, and people on the other end of the line would ask me what that noise was. Early on, he would sleep on the floor next to the head of the bed, and I would hear him spontaneously purring down there. Soon he moved up onto the bed so I could hear him even better. I discovered that a purring cat laying against you at night makes a wonderful sleep aid, strangely enough.
During the negotiations, Gillian had insisted that they be allowed outside, something that she strongly believed in despite the strong indoor cat sentiment that was already quite prevalent. I introduced them to the outdoors carefully, first letting them out on the deck, then in the backyard. Soon they loved being outside when the weather was nice, and began venturing further afield. Brightwood Golf Club backs onto my property and soon I would see them, especially Bear, on the other side of the boundary fence, exploring the course. Sam was usually a bit less adventurous, but he too would go over to the golf course at dusk, and often would return home in the evening soaking wet after getting ambushed by the sprinklers. They both seemed to love it.
Both of them had one habit that drove me crazy. My deck has a privacy screen on one side that extends to the roof of the house, and they soon discovered they could use this to get on the roof. This terrified me, especially when I would look up and see Bear perched on the edge of the chimney looking down the flue. I would yell and call and eventually he would get down. But they both seemed to like heights – I guess a lot of cats do – and would often just go up on the roof to hang out and watch the birds fly past.
This behaviour would have one unhappy consequence. Just before Halloween of 1999 both cats were outside in the early evening. I saw Sam outside the door and when I opened it to let him in he was hobbling on 3 legs, unable to put any weight on his right front leg. I soon saw why – it was badly injured, bleeding from a gash and crooked, obviously broken. I suspect he probably fell off the roof. He made his way to his supper bowl and began to eat, much to my surprise. It was obvious that he needed attention, so off we went to the emergency vet clinic in Burnside. They told me he had a bad break, but they would try to set it and keep him overnight under sedation. The next day I picked him up in a cast, with instructions to keep him confined, preferably in a kennel, and to check in with my regular vet the next week. I didn’t have a kennel, so I set up the spare bedroom for him and kept him confined there. That first night back home I slept with him on the floor in there just to keep him comfortable. I think he slept a lot better than I did.
Soon a large kennel was procured and I installed it in the living room, moving in a litter box, food and water bowls, and some cat toys. He didn’t like it much and would sometimes yowl in protest, but overall tolerated it pretty well. I would take him out for scratches and cuddles of course, but he had adjusted to the cast, had begun feeling better, and missed his freedom. After a few weeks and a couple of cast changes, the vet took some new pictures and was dismayed to see that the bones were not healing. They weren’t really surprised given the nature of the break, and gave me some options, none of which were all that palatable. Euthanasia, if I didn’t want to spend any more money on him, which wasn’t an option at all; amputation, which they told me often let cats live useful lives, but was not something I wanted to consider at that stage; or a trip to the Veterinary College in PEI for more advanced care. That seemed the best though most difficult option, but thankfully before that occurred a different vet at my clinic had a consult over the phone with one of the specialists there, and they concluded that simply more time in the cast might be another option. Some cats were just slow healers, there had been a lot of swelling early on that might have delayed things, and they said if both Sam and I could stand it, it might all work out.
Sam had now become quite proficient in walking with his leg in a cast and no longer needed to live in the kennel. He was limited in some ways and obviously couldn’t go outside – it was winter anyway so he didn’t mind – but all in all he just went about his business. I took to calling him “Pegleg” which probably would have insulted him if he understood it. He needed me to get him on and off the bed at night, but insisted that he sleep in his normal spot next to me. I soon installed a footstool next to the bed to enable him to get up and down without the need for a leap. He even learned to use his cast as a weapon when Bear would want to roughhouse with him, something he no longer welcomed. Periodic x-rays at the vet showed some progress, but it wasn’t until one day in late February after I got home from work that he sat himself down in front of me, started going after the cast with his teeth, and quickly removed it. After some vigorous licking of the leg – the first time he could get at it in 4 months, after all – he got up and walked around on 3 legs quite easily. Within a day he was putting weight on the leg when he sat or ate, and the next day he was walking normally with virtually no limp. The vets were amazed.
Sam’s recovery marked a divergence in the behaviour of the two brothers. Bear continued his adventurous ways, becoming more feisty, wanting to be outside more often, even disappearing on a couple of occasions for over a week at a time. The second time this happened I was certain he was gone for good when he suddenly reappeared after 14 days acting totally nonchalant, like nothing was any different. I remember seeing him come up the walkway and not being able to believe my eyes, as I had accepted that something bad had happened to him. Sam, meanwhile, had become much more of a homebody cat, no longer going out very much or very far, preferring instead to hang around with me. He loved to eat, and the lack of exercise meant he became quite big. At his peak he hit 18 pounds. But he was very happy and despite some arthritis as he got older, seemed to be enjoying life. He still slept next to me every night and still could purr like nobody’s business.
In the summer of 2006, Bear disappeared again. When he didn’t come back after a few days I put up some posters around the neighborhood and a week or so later got a call from a neighbor a few blocks away. She gave me the sad news that she was pretty sure she had seen him get hit by a car in front of her house, and that he had been killed. I was very sad of course, and after a few weeks Sam seemed to miss his buddy.
In the fall I decided to adopt a new cat to give Sam a friend. For whatever reason, at that time there seemed to be very few suitable candidates available. Eventually I adopted a cat I named Coco from the Atlantic Cat Hospital, a small young female kitty who, it was later revealed, was brought here from somewhere out west. She was very affectionate when I met her, but as it turned out, Sam and her did not get along, mostly due to her being very hostile towards him. I often wonder what she went through before I met her, since her behaviour has remained very odd. She loves most people, but not other cats. But I made the decision to adopt her so I was not about to abandon her, and decided to make the best of it. She is entertaining if nothing else and to this day continues to tear around the house like a dervish several times a day.
In the fall of 2007 I happened to look out the back door one day and saw a cat that looked so much like Bear that I did a double-take. I opened the door to take a better look and he sauntered in like he owned the place, went to Sam’s food bowl, and began eating calmly and methodically. Upon closer examination it was clear he wasn’t Bear, but certainly a reasonable facsimile. While he was eating, Sam walked in, took a look at him, and reacted as if he seemed to think, “Oh, you’re back finally,” and just kept walking. It was the damndest thing. The cat then made himself at home in the living room and apparently decided that this wasn’t a bad place to hang out. I figured if he and Sam were getting along, I wouldn’t shoo him out. He looked to be in very good condition and obviously was someone’s cat.
I truly think Sam believed that Bear had returned, because they immediately bonded. The new cat made himself at home and spent the night. When he made no move to leave the next day, I figured it must be fate and concluded that if he wanted to stick around, I would keep him. I named him Fred, though I’m not sure why. After a couple of weeks, I took him to the vet and had him checked out. He was in fine shape, but needed neutering, so after he got his shots I made an appointment for that. The day before that was to happen, he went out and didn’t return. Maybe he knew.
Meanwhile, a large orange tabby that I had seen visiting the yard over the previous few years had started hanging around on the deck and now was obviously hungry. He was timid but could be friendly if the mood struck him, and I would give him the leftovers from the other cats. After 2 weeks of having Fred disappear, I figured he was gone for good, so when the first snow began coming down I invited the big red guy to come in. Again, he was obviously someone else’s cat, but I suspected he had been abandoned. He zoomed inside and settled in, never really being much of a problem and getting on well with Sam, though Coco immediately declared him her new sworn arch-enemy. A trip to the vet determined he was in excellent health and already neutered, so I was back to 3 cats. I had trouble settling on a name for him for the longest time, and eventually started calling him Rusty.
Super Bowl Sunday in early 2008 was notable for a couple of things. The Giants beat the previously undefeated Patriots, ruining their quest for a perfect season. Also, that was the night Fred returned. He had been gone for 8 weeks. Where, obviously, nobody can say and he isn’t talking. Maybe he went back to where he came from originally and decided he had made the right move in leaving the first time, who knows. But once again he just sauntered up the steps and strolled inside like he had just gone out for an hour or so. Suddenly I had 4 cats. I began to understand how you hear about these people whose houses get full of cats, and knew this had to stop. Fortunately, it did.
The one constant this time had been Sam, of course, and even with the various personalities and interactions among them, he made it clear to them that he was the top cat, and they deferred. The vets had noted he was starting to develop some dental problems, and he had a cracked tooth which didn’t seem to bother him much. But they were more concerned about his weight, and didn’t advise dental work just yet. Things were moving along pretty well for the cats, but less so for me. Some heart problems that were originally diagnosed in 1990 began to get worse, and I was scheduled for bypass and valve surgery in 2009. That happened on the Monday of the week before Halloween of ’09 – odd how so many of these events occurred at that time of year – and it was a rough ride. I was told later various stories of how long I was on the operating table – some said 8 hours, some 12, one person claimed it was 14 – and I somehow made it through. That week in the hospital is all a bit fuzzy, especially the first couple of days. They want to get you up and around as soon as they can, and by Thursday they tried to get me walking with a wheeled cart to support me. But I could barely move and was still on some serious drugs, affecting my thinking. By Friday I wanted out of there in the worst way, and around 8PM that night they discharged me.
In retrospect it was a mistake on both my part and that of the hospital staff to let me out. I could barely stand, much less move. But I wanted to get home and I guess I was being such a pain that they finally agreed. I remember my brother helping me get from the car to the door of the house, getting inside, and pretty much falling into a chair. I was in pretty bad shape from both the effects of the surgery and all the drugs I was on, and by about 10:30 I wanted to go to bed. I made it under the covers, and then experienced something I will never forget. Sam came in and took his usual position to my left next to the pillow. Then Coco came in and took the same position on the other side. Then Fred arrived and took a position down by my legs on the left, followed by Rusty on the right. This never, ever happened. They stayed there all night and were still there when I woke up the next morning. Amazing. Even more amazing were the drug-fuelled dreams I had that night, which centered on them, Vancouver ( a place I have never been), McLaren’s olives (remember those?), the year 1969, and that year’s new car introductions, all woven together. Where that all came from I have no idea, but it was hilarious. I learned that according to the dreams, Fred was apparently the designer of the Boss 302 Mustang. Imagine that.
As I tried to recover, Sam and I became even closer, if that was possible. I needed frequent rest, and Sam would always be there with me. He seemed to sense when I was feeling bad and when I was feeling good. It almost like we had some sort of telepathic connection, as strange as that seems. Most mornings previously he would wake me up with a paw to the face so he could get fed, but during that time he would just lay next to me until I was ready to get up. The other cats were less in tune, but he just seemed to know.
In the last few years as Sam aged, he began losing weight. I was concerned it was cancer, but the vet diagnosed it as a thyroid problem and put him on meds. They helped, but he continued to lose weight, just not as dramatically. His teeth began to get worse too, and several were lost. Despite it all he still loved to eat, and maintained his usual personality. Nothing much seemed to bother him, and his weight loss helped him move around much better to boot. He seemed great, up to about 6 weeks ago. He lost one of his upper canines, and apparently an infection set in, though it wasn’t obvious at first. That infection spread through his mouth, making it hard for him to eat, and also caused him to have difficulty keeping things down. A couple of bouts of antibiotics helped, but cats go bad pretty quickly, and by then it was too late. He was down to under 7 pounds, he was dehydrated, his kidneys were failing, and couldn’t eat without great discomfort. It was sad to see such rapid decline. I tried giving him every kind of food, tried hand-feeding him, tried giving him water myself, but nothing worked. He wanted to eat, but he couldn’t, and kept getting worse. He managed to keep getting up on the bed with me at night but it was becoming more and more difficult for him to do, and he wouldn’t stay long, preferring to sleep on the floor.
Some IV fluids helped get him through the weekend, but by Monday he was bad again, and Tuesday it was approaching pathetically pitiful. I couldn’t bear to see him that way. It damn near killed me. I probably picked up the phone 3 times yesterday before finally making the call. I loved him so much that it was emotionally draining, and affected me in a very profound way. The only good thing was that it happened over enough time that I could see what the end was going to look like, and it gave me a chance to talk to him and cuddle him and hear him purr a few last times over the past week or so.
After it was all over last night the house seemed emptier, even though for the last several weeks he seldom ventured out of my bedroom. When I went to bed last night it was odd again, not only that he wasn’t there but none of the other cats would come into the room. Normally Fred and Rusty will come in for a head rub as I’m getting ready before they go elsewhere to sleep, and Coco usually comes barreling in after lights-out to leap up on the bed and sleep with me. Not last night. Maybe their way of showing respect, I don’t know. It seemed strange this morning not to put food out in Sam’s normal eating spot, nor to have to clean his litter box. I’m sure we’ll all get back to normal soon enough, but it is a different time here at the moment.
I do need to thank Dr. Paige Marriott and especially Dr. Ginny Vaughan at Harbour Cities Vet Hospital for all their help, especially over the last few weeks. Ginny made time for me and Sam yesterday because she knew what it would mean to us. I am very grateful, and she was wonderful.
Rest in peace, my noble friend. You were truly The Best Cat Ever.