Friday, March 1, 2013

Just a Cat

There was an inch of new snow on the ground when we buried Heddy this morning. Heddy was just a cat. Guys aren't supposed to get emotional about cats the way they do dogs, right?

It was 20 years ago, and we hadn't been in our new house for very long when we came back from a trip to find a cat in our front yard. It was an obviously young but nearly full grown, medium-long haired calico cat, with a beautiful pattern of very distinct bright orange, jet black, and clean, snowy white. It immediately came up to us, as friendly as could be. Living in a rural area, we sometimes have people drop pets off on the highway when they want to get rid of them, and this cat had obviously been cared for, unlike the feral cats that also appear occasionally.

The female (apparently all calicos are female) continued to hang around the house, and we began to feed her, waiting to see if anybody showed up to claim her. But she was a very sweet little cat, and we didn't have a pet, so after a couple of weeks, we had named her Heddy (short for "hedonistic") and decided to keep her. Our neighbor, Andre, is a vet, and we brought her into his office to be checked out and neutered.

Andre looked at Heddy and asked, "How long have you had this cat?"

Mary said, "Oh, she just showed up a couple weeks ago."

"I thought so. That's actually my cat."

Andre went on to tell us that he had a collection of calico cats, but Heddy had a bad habit of running into his house every chance she got, and finally one day he got fed up with it and tossed her out an open window. He hadn't seen her since. Apparently, Heddy, having a mind of her own, decided to look for greener pastures, so to speak--and found us.

"Oh well," Andre said. "You like her and she obviously doesn't like me anymore, so you go ahead and keep her. And by the way, she's already neutered."

And so we acquired Heddy. We soon made her an indoor cat, which was what she definitely wanted, since she was as bad about running into our house as she had been at Andre's.

I've always been more of a cat person than a dog person. I like dogs, but there is something about the unconditional devotion a good dog gives that somehow makes me uneasy. Maybe it is my own anti-social tendencies, but I like how cats can be independent souls, who seem to think it's your good fortune that they decide to befriend you. And while Heddy certainly befriended us, she considered herself at least our equal. Still, she was such a pleasant companion. She would jump into our laps when we sat down to relax in the evening, expecting just a little petting before she settled in to nap on our legs or on the couch next to us. When we went outside, she went, too, and if we went walking in the woods behind the house she often accompanied us, although if we went too far, she either turned back, or expected one of us to carry her part of the way back to the house.

And for a couple without kids, Heddy didn't quite become a surrogate child, but she was always there when we needed someone to care for, or to care for us. Our nephew that we were closest to was only a couple years old when she came to us, and his two sisters were born afterwards, and never knew us without Heddy. They were our surrogate children, but I can remember many times when something went wrong or I was feeling low for whatever reason, I would pick up Heddy and pet her, listening to her gentle purring, and things would somehow get a lot better.

Oh, Heddy wasn't perfect. She was terrible about scratching the furniture, and she was forever bolting her food and then barfing on the floor. She shed hair prodigiously. And she was a consummate hunter, so if we let her out for long, we'd find dead birds, mice, voles, chipmunks, baby rabbits, and even once a flying squirrel, deposited on the doorstep.

When we'd leave for a trip, our neighbor Kelli would take care of Heddy, and when we'd return, we'd have to suffer her displeasure at our absence. The way she'd do this would be to jump up in our laps as always, but turn her butt to us, tail up, and grumble for a while before she finally turned around and settled down to be petted.

But she was such a sweet, even dispositioned cat. Only once did she get neurotic on us. It happened in late spring, when we had the garage doors open. Heddy was wandering around the garage. The wind was blowing, and the door from the garage into the house was not tightly closed. There was a barely discernible moan of wind rushing through the door into the house and through the open windows of the house. Heddy suddenly heard this, and for some reason it freaked her out. She backed away from the door, all fuzzed out and ears laid back, and left the garage.

We didn't see her for the rest of the day, and when we called her to come in that evening, she came reluctantly to the door, stopping at the doorstep, obviously scared. Finally she leaped over the doorstep into the house, turned around looking in all directions, and went slinking through the house with her tail down. She jumped at every sound, and when she saw a pair of shoes in the middle of the floor, she crept up to them, batted one tentatively with her paw, and leaped backward. It was as if the sound she'd heard that day had convinced her that something scary and dangerous was somewhere in the house.

This went on for two weeks. She would hardly touch her food, and when she was in the house, she was always extremely nervous, not sleeping, losing weight. Finally we decided to take her to Andre. He listened to what was happening, and said, "Well, the only thing to try is Valium. A few days on Valium should settle her down. So he gave us a prescription for Valium, made out to "Heddy Cat Agnew". And he was right; after three days of taking Valium, Heddy was back to her old self.

About five years after Heddy arrived, we came out of the house one day to find another cat on the doorstep. It was a half grown, light yellow tabby that had been mauled by some creature and was scared, but when we picked it up, it purred loudly. So another cat acquired us. We took her to another vet because Andre was on vacation, and he bandaged her, neutered her, and treated her for ear mites. We named her Hazel.

But Hazel was nothing like Heddy. For weeks after she arrived, we thought the she and Heddy would never get along. They avoided each other, but when they met, both would puff up into big fur balls and growl at each other. Our niece started singing, "Heddy and Hazel, sitting in a tree, h-i-s-s-i-n-g." But finally they became friends. Hazel, however, was never a friendly cat. She would let you pet her for a few seconds, but if you tried to pick her up, she'd instantly go stiff, sprout about a hundred sharp claws, and start squirming and scratching. I never once picked her up that she didn't draw blood. She was simply a stand-offish cat, but we liked her, and since she was lean, muscular, and short-haired, she became the model for many of my cougar and bobcat paintings.

We discovered that our youngest niece was highly allergic to cats, so Heddy and Hazel became "outside cats" so that Eva could spend the nights with us without suffering. For a number of years they were quite happy roaming the outdoors, spending the nights together in a kitty house with a heated sleeping pad. When we'd climb into the hot tub, they were always there, especially in the winter, to sit on the edge of the tub and soak up the heat.

One day, Hazel just disappeared. She was probably about 12 years old, but she was perfectly healthy, and had never been gone from the yard a whole day, so when she didn't show up that evening, we began to worry. We never saw her again, and we surmised that either a coyote or one of our resident bobcats had taken her. So Heddy was by herself once again, but it didn't bother her. Nothing much bothered Heddy, except not being fed and not getting petted.

As she grew older, she became slower, and stopped hunting. We were concerned that she wouldn't be able to escape the predator that had apparently killed Hazel, so we bought her back into the house, letting her stay in my studio but not giving her free run of the rest of the house. The studio opened onto a small deck, with stairs leading up to an observation deck on our roof, but it was also a full story above ground. Heddy figured out how to climb up and down my racked canoes against the side of the house to get to and from the ground. But as she grew older, it was becoming more difficult for her to climb the canoes, so I built her a "handicapped kitty ramp", made of planks attached to the siding of the house and letting her walk up to the deck.

It wasn't always pleasant having her in the studio. She was always good about using a litter box, but she still puked occasionally, and shed hair that found its way onto my wet paint. As she continued to age, she began to be more finicky about what she ate, and Mary began to make cat food by adding supplements to chicken meat and liver that she ran through the blender. We didn't realize it, but Heddy's teeth were going bad, and she no longer liked to chew her food, so we would mix the cat food with water to make it "lappable". She also began to be more finicky about her litter box, sometimes refusing to use it if it was too dirty, and for some reason, she hated getting her paws into the litter, so even though she still had the instinct to bury her waste, she would try to do by scratching the floor outside the litter box. So the waste often remained unburied and smelling until I did Heddy's burying job for her.

But she was still a good companion as I painted, and when I'd sit back and study a painting in progress, she'd jump into my lap and ask to be petted. Petting Heddy was highly conducive to relaxing and working out problems in my painting.

We knew she was old, and wouldn't last much longer, but up until this week, she seemed as healthy as could be expected for a cat that was over 20 years old. But she had gone completely deaf. And she was steadily losing weight, even on the healthy diet of homemade cat food. At her healthiest, she was a "fat cat", weighing in at nearly 18 pounds. Now she seemed to weigh almost nothing when we picked her up. She spent most of each day sleeping, and moved stiffly. And this week, she just stopped eating. So we took her to Andre.

He pointed out her rotten teeth. He told us she had cataracts in both eyes. He confirmed her deafness. And he said he suspected she had serious problems in her digestive tract. He could do blood tests to check for diabetes and other ailments, but the truth was that she was going downhill fast and there was nothing we could do about it. He gently suggested it was time to put her to sleep.

Mary and our niece Hope had taken her to him. Mary called me and told me the bad news, and asked if I wanted to have Andre put her down there, or if I wanted to have her brought home to say goodbye, and Andre would stop by on his way home in the evening and do it. I had to see Heddy once more to say goodbye.

She was mildly sedated when Mary brought her home, and mostly lay limply, very quietly purring, as we all petted her and held her. Mary was crying. Hope was crying. And I was barely holding back the tears. We turned on quiet music and spent the evening taking turns holding her. Finally, Andre called to say he was on his way, and Mary gave her another shot to make her sleep until Andre administered the final injection.

As he prepared her, Mary held her head in her arms, dripping tears onto the still clean, still pure white, jet black, and bright orange fur. I petted her gently and cried as well. Andre leaned over and said, "Old girl, I'm sorry for throwing you out that window all those years ago."

Mary said, "It was the best thing you ever did."

She leaned down and whispered, "Heddy, you were the best and prettiest cat there ever was." And Andre put the needle in, and Heddy went quickly and quietly.

She was just a cat. Guys aren't supposed to get emotional about cats. But I'm crying again as I write this.

Goodbye, Heddy. You'll be sorely missed.

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