Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Goodbye Fergus

   My friend Fergus died on Monday night.  I hesitate to use the term “cat” or pet”, since I haven’t really thought of him as either in years, but I also want to make it abundantly clear that I’m talking about a cat here. There is pain and injustice in this world that baffle the heart and mind and, even though it’s sad, I cannot count a librarian’s eulogy for his elderly cat among them. And that’s exactly what this is. Requiem for a feline.  If it doesn’t sound appealing to you, don’t read it. I’ll understand. Besides, I’m writing this more as a process than anything else.

   Shortly after we moved to California, Carrie decided that she wanted a cat. Not just any cat, mind you, but a Scottish Fold. For those of you not up on your cat breeds or too lazy to follow a Wikipedia link, Scottish Folds are stubby, round-headed cats known primarily for the way their ears “fold” over. One of the most internet’s famous cats is a Scottish Fold, although Maru does not have the distinctive folded ears. Anyway, Carrie decided that she wanted to adopt one. Being a dog person my entire life, I wasn’t thrilled at the idea, but was willing to go along with it. So we started keeping an eye on various sites and Scottish Fold Rescues.

   After a few near misses, we had found an available Fold that looked we couldn’t stop looking at. His profile photo was that of a gruff, pissed-off-looking cat. The description was coded in a way to suggest that he might not be the most outgoing or lovable cat. He’d had his hips replaced as a kitten. And he was 9, which was older than we were hoping for. Nonetheless, we trekked out to North Hollywood one day to the pet store where he was being kept.

   When we got there, it was the typical chaos of a large pet store during an adoption event on a Saturday. I had identified Fergus as soon as we walked in, and I knew that he would be going home with us. It wasn’t that he was particularly adorable (though he was) or outgoing. In fact, he just sat in his cage like a hardened veteran of events like those. He surveyed what was going on around, but he looked disinterested and tired more than anything else. Fortunately for him, disinterested and tired are great hobbies of ours.

   Carrie soon picked him out and she knew right away, too. When the adoption people figured out who we were looking at, they brightened up. Fergus had been with them for years, living in the pet store. He wasn’t the greatest with other cats, and he was too old for most people to want. They also told us he’d originally been named Winky, but that they’d renamed him Fergus in hopes that it might help find him a new home. It did. We were on our way home with him (and our new cat supplies) in 30 minutes.

   It took him a long time to warm up to us.  The first thing he did when we brought him in our home was throw up. He was far from hostile, but he spent most of his time in crawl spaces or warily surveying our apartment. After some phone calls, we got a better idea of what was happening. It turns out that living in a pet store for a few years was just part of Fergus’s life. Before that, he had been living in an outside cage at a cattery for some time. Apparently he had been pampered by someone, since his hips had been replaced as a kitten, but from what we could gather he’d been living in bad conditions or foster care for most of his life.
So we had a cat that, after years of neglect, had stopped trusting anyone. He was defensive and ornery at times, but usually just wanted to be left alone. After taking him to a vet, we were told that he had kidney disease and other health problems. Our concerns mounted.

   But something happened. He started to enjoy himself. He started soliciting pets from us. He grew to trust us, and then much later, to love us. He became a member of our family. His jail mentality disappeared and he began to act like the entitled cat that he’d surely been at some point in his life.

   It took over three years, but he even starting meowing. W we returned from a five-day trip to Big Sur, and he was sitting on our bed. He meowed in such a “where the hell were you?” way that we didn’t even believe it had happened. It was only when he repeated himself that we realize that he was talking to us. After that, we couldn’t shut him up. He had a hungry meow, and a “wake up” one, and a “leave me alone” one. He started hanging out in the bathroom, meowing to himself over and over just to hear his own echo like he was admiring his singing voice.

   His health, while stable, continued to decline in the last few years. He developed an abscess in his right paw, making it swollen and uncomfortable. Still, he hobbled around on his big paw without much pain. In October, we started having to give him electrolyte injections at home to keep renal failure at bay. We were criticized by friends and colleagues when we started doing this, and it was suggested that we were keeping him alive for our own sakes and ignoring his decrepitude.

   Of course, we knew better. Those people would see him for 15 minutes a month and assume he sat and stared all day. True, that was his primary occupation and he’d do that for some 20 hours a day. But he always did that. What nobody else saw was the way he would sprint around the house (a sound made unmistakable by his big paw), or chase after errant insects. He developed an unprecedented penchant for table begging.

   In all honesty, he was a pretty lousy pet. He would spite-poop all the time. I once awoke to see him sitting on my pillow next to our bed, taking a shit because his litterbox was full. I didn’t know whether to throttle him for ruining my pillow or respect him for keeping it all off the floor. There was one instance where he let loose a torrent of diarrhea upon a former-roommate’s mattress that rendered it unsalvageable. He begged at the table and refused to do anything but glower at 90% of our guests. He whined a bit and kneaded our feet when we were sleeping. He was insanely finicky about his food, especially when he was supposed to only be eating his special kidney food. One of the few things he got right about being a cat was the constant self-cleaning.

   He wasn’t the best at being a pet, but he had parts of it nailed down. For one thing, he was freakishly photogenic. As people who generally dislike having our photo taken, it really helps to have a pet that openly mugged for the camera.

   There were other things, too. He started being this weird comforting force in our lives. When I broke Carrie’s heart, he noticed. He would lie next to her (unusual for him) and lick her hands. When unemployment and depression threatened to ruin me, he would sit next to me and pick me back up. I know how that sounds, I really do. You can roll your eyes or think to yourself how I’m rambling that a cat saved my life or something, and I completely understand why. But I was there, and I remember how bad things seemed. Depression is screwy. Sometimes it’s difficult to address. Sometimes, because of fear or shame or anxiety, you can’t talk about it with anyone, not even your closest friends. I stopped communicating with most people. Important personal relationships were neglected, as was this weblog. While Carrie and I spoke constantly about what was happening, they were terse conversations, pregnant with frustration and dread. I spent my days volunteering and filling out applications while my spirits grew dimmer and dimmer. But each day, I’d sit with him for a bit and pet him while I thought. Carrie did the same. I know that the idea of therapy animals is hardly new, but I guess I never expected firsthand experience.

   That never really stopped. When I started getting up before dawn to go to work, he would be the only thing awake in the universe, staring back at me while we waited for the water to boil for coffee. It became my morning ritual to sit for a minute with him and read the paper. A little later, Carrie would sit in the yard with him while she had her own coffee and he wandered around the garden.

   He’s not there anymore in the mornings to greet me. There is no thumping as he runs around the house in the middle of the night, and the house is a lot quieter without the sound of him eating. The object in our peripheral vision is no longer a grey cat, but a bag on the floor, or a pile of books in the shadows. Because he died in our arms the other night.

   I’m not going to bemoan his death or act like he was taken from us too soon. Fergus was a cat, and he outlived all expectations. We used to joke that he was part cyborg because he was constantly proving to us that he was stronger and more agile than we thought. But he was still a living being, and as with all living beings, at some point they cease to live. His death was a painful reminder of the hardest part of having a pet. His exit was sad, but we’d been telling ourselves that it would happen for months, and I feel incredibly fortunate for the time we had with him.

   I know he was a cat. I also know that most of you have children and that it probably seems a little absurd, the amount of fixation we poured into this fleabag. But he was still a member of our family. It breaks the heart not to feel the ones you love there anymore. It still hurts not to hear the voice of a loved one, regardless of whether they could lick their own genitalia or not.

   There’s a saying that rescue animals are actually the ones doing the rescuing, and I can’t disagree. I’ve never been happier to take a chance, and I’ve never been rewarded as handsomely. There will be other pets and (I hope) other friends, but none who would ever replace him. Like I said, he wasn’t great at being a cat. But he was a damn good friend and neither of us will ever forget him.


Shelley (bluejayway) said...

Not sure what I expected when you popped into my rss reader after such a long absence, but I'm sorry it was your lovely old cat. He sounds like a constant friend, and I'm sorry for your loss.

Dana Thomas said...

Sent you a note on twitter, but sorry to hear this, Cotton. I remember when I met Fergus, and he was just as you described: wary and kinda hiding in the shadows. I had to put my dog to sleep a couple of weeks ago, so I know exactly how you are feeling. Peace and healing vibes to you and Carrie.

clickie said...

What a lovely piece. He was a good, curmudgeonly fellow.