When I married Zane in May 1981, almost 25 years ago, I inherited two cats--Nin and Bemmy. I was 42, Zane was 28, Nin was two, and Bemmy was three when the four of us became a family. Nin was an extremely smart girl who knew her own mind, took guff from no one, and, for all her fluff, kept me on my toes throughout her life.
As with all members of my family, Nin had some memorable personality traits. First and foremost, she was the cranky one in my family and made known her likes and dislikes without equivocation, such as not wanting to have her claws trimmed. This was especially true in her young years. Something happened to her during middle age, however, which mellowed her for the rest of her life--other than having her claws cut. In addition, Nin had a lifelong love affair with cardboard boxes, any ol' cardboard box.
Bemmy, for his part, was a truly handsome and mellow fellow in his black and white tuxedo. My first memory of Bemmy was in Reno, Nevada, a day or two before Zane and I got married. We were in Zane's mobile home, when a moth landed on Bemmy's nose. Being the lovable, innocent "zart" he was, he just sat there and looked cross-eyed at it.
His zartness was not limited to moth watching, however. I say that because he would kick his hind legs in the air in a kind of wild "dance" to get the kitty litter off them when he finished going potty, thus scattering litter everywhere. And every now and then he'd do his wild dance wherever he happened to be, for no apparent reason, yet much to my delight.
We moved to Corvallis, Oregon, a couple of days after our wedding because that's where I was employed as a scientist with the Bureau of Land Management and where I owned a house. Nin and Bemmy took to the house and yard right away.
Nin liked to climb the apple tree, graze on the grass, and explore the neighborhood, which included entering our neighbor's house through the cat door and eating their cat's food. I doubt it stemmed from her being hungry, but rather from her intestinal-quality loathing of their cat.
Bemmy, on the other hand, liked to sleep in the midst of a large clump of dusty miller on warm, sunny days or under the overhanging leaves of the peonies on the south side of the house. He also liked to walk along the top of the fence, perch on a post, and survey his world. On stormy days, he would lie on the large windowsill of the enclosed back porch, where, protected from both wind and rain, he could observe the busyness of the world around him or doze. Every once in a while, however, his "zartiness" would erupt and he would not leap high enough to reach the windowsill, thus hitting the wall well below his targeted landing area.
In 1990, we moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, at the behest of the Environmental Protection Agency, where I spent a year working for the EPA. In the spring of 1991, as we were preparing to sell our house and move back to Oregon, a magnificent Siamese cat came into our walled backyard. Zane saw it and immediately wondered if it had a home. Having decided it was a stray, she wanted to feed it. I suggested we not feed it because our house was then for sale and we daily hoped to move. Anyway, what would the cat do when we left and its food was suddenly cut off? Disregarding my counsel, Zane exercised her wifely prerogative of independent action and fed it.
It turned out that the original cat did have a home, but before we learned that, three bona fide strays showed up. I objected to feeding them for the same reason as before but still found no way to articulate my concern that in the long-term it would be unfair to the cats. So we agreed to feed them until we left. The three cats soon became five, then seven, ten, twelve, fifteen, and perhaps even more under the cloak of darkness. It was clear that we had a problem because our charitable feline "eatery" was drawing customers from hither and yon.
With time, three kittens showed up, and Zane, who loves baby animals, began to try taming them. I objected again, but to no avail. Zane said that she simply couldn't resist them. I argued that they were domestic cats gone wild and would have to remain wild if they were to survive after we moved, which could be any day.
Once again, despite my reasoned objections, Zane sat outside day after day talking to a small, black and white kitten, which grew increasingly bold as the days passed. Then, one day, feeling particularly brave, the kitten ran past Zane almost close enough for her to touch. This procedure continued for a week or two. After that, he came once or twice a day to lie next to Zane to be loved.
Despite my "better" judgment, I went out one day so Zane could introduce me to the kitten, who proceeded at once to melt every shred of my logical objection to accepting another cat into our family. And so, when September rolled around, in he came.
He was not, however, a "happy camper" because he clearly missed the two other kittens with whom he played and often harassed due to a rascally streak, which caused us no end of enjoyment. After a week or so, while Zane went out to shop and the kitten was pacing back and forth in front of the sliding, glass door, I opened it. Out he went.
Although once again with his young friends, he did not play with them. Instead, he spent time watching the house. Observing this for an hour or so, I opened the door and told him that he had a choice--in or out. He was in as though shot from a catapult, and he never again sought to go out.
Having made his decision to be inside with us, we named him "Sketty" for "Spaghetti Body" because of his implicit trust in us, which he demonstrated again and again when he just fell over any which way, all the while expecting us to catch him.
Although mellow Bemmy accepted Sketty, Nin did not. Each time he came close, she either growled or hissed at him. Not in the slightest deterred, however, Sketty was literally "in her face" over and over, as though wondering what on Earth was wrong with her.
It soon became clear that neither of our older cats really wanted to be closely associated with this young upstart. After all, Nin was twelve by this time, Bemmy was thirteen, and they had been the center of our attention for ten years. Now, everything was changed. And Bemmy hated change above all else, which was particularly evident when Zane had the occasional audacity to rearrange the living-room furniture.
Clearly, Sketty needed a little buddy, so Zane and I went to the animal shelter to find one. There were so many, many kitties that needed a home, how would we pick one? With this question in mind, we walked along the rows of double-stacked cages looking at the occupants.
After much sole searching, as we looked at this kitten and that, we came upon a cage in the lower tier wherein a pencil-thin, lavender-point Siamese kitten began digging frantically at the cage the moment she saw us. As we stood looking at her, a small, silver tabby in the upper tier reached a tiny paw out of his cage and gently hooked my hand with his little, brown claws--after which he withdrew, not only to the back of the cage but also within himself.
We looked at each other and knew our choice had been made. We would take them both. And so, my family grew from five to seven, including me--for we now had five "cat kids" to love and care for.
The little Siamese, came home on my birthday, October 13, 1991. Zane named her "Zoe," after a long-deceased friend of hers. Upon release from the carrying cage, she immediately set up one of her life-long, characteristic traits--a "love station." Now, a love station is a special place that Zoe went to in order to be loved. It could be a particular box; under a certain, small table; a special place on a carpet; or, later in life, a pile of tissue paper on the floor. Somehow, her "love stations" seemed to concentrate her emotions. With respect to the latter, she became our "Paper Queen," such was her love of her pile of tissue paper, which, in fact, was her special, special love station. And if that is not enough, Zoe, who loves to carry a little, fluffy ball of yarn around in her mouth, while howling with joyous abandon, has the sweetest disposition of all our "kids."
Zoe was really blond, with gorgeous violet-blue eyes, when she first came to us, and so we called her the "blond bomb" because of the way she raced around the house, as well as up and down the stairs. She also enjoyed trying to catch my hand underwater whilst I languished in the bathtub. And in later life, she developed the habit of using my underpants like a hammock while I sat on the toilet.
The silver tabby, which Zane named "Bodhi Sattva," came home three days later, on October 16th. Unlike Zoe, who was instantly out of the cage, Bodhi crept into the world outside of his cage. Until he got used to his new home, he was indeed a "little creeper," who squatted to pee wherever he happened to be, which made his potty training a challenge.
Bodhi started out as the baby of the family, nursing on Zane's ear before we even got outside of the animal shelter. Zane, of course, loved it, especially his little, wet nose when he was finished. Consequently, she did nothing to wean her "baby," although he eventually weaned himself--much to her disappointment.
Bodhi remained the "baby" for life. He was the spoiled, whinny one when he did not get his way. In fact, of all the kids, he was the only one who literally "acted out" to get what he wanted. By "acting out," I mean knocking things off of Zane's shelf over her desk, stretching up on the wall meowing, leaping onto her bookshelf with her favored nick knacks, and so on.
Despite his periodic "kitty tantrums," Bodhi was not only the most playful kid throughout his life but also the relaxation "guru," a trait he came endowed with.
With our house in Las Vegas finally sold in July 1992, we prepared to leave for Oregon because Zane wanted to go back to Corvallis. And I wanted her to choose where she would be happiest because I was still traveling as part of my consulting business.
I packed the moving van in 107 degree heat on the 26th of July. We left Las Vegas late in the afternoon and drove as far as Walker Lake. After a few hours of sleep, we proceeded to Zane's parent's house in Reno, where we spent the rest of the day and the next, finally arriving in Corvallis in the afternoon of the 29th in 105 degree heat.
The kids soon became accustomed to their new house with its full basement. The younger ones liked to chase each other up and down the stairs, roaring through the kitty door, tearing down the hall and around the corner into the living room, with its old, wooden bench, which Zane had appropriated many years earlier from a long-abandoned mining town in Nevada. Sketty, in particular, liked to race down the hall, howling as he went, often racing onto the couch and the table behind it, from where he'd leap for the bench.
The old bench has a special place in Zane's and my heart because it has been well sculpted over the years that our kids have used it. They have not only sharpened their claws on it but also spent many, many an hour sleeping on it as they soaked up the morning sun pouring through the large, east-facing, picture window in the living room.
The bonding of our kids became really clear in Corvallis. Even Nin now allowed the youngsters to sleep with her. But it was at mealtime, when the kids ate together, that I could survey my whole family, Zane included. It was only after they were all done eating that Sketty exerted his duties as "top cat" with Bodhi and Zoe.
Sketty's "top catness" took on two forms, both of which included his rascally streak. If he wanted a favored place that either Bodhi or Zoe was occupying, he would harass them until they vacated it, after which he simply move it.
At other times, he would hassle Bodhi while he was sleeping, by pawing at him in order to get a reaction. Of course, he always launched his attack from the rear, well out of range of Bodhi's claws and teeth. After a while, however, Bodhi would have enough and turn on Sketty, an action that signaled time for a hasty retreat as Sketty tore down the hall and around the corner to the bench, howling all the way.
When it came to Zoe, Sketty's hassling was not quite as much fun to watch because he was a little too rough. That said, it was most delightful to see Zoe "pop" Sketty on the butt with a forepaw, which she did occasionally as he sauntered past her--always making him jump.
One of the things I particularly enjoyed was the habit Sketty formed of sleeping on his face. I can only guess what got him started. Nevertheless, I enjoyed seeing it so much that I made a place on my desk for him to sit and sleep. Fortunately for my enjoyment, sleeping on his face developed into a lifelong habit.
In addition to sleeping on my desk, Sketty often visited me while I worked at my computer. In fact, he was so trusting that he would walk in front of my computer's screen and simply flop against me for a loving without a care in the world. I therefore had to be constantly alert and ready to catch him, else he would fall.
At other times, he would snoop around my desk; climb onto my printer with its protective, blue towel and sleep; or share a special moment, such as sniffing a bundle of sagebrush.
And so, the seasons came and went. Spring, summer, and autumn found the breezes blowing through the house as the kids sat in the open windows sniffing the fresh air or lay on and around the bench soaking up the warmth of the morning sun. Sharing the warmth of the morning sun was especially important during the winter with its many foggy and rainy days, although the latter usually found the two black and white boys basking in the heat of our woodstove.
Things began to change in 1995, however. Nin, who by now was seventeen, began to decline in health due to kidney disease. It was the first time the health of one of our kids brought me face to face with the prospect of impending loss. Watching Nin's slow decline and her increase incontinence was a painful experience at best.
During this time, I thought back to the rough beginning Nin and I had. She was uncertain of me and therefore unpredictable in that, as I petted her, she would suddenly whirl to scratch or bite. Consequently, I didn't trust her. As a result, I dubbed her "Miss Fuzz Butt." But we both changed over time and became increasingly close to each other, so much so that Nin spent much of her last days sleeping on my desk next to my computer, where she was near me, and I could pet her.
Then, finally, through the corridors of time, came the thought that I had not considered for many years, my promise to Xerxes (see his story above) that: I would never again take an animal--any animal--to the vet to be killed, euphemistically termed "putting to sleep" or "euthanasia." If it needed to be done, I'd do it myself. I feel still that I betrayed Xerxes by taking him to a place he hated more than anywhere else because I lacked the understanding and courage to kill him myself. Never again, I vowed to Xerxes, would I be a coward in the face of doing whatever's necessary for an animal I love, or any animal for that matter.
Now, I was confronted with the fact that Nin, who had given me the best years of her life, needed me--whom she loved and trusted implicitly--to have the courage to send her on death's journey with all the love I had for her. Having betrayed Xerxes, I could not betray Nin. And so, Nin's journey began on the fifth day of February 1995.
Shortly after Nin's death, Bemmy began showing signs of the same kidney disease. As the quality of his life declined, the time for his journey into the realm of death and beyond arrived on the fourteenth of April 1996, at the age of nineteen. He, who had always so loved his garden, spent much of his last day outside sleeping in the sun.
Losing the two older kids might have been much harder had the three younger ones not been around to help fill some of the emptiness.
Although the three younger kids had bonded with one another from the beginning, they also bonded over time with the two older ones. With them now gone, the bonds among the remaining three grew even stronger.
The bond between Sketty and Bodhi was typical to two boys who acted like brothers. While they slept together now and then, Sketty also hassled Bodhi to play. At other times, sibling rivalry manifested itself when Sketty wanted a spot that Bodhi was occupying.
Bodhi and Zoe, on the other hand, were incredibly close and often slept together. They, like the boys, also washed each other, but much more often.
There was, however, a challenge with the relationship between Bodhi and Zoe, a latent sexual one on Bodhi's part. While all three of the younger kids had been neutered as kittens, Bodhi still acted out the male's sexual aggressiveness on Zoe by biting her on the back and neck. This behavior, in turn, required constant vigilance lest he injure Zoe, which he occasionally did.
The strange thing about the three youngsters was that, close as they were to one another, they never learned how to play together; this is not to say they did not enjoy playing, because they did. They would play with me, either singly or together, just not with one another, whereas Zoe often played by herself, with much howling.
Sometime in 2000, Sketty began having trouble keeping food down. At first, the veterinarian thought he had developed an allergy to his usual food, so we switch to a special diet for all of the kids. Alas, that did not cure the problem.
In December of that year, we took Sketty to a specialist near Portland, who performed an endoscopy and determined that he had either irritable bowel syndrome or small-cell lymphoma, but she could not tell which with any degree of certainty. With that diagnosis, she put him on the drug "prednisone." His apparent recovery was swift and gave us hope that it was, in fact, irritable bowel syndrome.
That hope was not to be realized. Although the drug gave us more than a year of quality time with Sketty, by the beginning of 2002, his old signs returned, which told us that he did, indeed, have small-cell lymphoma.
He slept with us for the last few months of his life. And on the fifth of May, 2002, at age eleven, Sketty died. We buried him in what was becoming our private "Garden of Angels."
With Sketty's death, the dynamics between Bodhi and Zoe changed dramatically. Bodhi became increasingly aggressive with Zoe when he became frustrated. It finally reached the point that they had to be separated at night, something he did not like. As a result, he began peeing around the edge of the room, so I had to line it with plastic sheeting for him to pee on.
In addition, Bodhi suffered from acute separation anxiety whenever Zane and/or I were out of sight. In fact, he was so attached to Zane that she could not leave a room without his going to look for her. What's more, if we were both in the garden for any length of time, Bodhi would sit by a window and wait for us to come back.
Although all three of the younger kids liked to sleep with Zane while she lay on our bed reading or napping, Bodhi and Zoe did so regularly after Sketty died. Moreover, Bodhi instituted a multi-demand to be combed by one of his staff--me. He would sit in the doorway to my office and literally squeak at me to attend to his wants. I therefore began calling him "Mr. Squeak."
Bodhi also dearly loved the juice from canned salmon. In fact, I could never sneak a can out of the cupboard or an open can out of the refrigerator without his detecting it from wherever he was in the house--no matter how quiet I was. Moreover, he could be asleep when I tried to sneak a can out of the refrigerator, which miraculously caused him to awaken and race into the kitchen, where he would stretch full length toward the counter and confront me with a demanding squeak for juice.
In this way,he reminded me of a professor I had during my graduate studies, who would come into me office with a dry cough every time I got a new pint of whiskey, which I kept in my desk draw. I could no more fathom how he knew I had a new bottle, than I could divine how Bodhi knew it was a can of salmon I was reaching for--regardless of how quiet I was or whether it was open or not.
While both kids loved sleeping with "Mom," Bodhi, in particular, practiced relaxing for the rest of his life in order to uphold his title as the "Guru of Relaxation." (A few of his many positions are herewith revealed.) I say the rest of his life because, like Sketty, Bodhi developed cancer, but his was in both his chest cavity and his brain. Fortunately for him, it was fast acting once it really got started.
Perhaps the most difficult part of his illness was watching such an agile, energetic, life-affirming kid begin to lose his balance and his dignity with increasing rapidity. For me, the sense of helplessness is the most excruciating part of watching as a loved one, person or pet, declines in faculties, as it must be for everyone. My sense of inadequacy reminded me of my days as a cowboy, when the ranchers I worked for said over and over: "If you have your health, you have everything."
Bodhi's pending ordeal became visible sometime in the summer, when I noticed, while playing with him at bedtime, that the pupil of his right eye was larger than his left. I did not, however, know what that meant. Moreover, he was becoming increasingly fussy about what he would and would not eat. In the end, it was his gradual loss of balance, as well as his increasing pickiness with food, that caused us to take him to the vet.
In addition, instead of heading down the stairs to go to bed, he began wanting to stay upstairs with us at night. In fact, he would hide under our bed, rather than go to his own bed, which was in the basement, despite the fact that he slept comfortably on the futon.
Nothing showed up in either the analysis of his blood or the physical exam. But, there was a large, opaque spot in his lung cavity, which very much suggested cancer. We decided to wait a month and have the x-ray repeated in order to see if the spot in his chest cavity was real or an anomaly of his position when the x-ray was taken because one leg had not been ideally positioned for an x-ray.
But his balance and appetite continued to decline, so we had another x-ray taken within three weeks, one that clearly pointed to cancer. A radiologist confirmed that suspicion. Not only was the cancer in his chest cavity but also in his brain--the cause of his progressing loss of balance.
I have always thought of cancer as a disease of humans--not animals. But now I remember a red tree mouse from my studies of decades past. It, too, had cancer, and it died. After all, we are but animals--the one among the many. The difference is that we often consciously defile ourselves, whereas I have never seen a non-human do so.
Why, I wondered, should such a beautiful creature as Bodhi get cancer? What purpose could it possibly serve? That some humans get cancer is understandable, considering their chosen, unhealthy habits, but why innocent animals? Well, for that matter, why do innocent children get cancer? Regardless of the answer, which I don't have, Nature's impartiality is something we humans have a great deal of trouble understanding, let alone accepting.
As the cancer progressed, Bodhi became increasingly conscious of heretofore-unknown limitations of what he could and could not do. Where he used to "float" 4 ½ feet from a standstill to the top of a cabinet, he began hesitating to jump three feet. At times, he even hit his feet on a countertop, which he had never done before. Although the "Prednisolone" we gave him helped for a week or so, it became obvious that his balance and appetite were not going to recover.
Fortunately for him, I detected no sign of physical pain, although there clearly were a few days in which he did not feel well. Nevertheless, the question now became one of how long Bodhi's life would have sufficient quality to continue.
Bodhi, who was so very light on his feet and so incredibly agile, was increasingly losing his balance and, with it, his dignity. So, on the tenth of November 2005, Bodhi died because his cancer was terminal and rapidly spreading, even with the medicine. With Bodhi gone, our family is down to three--Zoe, Zane, and me.
Although our two, little boys, Sketty and Bodhi, were really small in physical stature, they were both huge in personality. I say this because every now and then a creature comes into being endowed with a love that far surpasses both one's expectation and life's experience. When this happens, a legacy is created that not only fulfills in special measure the lives of those touched but also graces the world with a legacy of love and innocence that atones in some way for the fear, greed, and violence that today assaults humanity from within. Such a creature was Sketty.
Now, with Bodhi gone also, our home feels so very, very empty because, more than any of our kids, his spark of life filled it at all levels--from the floor, to the kitchen counters, the top of the refrigerator, and every level in between. No surface was off limits to his antics. He commandeered them all at a whim. Moreover, the cardboard tube, which he loved to roar into and out of with wild exuberance, lies undisturbed on the carpet in the basement--a silent reminder of the enthusiasm with which Bodhi lived his life and, in doing so, greatly enriched Zane's and mine.
How will we cope? I don't know. This is the first time in our entire married life of almost a quarter of a century that Zane and I have only had one kid. How does Zoe feel with none of her kind left in the house?
These are questions that both Zane and I have been asking ourselves and each other. And we have no answers. All I know for sure is that we will cope with our loss because there is no viable alternative.
It has been suggested that we get another kitten or two. Lord knows there are enough that need a home. But somehow that doesn't feel right for us because our life is changing as we get older. Perhaps more freedom to travel would be nice. Anyway, whatever we ultimately decide, now is not the time to get another kitten. For now, our full attention is focused where it needs to be--in the present moment with Zoe and each other.
Of late, Zoe has begun going on "tour," which means I have to follow her around the living room or into the basement, where she goes from one room to another and back again, all the while bumping her head on this chair or that table leg. Part of the required process is for her to pause now and then so I can pet her. The most important thing, however, is for me to accompany her several times a day, while she goes on "tour."
Thinking back to my family, I am awed to realize just how blessed I am for the memories resting peacefully in my heart. And, as always, I have learned much from the four-legged creatures that have graced my life.
As their time of departure approached, each of our kids began letting go of life in the outer world, while progressively drawing within--to that sacred place in all of us, where the veil is thinnest between the physical and the ethereal. Letting go the material life allows each of us to prepare ourselves for the inevitable journey to the land of spirit, where materiality holds neither value nor sway.
Even now, while I am but two years past the mid-heaven of my sixties, I find that I, too, have long been quietly letting go of much that seemed to hold great importance in my younger years. Although still in fine health, there is much in the physical world that no longer interests me. Instead, it is the inner world--where knowledge and spirituality integrate--that I now find the greatest value. It is from here that I must evaluate my life and archive in writing and perform in deed whatever legacy of value I can leave for those who follow.
Depite my own inner pilgrimage, I am always amazed at the size of the emotional hole of emptiness left behind by the passing of a wee friend out of my life, be it a mouse, a weasel, an owl, or, once again, one of our "kids," for Zane and I have no human children together.
What is clear to me now is that the depth of the pain I feel at the passing of one I love is a direct measure not only of the love but also of the joy I was privileged to share throughout the years of their life. What an incredible gift to be honored with!
It is now the 27th of December 2009, and we are without a cat-kid for the first time in our entired married life of 28 and a half years. Zoe, died two days ago. How different life will be from now on—how very, very different.