It is an awful-sounding word, and the thing it represents is even worse. It is, as I write these words, eating away at the very life of my beloved cat, Tony.
At the vet’s office today, hoping that his recent weight loss was nothing more serious than some malnutrition or maybe a nasty parasite, I instead heard the very worst thing I could hear. The sweet, wonderful cat who was at that moment sitting on my lap, purring as though life couldn’t get any better, will be gone from my life within the next few weeks.
One day in around 1997, at a boarding stable where our horse lived, one of the many barn cats had a litter of kittens. My usual reaction to kittens was to just stay away, because I was horribly prone to getting attached to anything cute and fuzzy, and so was my wife. I already had a cat, a siamese named dB, who had been with me for over 7 years, and my wife had an adult cat too, so a kitten was the last thing we needed.
One little orange kitten, though, seemed strangely attracted to me in particular. It followed me around like a shadow, mewing at me and pawing at my leg. Every time I sat down to take a breather from cleaning stalls or moving hay or whatever I might have been doing, this kitten immediately jumped up in my lap. I’d gently put him down, and ten seconds later, he’d leap right back up.
It took a month or so for this kitten to work his way into my heart. How could this tiny little creature, barely a handful, be so persistent? I didn’t get attached to him until I realized he was attached to me. I still don’t know why he chose me, but choose me he did, and so with the barn owner’s blessing, he came home to join the family.
He looked like a tiny little tiger, orange with faint stripes. Tony The Tiger, a cartoon character who advertises that Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes cereal is “Grrrrrrreat!”, came to mind, so the kitten became Tony.
Tony is definitely all tomcat. He grew up big, stocky, and muscular. He and dB became good friends right away, and the sound of them galloping through the house was something we got used to. He was quite the escape artist, so even though our cats were always indoors, he would take every opportunity to slip past one of us as we came in our out of the house. He was a great climber, and loved to hunt, too. During the brief periods when we had a dog, those canine guests learned quickly to respect the cat and his space … which was, of course, the whole of the house proper and the acre or so surrounding it.
Tony gave us an awful scare once. I came out of the house to go to work one morning, one one of those evenings when he’d gotten out of the house and decided he wasn’t coming back in until he was ready. I nearly had a heart attack when I saw him lying on the hood of my parked car, the white paint stained red with his blood. He’d had some sort of encounter with a vehicle, probably one of the small motorcycles the neighborhood kids rode around. His arm was not just broken, but nearly torn off, the bone protruding through the torn skin. Work was quickly forgotten, I drove him immediately to the nearest veterinarian.
The first vet I saw wouldn’t touch him. He needed a surgeon, she said. I drove another 30 miles to a surgical emergency clinic in Atlanta. The doctor there evaluated him, gave me a long list of procedures he needed to do, and handed me an estimate for what treatment would cost. It was over $3,000. Cash in advance, please. At the time, I was pretty poor. I freaked out.
A short while later, having calmed down, I talked to my wife and she told me to call another vet she knew. I’d never heard of him, but had nothing to lose, so off we went.
The doctor’s name was Larry Hedrick, and he was what you might describe as an old, no-nonsense country doctor. He looked Tony over, gently and compassionately, trying not to cause him any more pain. Then, in his soothing southern drawl, he said, “I can put a pin in this, hell, this ain’t no problem. Even if the pin don’t take, I’ve got a three-legged cat at home who does just fine. You quit worryin’ and go on home now, and I’ll take good care of Tony.”
Three days later, an unhappy Tony was back at home, with the end of a metal orthopedic pin sticking out of his shoulder. About a week later, he was walking on the leg again, and a month later with the pin trimmed and the incision closed, he was his old self again. Tony doesn’t even limp today, there’s no sign of the injury at all. Dr. Hedrick’s bill was about $200.00. Take your time, he said. Pay me when you can. He was a true hero. (He has since retired and is sorely missed.)
Tony’s a one of a kind cat. I’ll never know why he chose to bond with me that day at the barn, but that bond has never weakened. To this day, the second Tony sees me, he’s by my side, purring. At the old house, there was almost never an evening when I sat and watched TV without Tony curled up on my lap. He slept with me (and sometimes on me) every night. He’s the only cat we ever allowed in the bedroom at night. Tony was usually the one to let us know when we’d slept too late on a weekend morning. He’d get up from his place at the foot of the bed, crawl up between us, and gently sink his claws into the nearest exposed skin, hinting that it might be time to wake up and pet the cat. As long as we were awake, and giving him lots of affection, he’d lie there between us all day if we’d let him, purring so loudly it shook the bed.
Even today, no matter where he is, when I turn down the bed and lie down for the night, he always jumps up on the bed and purrs, curling up as close as he possibly can. He’s usually asleep before I am, and his purr is the sound that lulls me to sleep.
It’s been eight, maybe nine years since I picked up that little ball of orange fuzz and named him Tony. So much has happened since then! We bought a house and moved. I went through a few months of unemployment and then found a new job. Yvette and I both lost parents, to devastating effect. Two dogs came and went. I’ve changed cars at least three times. My old friend dB died after 12 years with me, another crippling loss. I gained four birds, and lost one tragically. We bought horses, sold horses. There have been so many events. Now I’m being told I have to get ready for a life without Tony, who has been there through all of it.
The leukemia, which is completely incurable, has ravaged his bone marrow. There is no stopping it. He can’t make any new red blood cells. and is slowly depleting the ones he has left. When the doctor showed me his CBC (blood work) and I saw that his crit was only 11, I completely fell apart. Tony just purred. Most cats would be in respiratory failure with a crit of even 13, but he’s breathing well and eating like a horse.
The doctor says he might have two weeks, that as long as he’s still eating and drinking we can try supportive care and treatment. She wants to try high doses of interferon, given orally, on the very slim chance that it might force a remission and give him a fighting chance. She promises me it won’t make him sicker, the worst that will happen is that he just won’t respond to it, so I’m going to try, but she has cautioned me not to develop any false hope. She wants to keep watching him closely. He might not be the lively cat he used to be, but he’s not hurting or suffering, and he’s still eating, drinking, and getting around fine, so I will enjoy the time we have left together and make him as happy as a cat can be and show him all the love I can. I owe him all of that and more for all the love he’s given me all these years.
Most people never get the chance to say goodbye to a loved one. He has seen me cry before and I know he wonders why. It always brings him running to me, and he won’t leave me until I’ve calmed down. He always has known, somehow, that it means I need him, and he knows I need him now. He’s dying, fighting a battle he can’t win, and he’s at my side, trying to comfort ME. How many humans are that giving?
I selfishly wish he’d just live forever, that I would never have to spend another night without him purring on the bed beside me. It seems so unfair to lose him, when we’ve only just been reunited. I want him to be there as I go through these hard changes in my life, to be my constant, the one friend I can’t lose. But, that’s just me thinking of myself when I should be thinking of Tony. I will pamper him, care for him, and love him for as long as he can stay happy and live a good life. When it’s his time to leave this world, I will let him go because it’s the kindest thing to do, but he will go knowing that he meant the world to me, and he will live forever in my heart. There are lots of mice in heaven.