Gray Cat memories

    Gray Cat was the most cool and collected feline I've ever gotten to know. I saved these memories June 6 and 7, 2007, in the days just after I had to have his life ended as he was in the grip of a fatal and unrelenting illness.

    gray cat was the coolest cat i ever met. considering how cool i generally consider cats, that makes gray one of the coolest creatures around. yesterday (june 5, 2007) i discovered that he was terribly sick and today had his life ended at the veterinary hospital. this was extremely hard, and hard to reconcile. yet there are so many things about my story with him that amaze me. i'm always happy to share them, and this feels like the right time to write them down.

    i met gray in the woodsy suburban Fredericksburg neighborhood where i lived, four or five years ago. i learned later that he lurked on the porches of three neighbors throughout the day to avoid an antagonistic neighborhood cat that attacked him and another cat at any opportunity. he wandered out from his evening porch when i would walk by on my customary after-dinner walk. i petted him for a bit and then continued on my way - with this cat following behind. we walked the five or ten minutes to the intersection with a larger street, meandered there for a minute or five, and then we headed back, with him returning to his porch perch when we passed that house.

    when this happened a second night, and a third, i dropped heading the other way from my house, enjoying the company of this even-tempered, curious, reliable(!), friendly (and beautiful) cat. sometimes he would disappear along the way, and occasionally i sidetracked at the neighborhood garden plot and creek - with gray still traveling along. but usually we repeated the more basic pattern.

    eventually, though, while returning gray stuck with me past the neighbor's porch where he started, and not too much later "asked" to come into my house. whoops - had i seduced someone's cat? turns out no - he belonged with none of the neighbors, but was fed as a stray (by several :-), and so it was ok for me to adopt him.

    or was it the other way around?

    i'm in awe of the grace i see in cats, and have shared my home with a few over the years. at the time i met him, though, i was intending to eventually move to the city. i wasn't looking to have a cat join me, because i didn't think the city would be practical or safe for the cat, particularly a cat that wanted to be outdoors. so i was not planning to be adopted, and was worried about how it would work out. this was one smart cat, though, seemingly easygoing yet not reckless, and i believed i might be able to make city living work with him.

    it was especially challenging because i'm unwilling to shut in a cat that insists on being outside. there are many hazards that make that risky, particularly in a city. not the least is cars. even at their smartest (which i consider gray), cats seems to have a pretty fuzzy notion of street traffic. then too, innoculations don't guard against all diseases, and the density of vermin in the city increases exposure. then there's the city's labyrinthine bustle - how in the world would he avoid getting disoriented and lost? according to one of my fredericksburg neighbors who tended him, gray lived outdoors for at least a year and a half before he joined me, and i knew that outdoor life was ingrained. i thought i would see if there was a way to make it work, indoors and out, and if not, find other people with a home for him outside the city.

    when i moved gray in to my new above-ground basement apartment, just off dupont circle, i took him out for a walk, tentatively. first i used a cat leash, but that was no good - he was distracted by it, and dragging a cat just makes them less cooperative and engaged, not more. so, nearly holding my breath, we wandered out into the unusually open, spacious alley outside our apartment's tiny yard. (the alley between 17th and 18th and corcoran and Q streets is one of the nicest in the city, and was a sort of blessing for this whole endeavor.) i was overjoyed to have him follow behind me, just as he did in fredericksburg, when i set out in one direction. and he came back with me. there was a chance this could work.

    it was not all smooth sailing.

    there were periods that first year that i frequently got phone calls reporting my cat found restless on the sidewalk, in a yard, or in a building, sometimes as much as a mile or more away, and sometimes with three or four major streets between home and there. (i had my cell number on a black tag besides the red rabies inoculation tag you see in the photos. this was Good.) this happened more frequently during cat mating season, as a neighbor pointed out, despite gray being neutered. then there were times i was out of town and my phone rang, reporting gray cat far from home - it was terrible, and, i realized, potentially disastrous.

    at one point i sent a carefully written email to numerous friends and acquaintances who i though might offer a good home outside the city. i was looking for something more suburban or rural, with people who would continue to allow him to be both indoors and out. in fact, we had a few potential takers, from some old friends. both families were heading out on vacation, though - it was july - and would get back to me when they returned.

    lo and behold, it was then that gray settled down. i secured the cat door (a cat door from the pet store that i mounted on a plywood board, to fit in the window sill) in the evenings, and perhaps (many of my friends would suggest) gray realized he had gone too far. i might grant that he was in some way getting wiser - at least, tired of the unpleasant consequences of wandering too far, including twice getting hauled away and locked up by animal control.

    through inaction, the friends who offered and i let the matter drop. eventually i contacted them and told them it had worked itself out - amazingly (and contrary to city ordinances), i had an indoor/outdoor city cat. he usually went with me for my after dinner walks. with the addition of some boards mounted on the yard fence as steps, access to the alley - and beyond - was at his discretion. gray almost always used plots of grass or mulch in the alley as his bathroom - he didn't need to use the litter box in our small bathroom, and didn't for months at a time. most excellent!-)

    i want to write more about things that always tickled me. i'm pretty idiosyncratic, i suppose, and gray fit right in.

    he seemed monumentally un-skittish. he seemed to notice all noises, but loud noises usually didn't faze him. i had to vacuum around him, with my loud cannister vacuum cleaner. not because he was stubborn, i think, but because he quickly recognized it was not a threat. in fact, on a whim i couldn't resist, i tried to vacuum his coat with one of the softer attachments, and not only did he seem to like it, after that he would show up each time i started vacuuming, to get vacuumed again! that seems, unusual. maybe he has a highly developed sense of irony - but it just seemed a practical enjoyment, discovered through a lack of tension. what's that joke about cats? a "zen master taking a break for one incarnation", indeed.

    (i also wonder whether his un-skittishness might be the kind of stoicism of one that has survived real threats, and doesn't waste time or energy on the things that aren't.)

    he was interested in people, and generally introduced himself to neighbors he encountered. i'm sure there were points where he was getting extra feedings from one or another of them, but he always came back home. i think all the neighbors came to know that he had a home. he was one spiffy looking cat, not likely to be mistaken for a stray. the address and phone number tag i added to his collar helped get him home, too.

    he was not a lap sitter - he would sit next to me on the couch as i worked or read, and loved to be combed. that's yet another handy thing. it reduced the fur deposits around the house - a good thing, because i'm far from a diligent cleaner - and made a nice break from my work for us both.

    he also fit well with another of my regular habits.

    i take a shower before i go to sleep - it helped me in the years when i didn't have a handle on my digestive problems, and is a pleasure to this day. when gray first joined me he was interested in the shower and liked to come in after i was done, to lick water off the tiles. i discovered he liked to be petted with wet hands - but that practice was short lived, because i also discovered that it lead to gray getting itchy, flaky skin. so wet hands were replaced with a dry comb. combined with the shower humidity, we had an evening ritual never missed when gray and i were both around.

    about the pictures, here - half of them were taken only because my buddy, ash, suggested that i might want bring his wife, ingrid's, camera with me to the hospital. i am not regularly a picture taker - the other pictures here were taken to try out my cell phone camera. there is at least one picture involving gray that i regret not having taken - his fence walking.

    i mentioned the boards i put on the yard fence for gray to climb. turns out that he would not use the interior steps to climb down, when returning. instead, he walked the ridge of the white wooden picket fence linking the exterior fence to the house. he walked with his left legs on the tops of the pickets and his right legs on the small beam near that top of the pickets that holds them together. each time he made this little trip he was this intent bundle of preposterous equilibrium, his left half crouched and his right half extended, an eloquent combination of elegance and awkwardness.

    i am very sad about what has just happened. in the last week or two, gray joined me less often for our walks, and i noticed a few days ago that his belly was quite swollen. (he started using the interior fence steps a few weeks ago, and now i suspect he stopped climbing the fence altogether, not too long after that.) i took him to the dupont circle veterinary clinic yesterday [clinic], and we were rushed to an area veterinary hospital. today we got a diagnosis of terribly advanced cancer, and i chose to have him put to sleep.

    saying goodbye to him was hard. once he came out of his withdrawal we sat together, as we often have, but this time he wavered a bit more than usual. however, he still seemed surprisingly cool and calm, just like the friend i know. the disease, and that it would quickly make his time unbearable, was in such stark contradiction to the vitality and connection i felt. it would be ending momentarily, and i could not find a way to reconcile it. i felt urgently powerless. i could change the decision, but i could not change the progress of the disease, or the inevitable conclusion.

    i actually have something to report about the last few minutes that gives me comfort, though it also intensifies my feelings of loss.

    the hospital - south paws, in fairfax virginia - is outfitted with an excellent thing: very nice, clean and comfortable attendance rooms where person and pet can wait for and meet with doctors without the pet being shut in a cage. this afternoon i spent ten or fifteen minutes with gray, before the doctor came with the lethal sedative.

    at the start of my last few minutes alone with him, gray was withdrawn, reacting to everything that was happening, particularly freaked out by his overnight stay at the hospital. he didn't want to be held in the blanket, so i let him onto the floor. he retreated behind a chair, and after hanging out for several minutes i realized that he might remain apart until the end of our time. i thought i might as well at least get some pictures, and left gray alone for the minute and a half to fetch the camera i had left in my nearby car. i think that turned out to be a good thing to do. when i returned, he was out in the room and seemed more open. we soon sat nearby each other, and i was able to pet him, as well as take some of the pictures you see here. in not too long, grace of graces, he was stretched out on the floor and purring - not loudly, but with what seemed like ease.

    i'll tell you, there's nothing in the world like spending time with someone you choose who also chooses you - even in dire straits. maybe especially then. i felt this was a moment of grace.

    in all our walks, i have never gotten over the mystery and thrill of being followed, reliably, by a cat - this cat. we could make no explicit contract, so it feels like discovering an agreement which cannot be forced, only grown. i think this is what the fox was teaching the prince, in the Little Prince Fox Taming Story. (like many, my young friend, jordan, struggles with reconciling the pain of such a loss with the gain of the connection. i think the fox has something helpful to say about this.)

    and i'll tell you too, this reminder of our connection brought home even harder how irrevocable was this moment, when the doctor administered first the sleeping sedative and then the lethal one. i can still see him slip into sleep, and feel my desparate urge to return him to wakefulness. then, hearing the doctor say "he's gone", i remember the absence of this creature whose company i relished. i can feel haunted by those moments of loss - but it is in contrast with the vitality of his presence, which i also recall, that the loss has potency. being sad about his absence points me to my joy of his presence, and it is on that which i can and do dwell. i suppose that's one purpose of this memorial.

    i don't know if it's love, or his elegance, or his (surprisingly compatable) quirks, or just the serenity of time spent stroking a gorgeous creature, but there is a place in me that he occupies, a kind of home, that is even now not quite empty - it is where i carry him onwards, on my own. but it is too quiet. i knew, years ago, that i would fundamentally miss him if he goes, and i do.

    goodbye, gray. carry me as i carry you.

    ken manheimer 06/06/2007, 06/07/2007