I have just buried my cat – my friend for the past 15 years. I’ve been consoling myself with the rationalization that Whitey had lived a long life and was loved by the entire family. But that brings little solace. Nothing can make up for the little, less than a pound ball of white fluff that found his way through the pet door early one fall evening. I had come downstairs and was surprised at our new pet who was intently watching the post-season ball game on the television. My son was immediately taken with this feisty bundle of energy and proclaimed his name to be Whitey – his buddy. And buddy he was. For many nights, the only thing that kept my son ‘safe’ in his dark bedroom was knowing that Whitey was sleeping at the foot of his bed. Whitey grew and grew into a playful friend for his people and a terror for Fifi, the family cat quite unwilling to give up her space in the hierarchy of the Feldman household. Fifi had lived outdoors for many years being out of reach of the ignorant hound dogs that moved with us from California. She was okay hanging out in the workshop and patting our heads with a soft paw as we passed by her perch atop the platform that held the lights over the spring planting table. With the hound dogs gone, Fifi was ready to claim her indoor seniority which kept she and Whitey at odds. Many a summer afternoon was punctuated with the sound then sight of cat screeching and streaking across the old orchard; Whitey’s white fluff – a noisy blur on wheels followed by Fifi’s silent, gray tabby fury. The tables turned as Whitey gained weight and the flash of colors traded places; Fifi first then Whitey on the chase. But always, it was Whitey doing the screeching. I have many pictures that speak to the presence of Whitey in the household; there’s one of him being held still in front of vegetables from the garden to show just how tiny he was. The picture that best does this is one of him asleep in the pumpkin patch dwarfed by two medium sized pumpkins. Christmas pictures abound with my nine-year-old son, his new skis and Whitey curled up, sleeping inside a bag of ribbons.
It seems you can take the cat out of the wild but not the other way around for Whitey was wild with size and attitude. He came to tolerate Fifi but not the many cats who would show up uninvited. The dairy farm down the road seemed to burst at the seams with new kitties that, by the fall, would find their way here, one half mile down the road. Many times Whitey would appear for his morning milk, ears spliced and head gouged from victorious combat. He was a fighter and neutering him made little difference. He got bigger but that only served to make him even more the pugilist with other cats. It wasn’t long before a neutered Whitey hit the 15-pound mark and seemed to celebrate by taking the days off – preferring to sleep. Making the beds became a special hassle as he refused to move even after shaking the corner of the mattress, something that would have sent a more unsettled cat packing. But not Whitey. If the beds were to be made, Whitey had to be picked up and moved to some other equally comfy place. In late January 2001, Whitey did get up long enough to leave home – for six months! I thought maybe it was because of Cookie, the sweet dog we acquired from the animal shelter (Cookie had taken his place at the foot of my son’s bed). But, more likely he was on his night rambles and remained in the neighbor’s dairy barn – stuck there by the heavy snows that had fallen for two days straight. We were heartsick thinking he must have been caught by a Goodyear or Michelin; traffic had claimed many of the cats that had found us over the years. Imagine the surprise when the neighbor called to ask if we were missing a skinny white cat who seemed fairly happy to live off the milk from dairy cows and the plentiful barn mice. Well, Whitey came back – got sassier and fatter – refusing to help rid the garage of the field mice that had threatened to overrun it. It wasn’t long before our fairly calm housecat tipped the scale at 20 pounds. He ruled the roost by sheer presence and even the two new cats that had found their way to the back door didn’t threaten his position. And his position was anywhere he wanted to be – as long as it was in the sun in winter and in the shade in summer. Like an aging fighter, Whitey found comfort in shadowboxing; reaching out with a non-threatening paw as the other younger cats happened to cross his path. By the time he was 12 he had acquired a rocking horse gait as he descended the stairs – the first clue that his vertebrae above his tailbone was fusing in arthritic stiffness. Whitey’s movement wasn’t truly compromised until a year ago when our vet showed the X-rays. I bought him a new, larger pet bed and moved him around the house and yard – following the sun in winter and the shade in summer. In spite of this, all the glucosomine and prednisone in the world couldn’t stave off the inevitable. And Whitey must have known when he took off for two days moving further from the house than he had in many, many weeks. His first day gone was close to 100 degrees followed by a day of rain – prime weather for the flesh-eating pests that burrow into any damp skin that can’t be reached by a more fastidious cat-tongue. He was found across the road, next to the barn – his hindquarters bald and dark with necrotic tissue. Whitey’s once beautiful, pristine coat was a weak and deathly gray even as his cries were strong with a desire to live. The vet worked feverishly to accommodate, gently shaving his dead fur that fell to the floor in clusters clotted with baby maggots. I watched, crying as the vet began flushing out the fly larvae that seemed to multiply as we stood there. At the sight of his exposed spine I knew that Whitey had lost this fight – and we had lost our friend.