By Zinta Aistars
And so he is: through and through a tom. No mistaking him for a feminine feline; he is all man. Smaller than most toms, perhaps due to his kittenhood marred by starvation, Tommy is nonetheless masculine in his form and manner. Even with a spicing of the proud machismo.
Tommy came to us in my son’s backpack. A yowling, pathetic little bundle of mussed patches of black fur and oozing eyes and spindly legs that could barely hold his meager weight. That was some fourteen years ago. My son, too, was at that spindly age of limbs growing faster than he could keep track of them. Not without an occasional yowl of his own. His mission in life was to rebel. As hard as he worked to hide the softness of his heart, however, it never failed to shine through when an animal was at stake. Both cat and boy were determinedly machismo, but not when it came to the vulnerable. Well, never mind the hapless mouse.
Markus scooped the little tuxedo (however shabby) tom out of his backpack and set him down at my feet. The tiny furball nearly toppled over. Too small to be without a mama. We lived out in the country back then, far out, and walking home from school meant passing through cornfields, circling barns, jumping ditches, and coming down dusty dirt roads until our little house appeared on a small ridge. It was a place we rented for a little over a year, on five acres and with cows for neighbors. There were more animals around than people, and we rather liked it that way. No doubt this little creature had wandered off a little too far from the rest of the litter, managed to catch whatever diseases and infections, while losing his mama’s milk and nurturing.
Couldn’t help myself, my heart was instantly tugged and twinged, and off we went to the country vet. Didn’t take him but a moment to pronounce sentence: Too sick. Put him to sleep. But who were we to decide? Even as the vet played god, the little tomcat wandered around the room, tangling between our feet, sniffing and exploring, all curiosity with no desire to be killed for it.
“What will it take to give him a chance?” I asked. The vet shrugged. Prescribed a small shopping bag of pet meds, ointments and pills, quarantine for at least a month, more for the protection of my other pets—I already had two cats at home, and a sweet golden retriever, named Holly, I was dog sitting for the summer for the man then in my life. This sick little tom added to my furry brood was, beyond argument, an inconvenience.
“Suit yourself.” The vet filled a small shopping bag with various pills and ointments, explaining what I would need to do to save the kitten.
My son instantly gave up his bedroom. Keeping his face hard and uncaring, he had connected to the little tom and was ready for the sacrifice. All the furniture came out. The room had to be bare walls and hard floors, and my son sleeping on the living room couch for the month.
Assuming the kitten would live that long. Every day the two of us traded off care: a pill cut in half and stuffed down the squirming kitten’s pink throat between those needle-sharp tiny teeth, and his throat massaged until he swallowed in spite of himself. His infected eyes were to be carefully washed with a clean cloth, dabs of ointment squeezed into the corners. We washed our hands carefully with soap after each contact, so as not to spread mange to our other animals, all of whom were snuffling around the edges of the closed bedroom door in puzzlement and wonder.
At night, when the kitten mewled with loneliness, I would soon enough find my son sleeping not on the couch, but in his room, curled up on the hardwood floor, the kitten curled inside his circle of warmth. He would talk softly to the little tomcat, calling him Tommy in soothing tones, until both boys, human and animal, slept. In the morning, human boy warmed milk in a pan and fed it with an eyedropper to the animal boy, wiping spare drops from his wobbly chin.
Tommy lived. There was no question. If perhaps his growth was a little stunted, his fur filled in and covered the bare spots, turning velvety and shining with health. His body filled out and grew, although his hunger remained ever present. Starvation in his early days had become a lifelong memory in his cellular makeup. Tommy loves deeply, as animals do, but he will steal food from you without hesitation.
Once released from quarantine and allowed to join the rest of the household, pronounced healthy by an amazed vet, he would routinely conduct food heists. When my children sometimes sat on the floor, watching television, dinner plates balanced on their laps, Tommy would align his route from a calculated distance, take off like a rocket on a trajectory, never missing a step, sink his little teeth into a pork chop on a plate in passing and keep racing, out of sight before you’d even seen him coming. A mere black and white blur, and then a growl from some hidden corner, sounding more like a small dog than feline, chomping away on the meat and then shredding even the bone.
Was it only this past spring? On St. Patrick’s Day, I had boiled a hunk of pink corned beef, sliced off two small slices with potatoes and cabbage, and foolishly left the rest in the Dutch oven on the stovetop. When I returned but a quarter of an hour later, the hunk of pink meat was gone, not even a grease spot on the floor, only a bulging tomcat, eyes wide and round, mouth open and panting. I was sure that hunk was bigger than he was, nose tip to tail end.
He’s slowing down now. I’ve had cats much older, but Tommy’s start has taken a toll. We’ve had struggles with kidneys that hold too long or won’t hold enough. There’s a notch in his ear from some night’s caterwaul, and there have been many. He’s gone from rather roly-poly to lean and even a bit ribby again, in spite of a raging appetite, still. Whatever the changes, first signs of old age he was never supposed to see, his years with our family have been memorable. Other household pets notwithstanding, and there have been many, he remains a favorite with my son, who has long outgrown the fakery of machismo to become a real man.
Tommy has always held his own in this house. Never mind the 125-pound Alaskan Malamute whose gorgeous black muzzle he’d box from left to right with his two white front paws when the great dog got too near his cat bowl. No fear of the chow and retriever mix in our family now. If the dog gets too rowdy, Tommy sinks his teeth into the muscle of the dog’s foreleg, just enough to make his point. But he loves his canine brother, rubs his cheek against the dog’s every morning in greeting. It’s just that discipline and rules must be obeyed. Everyone here knows who’s boss.
Now that my son is grown and gone, Tommy knows who scoops the tasty meal into his bowl. At night, he spins in circles on my pillow, until the spot is soft and molded to his shape, just right, then curls into and settles a paw across my neck. Just like the man he is. It is a mix of tenderness and proud possession. Or, if my own hand is up on the pillow, palm up, he tucks his paw inside.
Years have piled up, for both of us. He sleeps, below the table now, here out on the deck where I write away on my laptop in autumn waning sun. The fur he had always preened and cleaned to dandy velvet and silk is now rather dusty and matted. His white paws could use a wash. He contemplates jumping on the chair beside me, but decides the effort would cost too much. The squirrels he loved to chase waddle by in laziness, ignoring him and he them.
Life is to be lived day by day, but then, I suppose, it always was. We accept those who wander into our lives, needing help, and offer it. In payment: years of that unconditional acceptance animals offer in a way that somehow eludes humankind. No inhibitions. Gratitude on furry sleeve, alongside open heart. Perhaps we so cling to our pets because they do so well and seemingly with such natural ease what we struggle lifelong to learn: how to be, simply be, stake our corner out, grab a good meal when we can, and sleep faithfully beside the one who treats us best.
Tommy, you’re a good man.
It is my birthday weekend. I’d written the above remembrance of Tommy some weeks ago. Tommy is dying. A few days ago, our vet gave me the cruel list: a mass by his right kidney that appears to be cancer, kidney disease, but probably the diabetes is what will kill him first. A few weeks perhaps, but probably more like a few days. He does not seem to be in pain, only exceedingly slow and weak, ever weaker.
I had only one birthday wish—to have my little tuxedo tom with me for the day. He may be “just a cat,” but he, along with my other pets now gone, have taught me more about the meaning and true expression of love than any human. Sometimes I think when God created animals, he gave them the full blast of Love—how to feel it, how to show it, how to embrace and share it—and when he got to Man, He only had half a load left. I’ve never known a truer, more faithful love than this little tom has given me, and so freely.
There he sleeps, beside me. When I move, even slightly, his eyes open a little to keep watch. If I get up, he pulls himself up, too, his body wobbling with the effort, and follows me. To be near. To be near those we love. Everything. I scoop him up into my lap and sit for hours, moving my hand over his thin body, feeling the slight beat of his tiny but great heart. I whisper into that little silky black ear: happy birthday, Tommy. Today is for both of us. A single day of life is eternity.