Tommy the Tom
1994 – 2009
By Zinta Aistars
"When tomorrow starts without Tommy remember the wisdom of our ancestors and elders:
"They are not dead who live in the hearts they leave behind. (Tuscarora)
In death, I am born. (Hopi)
I will be known forever by the tracks I leave. (Lakota)
Whether it be on the soft earth or in our hearts (Sharmagne)
After dark all cats are leopards. (Zuni)
And you gave Tommy the love and freedom to be both. (Sharmagne)
"We are made from Mother Earth and we go back to Mother Earth." (Shenandoah)
“Sing your death song and die like a hero going home."
What is life?
It is the flash of a firefly in the night.
It is the breath if a buffalo in the wintertime.
It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset."
~Sharmagne Leland-St. John-Sylbert
He’s just a cat. Only a cat. But how often did I think that God must have created the animal to teach us, as if His superior creation, how to live and how to love. And still we do not learn.
Tommy knew how: to live and to love. About 15 years ago, my son, Markus, brought him home in his school backpack. We lived in the country then, fields and cows for neighbors. This little kitten was roaming around in the field grass yowling for a mama that wasn’t and for sustenance it appeared he had not had in a long time when my son, walking home from school, noticed him. He was an estimated few days old, maybe a couple weeks at most. My little boy human child handed me the little boy cat child, and said: “Can we help him?”
Would sure as heck try.
I’d never seen so much spunk. The tiny tuxedo cat was pathetic in appearance. His tuxedo was mussed and in patches—he had mange. His watery eyes were full of puss. His nose ran and his little wisps of breath came with effort—bronchitis, we would learn.
Goodness, I already had two cats. We had only days ago agreed to take another black calico kitten, naming her Jiggy, another rescue story of a mother cat and litter someone had thrown into the Kalamazoo River in a sack. My dear friend Jerry had a soft heart and no tolerance for feline abuse, pulled the sack from the river, and was now busy trying to find homes for all. I took the one. Jiggy was youth beside my old calico, Poga (Latvian for button, as her eyes were as big as), yet another rescue story and several times over. Poga was closing in on 19 years. And then, there was Holly, Jerry’s golden retriever, who enjoyed staying with us in the country where she could walk in freedom and enjoy the expansive bounty of nature.
Oh, another cat…
But look at him! Squirming with life, trilling a purr in his ribbed little body when I rubbed a finger under that little chin. Off to the vet we went, with no idea how I would pay… it was not an easy time in my life then, financially.
I listened as the vet shook his head and pronounced his verdict: should put the little guy down. Not a chance. Far too sick. Body covered with fleas, too.
I glanced down at our feet while the vet droned on. That little kitten was skittering from one corner of the clinic to the other. Between our feet then off again. Falling and getting up again. Curious as a cat should be.
“Look at him,” I said. “Who am I to say die when this kitten is obviously so interested in living?”
Vet smiled. Okay. So he sent me home with a shopping bag of pet meds, and when I got home, my son gave up his bedroom for quarantined space. All his furniture came out. Bare hardwood floor and walls, just an old blanket for comfort. We would call him Tommy the tomcat, because there was something so masculine about the way he moved. A swagger, like a little cat version of John Wayne.
Pills, ointments, cuddles and rocking that little life like someone’s child… and he became another one of mine. The furry one. To add to my furry crew, always room for one more.
Fifteen years later, my heart was pinned to that cat heart. We had shared many paths, and he kept teaching me how to love. He was a faithful tom when the human kind were not. He loved me even when I was cranky and undeserving. He thought I was wonderful when I was anything but, and it had nothing to do with who had the hand that fed him—although that was always a moment of joy for a cat born in starvation. And Tommy loved the Alaskan Malamute, Suni, that came into our lives. No bias against species here. Especially once the 125-pound dog understood the 12-pound cat was boss. After Suni was Guinnez, each with their own rescue story, and Guinnez would get boxed, left right left, with soft white paws when he disobeyed … but the chow pup showed deep respect and abiding love for his fellow critter in the house. Guinnez learned to wash his face like a cat from watching his admired cat brother. Guinnez walks along the back of the sofa and perches on the sofa arm, 46 pounds of him, as if he, too, were a cat, because he could see: being a cat was a wise thing to be.
Only Jiggy never quite liked him. Starvation was in Tommy’s bones, and he would steal food from his sister cat at the blink of a cat’s eye. Hisssssssssss. Swat! Yum.
But for me, he was my little tuxedo man, all grace. His coat now shining like silk, and as soft. He kept his tux meticulously clean, up until he was diagnosed as diabetic, requiring two insulin shots per day. The old body was getting worn out. His cleaning was not quite so meticulous. I snipped the mats from his fur where he couldn’t reach them. He tolerated it.
Every night, coming home from work, Tommy and Guinnez would greet me at the door, Jiggy keeping a more dignified (and safer) distance. No matter how taxing the day, my furry family always cheered me. Human children grown and gone, I still had my three fuzzed musketeers to love and amuse.
How to know what transpires in those little minds? I have often thought we greatly underestimate the wisdom of the animal. Our own ignorance, and arrogance, to think we alone ponder and reason and know the full range of emotion. I always had to wonder what Tommy thought in that sweet little head. At night, Guinnez would sleep at my feet, Jiggy up on top of the pillow, but Tommy…. Oh, Tommy knew his place. He swaggered right up to my face, little tuxedoed cowboy that he was, and curled up to put nose to nose. I would open my palm just below my chin, and he would slide his paw in. Paw in hand, hand in paw, we slept.
Just a cat. But I always knew I was important to this little someone.
So when at least my vacation had arrived, and I headed up to my much loved Keweenaw… I worried about Tom the tom. Every time I leave, he gets a little weaker. It’s not just a play on words to say I knew that cat would die for me. I explained to my parents, critter sitters and house warmers that they were in my absence, how to give him his insulin shots, how to feed him the special dietary cat food, how to love him just so and tell him I’d soon be back…
My vet is a very good vet. She has doctored my little tom through various illnesses and brought him back to life more than once. She always told me he was sweet natured, even when the people there had to poke and prod him, as if understanding, purring his funny trill in acknowledgement. They were convinced nearly a year ago that he was about to die. I sat in the “goodbye room” with him for most of that day, petting him, whispering to him, until he came around again, his appetite for life… and food… returning, and amazing all.
But I knew this time was different. I knew he was in pain because of yet another blockage. While giving him momentary relief with a catheter, the vet showed me the ultrasound of his bladder, a tatter of bumps and lumps, more blockages to come. His blood work amazed her, she said. No reason this kitty should still be alive. His blood sugar was through the roof, his kidneys were shot, his bladder filled with blood, and another column of numbers that matched no living creature she’d ever worked on.
“Must have been love,” she said, her own eyes watering. “He must have wanted to see you one more time.”
Just a cat. But I pressed my lips to that tiny head, our eyes meeting just one more time. When she pressed the needle into the vein in his back foot, I could not hold back the sobs, and felt no shame. No shame in my grief. In loving an animal who loved me more, and more purely, than most humans have.
I’ll miss you, Tommy. I’ll miss you. I think you are wise enough to know how much.
Epilogue: Tonight, I will dig the soft earth of this patch of land where I live, and Tommy will rest beside Poga, who died the first night I moved into this house. My son and I plan to plant a small evergreen atop their adjacent graves.