Sunday, January 20, 2008

out of order

Doc Nagel's Top 100 Things

2. Lancelot. I just love him.

As I write this, he's dying.

He's my 15+-year-old domestic longhaired orange cat. I would like to tell his story.

My ex and I had a lovely tortie shorthaired cat named Morgan, who we thought would like a companion, since she had a cat friend when she was a kitten. We visited the county animal shelter in Pittsburgh a few times to try to find a healthy kitten to be her new friend. Those visits were heartbreaking for me. I adore cats, and the sight of all those doomed cats (not to mention the doomed dogs in the other room) was unbearable - a testament to unspeakable human indifference and stupidity, inflicting needless suffering and death, for no reason but contempt or flat lack of concern. The kittens all seemed terribly unhealthy, as well. We had agreed that the only criteria for our new kitten were that it should be healthy, short-haired, and not orange.

Finally, on a third visit, we saw a demon kitten hanging upside down from the rails of his cage, trying alternately to eat the bars or squeeze through them, wailing, drooling, frothing at the mouth. He had mounds of fluffy orange fur and whiskers a mile long. We pulled him out of the cage, and he was immediately quiet and peaceful, purring in our arms. He was clearly the healthiest kitten we would ever find at the pound, and he was also on death row. It was his second day there, late in the afternoon. They would euthanize him in the morning. So we took him home.

We paid the adoption fee, they told us he was probably around 10-14 weeks old, put the kitten in a cardboard carrier, and we started for home. Home at the time was Regent Square, a nice neighborhood in the east side of Pittsburgh. The shelter was on the North Shore, meaning that we had a car trip of about 7 miles, roughly 20 minutes, to get there. By the time we hit the Parkway East (the freeway from downtown), the kitten had chewed through the box.

We brought him home and, having read about how to introduce new animals into a household, let him out of the box in a neutral place - the large anteroom in the old Victorian house we rented the ground floor of. Then we brought Morgan into the room. He immediately approached her, and sniffed at her face. She hissed, swatted at him, and ran away, thus establishing what was effectively their lifelong relationship. We gave him a jingle-ball to play with, and she eventually stole it (she passed years ago, age 12, never having treated him better). We gave him some kitten food, and he vomited some of it, thus establishing his lifelong digestive dysfunction.

Days passed. He got stronger and stood up to Morgan a bit. I named him Lancelot because she was Morgan, and it just made sense. Back then, we let the cats out to play in the yard, because the neighborhood was quiet enough and they didn't roam. Our upstairs neighbor had two cats, and a couple times they escaped from her kitchen window, climbed down the fire escape, and would become belligerent. Once I heard a fight outside, came out to intervene, and saw Lancelot cornering our neighbor's cat, standing with his back arched, hissing and spitting, between her cat and Morgan. Morgan had a scratch on her nose; Lancelot had come to protect her. I grabbed the neighbor's cat, took it inside, then grabbed Morgan, then Lancelot, to get them inside. Lance started to calm down a bit. Morgan sauntered over and swatted him.

Back then he was a terrific and somewhat famous hunter. His specialty was birding. As a kitten he caught a blue jay that was practically the same size he was. He caught numerous sparrows and bluebirds, titmice galore, I think a couple of chickadees. He'd leave them for us on the porch, or roll on them, as cats do. One day he had caught a bird and was playing with it when a woman walked by with her little girl. The girl saw the bird and burst into tears. I came outside, hearing her mom explain that this is something cats do, and removed the bird. A few minutes later, I heard them walking past again, the little girl finally calmed down, and as I looked out the window I saw Lance leap into the air and nab a sparrow, right in front of the girl. She exploded in tears again.

The young boys in the neighborhood loved him. I once heard a boy regaling his comrades with tales of Lancelot's hunting prowess. I went to the window to look. They were standing on the sidewalk, petting him (as he always did with passers-by, Lance had trotted up to them to say hello), when he saw a bird somewhere in the front yard. He growled, dashed off, and snapped at it. The boy pointed and said "see? He's so vicious but he's so nice!"

I was completing my PhD program at Duquesne while living in that house. One of the steps is writing a comprehensive exam - at the time, three essays on historical subjects in philosophy and one thematic essay on a particular topic, randomly chosen from a list of 5 questions on each subject, one per day for 4 days. I wrote my comps along with two other guys, both of whom wrote every essay before the week of comps. I didn't, so that week I wrote 80 pages of essays, basically writing all day, sitting at an old Mac, with Lancelot in my lap. He was my working pal, and I was his heating pad. It worked for us. He was so affectionate and seemed to be really concerned, really listening, when I would read the essays aloud. Later, when I was writing my dissertation, and having late-night anxiety attacks, he was always there with me, purring, rubbing against me, getting me to sit down so he could lie in my lap and sleep.

It was then that he developed the habit of clawing my face. I was growing a beard, and I thought at the time that Lance thought I was a cat, since I was furry like him. He has never stopped doing it.

We moved to California, flat broke, when I took my teaching position at Stan State, almost ten years ago. I drove the rental truck, my ex drove our car. She had Morgan, I had Lance. We took five days to cross the country, stopping in the cheapest motels we could find along the way. We'd get out of the vehicles, get into the room, and Morgan would dive under the bed and hide for most of the night, and Lance would move from under the bed, to us, back under the bed, back to us, trying to give and get comfort to and from everyone. He hates being in moving vehicles, but he seemed to adjust to this weird lifestyle.

For several years we lived in a rented house near Ceres, which made Lance very tense. The cats stayed indoors by then. Lancelot never seemed to sleep. He kept guard hours at a time, staring out the front or back windows. We saved a beat-up cat there who eventually ended up living with us, despite my and Lance's protests (this cat was one against whom Lance had been guarding us all that time). Then another. We bought a house in Modesto, and brought in another cat, who lived separately from the now 4 in the house. Then strays started showing up. Lance had had it. He started getting aggressive with the others, and with my ex. He peed on her dirty clothes (indeed also her clean clothes) on the floor.

Eventually I left my ex, and brought Lance with me, and he was never happier. He had a second kittenhood in the first apartment I shared with Lauren (which we called The Apartment of Earthly Delights). When we moved into the House About Town, he freaked out for an afternoon, but then took to bounding at top speed up and down the stairs, leaping up and off of windowsills, having a wonderful time. He was the youngest 13 year old cat you could ever meet. He was still clawing my face early in the morning, too, which led him to being kicked out of the bedroom most days.

I wrote him a song, which we recorded. He doesn't like it. Lauren started singing in various Stanislaus State choirs, and later in the Modesto Symphony Orchestra Chorus, as a second soprano. He hates this. Apparently, not only is he not a music lover (which Morgan, incidentally, was), but his ears are hurt by soprano singing. He attacks her when she sings, except when she holds him up to her throat and face, and sings "Old Deuteronomy."

About a year ago, his 14 year habit of vomiting about every other day became more constant. We took him to the vet, who talked about the various possible causes, prescribed a liquid antibiotic, and sent us home to try that. Giving Lance drugs is incredibly dangerous, even when he's weak. We stuck to it, through his lacerations, and he got better. He put weight back on. A couple months went by, and he started vomiting again. We went back to the vet, started another round of antibiotics, reopened our wounds, and he got better again. Months went by, and it started again, this time with diarrhea, and for the past month he hasn't gotten better no matter what we've tried.

He spent the night on my chest last night, sleeping a little too quietly for my comfort. This morning he clawed my face, but I didn't kick him out. He sat up on my chest, shaking a little, while I petted him. He followed me downstairs as he always does, and I gave him some canned cat food and some cat treats while I made coffee. He ate a little of that, and he followed me back upstairs. He's lying in the windowsill, resting in the weak sun.

I simply cannot express how much this cat means to me, or how terribly I will miss him, or how awful it is to know it will be soon.

1 comment:

Hooks Orpik said...

I've waited a while to say this, but I think what you wrote here is a very touching tribute and I'm deeply sorry for your loss. Your Lance reminds me exactly of my childhood cat, Patches, in their personality. Patch was a country cat and a ferocious hunter (stalking voles and bringing them to the back porch was his favorite). Though he was feisty and ornery to most people who met him, he was the most friendly and compatible soul to me.

My cat was unexpectadely taken from me by an attack from stray dogs in 2001 (a week before 9/11) and I'll never forget how horrible that whole time was.

I wish I could offer some healing words, but we both know they're not out there. Cherish all the good times and know that time will not heal all wounds, but at least make them passable.