What happens when you name a cat? And once you make it official — on the vet’s office paperwork — do you continue to use that name?
This guy here sauntered into our lives about four years ago from parts unknown, making himself at home on our front porch and insisting that everyone who came through the door stop to pet him on our way in or out. We really couldn’t take in another pet. We already had two cats, a rat and a hedgehog. So sorry, bud. No room at this inn.
Before long, my husband was bringing food outside for our new squatter. Then of course, there was a storm and we felt bad for that stray, so we let him in just this once. Next thing we’re getting him de-wormed and vaccinated. Then the spouse started calling the cat by a name — Puff Daddy, because of the way the fur on his face puffs out to the sides sometimes. It was all over with after that. Naming him made him one of the family.
Now the orange goof sleeps on our bed, and we call him all sorts of variations on Puff Daddy, but seldom use his official moniker. Puffies. Puffaroo. Puffaroo Bonzai. Puffington Host. Sir Puffington of Orange. Puffburger. Goofball. Galoot. It doesn’t matter what name we use, he knows when we’re talking about him and always responds the same way. He headbutts one of us until we pet him.
Nine years ago, my oldest child — then thirteen — was visiting family in Oklahoma. And behold, there was a litter of kittens. I have never regretted saying yes when I received the phone call asking if one of the kittens could come live with us.
CJ Cat was my oldest child’s best friend through some difficult times, a consistent source of comfort and companionship. She was a talkative cat, leading us to speculate she may have been part Siamese. She was afraid of strangers and generally hid from company, but loved being with all members of the family. If we gathered in one room, watching a movie or playing a game, it didn’t take long before she’d establish herself in the middle of the group. And when there was a nap to be had, she helped with that, too.
CJ was part of home. She was so present so much of the time.
As she grew up, she developed a weight problem and I became one of those people I used to laugh at for spending ridiculous amounts of money on special, expensive food for a pet. Her weight was heading in the right direction, slowly. We had the goal to bring her down from a high of nearly sixteen pounds to twelve. She’d made it to thirteen and a quarter. We set up elaborate systems and plans to keep her from getting to the food bowls of our other two cats. But she was smart and always on the watch for an opportunity to get any extra nugget.
We had our morning rituals, and they normally culminated with CJ settling onto my and the husband’s bed for a nap about the time I left for work in the morning. When I’d come home, she’d hear the door and come thundering down the steps, directly to her food bowl in the kitchen.
Last Friday, a week ago today, I’d taken her to the vet for booster shots and a checkup. Everything looked good and she seemed fine. On Mondays, I work a split shift: 9-1 and then evening, 5-9. Monday morning, CJ was okay, eating her breakfast with the usual gusto, getting her morning pets and chin scratching, getting under the humans’ feet as we moved around the house. Then she got into her nap place on our bed.
That’s where I found her, lifeless, when I came home in the afternoon and she failed to run down the stairs to get her lunch. She looked peaceful and at rest, like she simply went to sleep and never woke up, which is what happened, I suppose, and the one comfort in the midst of the shock of losing her so unexpectedly.
My 19-year-old son was home, getting ready for an afternoon college class. I called my husband, who left work. We all agonized over how to break the news to our 22-year-old, CJ’s main human, the one who had brought her home as a kitten. They (our oldest uses they/them pronouns) work as an assistant manager in retail and were scheduled to be the floor manager for another three hours that day, unable to leave until another manager arrived. We all agreed they couldn’t get the news without being able to leave work.
My son went on to his class, as it was a couldn’t miss session that day. My husband and I wrapped the body in a towel and moved it to his desk chair, a place CJ loved to bogart, often jumping up to the seat the minute he left to go get a snack or use the bathroom. I washed all of the bedding and then sat vigil while my husband went to meet our oldest as they got off work and brought them home.
My heart is aching not only over the loss of our much-loved companion, but also knowing how devastating it is for my child. Let me tell you, seeing your child bereft and heartbroken is no easier when they’re 22 than it is when they’re 5, or 13.
We buried CJ in the back yard, in a spot where the morning sunbeams hit every day, because she loved basking in the sun when it came in the window.
Well, we’re ridiculous people who open our home and our hearts to a ridiculous number of small creatures. My oldest child, in particular, has always had an affinity for animals. When they passed the G.E.D. exam, for a graduation present, they wanted a pet hedgehog and even found a breeder about three hours away.
Haymitch Hedgehog lived in a largish, customized home in said child’s room, and often traveled around in a little carrier when his human went to sit in a park and write or eat lunch. He was close to six years old, which is elderly for one of these animals. Two days after CJ’s passing, Haymitch followed her across the Rainbow Bridge. At least this one wasn’t a surprise.
I’m not sure what the neighbors think, with my family out in our yard two different nights this week, wielding our flashlights and shovels. As we laid Haymitch to rest, it began to sleet on us, because of course it did. I actually laughed at the universe going so over the top. The precipitation lasted only a few minutes, ending as we were heading back indoors.
We still have two cats and also two pet rats, all of whom have been receiving lavish attention the past few days. But there are still big empty places. I know the pets we have now will eventually pass (one of the surviving cats is coming up on sixteen years old in the spring) and we’ll mourn again. I don’t see any of us changing our essential natures by not taking in animals as they come along. I grimly joked that some day archeologists will excavate the site of our home and yard and it will just be full of small animal bones.
That’s the nature of life when you like having pets around. They have shorter lives and you get your heart-broken over and over. Do you ever get numb to losing them? Not in my experience. It’s difficult every time. Is it worth it? So far, yes, absolutely.
Even though my children both live with me at the moment, and even though I sometimes find myself wishing they both were more independent in some ways, they will occasionally surprise me with what they handle on their own.
This is Captain Marvelous (Marv for short), in his heyday:
My firstborn, C, has had a succession of little pets over the years — rats, gerbils, hamsters and mice who are treated to the best life and care a rodent could ever hope for. (Rats make excellent pets. They’re pretty clean and usually very affectionate and well-behaved.) Unfortunately, even the best cared-for rodent has as shortish life span. Marv was not quite three years old, elderly for a rat, and we knew his time was drawing to a close. He’d been having breathing difficulties for several days.
This morning, C told me Marv passed during the night. I expressed my condolences and started to talk about what to do with his body. That’s when I discovered everything was already taken care of. My two kids had taken him out and buried him in the yard at first light, while my husband and I slept. They put a large rock over the grave to keep other neighborhood animals from digging there.
This feels like a big milestone. They didn’t even wake us up. Or wait for us. They simply took care of it. Is burying your own deceased pet without parental help a marker denoting childhood’s end? Maybe? It’s just not one I had considered.
This critter staring at you from the screen is named Luna. Feel free to extend her birthday greetings, as she is fifteen years old this month. She’s been a member of our household from the age of eight weeks, coming to us about the time my youngest kid was turning four. The two of them bonded immediately. She’s supposed to be my cat, but I’m the only one who signed that contract; she never agreed to the terms and conditions. As far as Luna is concerned, she has one human — the boy she helped raise.
Both of my children are good with animals, and even at such a young age, my son showed a remarkable gentleness with our tiny kitten. The two of them spent many hours playing and snuggling. It wasn’t uncommon for my son to fall asleep with the cat wrapped in his arms.
For a few months last year, Luna’s boy moved away, and I could tell she was looking for him, going to his room repeatedly. Since he returned home in late December, she’s been dogging his footsteps, so to speak. Sometimes I wonder about cat brains and what they remember. Does she know the big, gangly human she loves now is the same person as the little guy who used to drive his Hot Wheels cars around her? I think she must. But I’m sure neither of them remembers a time before the other.
The boy is considering moving away again in the fall. I hope it doesn’t break either of their hearts too much.