For the first several years of my life, regarding pets I lived in complete lethargy, not particularly caring for one animal or the other. Oh, we had our family dogs and cats, but they were of no personal concern to me. They were someone else’s responsibility, And so it stayed, day in and day out, one day following another; one year following another.
This was my disposition toward those vagabonds of domesticity, until that day Old Man showed up at my house. At first I failed to even notice the rugged, gray, apparently overfed, smelly and dirty, and what was quite apparently just another “tom” from the neighborhood. There had already been a cat hanging around, begging for its daily bread, and I had already acquiesced to its incessant cries for a handout. Each day as I left for work I would leave a handful of cat food on the porch, and upon return from work would deposit a handful on the porch before retiring for the night.
Perhaps a day or two, or even three days passed before I noticed the new hanger-on intruding upon the other vagabond’s largesse. Being too much of a sap to run him off, I started leaving two handfuls of food. So that was the beginning -- the beginning of a relationship that was to change my life. The sad-looking old tramp would force himself into my life, and by so doing bring about a transformation that was for me quite unexpected.
Old Man, no doubt a “bruiser” in his day, was not a cute little kitty. I am a man, and men like dogs, not cats; but somehow I could not totally neglect the elderly waif. As long as I kept the door open until he went out, the funky feline would prod along to the outside, and after I had arrived home in the evening, if I happened to open the door for a bit of fresh air, there he would be, sitting patiently on the porch; and as soon as the door was open, he would amble in, completely of the disposition that the door had been opened specifically for him. I made no attempt to educate him otherwise.
During those early days I felt no affinity towards him. To the contrary he was to me a bit of a nuisance. He had a shriveled ear, and scratched at it constantly. He wore a perpetual scar, which often was bloody behind that ear. I never really paid attention. He was a cat, after all, not a person. But the blood became a problem on the porch and in the house, so I managed to enquire about the issue with a friend of mine who suggested that the cat had ear mites, and was simply scratching for that reason.
So I took the step to clean the big guy’s ear. He was not for me cuddly, and it was not a pleasant experience, but he allowed me to stick a cotton swab in his ear. He never scowled or uttered disapproval when I soaked the swab in alcohol to clean the ear better. Eventually I noticed that he stopped scratching and the sore healed itself.
Then there was more blood – not on his ear, but on the bottoms of his feet. Somehow two of his feet had become chafed. So I managed to bandage his feet well enough to cover the sores. Cats must move about, and even with the bandages, the bottoms of his feet did not fare well, so I rigged up a pair of “donuts” to fit his feet, and bandaged those in place. The donuts were small pieces of rubber with holes in the middle to fit around the contusions, yet give support to his feet. He could walk about without putting pressure directly on the sore part of his feet, and his feet healed up quickly then.
I worked part of the time from home, and on those days that I did not go to work I would not think to leave food; but the two vagabonds that I had somehow adopted would let me know. So I began leaving a bowl of cat food on the floor of the house. I even rigged up a cat flap so that the cats could come and go at will, and even though there was a fence around the yard, cats have no trouble jumping over and escaping to the wide outside to explore. Or so I thought. I stepped into the yard one day, and going over to the gate of the fence saw Old Man sitting by. I opened the gate, and before I could go through he got up and waddled through ahead of me.
“Lazy cat,” I said to myself.
This arrangement would go on for a few months. I would see through the window that Old Man was waiting to be let out of the yard, whereupon I would dutifully go outside and open the gate. Then toward dusk I would peer outside, and there would be Old Man sitting outside the gate, patiently awaiting my arrival to let him in, which I dutifully did.
One night I awoke with a start. It was very late – past midnight, and I felt that something was wrong. I looked about – the other cat was curled up at the foot of the bed, but I did not see Old Man. I had forgotten to let him in! Upon arriving at the gate, Old Man once again exhibited his patience, not displaying the least displeasure at having been neglected for so long. He only moved through the gate with all the confidence in the world, as if I had arrived at the appropriate time.
Old Man could barely jump to the bed, and although I would prefer not to have a mangy old cat in my bed, it was no use trying to keep him out. Old Man would return to the bed no matter how many times I extricated him. It was customary for Old Man to find a spot on the very pillow where I lay my head, so that on many nights I had to sleep sans pillow.
The two cats had always displayed a healthy appetite. Finicky those two were not. But the day finally came. I noticed a more-than-usual lethargic Old Man. He had already taken to staying indoors longer than usual. He had stopped gorging himself as he had when he first arrived. The trips to the gate were less frequent than before.
One day I was working from home, and I became aware that Old man had not been outside in a few days. I sat and thought about it, and became aware that I had not had to fill his food bowl in a day or two. So I began to observe. A day went by, then another. Old Man had not touched his food.
“His liver is no longer working,” the vet told me. They had taken blood, and they had a machine, and there could be no mistake. I was in the examination room, confidant and expectant that the vet would quickly set things straight. Perhaps a shot of vitamins, or some pills or something. But here was the vet giving me the words I had not expected. The words took their time making themselves understood to me. As I mulled the phrase, “stopped working,” it occurred to me that it was all over. Just like that.
What do you do when you are a man? A tough-minded, hard-nosed man, who cares not for these dainty things that all women adore? I had only taken the brute in because I felt sorry for him; I had never particularly had any affinity for him, yet here he was, lying on the examination table, looking for all the world as though he were in his world, alive and vibrant; yet I could see in his eyes the signs of one who was tired, and ready to go to sleep.
Old Man closed his eyes for the final time that day, and that day has been more than 10 years ago. And although he was only a cat, a flea-bitten, mite-infested, shriveled-ear bruiser, I loved him then, and I still love him. And I miss him. And what does a man do?
I cried then, as I still do whenever I think of my friend, Old Man.