A pet obituary for my best buddy. And a couple of lessons we can all take from him.
He was a mountain cat. Born in a falling-down barn inside a defunct refrigerator, his life began outside of North Creek, NY in the Adirondack Mountains. Time was, a cat had a bunch of kittens you didn’t want, you bagged them up and threw them in the Hudson River; problem solved. It was not malicious, it was practical. That said, my college sweetheart and I drove the two hours to her grandparents mountain home on just such a rescue mission. After some convincing, we made it out with all but one kitten. A mud-faced little cousin of my girlfriend cried when we went to take the last kitten, and she foreshadowed what happened to that kitten when she said “he’ll either get run over or eaten”. That kitten met his fate with the former. Then Mama kitty got rabies and had to be shot. The mountains don’t screw around, and I warned my cat of these things in later years whenever he’d try to escape his comfy confines.
But in any case, five crawly little eight-week old kitties stayed out of the river and never had to learn how to swim. We drove them out of the mountains for the last time to her dorm at Utica (NY) College.
You have to work very strategically to bring a backpack full of kittens into a college dormitory without getting noticed.
So we did our best to make human sounds that resmbled cats mewing, talked loudly, and cleared our throats, and did what we had to do. The flea-bit bunch slept between us on her bed; a big pile of baby feline. I had decided before the rescue to defy my father’s express instructions not to get a cat. Owing to Italian heritage, a family tradition of giving cats ‘S’ names, and fascination with mob movies at the time, a flea-bit tabby male kitty became Santino or “Sonny” (bottom center, above). This kitten most resembled my father’s favorite cat from years ago, so there was a psychological sell going on as well. So with tiny Sonny asleep on my lap we headed west on I-90 for his new home in the Park Avenue neighborhood of Rochester, NY. I was just 19 when I brought Sonny home about a month after 9/11, so Sonny was part-and-parcel an innocent accomplice to some very formative years in the lives of a lot of wonderful people.
Sonny really liked girls.
And girls really liked Sonny. And because girls liked Sonny, guys liked Sonny too. Many a hardcore man’s man found a kinship in him. Maybe because he was mountain. Maybe because all he wanted was to be loved by everyone, all the time. A common refrain was”I really don’t like cats usually, but in Sonny’s case…” I assure you this praise fed his little ego.
And at the end of the day, when all the men’s men were partied out and flopped face first on the couch, Santino made sure to let you know that he was still up and ready for whatever was on the docket. Evidence:
He wanted to be a dog. Every day when I, or anybody else for that matter, would come home, he’d come to the door fully prepared to bark, but only…’meow’ came out. He wanted to be a human confidante and soulmate too. He wanted to answer the insane, meaning-of-life questions that I’d ask him when there was no one else around. But the only answer he could give was…
I’m sure this was frustrating for him. But I know he knows how much I appreciated his willingness to listen and always have that same, steady response for me. Meow.
…talkative. It’s quite impossible there should ever be another cat with so much to say. Yet he accepted his fate very quietly and stoically, an ever-present loving purr his life soundtrack until the very end.
He marked the passing of time for me, and in retrospect others, I imagine. Just shy of 13 years is a pretty good approximate for defining an era, and Sonny purred and meowed (and ate) his way through some of the most important years of so many people’s lives.
In 2010 I moved to Chicago for a job and a change, not knowing a soul. Well…I knew one soul:
And I would need his camaraderie and then some to work my way through a sweaty transition to life in the third-largest city in the nation. He was not happy to have me gone 9-5 every day, but at the end of the day it was just me, him and Netflix or old Simpsons episodes.
One night, near the end, I was in the bathroom and the door creaked open as if pushed. This was a Sonny trademark, usually lead with a warning meow first, and it made me think of him. It wasn’t spooky, I suppose, as he was still alive, but he was at the hospital at the time. I mentioned it to my girlfriend and she put it in perspective for me. She still expects her beloved dog Mitch to greet her every time she goes to her childhood home, and listens instinctively for the tinny jingling of his collar tags as he runs to the door. So one lesson from this is that just like any loved one, the things we miss about them will always be kind of obscure. And they won’t mean anything to anyone else or maybe even get noticed. But it will mean the world to you and to me. And every time a door creaks open for the rest of my life I’ll expect Sonny to meow and enter.
The second lesson that Sonny has taught me is that unconditional love is very real, and that life really isn’t as complex as we all make it out to be. And though I’ll still get angry, and though I’ll still hurt people, and though I’ll still throw things, I remain hopeful that I will remember the lesson of the strange lucid daze I was in when this was written; that the only thing that’s important at all is loving someone and being loved. And I’m not afraid to say that my realizing this would make Sonny very proud of me.
I‘ve often wondered what became of Sonny’s brothers and sisters. We had dropped them off at a pet store outside Utica, NY after their one night in the dorm, and the owners were glad to have them in a ‘non-kitten season’, so I trust they all found good homes. In any case it makes me happy to think his bloodline is still out there making one man’s or a whole family’s life that much richer.
Sonny had aggressive large-cell lymphoma that had found a nice home in his large intestine. Fluid build-up around his lungs made it hard for him to breathe. But for a while his natural instincts kicked in and he hid from us just how tough things were for him. Some sort of ingrained survival instinct I suppose. As much as I wanted him to pass at home, I knew that was unlikely, without inhumane amounts of suffering. So on a follow-up at the emergency vet, when I finally cleared out the cobwebs and accepted what they were telling me, I agreed to have him humanely euthanized.
In my final private moments with him before calling the doctors came in I was able to read him a plethora of warm, sad, and funny salutations and memories that loved ones had posted on a facebook picture of him. And right when I finished reading them, in that tender way that our loving pets do, he let me see just how bad his condition was as he began gasping desperately for air. As horrific as this might sound (and it was at first), in reflection I thought how cool, and classy, and loving, and just like him it was to do that. To say to me “sh, sh, sh. It’s okay. I’ve gotta go; and you can do one last brave thing for me.” It gave me some closure, and it made a very painful moment into something very beautiful. I greatly appreciated that.
And as the final medicine went in, I laid my head on his little chest and listened to his heart beat quieter, and quieter, and away. Then I told the administering vet a story; a story that began with…
“He was a mountain cat…”
In the end, Santino will return to his mountain home one last time as we scale Mount Marcy, the highest Adirondack peak, to spread his ashes at the very top. He was a true Leo, born in the heat of August, and he was a little mountain lion, and he was the king of the mountain. I thought it best that he should ascend to the highest peak and oversee all of his kingdom, forever.
So this is just a man’s epitaph for his cat, nothing more really. I hope I did right by him. Loved him enough. Gave into his petulant demands enough. I do know that Sonny made it out of the mountains though, and lived his life in the bright lights of two great American cities.
And got to meow all he wanted.
And never had to learn how to swim.
For Sonny. I love you bud. And I miss you.
Charlie Monte Verde
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