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Cats and Dogs: A Retrospective


I loved my cat, Mr. P. We met in the late 1980s, shortly after I moved to Oakland from San Francisco. He was then living in a cage in a pet store. I peered in and there, in the shadows at the back of the cage, I saw the obscure bulk of an animal with glaring eyes. He was already two years old, the store owner said, and had been through two and possibly three owners. He was not exactly feral, but was not a friendly, forthcoming animal, and in fact could be quite hostile. It seemed unlikely anyone would want him.

“What will happen to him if no one takes him?” I asked.

The owner shrugged. “Ah, well, then we will have to put him down.”

It was one of those “Why, me, Lord?” moments. All I had been doing was shopping for a pet cat. Now, all of a sudden, the life or death of this particular animal was on me. If I took the beast, I would have my hands full with a frightened, angry cat—and a big one, too, in excess of twenty pounds. On the other hand, if I didn’t take him, he would die.

I took the damned cat, against my better judgment, and let me tell you, I spent the next four months grappling with him. He wouldn’t come near me. He hid under the furniture. He was, in all honesty, a complete drag as a house pet. I told him, “Look, Mr. P., if you’re going to live with me, you’re going to have to like me. You’re going to be a lap cat and that’s all there is to it.”

A twenty one-pound cat is more like a bobcat than a pussy cat. It’s amazing how strong Mr. P. was. He fought me tooth and nail—literally. My arms were constantly scraped and bleeding. But I knew what I wanted and knew there could be only one alpha in our little family. Pinning his strong, writhing body with my own to the floor, holding his four sharp-clawed paws down, I would put my face right up against his and say, “You will love me, cat.” It was very difficult for both of us. But all turned out right in the end. More than right: perfectly. Mr. P. grew to love me. He was a superb lap cat and slept with me every night. When I was gone for any length of time, he greeted me at the door when I returned, rubbing his nape on my ankles and purring so loud, you could have heard it out the window. (Well, almost.) We lived together for nearly twenty years! Mr. P. was an ideal companion; cats are so easy to care for compared to dogs. You don’t have to walk them (although I like walking Gus, it can be difficult in a winter gale), and cats more or less take care of themselves, being very independent creatures.

So when Mr. P. finally became very ill, at the age of 21 or 22, and the vet said the deed had to be done today, as the cat’s “quality of life” (a favorite veterinary phrase) was quickly deteriorating, I gave the okay, she gave him the injection, and he died in my arms.

It was a full six years before I felt ready for another pet. I was reluctant to adopt a dog; my job had me traveling a great deal, I was getting older, and I knew that having a dog involved a great deal more responsibility than did a cat. (Story: Gus, being a very cute dog, naturally elicits lots of compliments from strangers as I walk him. One day, when I’d had him less than a week, a man stopped us and remarked how cute Gus was. I thanked him and told him I’d adopted Gus only days before. The man paused, looked at me for a few seconds, and said, “Did you adopt him—or did he adopt you?”)

I never forgot that Zen-like remark, for surely we found each other, through the twisting, mysterious ways of fate. At the SPCA, where they let me take him for a leashless walk in a fenced-in yard as I decided whether or not he was “the one,” Gus made the rounds of the fence’s perimeter, sniffing, peeing and doing his dog thing, while I sat in one of those white plastic garden chairs watching him. Suddenly Gus, from twenty yards away, pointed his little head towards me and came running as fast as his pudgy, somewhat bowled legs could carry him. Jumping on my lap, he put his front paws on my chest and gave my face a big lick.

Well, that sealed the deal. On the drive home—I put him in the front seat—he promptly threw up. My new dog, it turned out, did not take well to driving. (Although I must tell how on four or five occasions we drove up to Oregon and even as far as Seattle and, good little boy that he was, he didn’t throw up once, not even on the treacherous passes of the Siskiyous. But a six-block trip to Safeway could be the cause of retching, which is why I always covered his seat with white linen towels.)

People talk about “cat people” versus “dog people.” I supposed I’m both. For thirty years, Mr. P. and Gus gave me endless joy. I found it immeasurably gladdening to watch them quietly at home as they did their thing, whatever it might have been.

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d, I stand and look at them long and long.”

Mr. P. had a sort of shoe fetish and would bury his face inside a sneaker and float off to who-knows-what marvelous smell world. Gus loved bones: raw lamb or veal were his favorites. He would work his bone for an hour or an hour-and-a-half, stripping off the meat and then get started on the bone, sometimes consuming it all, sometimes leaving a little piece behind that I had to be careful to throw in the garbage, lest I step barefooted on it in the middle of the night. I suppose one advantage of believing in God, which must entail a belief in some kind of afterlife, is that, were I a person of faith, I’d be able to look forward to eternal life in Heaven reunited with Mr. P. and Gus, who, I think, would have gotten along fine. Eternity with those two lovers wouldn’t be a bad thing!

But Gus isn’t dead yet. He’s still with me, safe and sound as I write this, licking his paws in one of his preferred spots during this unusually warm, dry summer-autumn, a place on the floor by the deck, where cool morning air comes in. The biopsy result should come in early next week. Until then, with the painkiller pills, I think he’ll be okay, although that upper left jaw of his can be very painful, and anything that touches it sets off yelps. To all the people who have contacted me, through this blog, through Facebook or Twitter or Messenger or email, I have to give a grateful thank you. Your words, every one of them, have made me cry.

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