Yesterday (on Father’s day, no less), I spent early morning digging up a tiny little grave in our suburban garden for a tiny family member who just passed away in his sleep – Dusty the cat. Some Sunday morning – hard to beat that memory! But let me rewind a little. Dusty wasn’t just a family cat – on many occasions he was also a dog, a squirrel, a squeaky wheel, a reluctant babysitter, a cheap psychologist, a tireless purring machine, and when not in the mood – quite a pisser (more on that later). He added to our lives, our family, as it grew and moved around. He saw some shit. He helped us deal with some shit. He also didn’t take any shit from anybody. But – he was social – and that’s why I wanted to share these random, disjointed memories with you.
Where to begin – probably in August 2002. We brought Dusty to our new home, to keep company to the Older Cat we’ve inherited from parents. She used to live in a bigger house, which always had people in it, and lots of activity, and suddenly we moved her to a brand new empty place, in the middle of a loud construction site, with all windows/doors shut closed, and little entertainment. So, naturally the Older Cat was lonely. Dusty was adopted mainly to keep her company, and also, to see if we can take care of a little kitten. Test-drive parenthood. Or so our parents thought.
The very first thing Dusty did when we let him out of the adoption cardboard box, was look around the room, saw his reflection in a closet door mirror, and run headfirst into it, bouncing backwards and breaking into an adorable sneezing fit. We laughed; he looked embarrassed; and instantly started grooming himself (that defense mechanism became his go-to move anytime he did something silly). It was a good day. He got his name shortly afterwards when he crawled behind the fridge, got stuck there, and had us move it. Eventually he emerged all covered in dust bunnies, and yet looking about the same shade of gray, with the same level of fluff on his sides. “Dusty” became an official name right there, in the kitchen. Dusty-evsky – if you wanted a bit of Russian cultural flavour :)
Those were the early days. Marina and I just got this tiny house, just got married (yes, in that order), and weren’t even remotely thinking about kids. Just let us deal with the new bills, the mortgage, our independence, commute to work, social life, family obligations – all sans parents. Freedom! Let us figure this out. Let us live, and have pets as well, pretend that it’s the same as having kids (I know, I know). Dusty, as a kitten, was a perfect companion to the Older Cat. She didn’t like him nearby at first, but eventually they would go to the garden together, or sleep on the rug side by side. The Older Cat was a grumpy old lady, but she liked him. Ok, not ‘liked’, but respectfully tolerated him. He was hard to resist. That purr was disarming. And he loved grooming.
How long ago was 2002? Some of the earliest photos of Dusty were done in a film camera. Yep, the one you had to develop in a store, 24 or 36 photos at a time, for money. Dusty, in a way, was our most millennial cat – he’s seen the film camera days, the digital camera days, and the phone camera days – where technology is so omnipresent, memories are not made anymore – they’re instantly broadcast, rated, judged and discarded. The number of different keyboards, monitors and Playstations he slept next to – that’s a lifetime of gaming, and TV watching (before binging was in), keeping us company late at nights. So long ago…
The following year Dusty jumped out of second floor window, and landed on concrete porch below. Had to have a cast in his left back foot, to let the fracture heal. He would still try to run up and down the stairs, even with the cast, thumping it around. Funny sight, but he pulled through, and when the cast was removed, he was perfectly fine. The fall stunted his growth, so he always looked like an overgrown kitten – never got big and fat. Forever wiry and lean. And always light on his feet.
When Paul, our oldest, was born (12 years ago), Dusty had suddenly developed an anxiety/allergy, and started licking himself raw. Big red patches on his skin, like he was balding. We had some good advice from the vet, distanced the two, and watched how we’re spending time with all our ‘kids’. Also watched just how many people came for visits, and how our attention was divided. Obviously, this was jealousy, but we needed to sort it out the right way. After a couple of weeks it passed, and Dusty became our official babysitter. He would approve Paul’s food, and finish off cereal bowls whenever he got the chance. He loved milk so much, his whiskers and front paws would tremble as he munched the leftovers. Once he grew up a bit, and became lactose intolerant, this adorable plate-licking practice had to stop. His tastes matured too – he would instead go nuts for sardines and sprats – and that loud, self-satisfied munching was his M.O. the rest of his life. If he liked eating something – you would hear it in the next room. Actually, the very last time I offered him sprats (three days ago), he didn’t even react – that’s how we knew it’s time. When your pet stops eating and refuses the most coveted delicacy, you know. I finished that can of sprats by myself later that day – saddest meal I had in a while. First, force-feeding him his pills and soft food, then, force feeding myself the sprats we would usually share together.
But I’m jumping ahead again. Let’s rewind to happier days. Over the years Dusty has tried mimicking other animals. He would regularly growl when our garage door opened. But only if someone else was driving in, not leaving. Not sure if he saw this behavior somewhere – but it was definitely a dog-like, protective growl. When he was in the garden, he would leap like a squirrel trying to catch bugs. Not a stealthy, straight run of a feline, but a hop, like a bouncing ball. And then there was bunny-like quick left-right sprites when he wanted to play with us or other cats. Couldn’t catch him. He was playful – but knew how to keep distance. If you brushed him, Dusty would let you have a few strokes, and then move away a couple of feet. Maybe come back a foot. If you pet him, he’d walk away, to make you stretch your arm – but not too far. Or immediately lie on his back and offer you his belly.
Never liked his nails trimmed. Quietly tolerated taking a bath. Loved how clean he was afterwards, but during the wash – just stood there, glaring. He’d give head-butts and kisses much later that day. Liked being clean.
Dusty’s babysitting mode evolved into sheep-herding patterns. He would sit at the edge of the couch, or in the center of the room on a high chair, with good visibility and at least two escape routes, and he’d maintain order. During family meals, during movie nights, or just when the kids were playing together. Sometimes he would walk over and join in, but usually – just monitor from a few feet away. Like any good herding dog.
Best part was when we had guests stay late, and things around the table would get quiet, kids are long asleep, meal is over, and it’s just us chatting about life. Way past midnight, Dusty would emerge from his sleep, and casually check in on us. Circle the table a few times, let himself be petted, lie on his back and offer up his belly – ultimate sign of trust. He stole the night of course, but he also would socialize, and keep an eye on us, grownups.
Nope, the best part was when he would talk back, in half-barks, half crow yelps. It sounded like a squeaky wheel, and he would talk back and mimic your tone:
– how was your day?
– did you get enough sleep?
– gonna stay up and watch movies with us?
– let’s go wish the kids good night
Wait, the absolute best was when he’d let us scratch under his chin so much he’d uncontrollably yawn. Almost orgasmic, with slobber and ears pulled back – a slow, lazy yawn. He liked it. Marina and I took bets on who’ll make him yawn the most. He won every time.
Wait, I just remembered – the best part was how gentle his paws were. Never using nails, unless he needed to, Dusty would paw at you, as if he was giving you high fives. Big fluffy gentle paws. Marina loved those paws.
Almost forgot, it was also cool when he’d just cuddle in bed during winter nights in between your legs, and purr, purr away until morning, occasionally snoring in his sleep. Those nights were anything but cold. We just didn’t want to leave the blankets because it would disrupt the snoring symphony.
Our friends and family would take him to their new houses – it’s an Eastern European superstition that a cat must enter a new home, and check in all the rooms and closets – to ward off evil spirits, and cleanse the place. Silly tradition, I know, but we did it once, and he was such a good gentleman – actually walked around, didn’t panic, didn’t make a mess – that it became an official thing in our circle of friends. We had other cats – but Dusty was the one ‘requested’ when people moved to new homes. He kept the order, and made strangers feel safe in new place. He would proudly march back home, and sit on the corner of the couch – with a sense of accomplishment.
When Amy, our youngest was born, there was no more anxiety or jealousy – Dusty was now checking on two kids’ bedrooms – and later sat among dolls, sat at the edges of bathrooms, was part of tea parties, and became a fixture in the many forts that the kids built. Hide and seek was one of this favourite games. But I’m skipping ahead again – they just built an amazing fort a couple of months ago, and everyone – I mean everyone in the family – was spending an alarming amount of time in that fort. We got photos of that fort – they were not approved for public viewing.
This past winter, Dusty, as per usual, would jump at the window, trying to catch snowflakes on the other side. He’s done that for many winters. And when we had a lot of snow – up to the waist – we would do the annual cat toss. Both cats participated – and both loved playing outside, parading in and out of snowbanks, posing in the bright sun, whiskers covered in snow. Later that day, we’d all stretch out in front of the fireplace, in our pajamas and drink cocoa, or munch sprats.
Ok, enough of sweet memories, let’s jump ahead. A couple of weeks ago Dusty has started coughing and wheezing, as if he was passing a hairball, except he wasn’t. At first we thought it was a cold. When it got worse, we checked in with the vet. No clear diagnosis – could be fluid in lungs, could be bad kidneys, could be a weak heart (he had a heart murmur all his life), or just an obstruction in his chest. They do develop tumors that push down on other organs. Could be all of the above. Could also be old age. Dusty is 14. Maybe it was just his time. He’s seen a lot of different houses; was with us when we were losing our grandparents to cancer; stayed late for breastfeeding; kept me company at home when I broke my ankle and was house-ridden for a few weeks in December. He didn’t like when we packed suitcases to go on vacation, and he would never come downstairs first when we came back a week later. We had to come up to him. He forgave and showed his tummy. Every time. He’s had a full, eventful life. On his terms.
The vet gave us some pills – they would help improve breathing, but also would push out the liquid from his lungs, which means a lot more drinking and more regular feeding. And that’s when he stopped eating. Sure, the pills helped with breathing, but the meals were forced. He didn’t fight back, didn’t growl, just ate passively from my fingers. Kids saw those ‘meals’. It was just a matter of time. Fun week. We canceled any other suggested tests, and just spent more time with him during the weekend. We sent the kids away.
On Saturday, he spent almost entire day outside, either hiding in the bushes or warming up in the sun, no longer catching bugs, no longer running towards a can of sprats, just occasionally drinking water. He didn’t want to come in at night. When he did, we trimmed his nails, brushed his coat (he was a bit messy after spending the whole day outdoors), and put him on the corner of the couch – he had little energy left, and wouldn’t go upstairs, or to the basement. The sandbox was already next to the couch, to make things easier. By that time I’ve been spending nights downstairs on the couch, next to him, just in case.
He slept a little with me, on the couch, peed on the rug by the house entrance (he did that whenever he was angry with us), somehow managed to crawl upstairs to check on Marina, in the bedroom, and then went to sleep in kids’ bathroom – on his little rug. He often slept in the bathrooms – so he can greet one of us first thing in the morning. Another silly family tradition.
In the morning I found him on that rug – peaceful, curled up – but no longer breathing. No mess, no drama. His rug, his spot.
Good thing the kids were away that night.
I woke up Marina, and asked her to make some coffee. I went for a shovel. Dusty went out on his own terms, at a respectful distance, but monitoring us, and protecting us as his children. He never stopped herding. That little pisser.
When we told the kids later that day, the youngest went straight outside, and beelined for the freshly dug up patch of soil, the one that now has sunflowers on it. She stood there for a bit, and we talked. I think she understood. We went back home, and continued with house chores (mainly laundry – everyone starts washing/cleaning/vacuuming when somebody dies in the family, what’s up with that). Later that evening, I went out to check up on that soil patch, and saw a bunch of freshly picked flowers sitting in the middle (pause, wipe your eyes).
I think the kids are going to be alright. Dusty raised them well :)
I think we’re all going to be alright. We made lots of incredible, warm memories. And so did Dusty.
This has been therapeutic. Thank you for reading and sharing.
Go hug a loved one. Or rub its tummy.