The life and death of a tabby boy

Last Saturday, January 13, 2018, we said farewell to our beloved tabby boy, Huck. He’ll be sorely missed. Carole and I don’t have children of our own so our cats have always been very special and precious to us.

Carole and I adopted a cat in the summer of 2005, a fine healthy recently fixed tabby cat that we promptly named Huckleberry. He was our second tabby — we had adopted another tabby boy that we’d named Freddy the previous fall only to tragically find him deceased on the hallway floor the Saturday before Memorial Day. We never did figure out why Freddy passed so quickly; the veterinarian suggested it might have been a congenital heart defect or something similar.

Huck joined our other two cats: a ginger and white short haired female named Thursday and a tortoiseshell short haired female named Starlight. Thursday was about seven, Starlight was about four, and we assumed Huck was something over a year old, but it was hard to say by how much.

He had to be fixed before we could adopt him, so he was still quite full of testosterone during his first few weeks with us. Translation: he was quite the bitey-bite-bite cat at first. If you petted him, he was as likely to try to eat your hand and disembowel your wrist with his hind feet as he was to sit there and enjoy it. But he wasn’t like that all the time, and as he got used to living with us, he calmed down.

He had some very interesting quirks that neither of us had ever encountered in a cat before. He loved to climb up on the bed pillows when one of us was lying in bed and would then paw at the tops of our heads, sometimes even drooling on us. Carole figured that he’d been taken from his mama cat too early and that he was looking for a nipple.

When we first got Huck we’d already gotten our other two cats, Thursday and Starlight, little beds that we kept under the living room coffee table, and we knew that eventually we’d need to get one for Huck. He kind of forced the issue, though, by walking in to the master bedroom, looking around, and plopping down directly in front of Carole’s dresser at the foot of the bed. Every night. Every afternoon. We’d come in to the room and find him there and he’d give us a look like “you know, this spot right here would be just great for a little bed.”

So, after a couple of weeks we got around to going to the pet store to get him a little bed and we put it right where he’d indicated that he wanted it. He was so happy when he saw it for the first time; he came trotting into the room, spied the little bed at the foot of the dresser, and gave us a look that spoke volumes: “Finally.” And that was where he spent almost every night the entire time we had him.

Huck was definitely a “people cat” in that he always wanted to be where the action was. Not standoffish at all. I was very fond of picking him up and toting him around from room to room with me in a way that we called “portaging the Huck”. His “elevator butt” skills were unparalleled; he got so into being petted that his rear legs almost lifted off the ground.

He was also notorious for wanting to get out. We had to be very careful when bringing groceries in from the car to keep an eye on where he was. If we weren’t vigilant, he’d sneak out into the garage, and if we really screwed up, he’d make it all the way outside and be off to the races. If you’re wondering why we considered this a problem — well, we’ve always kept our cats indoors. There are lots of things in the Vermont woods that would eat a cat, and all things considered equal, we preferred Huck whole and undigested.

Like any cat, he could be a bit … destructive at times. He was a mighty deconstructor of boxes; if we left an Amazon box sitting in the dining room, it was more or less a given that he would chew it to pieces. He was also a fierce and mighty hunter, and once in a while we’d find all the books on the bottom shelf of a bookshelf pulled off onto the floor. Whenever we saw that, we knew he’d been a-mousin’ and had been trying to get at a mouse that’d taken cover. And when there were no mice, he found other things to hunt. He was particularly interested in Christmas ornaments, so much so that we eventually got him his own set of relatively shatterproof round ball ornaments that we could hang on the lowest levels of the tree for him to bat down and kick around the room.

He vigilantly protected our house from all enemies, foreign and domestic. If he wasn’t in his little bed or chilling on a sofa, we could count on him sitting in a window or hanging out on the credenza in our dining room (which we’ve always called “the cattlements”).

He was a very friendly cat and always got along with everyone, saving only those first few weeks we had him when he was still a bit rambunctious. When we walked into a room he was in, he’d give us a look that we interpreted as “‘Sup?”

Huck was kind of my cat; Carole preferred our two girlcats, Thursday and Starlight, and considered Huck a big ol’ friendly lummox of a cat that properly belonged with me. Carole had had many tabbies when she was a kid; tabbies were nothing special to her. But I’d never had a tabby boy before, not counting poor Freddy who was with us for such a short time, and so I found him charmingly companionable.

We had a lot of pet names for Huck. He rarely got called by his full name,”Huckleberry”, but once in a while we would call him “Huckleberry Sassafrass Q. Puddytat Furr”. He picked up the nickname “Droolbarge” during the first year or so we had him when he was so fond of drooling on our heads. Sometimes I called him “Huckletrousers” and now and then I referred to him as “the Delegate from Tabco Unlimited”. At mealtime he tended to get called “Hoover” for the vacuum-cleaner-like way he sucked up his food. Once in a while he was referred to as “The Hucken” as in, “RELEASE THE HUCKEN”. But the one that I probably used the most was “Rupert”, as in “My assistant, Rupert”. No idea where I got that from, but Huck didn’t seem to mind. So long as he had his little bed to sleep in, three squares a day, and warm places to lie around philosophizing in, we could call him whatever we wanted.

He would always greet us in the basement when we came home, sitting on the stairs up to the dining room as we came in from the garage, like a little welcoming committee. If I got up in the middle of the night, he’d often come strolling out to say “Heya” and to see if might be persuaded to toss some cat treats his way. He was a loyal, faithful, friendly cat.

Unfortunately…

A few days after Christmas Carole noticed that Huck’s abdomen was swollen, like he was retaining a lot of fluid or had … well, something. We’d noticed that he was eating less, but he was an older cat, at least 13 and probably closer to 14, and we know that appetite drops off with age in many cases. But the swollen tum was a concern. We took him in to the vet and the vet’s reaction immediately told us we had a problem. Our local vet recommended ultrasound, so that necessitated a trip to one of our two local vet hospitals, and that’s where the really bad news came down. Huck had a tumor on his spleen that was already fairly far along, and probably more tumors on the lining of his abdomen, and was retaining a ton of fluid. I had the odds presented to me in a kindly, but very matter of fact fashion. We could prolong his life through heroic measures but probably just make him suffer, or we could try to make his last days comfortable and show him all the love we could.

Carole took Huck in to have the excess fluid drained one day last week. Huck perked up a bit and showed a bit more appetite, but still clearly felt very bad. I know very little of cat physiology and tumor growth, but he’d gone from acting more or less as he always had to looking very peaky and sick and afraid in a pretty short amount of time. The fluid draining only seemed to help for a day or so and then he was back hiding in closets and showing the characteristic behaviors of a cat who would like to be allowed to go off somewhere and die with dignity, as Carole put it. She had him drained again last Friday before I came home from an out of town trip so I could see him somewhat lively one last time, but I think by that point it was already too late. He looked absolutely miserable.

And that’s why we lost him last Saturday. We took him in to the local vet and Carole stayed with him while the vets did what they had to do. I was so sad that I stayed sitting in the waiting room. I knew that if I’d gone in I’d have just bawled. I felt bad about not going in, but I knew I’d feel even worse if I did go in — the memory of watching his eyes close for the last time would have haunted my dreams. We’ve lost Thursday and Starlight in a similar fashion, euthanization after realizing there was no hope of recovery from a wasting illness, and so I know perfectly well what it’s like to see a cat go to sleep for the last time.

It was different with Huck, though — as I said, Carole always said he was my cat, just as Starlight was hers. I really wasn’t able to grasp that I’d never again come home from an out of town trip at 1 am and find him sitting on the stairs, that I’d never again have him come climb on top of me as I lay in bed reading. That I’d never again see his elevator butt. Or scritch his head. Staying in the waiting room was about all I was up for, and I was barely keeping it together even so.

We haven’t buried Huck yet. The ground in Vermont is thoroughly frozen and it’d be impossible to dig a grave. But his body is stored in a freezer at the vet, and come spring we’ll say our proper goodbyes to him. We’ll bury him with everything he’ll need in the afterlife, as befits a proper cat funeral — his food bowl, and of course, his little bed.

I’m going to miss that tabby boy.

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