"Madame, bear in mind That princes govern all things--save the wind." -Victor Hugo, The Infanta's Rose

Friday, November 24, 2006

Remembering Cotton

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving yesterday. In addition to today being the biggest retail day of the year (Why are you reading this blog? You should be out there shopping. Go support the economy! Go!), it's also CatBlogging Friday, the day of the week when many bloggers post pictures of or stories about their cats. I used to be a regular Friday CatBlogger, but haven't participated in quite a while. However, to honor of the intersection of CatBlogging Friday with the holiday weekend, let me tell you about a very special feline member of our family whom I pause to remember today.


I'll never forget the first time I saw her, a fuzzy ball of gray fur and whiskers not much bigger than a medium-size cantelope. Opening the door of our condo in Southwest Houston to leave for work that morning, I nearly tripped over her as she scampered under my feet into the house from our welcome mat in front of the door, where she had evidently spent the night.

"Hey!" I shouted. "Where do you think you're going? You don't live here."

The logic of this statement appeared to elude her, as she gave me a look that clearly said, "So what? Got anything to eat?" She acted equally nonchalant towards our resident Siamese, Tasha, who arched her back and hissed at this interloper to her domain, and then promptly ran and hid under the bed. Tasha may have acted brave, but she was a sissy when you called her bluff and this new feline wasn't taking any of her crap. I liked her immediately.

She did seem hungry and was quite affectionate, so we fed her some Tender Vittles and played with her for a few minutes. It was then I noticed that she was wearing a collar and tag, which coincidentally bore the name of our own veterinarian. This was not too surprising since he was the closest fur-doc in our neighborhood, and I was somewhat relieved that she was not a stray. I figured she had just wandered in from down the street somewhere and would go back home after I went to work, so I dropped her outside at the foot of the steps as I left for the day.

She was still there when I came home that evening, so I decided it was time to call the vet and see who she belonged to. Maybe she was lost.

Our vet reported that she was owned by a family living near our condo, about three blocks away. He told me that her name was "Cotton", which seemed like a pretty dumb name to me, but that was what was on his records. She was a little over a year old. I asked about her general health and whether she had been "fixed". The vet said that she had been, but had borne one litter of kittens before being spayed; he then made the curious statement that "she wasn't a very good mother." I never found out exactly what he meant by that, as he didn't seem to want to tell me. I could only suspect that perhaps she had killed one of her kittens or something equally horrible. Given her sweet nature, however, that seemed hard to believe.

The next day, I took her to the address the vet gave me for her owner, and knocked on the door. A middle aged woman answered, and scowled at me when I explained how Cotton had shown up on our doorstep. "That damn cat," she said in an irritated tone. "It's always running off." She didn't seem to have been worried about her, or at all glad to have her back. Maybe it was the kitten-eating thing, I don't know. In any case, I didn't think much more about it until I went to leave for work a few days later ... and there she was at the front door again. After feeding her and playing with her for a little while, I took her home again, only to receive the same stony response from her owner. No wonder the cat ran off.

I think you can guess where this is going: she was back on our doorstep again the next day, and when I opened the door this time she scooted in and plopped herself down on the carpet like she owned the place. It was pretty obvious that she had "adopted" us, and she became a beloved member of our family for the next twenty-one years. After a period of adjustment, Tasha accepted her as well, and they eventually became fast friends. Even though we weren't exactly thrilled with the name "Cotton", it stuck anyway. She did have cottony-soft fur, and the sweetest disposition of any cat I've ever had; she was particularly fond of being scratched at the base of her tail, which would make her thrust up her rump like she was in a kitty-porn movie. However, there was one exception to her gentle nature: she loved being petted everywhere except for her tummy. If your hand got too close to that temptingly fuzzy underbelly, the claws and teeth came out and you were likely to end up with bloody fingers. I could only assume this had something to do with her "bad mother" rap; she must not have liked being nursed by her kittens very much.

The years went by; in early 1992 I took a job as an engineer for a state university, and we moved 150 miles from Houston to East Texas. Cotton made the trip comfortably curled in my lap, watching the scenery go by peacefully as Tasha howled like a banshee from her cat carrier the entire way. Then in March of 2002, my 10-year state contract expired. The local TV station offered to hire me, but the position would not be available for a few months; as a result, I found myself with an extended block of free time that I had not had for many years ... and probably would not have for many years to come. A flash of an idea struck me: I had always dreamed of visiting Europe, traveling leisurely by train wherever and whenever the mood struck me, so the next several months could be a golden opportunity to make this dream come true. Unfortunately, Mrs. Toast would not be able to go with me as she still had the same two-weeks-of-vacation-a-year limitation that I always had before this as well. But we decided that this was a chance not to be missed, so I bought a round-trip ticket to Paris (we had a friend living there at the time) and an unlimited Eurail Pass, and got ready for the journey of a lifetime.

Just two days before I was about to leave, Cotton became very, very sick. She would not eat, in fact she could barely move. She just hunkered down, with some sort of goop oozing from her left eye. A visit to the vet revealed that not only did she have an eye infection, but more seriously, her kidneys were failing. This is a common problem faced by older cats, and not much can be done about it. The vet estimated that based on her test results which were, as he put it, "off the chart", she had two weeks, perhaps a month, left to live. As I was going to be gone for the next two months, my departure was bittersweet: I left home with a heavy heart, convinced that I would never see her alive again.

Over the next few weeks, however, she rallied. I received excited e-mails from Mrs. Toast telling me that Cotton was eating again; a few days later her eye had completely healed, and soon she was running around the house with her usual level of energy and curiosity. I was so happy I nearly cried, and when I got home in late May she was there to greet me like always. Much to our surprise and delight, she continued to thrive for the next two and a half years.

Thanksgiving had always been a special time for us, and Cotton seemed to enjoy the holiday almost as much as we did. On this day each year, she would get a rare treat: real turkey! Oddly, Tasha never cared much for turkey, but Cotton would happily devour little scraps of the bird that we shared with her from the dinner table, and especially liked it with a little gravy. Then she'd curl up in my lap while we watched football later in the day, or take a nap with us. Like I said, she was one of the family.

November of 2004 found me again away from home; the TV station had consolidated its operations, and my job's primary responsibilities were in Tyler, about 75 miles away from where we lived. As Mrs. Toast now had an excellent job at the University as a librarian, moving wasn't really an option. At first I tried commuting, but the daily three-hour round trip drive became exhausting ... so I decided to rent a small apartment in town for use during the week and come home on the weekends.

As Thanksgiving approached, Cotton once again became very sick from lack of kidney function, and it was apparent that this time there would be no miraculous recovery. The upcoming holiday was going to be a long weekend for me, as I would be off work from Wednesday afternoon until the following Monday morning, but by early Tuesday of that week Cotton was fading fast. She stopped eating and using the litter box. For some strange reason, the spot she chose as being the most comfortable place for her was the bathtub. Mrs. Toast wasn't sure she would make it until I got there, but Tuesday night and Wednesday morning she kept petting Cotton in the tub and telling her "hang on, baby, Daddy's coming".

I arrived at the house about 7 PM Wednesday night, Thanksgiving eve. As I sat down in my big lounge chair, Mrs. Toast brought Cotton in from the bathroom and put her in my lap. She looked up, and seemed to recognize me; as I gently stroked her fur, she began to purr, according to Mrs. Toast, for the first time in days. She sort of climbed up on my chest a little and buried her head into my armpit. For the next six hours, neither of us barely moved, other than I continued to pet her and talk to her lovingly. Around 1 AM on Thanksgiving morning, I felt her stiffen, and she suddenly kicked forcefully with her hind legs. I held her tightly, and after a few seconds she stopped. Several more minutes passed with no further movement, and I began to realize that she had died in my arms.

I was devastated, but also grateful that I had been given the opportunity to be with her in her final hours. I don't know if such things are possible, but it was almost like she knew I was coming and held on until I got there. She had a good, long, happy life, and the last thing she felt as she left this earth was the touch of the human who loved her most. I had the overwhelming sensation as she passed that I had gently handed her soul up to God for safekeeping, and that brought me much comfort even as I grieved for her.

This Thanksgiving marks the second anniversary of her death, so I especially miss her this time of year. We had her cremated, and placed her ashes in a ceramic urn with her picture on it. It sits on our bookshelf, so in a way she's still with us. Rest in peace, Cotton; we'll see you at the Rainbow Bridge. Maybe you weren't a very good mother, but you were a great companion.

For more CatBlogging posts visit the Carnival of the Cats, being hosted this week by Scribblings.


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