A President's Reflections

For Abbey

Posted on March 28, 2014

It’s often said that the world is divided into dog people and cat people.  I was always a dog person and our first cat, Duncan, a foul tempered and mean hearted thing, did little to shift my allegiance.  I can’t say I missed him when Duncan finally met his Maker.

But our girls did and they begged us for a new cat.  Pat dutifully drove them, ages 12 and 10 then, to the animal shelter in Brattleboro, VT and the last cat in the place walked out in the arms of its new owner as they walked in and both broke into tears.  Wonderful mother that she is, Pat drove the 1.5 hours south to Springfield, MA where there was no lack of cats.  There they found not one, but two, to bring home. 

That’s when Shadow and Abbey, the brother and sister tuxedo cats, entered our life.  They could not have been more different from one another.  Shadow, the larger male, is all languid and luxurious.  He’s a beautiful cat and he knows it.  Shadow loves people and assumes that guests do not mind him stretching across their laps or shoulders or next to them on the couch.  He loves people because he’s pretty sure they love and admire him.  Shadow is a prince.  A neurotic one and all show in terms of his size and dominance.  The slightest noise startles him.  He is actually a bit timid and tentative.  Really, he is a funny cat and we’ve nicknamed him “Mr. Fabulous.”.

Abbey is smaller and her markings give her a more serious look.  Where Shadow is all show, stretching out in recline, Abbey is compact, curling her paws underneath herself, self-contained and observant.  Abbey is tough.  Toss a ball near Shadow and he runs away.  Abbey doesn’t flinch, simply watching the ball roll by.  If a friend’s dog comes in the house, Shadow is under a bed somewhere for the rest of the day.  Abbey simply jumps up out of reach and then gazes down, curious and imperious at once.

If cats were dogs, Shadow would be a yappy, coddled thing – like a bichon frise.  Abbey would be a big, calm mastiff. 

If cats were movie characters, Shadow would be Albin in La Cage aux Folles.  Abbey would be Jean Reno’s character Leon in The Professional.

When we moved from Marlboro to Manchester to start at SNHU, the movers packed up the house and as Pat and the girls were prepared to leave, they could not find Abbey anywhere.  With all the comings and goings, we feared she had escaped the house (both are indoor cats and outdoor cats in rural VT don’t last long, prey to coyotes and fisher cats).  Everyone searched, calling her name, and the girls were brave and stoic, but they had to finally leave with only one cat in hand.  Old friends in Marlboro agreed to keep an eye out for her and while we reassured the kids, we feared the worst.

Two days into our new NH home we were unpacking and calling VT from time to time in the hope that someone had found Abbey.  Then, passing one of those tall wardrobe boxes in which you hang clothes, I heard a meow.  I opened the box and out jumped Abbey.  She gave herself a little shake and nonchalantly sauntered off to explore her new home, none the worse for wear.  Like I said, a tough little cat.

But a complete softie when it comes to our daughter Hannah.  Endearingly, both cats have adopted a daughter and are unabashedly devoted to them.  Shadow, perhaps detecting a shared love of fashion and flamboyance, fell in love with Emma.  Abbey, perhaps resonating to Hannah’s calm and unflappable nature, devoted herself to Han.  When our girls are home, each cat is inseparable from his and her respective objects of devotion.  They follow them down the hall, plant themselves on a lap whenever one appears, sleep at their sides.  They run to greet them when they enter the house and look a little forlorn when they leave.

Of course, our girls are grown now and away more often than home.  So Pat and I have to suffice.  Shadow usually plants himself next to Pat, often perched on an adjacent pillow, ever majestic.  When we are watching movies or a game, Abbey has staked out my lap.  In my study, when I’m working, she is usually curled up, sleeping on my reading chair (so covered with cat hair and boogers and what not that I haven’t sat in it for years). 

Our Black Lab, Annie, often gets groomed by Abbey (a full time job for a small cat confronted with a big old dirty dog) and the dog has learned to master her nervous energy, knowing that Abbey will not put up with any of her foolishness.  Shadow, always in need of attention, often curls up with his sister, one leg often stretched over her.  When our friend Gary was recovering from heart surgery and staying with us, he at first had to sleep in a semi sitting-up position in a recliner.  He’d often wake up to find Abbey on his chest, her weight actually helping the discomfort of the incision area, and her body heat keeping him warm.  He has a soft spot for Abbey.  We all do.

Abbey (and Shadow and Annie) have been with us through a lot.  A new presidency and move to NH, high school graduations, college acceptances, a wedding, deaths in the family, new babies entering the world.  Change is a constant and yet they seemed unchanging, always there in the same ways, creatures of habit that they are.  Both got a little chubbier with the years, maybe napped more, and Annie has a lot more gray (hey – I’m describing myself!), but they have been three reliable presences in our lives.

But a couple of weeks ago we noticed that Abbey seemed lighter (she was an avid eater and her pear shape only made her more cuddly). She had started losing weight and was clearly not right.  Our vet first hoped it was an infection and that an IV and antibiotics would help.  It didn’t.  The unhappy verdict this week was cancer and Abbey’s condition rapidly declined.

Sy Montgomery, our good friend and the best writer about animals I know, once said to me, “Animals love their lives too.”  The thing is, we also love their lives – and them — and they become inextricably intertwined with ours.  We miss our girls, each thousands of miles away, and there are times when Abbey is curled on my lap and I’m mindlessly stoking her coat, that she feels like a tactile link to Hannah, who (along with Emma) we miss so much it sometimes aches.  Every morning she patiently waits by our bedroom door until I get up (Shadow usually prefers to sleep in), she walks ahead of me to the front door and waits while I get our NY Times and Boston Globe, and then escorts me to the kitchen and leaps to the counter for her bowl of milk and the start of the day.  When I can’t sleep and it’s 3AM and I’m worrying about something, her soft presence against the back of my knees (her favorite place to sleep is some hollow) is a comfort.

This morning, some 14 years after she entered our house a little kitten, I held Abbey in my arms as our veterinarian administered the drugs that gently let her slip out of this life.  I can hardly write those words.

Death has been looming too much lately.  A dear friend in London is working on hospice care for his wife who is down to days and maybe weeks and we await the call and flight arrangements we know will come.  My 96-year-old mother grapples with stopping her dialysis, knowing fully the implications of that decision and balancing her increasing frailty and discomfort with hanging on for another grandchild’s birthday or the increasingly rare day when her energy returns and she can spend an hour or two outside in the sun.  At the university, we started the new year with the loss of two well-liked and long-time employees, Jay and David.  Another family member anxiously awaits the results of a biopsy.  Maybe some of this just comes with being 56.  So what’s a mere cat in the calculus of human lives and suffering?   I know, rationally at least, that there is no comparison.

When I walked into the house last night, she hobbled over to greet me and I spent the rest of the evening with her on my lap and we lingered past midnight, stealing time.   

Abbey was just a little black tuxedo cat rescued from an inner city shelter.  So how come such a small creature has left such a large hole in my heart today?  Because animals love their lives too.  And in Abbey’s case, that little cat with a big heart, she loved our daughters and us as well and we loved her in return.  And I can barely stand to think about the long empty walk to the kitchen tomorrow morning…

 

 

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