Monday, May 01, 2006


Just about a year ago exactly, we were still living on Hillegass Avenue near Telegraph and the U.C. Berkeley campus. We were three blocks from my favorite bookstore, Moe's, and just around the corner was the 'Bateau Ivre,' a truly European-style coffee house named after a Rimbaud poem, which was a wonderful place to write and read.

Our apartment was the largest I'd ever lived in, had high ceilings, wood floors, Craftman details in the old Berkeley tradition. It had a butter-yellow kitchen with a wonderful old Wedgewood stove and, in the living room, there was a fireplace, which we used often on foggy Bay Area evenings. I was perfectly happy with our place during the week, but, somehow, always felt restless there on weekends. Our living room windows faced out on the street and, since we were on ground level, it was easy to feel that someone could look in on you. I wanted a place that made me feel coccooned.

But, despite the restlessness, it was home. Every evening our large ginger cat, Angus, would meet me on the driveway, waiting to give me his customary greeting: I would bend my nose down to him and he would rise up on his tiptoes to touch it with his own.

Angus had come to live with us while we were still living in San Francisco, but, though a friendly fellow from the start, he was cautious about adopting us as his family. We courted him for over a year, but still, he kept a certain feline distance. We had been living on Hillegass six months when a subtle change began to happen. His relationship to us became more possessive. He began to need to be in the same room as us and would sit calmly watching us as we brushed our teeth or took a bath. We respected his rituals---rituals are important to cats---and would endure the necessity of inviting him repeatedly before he would dain to jump up on the sofa or armchair into our laps. We also knew to treat him like the household sovereign he was and would coo and praise him continually, telling him how handsome and majestic he was (he would look upon us tolerantly and blink). Coming home, Brian would often pause as he turned the key and wait to hear Angus' pretty meow before opening the door.

He was not a vocal type--preferring the dignity of silence---but when he did meow, it was a sweet, plaintive cry. It sounded like a kitten's cry, though Angus was a big, 18 pound Tom. Somehow, this discrepancy was incredibly touching. Angus had lived ten years before Brian's sister met him in a shelter. We knew nothing concrete about those ten years and amused ourselves by trying to fill in the gaps with clues from Angus' habits and personality.

Certainly he had been loved before--he was too sweet-natured, trusting, and affectionate for it to be otherwise. It had taken him some time (18 months!) to warm up to us, which might have been explained by his having spent almost two years in the shelter and, in all that time, seeing so many people come and go, perhaps he'd learned not to attach himself to anyone in particular. He had chronic bowel trouble, which might have been a result of the long plane trip home from Massachusetts to California. If he had had it before, could this have been why he ended up in the shelter? It was hard to think of someone abandoning him because of it. Yet the problem did seem to be somehow psychological. We tried every variety of food, every type of litter box, medicines from various vets---the problem was sometimes severe (he underwent THREE enema treatments on one particular trip to the vet's), at other times it seemed to disappear. Because it seemed to be psychological, it was hard at times not to get frustrated with him. We'd find his "presents" as we came to call his little piles of hard poop, hidden in corners of the closet, behind the armchair, and, sometimes, in plain sight in the middle of the room. He couldn't bring himself to use the litterbox and so he would hold it in until he either became constipated, or he couldn't hold it in anymore. We wondered if his problem was the result of some past trauma---how could we ever know?

So we continued taking him to the vet's and trying different remedies. And other than his bowel troubles, Angus was a wonderful cat. Brian and I told each other again and again how lucky we were to have found him. He was almost doglike in his loyalty and companionship. The sound of his 'thump' as he jumped into the apartment from our bedroom window, home from his evening wanderings, never failed to provoke in me a quiet happiness.

One April night, just a little over a year ago, Angus woke us up---he was running frantically around the bedroom, the way he did when his stomach was bothering him. I stumbled out of bed, scooped him up, and brought him to the litterbox in the living room, again trying to assure him that this was the place to do his business. At dinner, we had given him a heavy dose of one of the vet's medications which was supposed to get his bowels moving. It was obviously starting to take effect. I kneeled next to him and petted him, and whispered reassurances, as he strained to get all the nasty stuff out of him. I'd felt sorry for him before on such occasions, but this time, I felt no resentment at being woken up in the middle of the night. I felt a pure sort of maternal compassion in the sense of feeling with a being in pain. Like a mother, I would have done anything to make him feel better. He sensed this and became calmer. He allowed me to comfort him. I felt the closest to him then than I'd ever had.

I woke up late the next morning and rushed to get ready for a meeting with my boss. Brian had been up for half-an-hour already and I gave him a kiss as he headed out the door. Angus seemed weak from the previous night's happenings but when I came into the bedroom to get dressed, he'd already jumped out the window to start his morning rounds. I heard a weak meow as I hurriedly pulled on my pants and figured he was having a confrontation with the neighbor's cat. Then I grabbed my bag and ran out the door. I was flying past the bedroom window when I saw him on the ground. The window is about six feet up, with a little ledge about half way down which Angus usually jumped on before jumping to the ground. Angus was lying on the ground with his neck turned just slightly abnormally. I dropped my bags and ran to him. I remember screaming "no" repeatedly. He was still alive and I said a few words to him, then he breathed a last little breath and that was it. I ran inside, still talking to him, talking to God, and called a nearby vet hospital. They told me to bring him over right away. I was afraid of moving him, so I found a piece of plywood and managed to slide him onto it. His tongue, by then, had turned blue so I tried to push oxygen into him by performing mouth to mouth. I drove to the vet hospital, about a quarter mile away, talking to Angus the whole time, begging him not to die. They took him away and sat me in a waiting room. About five minutes later the vet came in and told me he was dead. Angus' neck had been broken in the fall.

So that was how Hillegass Avenue stopped becoming home to us. How could we come home after a long day's work without our little friend running down the driveway to greet us? How could we look at our front window, his customary look-out spot, without feeling his absence? We gave the landlord notice, lived three months in the Oakland Hills, then found our little back-lot cottage on Woolsey Street.

In August we visited the Berkeley Humane Society and Brian immediately fell in love with a chihuahua named Perkins. So Perkins became our second pseudo-child---one who never knew his similarly russet-colored brother. I spent the first few months with Perkins noticing the differences between him and Angus. I was worried that having Perkins would make me forget Angus. I didn't want to think that having a pet was like filling a slot with any adorable creature who might come one's way. I didn't want to think that a soul was replaceable.

The anniversary of Angus' death came and went last month. Brian and I mentioned it to each other but there were no flowers or visits to Hillegass. When we visited my parent's on Easter, I forgot to stop by his grave in my mother's garden.

And yet, writing about him here has made me remember who he was and that this small, mute, furry being was unique---and that I loved him. And still love him.


Laini Taylor said...

So sad. My mom lost her big orange tomcat last year, too. She'd had him for 18 years, and he was deaf and toothless and we think a coyote got him. They live up in the woods, and found a tuft of orange fur in the driveway and that was all. They've had a rock engraved with the words "Our Old Warrior" and placed it where they found his fur. My mom has a new orange cat now, a maniacal yearling named "Zucca," as the other was "Pesca" (pumpkin and peach, in Italian, and pronounced in the roughest of Neapolitan accents). The thought of losing our elderly dogs is horrifying - my mind won't even settle on the thought but instantly spins off in avoidance is some other direction. I can't imagine walking in the door to silence. Just the thought breaks my heart.

deirdre said...

It's amazing how an animal, I think especially a cat, works its way into our hearts. My own cat is almost fourteen, has mellowed with age, and is a bit odd. I love her absolutely.

paris parfait said...

Interesting reason for moving; I'm glad you have the memories of your cat and are creating new ones in your new place.

Sarah said...

I've lost three big orange tomcats, so your story brought forth a landslide of emotions and memories for me. Angus was a lucky cat to have people who loved him so dearly. Thank you for sharing your memories of him.

Alexandra S said...

The adage "better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all" is definitely true when it comes to pets as well. The first time I ever, ever saw my dad cry was when we buried his favorite dog, a tiny white Maltese named Chou-Chou. They become such a precious part of our lives, little silent professors of love all wrapped up in bundles of furr, whiskers, and paws.

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Melissa said...

This is very touching, I think you got the writing on this quite right! Spot on. I didn't even know him but he will be missed. I think your experience with Angus though shorter is very similiar to my romance with my dog, Roxy. There will never be another dog like her. I'm sorry that Angus's end was so tragic.