Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Tribute to My Little Friend

Winding down the hill along a loose gravel road with a kitten in my lap is not what I initially planned for the night. Ahead of me had been my own bed bearing a supply of desperately needed sleep. Oddly though, in anticipation of Ginger’s reaction, I was wide awake. Only days earlier, to my surprise, she had mentioned that maybe we needed a cat for the hangar. Having never had one and possessing a great indifference toward the species in general, I could not believe she had suggested it. Her timing was perfect.

Almost home from a few days at work, I stopped briefly by the road to chat with a friend when out of the darkness appeared a lost kitten. Surrounded by yelping coyotes, and bearing a reference from the farmer who thought he was special, I decided the little guy was the self loading mousetrap Ginger had mentioned. So, I picked him up, rubbed his cheeks, and away we went.

Arriving at home, I introduced Ginger to the new judge, jury, and executioner of Mouseville. Her reaction was positive but not one of great joy. Within minutes though, she was tossing out names. Finding a big black spot on his white belly, we finally settled on “Meatball.” It’s what our guys in WWII called the round insignias on Japanese aircraft. Ginger held him up; we looked at his belly, looked at each other, and said the name in a question “Meatball?” It fit.

Like a new parent with their first child, Ginger asked “What now”. I went to the hangar, put some sand in a shoebox and brought it to the house. Instead of diapers, we would be changing litter. Fortunately Meatball, looking less than eight weeks old, had a mind that was ahead of his body. Ginger gently sat him in the sand and to my amazement he immediately did was a cat is supposed to do. Inside I thought, “Good job little guy, you just sealed the deal.” Yet in reality, he was ours from the moment he was plucked from the field.

The next day Ginger was already concerned about our new family member. She had wanted a hangar cat and yet in ten short hours she was concerned if we let him out he might wander away. My suggestion was that we’d let him out, open the door in one hour, and if he was still around he’d be staying so. Finally agreeing to my plan, Ginger sat him outside and closed the door. Half an hour later Ginger opened the door and called “MEATBAAAALL.” Unbelievably, he came charging around the corner having recognized his name or a voice that was already attached. Whatever the case, he had found a place in our hearts and, in large part, in the house.

On our way to his first vet visit, Ginger and I both remember him howling like mad. Having never had cats, Ginger’s motherly reaction was to take him out and hold him. As she turned to get him, I insisted that if she did he would immediately find his way under the pedals or worse and that she was in not to let him out. Midstream of my dissertation on why she shouldn’t open that carrier, Meatball walked out and curled up in her arms.

Introducing him to Ace was almost as easy. Ace snarled twice, we said “NO”, and from that point on they were best of friends. We called them “The Originals”. They liked being near each other, they were colored alike, expressed similar personalities, and when one didn’t feel well you would often find the other keeping him company. Introductions complete, life went on.

Soon, everyone knew Meatball. It is hard to describe but some animals, just like people, have “it”. Whatever “it” is, it is something more that most others have and Meatball definitely came so equipped. He loved people and most loved him. Given a choice, Meatball would always be where the people were. When Ginger and I would go on a walk, Ace in trail, we’d turn around to see Meatball doing the same. Occasionally though, we’d be half a mile from the house and hear a faint meow. Having somehow left without his permission, he could be heard requesting we hold our position. We’d stop, he’d catch up, and we’d all continue on our walk together. If you ever camped in a tent or spent the night here in the cabin, you know what I am talking about. He insisted on saying hello to everyone.

Early on, we couldn’t help but notice Meatball’s passion for airplanes. If there ever were an argument for reincarnation, Meatball was it; he was a barnstormer. He loved planes and pilots. Anytime we had visitors, he would find his way to them to practice turns on pylons between their legs. If those people were in a plane, he always found his way onto it. Deep in the digital caverns of our hard drives are many photos that serve as evidence. His two favorite places were the wingtip and the cockpit; we never really were sure which one. More than once he tried to stow away for a flight and often he slept on the rear shelf of the Cub. His love of planes and pilots was so acute in fact that we once considered selling shirts that said “I got a cat scan at Lee Bottom.” If you’ve been here, you’ve had one.

“The Meat”, one of his best nicknames, had another side that few ever saw. He was a master hunter and vicious fighter. So good in fact was The Meat, we never stepped outside without checking the door mat for critter guts. More than once he faced down nasty dogs and came out the winner. And on one occasion he even drug home a live Red Tailed Hawk. Our best guess was that the raptor mistook Meatball for lunch and got a surprise when he tried to claim it.

Unfortunately, some fights can’t be won. Earlier in the year, Meatball came down with a cold. Every spring and fall, he had always sneezed for a few weeks and then got better. This time he didn’t. The sneezing got worse and vet visits became routine. Early on the diagnosed was asthma and the treatments seemed to help. But, as time went on, his sneezing got worse and back to the vet we went; once by plane; Meatballs only flight. Numerous things were tried, and multiple referrals later, the diagnosis was narrowed down; Cancer.

I’ll never forget how I found out. Ginger was on the phone, I was lost on my computer, and at some point I looked up to see Ginger standing there trembling, tears pouring down her face. That’s when I knew my little Meatball was done for. My mind though wouldn’t accept it. Neither would Ginger’s.

After a day on the computer looking for something, anything that might work, she located experimental trials for chemotherapy on cats; biopsies were considered, and anything else that might do the trick. Then, sensing our desperation when I asked for his honest opinion, the vet confirmed my inner thoughts. Every option remaining could be closer to torture and Meatball would be better off if he were asleep. Then he asked if I would like him to go ahead with it.

The only reason I didn’t cry at that moment was due to disbelief. Apparently, some people actually make a call to have the vet put their pet down and never bother to go say goodbye. For us that was not an option and we drove silently to the place where our little Meat had received care for the last three days.

Escorted over creaky wood floors into a room at the end of the vintage home, we waited in silence to see our little guy. My mind raced wondering how I would handle seeing him and how Ginger would react. When one of the assistants carried him in wrapped in a blanket and set him on the table I was ok. Seeing his thinning body and hearing his cry, still didn’t get me. But when Ginger picked him up and turned him upside down in her arms like a baby, the memories came through.

Ginger had never been a cat person but Meatball had made her one. He loved to lay with her to watch TV and always found time to help with her computer work. When she would get too focused he would knock the trash over by her desk, and when she needed to laugh he would dance with her around the house. At night he slept on her shoulder. Every day he brought a smile to her face. He was her baby and now she was saying goodbye. Nose to nose they swayed bringing one last smile to each other’s face. She then offered him to me.

Not wanting to reveal how much I was hurting I suggested she hold him longer, instead she put him on the table near me. She’s a smart that Ginger because I couldn’t leave him there on the table and hesitantly reached to pick him up. That’s when all my memories let loose.

Feeling his weak body in my arms, I had to let him know everything was going to be ok. Over and over I whispered through tears “it’s going to be ok, it’s ok little Meat, you’re going to be ok”. With each word passed a memory and a question.

What would I do with a furless overnight bag; one of his favorite beds. Who was going to greet me when I came home? What would I do with the chair where he laid in my lap, sleeping for hours as I typed? And who would weed out the good people from the bad? Watching him rub against those that didn’t like cats was a special treat to me and I’m sure he knew it. All of these questions had answers but one; how could anyone replace that little kitten I found in the farmers field?

Just then the vet walked in to give him a sedative.

Five minutes later, after another shot and one painful minute, he was gone.

God bless the vet who has to see this every day. I don’t know how one does it. Fortunately, with all the sympathetic discomfort he must have felt, just before we walked out the door, this guy thought to bring me Meatball’s collar because he was sure we’d want it. He was right.

The drive home was over an hour long and very little was said. Lying in my lap the whole way was the special order, break-away, reflective collar with a bell Ginger insisted he wear. As a mother, she had spared no expense to make sure he would survive. Driving past the place I found him seven years earlier, I could not believe he was gone and I looked for him in the field. But then, just around the corner was the hill where all those years ago I drove with him in my lap anticipating Ginger’s reaction. As the asphalt turned to gravel and the tires rumbled over rock, a faint jingle came from his bell. There in my lap on that winding road, once again I was taking him home; only this time to live forever in my heart.


Bourke said...

What a beautiful tribute to such a fine feline!
As a kept cat dad for 40 years, I am not ashamed to say that I was crying my eyes out by the time I finished reading Meatball's story.
I never had the privilage of meeting the Meat, but I am sure we would have been pals.
You don't find those kind of cats, they find you. The 5 that care for my wife and I now have all come from shelters or the woods, having been dumped there by idiots who think their unwanted kittens can survive in the wild.
Meatball was one lucky man, and you and Ginger were lucky parents to have had him in your lives.
Rest in Peace Meatball.

Larry said...

Unless you have personally experienced that kind of a bond between human and animal you cannot appreciate the depth of feeling that can be felt for a little friend. It is unlike any between humans because animals have none of our frailties, egos or demands. They are just genuine friends. The love that I have felt towards several dogs and cats over my life is unlike anything experienced between myself and any other of my own species. Sadly, our little friends have much shorter times on this earth than us and we are forced too often to say good-by to them. Each time that has happened I have shed many a tear. Undoubtedly more than I have ever shed for humans. Somehow their innocence makes it all the more heart wrenching.

In my early years I was ‘a dog guy’. I just figured that dogs and guys just went together like peanut butter and jelly and I never gave cats much consideration. That was before a little yellow kitten with a serious attitude marched into our home and our lives, much like you described. Where I had thought dogs were more intelligent I soon changed my tune. After all, in a couple of months of work you can teach dogs many things. However in less than a week, ‘Doink’ had taught me everything he figured that I needed to know. Doink is gone now, he was followed by ‘Tinker and Belle’ who too have left us. Tink never even knew what a cat was supposed to be, he was more human than most humans. ‘Cooter’ is still here and a new addition “Whizzy Jane’, wandered into our farm yard last year and took up residence in the house. ‘Sgt. Pepper’ was found along the road a couple of years ago and spends most of his time in the garage. In part because he still likes to mouse hunt and in part because of his unwillingness to share his people with any other feline. Now we have taken to feeding ‘Sir Squawk-a-lot’ , another yellow Tom who has found his way here. My wife has said the house is full and he can’t have a pass but I’m still working on it. In the meantime I cut a pet door in the shed and made a bed for him in there.

When rumors of a Mountain Lion possibly being in our area surfaced last spring I told my wife that we would be needing a bigger food bowl. Because if there is a lost or lonely cat anywhere’s about, he will surely find his way here.

I truly understand the hurt in your heart over Meatball. They become a part of us and while you can never replace one, I have found that the empty place left can be filled again. No two are remotely alike, so it’s fun learning a new personality. I wish you well.

Andrew Rodriguez said...

Ugh, you got me on this one, very well written, ever so heartbreaking when you realize you onlly had him for 7 years, that doesn't seem fair, he could have had years more pleasure from the responsibility of keeping the hanger and ramp vermin free while doing his little version of TSA, making sure everyone who flew in or out had been checked. I knew going in how the story ended, but that didn't stop me from getting choked up.