Tommy didn't make it. The veterinarian called a little after 2:30 this morning to say he'd taken a turn for the worse; his temperature had started to fall and he need an oxygen mask to breath. His white-cell count was still abnormal, despite antibiotics. Time was running out. "I thought you'd better know," he said, "he's unlikely to make it 'til morning."
Tam and I went to the pet hospital. Tommy was on a table, looking like just what he was: a very old guy, on life support. He'd continued to decline and started panting while we were there, needing his oxygen turned up even more. He was swaddled in heated blankets. I petted him and talked to him; so did Tam and the vet. He did start to purr but all too soon, it was time. He passed peacefully and, I hope, happily. It was about four in the morning. I was crying.
I cried when he was born, too. Unlike The Slinker's mama cat, who gave birth under a quilt, quietly, Thomas's mother, a feral I'd named Missy, fetched me to attend at her birthing bed. She'd showed up at my door, wanting in, wanting to be My Pet, and was so sweet-natured I couldn't refuse. Like her offspring (and the tom who probably sired them), she was almost all black, just a hint of white at her throat and tummy. She was a smallish cat, almost prissy, very neat and dainty in her movements.
As is so often the case with female stray cats, she soon commenced to swell. I read up on birthing cats (it's called "queening" and for good reason: you have not seen regal 'til you have seen a mama cat proudly reigning over her kittens) and made a bed for her in a broken kitchen cabinet, just the height of the toe-kick off floor level. She spent some time in and seemed to approve; with a door propped ajar, it was dark and private. I figured she'd have them there, move them to any one of a number of spots soon after, and I'd be well out of it.
I was wrong. One morning while I was getting ready for work, Missy -- now looking fit to explode -- came and got me, insistently meowing until I followed her into the kitchen. She hopped into the cabinet and kept on talking 'til I opened the door. As soon as I did, she went into labor!
It didn't take long; about as soon as one tiny kitten was born and cleaned up, another was on the way. One of them -- the last or second to last -- seemed to be stuck; I reached to assist but before I'd barely started to move, she leapt up to the half-width shelf above and pop! out came the kitten. I think that was Tommy; he was always larger than his three sisters. In due course, she gave birth to four black kittens, who would later be named Jane, Charlotte, Emily and...Thomas. (He was briefly named after the Bronte brother but it didn't stick). I was so touched by Missy's faith in me that I just broke down and cried.
I made up another bedding area in the space next to where she'd given birth and eventually left for work; by the time I returned home, she'd moved them and after I removed the birthing box (fancy name for a cardboard box and a rag bed), she kept the kittens there until it was time, several weeks later, for the Grand Parade.
Missy was a very good mother, but she was a feral cat. As soon as they were weaned, I was going to take her to the vet and have her spayed; but as soon as the kittens were weaned, she went into heat and as frantic to Get Outside! She made a dash for freedom before her appointment, joined up with a big, dark tomcat and they both lit out. I never saw her again.
But the kittens remained, a furry, purring quilt through that Winter, a source of joy as they grew up and explored. Tommy and Janie were with me all their lives; Emily and Charlotte had a litter of kittens each as soon as they were old enough (oops!) and with their young, spent about a year as outdoor Rodent Control Technicians at the Skunk Works North Campus. (They lived in a tent over a ground-level hot-air exhaust that Winter. I found homes for all of them except Slinky, who came home with me).
Tommy grew up to be a dignified tomcat; he had a degree of gravitas, though he was willing to set it aside to thwart string or shoelaces and loved chasing bouncy, foam-rubber balls on the stairs at my old house. He'd play with one by himself at night, chasing it down, catching it and carrying it back upstairs in his mouth, meowing, "'Awl! 'Awl!" all the way. As he aged, he was less active; I'd skip the ball up a flight of stairs and he'd reach out and catch it effortlessly.
When he was even older, he had problems with getting stopped up; like many another aging individual, he had to have Metamucil daily, and eventually he had to have a prescription digestive aid, too. Then came thyroid trouble, and high blood pressure; but he persevered. He spent most of his time on my desk, sleeping behind the monitor or sitting at my right, smoothing on my hand as I used the mouse and helping me type. He had become very frail. His old bones felt like porcelain but he'd leap down from the desk (with a cat carrier as an intermediate step) and until very recently, he could leap back up again, too, despite arthritic back legs.
He was so frail for so long and held on nevertheless. I kind of wonder if he was staying to be with The Slinker; after she passed away, he was pretty quiet, though he was still coming out to be petted as I typed.
I miss him a lot. I've had one or more cats most of my life but Thomas, along with The Slinker and Janie, was one of the very best. He was a wonderful cat.
As for me, I'm lost. I've outlived my adopted children. I just hope I gave them good lives.
T. R. MCELROY'S STREAMLINED TELEGRAPH KEYS
6 months ago