The lizards have reclaimed the front porch. In fact, they are now sunbathing on warm bricks and strolling from plant to plant. They are no longer in a hurry to snatch a bug and run for cover.
A spider the size of my palm even had the audacity to find its way into my house and tiptoe above the sliding glass door in horrifying splendor. There was no bug-catcher on duty to chase it away, challenge its existence or alert the head of household.
That’s because, somehow, these creatures knew that Dude the cat was off duty. Gone. And they were now free to reestablish their places at my house with the feline sentinel no longer on patrol.
In past years, he would stalk the fastest lizards and sometimes present them to his mother, alive, albeit tailless. He would leap at the walls whenever a spider came to visit and either swat it down himself or summon his flip-flop-brandishing mother.
Dude arrived in a mystery nearly seven years ago. He was a friendly, adult “tuxedo” cat that just showed up one day when I lived in Lakeland, Fla. He walked down the sidewalk and greeted me. I petted him and told him he was a fine young man. I assumed he belonged to a neighbor.
At that time, I lived in a town home that did not allow pets, and I had a job that required nearly 20 weeks of travel each year. My life was not optimal to have a pet. I have had cats since I was in kindergarten. I still have the letter I gave my father as a child that said, “Dear Daddy, May I have a cat? Circle yes or no.” I missed having my own kitty, so this little visitor made me smile. I picked him up and felt that deep rumble of pleasure that only cats possess.
Soon, I discovered this cat was living beneath the bushes in front of my town home. And I felt a pang of concern one day when a neighbor’s Jack Russell Terrier flushed him out of the bushes and caused him to run and hide. This cat didn’t climb a tree. Instead, he ran and hid under cars in the parking lot. That’s when I figured out he had been declawed.
My roommate, at the time, knew how much I loved cats, so three days before my birthday in October 2006, she left the front door ajar and in walked the tuxedo cat. About that time, I was walking down the stairs from my bedroom, saw him and said, “Well, hey dude, what are you doing in here?” The cat looked at me, circled the room sniffing every inch, then rolled over on his back with four feet in the air and fell asleep for two hours.
That’s when I knew I had a cat. I knew I wasn’t supposed to have a pet, but I also wasn’t going to turn this cat loose to the dreaded Jack Russell Terrier. And something else happened. The complex where I lived was full of college students who, apparently, had owned pets, but when school was out, they left and also left behind their pets. The parking lot was full of cats and dogs and one day, while this new mystery kitty was in my house, an animal control officer came and rounded up all the strays and took them away. I told this cat he was one lucky dude. He was inside my house and missed his free ride to the animal shelter.
I did ask neighbors if anyone had lost a cat or knew who this cat’s owner might be, but nobody knew anything about him. So, I took him to a local vet to have him checked out. The vet said the cat had been neutered and declawed and had obviously been someone’s pet. He added that the cat was probably close to two years old, only had a few treatable parasites in his gut from scavenging for food, and then he congratulated me on my fine, new pet.
This cat’s name could only be Dude. He was truly some kind of dude with his own ideas about things and his own unique style of operating. When he wanted me to get out of bed in the morning, he would jump on the bed and pat me on the rump – sometimes even with both paws in a sweep-sweep-sweep motion on my rear end.
I am not a beef eater, but once, when my roommate had a steak at our house, Dude nearly jumped in her plate for a bite. Ditto for the bowl of Bailey’s Irish Cream ice cream she tried to eat while sitting on the floor. This cat obviously had distinguished taste!
Later, during the summers he spent at “camp” with his grandparents in North Carolina while I traveled for work, my mom informed me that he became very calm and relaxed whenever she played classical music. His favorite spot at my parents’ house was a small rug in the hallway – an intersection -- where he would lie on his back and welcome belly rubs from all who passed. Again, this cat had his own ideas about things.
I often wondered where he got his start, who his former owner had been, and even what was his original name? Sometimes, I tried out names on him to see if he would react. Mr. Whiskers? Tux? Spats? Boots? Who are you and where did you come from, I would ask. He would just blink or roll over for a belly rub.
In 2007, Dude moved with me to New Smyrna Beach, Fla. He now had a bigger house, a garage to explore and a front porch. I trained Dude to sit in a wicker chair on the porch through repetition and positive reinforcement. Sometimes he would sit in that chair for 40 minutes and watch the dog walkers go by. I would hear them say, “Hey Dude, aren’t you a good cat sitting in that chair?”
They would say he “acted more like a dog” (to which I would later apologize to him). The only time he would revert to his feline instincts was when the lizards forgot who was the boss of the porch. That’s why I kept large cups near the front and back doors – to catch the lizards he brought to me when they ran for cover out of the snare of his mouth.
Dude hated for me to travel and I went to great lengths to hide suitcases and to pack on the sly. I would hurriedly pack a few things while he sat on the porch. Still, he always seemed to know when I was leaving and hung his head or worse yet, hid under the bed as I tried to tell him goodbye.
I didn’t really get to tell him goodbye one week ago when he slipped out of this world. I had driven him up to North Carolina in mid-May to spend some of the summer at his grandparents’ house while I travel for several June writing assignments. My parents were excited to see him again and once he forgave me for the nine-hour car ride, he was happy to be at his Carolina home. He would fling himself at my father for belly rubs and visit my mom each time she sat in a reading chair, kneading on her lap with his eyes closed and his purr-engine running.
Dude began coughing and choking last fall and I assumed he was having trouble with fur balls – the accumulation of fur that cats often get in their throats from grooming. I bought him special cat food, combed him at least once a day and wondered why he was suddenly having such a problem with this?
At his annual veterinary visit, I asked the doctor to give him a chest x-ray. The x-ray revealed some “pathology,” as the doctors called it, but nobody was sure what it was. Maybe it was asthma or remnants of heartworms that could have occurred prior to being placed on medication. Maybe it was cancer. They just weren’t sure.
In February this year, Dude was placed on three different kinds of medicine twice a day for three weeks in an effort to eradicate whatever was in his lungs. He hated the Prednisone and antibiotics, but we got through the procedure and went back for another chest x-ray. The doctor said there was no improvement and basically, wished us good luck.
I sought a second opinion with a cat specialist in Ormond Beach, Fla. She informed me that the medications he had just taken had given him diabetes and that he needed to go on insulin immediately. I l learned this is often the case when animals are given rounds of aggressive treatment. Often, the diabetes is reversible once their insulin levels are under control.
The cat specialist suggested that we control his insulin level with daily shots and a high protein-low carb diet. Once we solved that problem, we could refocus on his lung issue. She also could not determine the nature of his ailment, but provided a bacon-flavored bronchodilator to help his breathing in the meantime.
All was seemingly going well. Dude didn’t even flinch from his daily insulin injections and was enjoying his $2-a-can gourmet cat food. While he didn’t particularly like receiving his oral medication each morning, I got it down to an art. The bacon-flavored oral med was down his throat before he could put up a fuss, and the next thing he knew, I had placed him right back down to his plate of food with such gourmet names as “Cowboy Cookout” and “Granny’s Chicken Potpie.”
When we arrived at his grandparents’ house, I showed my mother how to administer the daily meds and she mastered it quickly. Dude was now running their house. He was gaining back the weight he had lost before the insulin and was busy choosing between multiple nap spots in their house, both upstairs and in their full basement. My dad diligently swept the cement basement floor so Dude’s white boots wouldn’t turn gray.
Somehow, Dude knew when I was preparing to leave their house to go back to Florida. I tried to hide my travel bag, but he knew before any zippers had been pulled. He hid under my parents’ bed the morning I was to leave. I had to crawl under their bed and tell him goodbye. Lying on my stomach under the bed, I said, “Dude, I have to leave, but you get to stay here in good ol’ North Carolina with your grandparents, who love you dearly. I’ll come back and get you as soon as my traveling stops. I’m really going to miss you, but I know you are happy and safe here. Be good. I love you.”
Four days later, my mom called me in Florida and said, “If I didn’t know Dude had something wrong with him, I would never guess it.” He was no longer coughing or choking. Dude was sitting in windows, posturing for attention, enjoying his meals, exploring the basement and tolerating my young niece, who was small enough to join him with a flashlight in some of his hidden sleeping spots.
The very next day, my mom again called, this time with great urgency in her voice: “Lisa, we are at the emergency veterinary clinic. I think Dude is dying.”
Dude yelled out a week ago on a Sunday afternoon and my parents went running to see where he was. He was behind the bed in my room having difficulty breathing. My mom scooped him up, put him on a towel, and rode in the back seat of the car with him while my father drove to the emergency vet’s office in Winston-Salem.
At first, the doctors thought it was hypoglycemia and immediately treated him. But the problem was his breathing, so they placed him on oxygen. Dude didn’t respond. After several hours, a decision had to be made. None of us wanted him to linger in pain and suffering. We had to be merciful to this friend we all loved.
Dude was buried in the woods behind my parents’ house where so many of our other pets had gone to rest over the years. My parents placed flowers on his grave. My dad covered his grave with a tarp at night. All of us cried buckets of tears over this cat that had just walked into our lives, gave us such joy and then departed far too soon.
Certainly, Dude came to me in a mystery and left in a mystery. I’ll never know where he got his start and I’ll never know what snatched him from this earth after less than 10 years. I guess Dude always was on a mission. He had his own mind about things. And for now, all of those lizards on my front porch still have tails.
- Lisa D. Mickey, June 2, 2013