My cat died tonight. I hadn’t intended on calling her “Scratchy.” The plan was “Cat Mandu.” But I got her for my son, and he preferred to name her after the animated cat in the Simpson’s spin-off. Funny thing about plans, though. That was the last time he really had anything to do with her. She was my cat, for fourteen years. In the last year she became Marianne’s cat, too. We just buried her outside, under the window she liked to look out of. Let me tell you the story I sometimes shared with students, what I’d come to call “The Story of Scratchy”… or “Cwatzy,” as she became.
When I separated from my son Randy’s mother, in 2001, I gave up our house and moved to an apartment. Wanting to make sure he was as comfortable at my small place as he was at his mom’s, I tried to think of something special I could give him for us to share. That explained the Gameboy. But I also wanted him to have a pet. As some of you might remember, he was autistic, and animals are supposed to be good for that, right? But what kind? My first thought was fish. I had never had fish, so this was something we could discover together. I took him to several pet stores to get him excited about our new roommates. Finally, we bought three fish. They weren’t tropical fish, but they were pretty fish: a tricolor this, a neon that, a rainbow the other. Now I knew nothing about fish care, but I read the instructions carefully, then shifted the water to adjust the temperature, and finally slid them in. One came to the surface and took its last breath. One lay in a coma like driftwood until the morning. No one had told me that if you don’t know anything about fish you start off with sturdy ones. So that left Brendan, brave Brendan, the survivor, for whom Randy drew a tributory crayon picture. But he was all alone, and that’s not what we wanted. So I went back to the pet store, only to be told that we couldn’t add more fish then because of the ph balance and all, that the water would have to recycle to make it habitable for anyone but Brendon, who was used to it, and with only one fish that would take a long time. Back in the pet store, browsing fish for the future, I was told that goldfish are strong fish and can survive anything, but I didn’t want to put in any old fish, I wanted our aquarium to be special and pretty. Although by that point, Randy lost all interest.
Meanwhile, my ex had bought three fish to surprise us with, and left them with the downstairs neighbor. When we got home we were sure surprised. I knew that putting them into that tank would be like immersing them in soup, and Randy had witnessed quite enough carnage already. I remembered we had a lake nearby, which I knew they wouldn’t survive, but Randy wouldn’t know that. But no, I didn’t do it. I realized we had about fifteen minutes to return the fish to the store before it closed, so we grabbed the bag, hopped into the car, and drove French Connection style, making it just in time. So at least some fish made it out alive. But I was still sad (Randy couldn’t have cared less) that Brendon was alone. So I was in another pet store, seeking a different answer, whereupon I was told that there was this pump that could oxygenate the water and speed up the cycle. Exactly what I wanted, right? Well, I read all of the instructions, screwed it onto the glass, plugged it in, turned it on, bubble bubble… Brendan came to the surface, took his last breath and expired. We buried Brendan in a matchbox behind our apartment. No more fish.
So now I thought… hamsters. I always had hamsters when I was a preschool teacher or director, and I never killed any of them… except for the one that had gone missing and we found filled with maggots behind the soda machine. But that hadn’t been my fault. Really. So now I had to get Randy on board. We went to the pet store again, now to look at the cute and furry little hamsters. I finally got Randy somewhat interested, so to seal the deal I bought a rocketship habitrail. And when he was ready, we went rodent shopping. I had always had teddy bear hamsters. They’re very tame and friendly… except for the albino ones, which are vicious. Anyway, Randy became interested, instead, in the somewhat bigger, three times more expensive, cousin of the teddy bears, a black bear hamster. Well this was for him, right? So we bought him, took him home and introduced him to his spaceship. Randy named him “Jimmy” and drew another picture. And Jimmy was a fine hamster, playful and friendly, he would sit on your hand or climb up your shoulder… until tragedy struck maybe a couple of months later and Jimmy died, from what I don’t know. So we buried him next to Brendan, waited a respectful amount of time, and then went to get a new one.
Randy picked another black bear, whom he wanted to name “Jimmy.” But I explained that there was only one Jimmy, so he said, “Okay, James.” Fine. I had scrubbed the cage thoroughly to make sure there was nothing to harm James, and brought him home in one of those little black boxes, you know, the coffin-like things. It must have been a bumpy ride… no, he didn’t die. But once we got him home and put him in the cage he became completely uninterested in human contact, except for biting. I tried. Meanwhile Randy had lost all interest again. But we finally had to take him back and explain we needed a people-friendly, specifically child-friendly one instead. And one was brought out and placed into the palm of my hand. He was so sweet and cute and cuddly… except that I had forgotten that hamsters tend to be nocturnal, and he was that way only because he was half asleep. I had even brought the cage, so as to avoid the coffin-like journey home, but when he awoke he was no more sweet and cute and cuddly than James had been. Plus, Randy had grown tired of the Jimmy/James paradigm, so named this fellow “Darth Maul.” Thus, Darth had a monstrous reputation to live up to. I didn’t want to keep replacing hamsters. I mean, what kind of message was that for Randy. So I tried to live with and, over time, civilize Darth. But he would have none of it.
Then one day we were in another pet store, probably fondly watching fish, when I saw three baby black bear hamsters in front. They were awake, playing with one another, and seemingly very different from our previous ones. We were told that they had been hand raised and, so, quite people friendly. I asked the girl if they would allow an exchange, even though I hadn’t even gotten Darth there, and after going back to ask the manager, she said okay. So, with Randy’s okay as well, we jumped in the car and drove, French Connection style, home, scooped up Darth, cage and all, and headed back to the store. The girl said she would take Darth out of the cage, but I thought it was only right that I do it as a goodbye. And as I did, he bit the hell out of me. There bleeding, I knew, first, that he was sending me a message, and, second, that I had made the right move. So we brought Kibby, or Kib for short, home, and he was great, living an almost complete hamster life in our care… well, in my care. Randy had lost all interest.
One day while driving I realized something pretty amazing. When I was young I didn’t have hamsters, I had parakeets. The first one was Spotty. Spotty was a friendly bird; he would sit on your shoulder or head… until tragedy struck and he flew out of a window left open. So we waited a respectful length of time and got our second, whom I wanted to name “Spotty,” but I was told that there was only one Spotty, so I dubbed him “Spotty #2.” But he wasn’t very friendly, flying up to the top of the door frame and keeping away from us, except to nip. So we exchanged him for another, whom, having gotten over the Spotty paradigm, I called “Jet.” But Jet was another ornery bird. We tried to keep him, so as not to send me a bad message, but finally gave up and got Tiny, the friendliest and longest lasting parakeet of all… the same exact pattern. Bizarre, huh?
At that point, I was ready for a cat again. I had had cats for most of my adult life. My first was a beautiful black cat I named “Blake.” Then there were orange tabbies called “Steppenpussy” and “Fetchitini” respectively. After that was a wonderful Siamese I named “Muse.” I had Muse for somewhere around 17 years I think, into my marriage. Unfortunately, my wife at the time had OCD and didn’t want to touch the cat or touch anything that I touched after touching the cat. So I probably neglected him in his later years and have regretted that. After he died, some time passed, and when we bought our first home we got a kitten, “Catrina.” Many of you know that that house was burned down, and Catarina was lost in the fire. So I think it took me a while to want another cat, but now I was ready. Except that Randy didn’t want a cat. My ex and I had ended up with another cat after Catrina, “Catarina” (of course), but she was a bit overwhelming and crazy and Randy was kind of afraid of and didn’t much like her. I acknowledged this and told Randy that I really wanted the cat for him, that I thought it would be good for him, but I wanted one for me too, so this one time I would do something for myself anyway. This was an unfamiliar stand to Randy, so he had to draw his own line in the sand, too. “As long as it’s a boy,” because Catarina was a girl and because he was going through a major boy thing at the time. I assured him that that would be my intention.
I wanted a Siamese again. They’re really unique, mellow and friendly. So I answered an ad from someone who lived in a ritzy area. He led us down into his basement, where there were three kittens running around. Randy quickly looked at the cats, then cast his gaze on the man’s pinball machine, and that was the end of his inspections. I found a playful male, and showed it to Randy, who nodded between balls (no pun intended). When we were getting ready to leave, young Randy asked the question that I should have been considering, “How much?” I’m an old hippie, so I don’t think of such things. I believe the man said $500, to which I responded “okay, thank you.” He told us we could get kittens at the local animal shelter, and we drove right there, but there were only a couple of cats, no kittens and no males. However, the person there overheard our conversation and told me that Randy was right, males are friendlier. Okay, I told Randy, don’t worry, we’ll find you a boy.
The next day I answered an ad for Russian Blue kittens that had been brought to a pet store in Nassau county by a rescue organization. Cool, I thought, Russian Blues (as opposed to Russian Oranges and Reds, like Trump and his Republicans) are supposed to be beautiful, and getting a rescued cat even better. We drove all the way there, only to find out that they had no knowledge of such an event. I didn’t see any kittens in the store, until we started leaving and Randy spotted a house-like section with three exotic kittens. “How much for the male?” I asked. “$750” the clerk replied. “Thank you very much,” I muttered as we quickly exited. On the drive back I continued to reassure Randy that we would get the cat he wanted.
The following day I did what I should have in the first place, I looked in the paper under “FREE kittens.” I found one ad from someone in the neighborhood who had three kittens for adoption, one of them male. So off we went. When we got there, the woman told us that one had been adopted, but that she still had the male. She brought out a really pretty and sweet white one. I played with it a bit while Randy, disinterested, played with her grandson. Then I lifted it up. Nope, female. So she brought her in and got the male, who was the runt of the litter, but still very sweet and playful. And home we went… with Scratchy.
At home and after naming Scratchy, Randy fed and took care of and proudly carried around his new buddy. He even had me call his mother so she could come over and see him with the cat. After a while she took him, leaving just me and Scratchy. I was writing at the computer with Scratchy on my lap when, while petting her, I made a discovery. Scratchy was a she. The first cat the woman gave away must have been the male. Oh, no, I thought. I hesitantly called Randy. The conversation went something like, “You know how much you liked Scratchy, how you named and fed Scratchy, and how good that seemed to make you feel. Well, I just discovered something. Scratchy’s actually a girl. But it really doesn’t matter, Scratchy is the same cat you liked so much.” “Take her back.” “But Randy, she’s really a sweet cat who liked you and I think in time….” “Take her back.” “Okay, I promised you….”
At that very moment, I swear, Scratchy leapt from my lap and dashed into the closet. I called the woman, who said she’d take her back, managed to get her out of the closet, carried her to the car as she clung tightly to me, drove to her former owner’s house, pried her from my shirt, and sadly drove away. As I drove I called Randy and told him I had brought Scratchy back and we would find the boy cat he really wanted together. I arrived home and returned to the computer. At almost nine the phone rang. It was Randy. “I want the cat. Even though it’s a girl I want the cat.” It went right to my heart. He was feeling guilty. I quickly called the woman, who told me she had already gotten rid of her. After a pause she said she was teasing me and to come get her. And so I did, and after a happy reunion we drove home. I swung by his mom’s house so he could see the cat and get to sleep. Randy never showed any interest in Scratchy again. Part of it was wanting Scratchy declawed, as he was still skittish about cats. And part of it was, well, Randy.
I know I’ve been avoiding what has just happened. I felt this was all part of the story that I wanted to share, but now that I’ve reached this point the sadness has returned. She was my companion for fourteen years. She was born on July 4, 2004, at least that’s what it says on her carrying case, whether by knowledge or estimate. She was a beautiful long haired cat, white with grey spots, and a really pretty face that looked almost human, especially when she was a kitten. She had a cute, light, squeaky “mew,” really more of a “mouw,” that sometimes we would exchange in conversation. She liked to be sung to, and would mouw back. And she had a very feminine, butt swaying walk. She definitely had a cat personality. She was insistently independent and things had to be on her terms… just like Randy. She purred contentedly when she was being held and petted, but jumped off as soon as the grasp was loosened, as if to imply that she had only pretended to like it and had just been doing me a favor. No matter how many little beds or houses or cat trees I got her, she would never go where I suggested, she preferred to lay on paper. She would come, or jump up on the bed, when she felt like it, as long as I didn’t reach out so that she would have to admit she had done so, but she would always be at the door when I got home… then turn her back. And she would show affection, particularly when she wanted to get fed. Come to think of it, she was like a lot of women I dated, too.
She would never go outside. But we had to move a few times, from that apartment to the coop I bought, then upstairs to another coop briefly, and then to the condo I’m renting now. And when I’d put her into the carrier she would scratch and scrape at the bars, the first couple of times until she had cut herself up. She was definitely a homebody, like me. And she was probably afraid of being taken to the vet or maybe even given back again. The last trip to the vet was particularly depressing, because she was too weak to fight and it was so traumatic for her that she never recovered. She just wanted to be home. Fortunately, for the last year she’s had a bed buddy, my fiancee. I’m a light, sometimes hesitant sleeper and never liked to sleep with cats, which might have accounted for some of her distance. But with Marianne, the first living thing besides me she ever got close to, she would come and jump up on the pillow next to her and sleep beside her, on, as she claimed it, a real human bed of her own. I’m grateful that she had been lucky enough to have that experience, and a loving mother figure in her life. The way Marianne responded to her in her final days, how she cleaned and took care of her, how upset she was as she declined, how she stayed up at night to check on her, how she held her for hours in her last hours so she wouldn’t feel alone, how she cried when she died, was so touching for me and only further reinforces how lucky I am.
I was there when Scratchy took her final, labored breaths, her eyes widened and blind. I tried to pet her, she tried to purr but choked instead, and I couldn’t watch anymore. I came upstairs, and soon Marianne came up crying to tell me she was gone. We dug up a spot under the window she used to look safely through at the outside world, buried her, and transplanted a rose bush over her. I watered it, took a picture, and then we went inside, just the two of us. Goodbye, Scratchy.