He came from a line of strays on the streets of New York City, so who knows what kind of genes accompanied him into his little life. My brother and I had only known that the “Free Kittens” sign on a lamppost in front of the neighborhood “Cat lady’s” house meant a cute furry companion for our childhood. We had made up a song and dance routine (“We really want a kitten, yeah!”) aimed at convincing my parents that we would be loving and responsible cat owners. Somehow, our side show worked and days later a cautious but curious kitten with a perfect black tuxedo coat and sharp willowy whiskers crept out of a box and into our lives.
His name, “Mischief” was quickly discarded for the moniker “The Puss”, bequeathed by my dad who had been less than thrilled about this addition to the family. All of his fears about having an animal in an apartment were, in fact, realized. The Puss peed in places where he shouldn’t have, broke lamps, scratched furniture, vomited on rugs, got stuck in the washing machine; and there were weeks when my brother and I didn’t clean the litter box, forgot to brush his fur, and our living space was littered with hairballs and the salty scent of stale cat urine.
But, The Puss, who eventually grew to 18 pounds, was also a most stellar creature. He did all the things that the good kinds of cats do, like curl up on your lap purring for hours, deliciously chase our scurrying feet under bed sheets, or plop down irresistibly in the middle of a pile of work papers. He’d never turn on you the way that some cats do where they suddenly swipe you with a paw after posturing that they are just loving the strokes they’re receiving. The Puss was sincere and transparent and accepted love without question. He would chase things and retrieve them. Whenever the can opener was used, for anything, he would careen into the kitchen ecstatic about the possibility of Nine Lives scrambled beef and eggs, which he would eat so quickly that when he once vomited it up, it looked so much like the original from the can, my mom simply scooped it up again and put it back into his bowl for him to consume, which he did with equal enthusiasm.
He would mail letters for us by perching on the table just below a mail chute in the hallway outside our apartment, waiting for us to position a letter halfway into the open slot, which he would then bat, causing the envelope to slip down. He tolerated just about everything, from being dressed up in doll clothes, having Binaca sprayed in his mouth, and being held up to the sky in my brother’s attempt to re-create the moment from the movie “Roots” where Kunta Kente is held up as his father recites “Behold Allah, the only one greater than you”. He not only tolerated it. He loved it.
In spite of all this my dad maintained that he didn’t really like The Puss, that he wasn’t interested, didn’t want to be a part of most of the activities involving him. He was furious that The Puss had destroyed some family heirlooms and that he was a menace to our apartment. “GodDAMN that animal” he roared when The Puss, in a fit of either terror or excitement, left long scratch marks on my dad’s wooden desk in one of his famous feline flights from table top to floor. Of course, The Puss was good for one thing: the scapegoat anytime my dad might have passed gas. “Bad puss” he’d say, and we’d roll our eyes and quickly exit the room.
For me, the puss was a domestic furry anchor in years where boys called me “Mary Purdy Ugly” and girls snickered at my attempts to coordinate Gap jeans with Banana Republic shirts. He couldn’t have cared less that I was a late blooming flat chested 14 year old sporting a 9 ½ shoe at 5 foot 4 and 95 pounds. He was my solace when I returned home each day, greeting me at the door with a long line of socks and stockings he had proudly dragged from my mother’s drawer.
But 6 years into his little life, The Puss succumbed to some sort of feline disease not uncommon in the world of the inner city cat and I returned home on Friday from an all-week 8th Grade school trip to the news that he needed to be put down that weekend. He was now living in the bathtub. It wasn’t much of a life, I knew that. He could no longer use his back legs and had peed on himself enough times and in enough places in our apartment that my parents had been forced to relegate him to a contained area. It wasn’t fair. Only 6 years old (42 in kitty years), The Puss, his back legs paralyzed, his kidneys malfunctioning was likely not long for this world. There was a chance of some improvement with a very expensive operation, but no guarantees that it would work. My parents informed me that the next day we would be bringing him to the local ASPCA to be euthanized. At the time, I didn’t even know what this meant. I only knew that he would no longer be mailing any letters or being force fed my breath mints.
I couldn’t imagine a life without him. I stepped into our bathroom to share some final meaningful moments with him. It was 1984 and Phil Collin’s “Against All Odds” song was being played incessantly on the radio. I was sure this song was written for me and The Puss. As I leaned over the side of the tub and pondered the imminent loss, I sang to myself (and to him) “You’re the only one who really knew me at all.”
He mewed incessantly in the tub and I vacillated between being inconsolable at the thought of losing him, and repelled by the stench of his fur matted with urine and excrement.
The next morning, this beautiful sunny Saturday in May, I hopped into a borrowed car with the whole family, tears streaming down my face, Phil Collins turn tabling in my head to bring The Puss to his final resting spot.
When we arrived at the ASPCA, he was placed in a nondescript metal cage at the large reception while my mom and dad signed some papers and my brother, just a little too old and cool at 18 for cat grief, waited outside.
The Puss was clearly terrified and confused. He had spent very little time outside of our apartment, with the exception of our mail chute area in the hallway. He was crying and meowing desperately. He looked at me as if to say “How can you do this? What are you thinking?” and he was pushing against the bars in an attempt to escape despite that his weak legs couldn’t get him very far. I stuck my fingers through the cold bars of the cage, trying to pet him and soothe him in these final and impersonal moments.
“Good bye, Puss” my voice broke, my eyes blurry with tears. “I’m sorry. I love you. I’ll miss you so much.”
And then, I felt something behind me. A head on my shoulder and these heaving weighty sobs. It was my dad.