Clippings: Farewell, dear four-legged friend
We lost a dear, dear friend at my house last weekend. She had four legs, a tail and fur — a brilliant tortoiseshell coat of black, orange, tan and cream. Yes, we lost a cat. But not just any cat. We lost Blacknose — one of those once-in-a-lifetime pets who’s pretty much a person, just a person of a different species.
First, let me explain that stupid name — “Blacknose.”
Seventeen years ago, when my husband and I got married in southern Vermont, Blacknose was at our wedding. She was one of the star performers for the gaggle of little girls who wanted to cuddle kittens in between running up and down the long stretch of grass along Green River (which flowed past our house), gawking at the adults, eating as many gooey sweet treats as possible, and twirling around in circles.
On that perfectly blue and sunny Midsummer’s Day, Blacknose was maybe 10 or 12 weeks old. We never knew quite when she’d been born.
We had agreed to foster a litter for the Brattleboro Humane Society and got a mom cat with five-week-old kittens. The tiny things looked a bit like mewling cat-rats, the way baby kittens do, with their eyes shut and their ears folded down. I no longer remember the mom cat’s name, but the humane society had named one of the baby toms “Monroe.” Someone had moved out of an apartment in downtown Brattleboro, leaving Mom, Monroe and sibs behind, stuck on their luck. But … humane society to the rescue, and we soon had the cat family snug in a blanket-lined box in the large (huge) upstairs bathroom in the ramshackle old farmhouse we rented.
The farmhouse sat nestled into the wooded hills of Guilford, at the intersection of two dirt roads, right beside a covered bridge (where we got our mail), across from a little historic church. Having traveled many a back road across our beautiful state, I have yet to see a spot more beautiful nor one that made you see Vermont as it had been in earlier times: a cluster of hard-working hill farms clinging to the backs of old mountains.
We swore we were just fostering, not adopting, so we gave the kittens names that were intended to tell who was who without getting any one of them too tightly wrapped around our heartstrings. Mezzo-Mezzo was a long-haired tortoiseshell with a half-black, half-orange nose; Gray Kitty was the gray kitty; Monroe had short black fur, a white tuxedo and white mitts; Not Monroe was the other boy kitty who was not Monroe; Blacknose was the short-haired tortoiseshell with the black nose. Smart, hunh?
Because we were not yet parents, we took about as many kitten pictures as we would later take baby pictures. And one of my favorite photos of Blacknose is as a tiny kitten, short tail held up in the air to balance, one pink-padded paw held high. Out of a litter of super-smart, super-beautiful kittens (the mom was so smart, she litter-trained all the kittens herself and we never had even one puddle or poo pile on that ancient linoleum floor), Blacknose was the smartest, the most adventurous, the fastest, the strongest, and the most loving.
She was the first one to climb out of their cuddly box, pad down the hall, and come and find us.
How could we not adopt her?
After that, we tried to change her name. We tried making it French, but “Nez Noir” didn’t work. We held a contest with our friends and family. Nothing stuck. So Blacknose she stayed, which sometimes morphed to Nokie and then just to Blackie (for a mostly orange cat).
When our older daughter, Meigan, came along, Blackie loved nothing more than to curl up beside her and spend hours, literally, grooming her bald baby head.
Months after Meigan was born, we put almost all of our belongings in a storage unit and set off for Europe for my husband’s work.
Blacknose stayed with us over the next several peripatetic years. She lived with us in Sevilla, Spain, where we soon learned that she and her ilk were a scourge upon our apartment building. The “portero” (doorman/groundskeeper/maintenance guy) left a scrawling hand-written note (in Spanish, of course) tacked to our door enumerating all the reasons cats were “sucio,” dirty. Our postage-stamp-sized apartment was on the ground floor of what had been a convent back in the day, and Blacknose used the window onto the courtyard as her cat door, jumping in and out, and in the process leaving paw prints on the but-for-her spotlessly whitewashed walls.
Life in the French countryside, while my husband led VBT bike tours, was easier on felines. Perhaps my favorite picture of Blacknose shows her elegantly perched on a Paris hotel balcony, gazing serenely at the street life below.
My feline friend came with me, when, baby in tow, I was abruptly called to a suburban street in Colorado Springs to care for my mother, who needed months of live-in care after an accident.
Blacknose returned with us to Vermont, where she reigned as queen of our household for the next 14 years. We almost lost her twice, but she always pulled through.
Right before the birth of our second child, we bought a house at the end of a quiet, dead-end street. Months later she dragged a hind foot in on Halloween night and we learned from the vet how hard it is to reset cat’s bones because they are so light and delicate. After that, she could never jump or climb, but she seemed happy padding around the garden on sunny days, eating cantaloupe, snoozing on the bed, purring, cuddling, and occasionally giving one of our noses a good chomp.
At one point, my two daughters and I accompanied my husband on a two-month travel-writing research trip to Portugal and when we got back she was on death’s door. The vet said she’d stopped eating because we were gone, was heading into liver failure, and the only chance to save her was to spoon feed her until she started eating again on her own. The vet cautioned us it rarely worked, and we’d probably lose her. But we spoon fed her for an entire month until she got back the twinkle in her eyes and, after many, many more months of eating, the wobble in her belly.
She seemed to age gracefully, her coat still beautiful, if not quite as well-groomed, as her tongue lost its rough edge, in the way of aging cats.
Last Saturday started out like any other day except Blacknose looked wrong. So we took her to the vet, who put her on pain meds and an antibiotic. We stayed close to her all day, taking turns holding her on our laps and petting her. Then suddenly late at night her conditioned worsened dramatically. And in the time it took to call the emergency vet, get the return call, describe what was happening and consider whether to drive Blackie to Brandon or Burlington, she was gone.
Blackie died on the couch, right between me and my older daughter — now 16 and almost grown, once the baby whose little bald head Blacknose groomed and groomed — and my younger daughter close by.
It’s funny: I was upset that we didn’t have any idea Saturday was her last day and she went so fast there wasn’t enough time to adjust to her loss and really say goodbye. But when I called my husband with the news — back in our old stomping grounds in France where he was researching a travel guide — he was glad she was spared a long, slow, difficult decline.
An autopsy revealed that she had likely died from something with a complicated name I didn’t even know existed, a ruptured blood vessel tumor, hemangiosarcoma. I heard the “sarcoma” part, and couldn’t really process the rest.
I guess the blessings are in how you see it.
So it’s the death — now I’ve said that word — of a cat and, also, for me I think, sort of an end to an era.
Those little girls who scooped up Blacknose and her sibs, whose enthusiastic cuddling left the kittens tuckered out for days afterwards at our wedding? All grown. One is a nurse, another a librarian, another is in college. The ramshackle old farmhouse we rented? Bought by someone with a lot of money who gutted it, changed the footprint and renovated it almost beyond recognition, though Green River continues to run straight along the east side, burbling on its way south to Massachusetts. And the hard-working hill farm up the road, where I once trudged with my snow shovel to aid my 80-something neighbor only to find her out with her boots and snowblower, undaunted? Put on the market for a price only an out-of-town banker could afford.
That newborn baby whose bald baby head Blacknose groomed so assiduously? Now one year from completing high school, with a 12-year-old sister, and excitedly looking ahead to the next stage of her life, when she’ll leave home for college and beyond.
And that little kitten who scampered down the halls and delighted her way into our arms? The chart in the vet’s office Saturday morning converted her age to around 84 in human years.
My favorite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, has a poem about the profound grief that can settle on us when faced with the mutability of all things — especially the changes that erase, age or decay the places, the things, the people, the animals we love. In the poem, Hopkins calls it “the blight man was born for,” our awareness that everything we love, ourselves included, will, like the leaves on the trees, move from spring’s beauty and summer’s glory to drop and die come fall.
But it’s another line from another Hopkins poem I find myself going over and over when I think of Blackie: “Glory be to God for dappled things.” The poem goes on to name, as per the title, all manner of “pied beauty”: brindled cows, finches’ wings, stippled trout, “landscape plotted and pieced.”
Hopkins didn’t name tortoiseshell cats, and he didn’t name Blackie. But I will.
Thank you, Blacknose, with your pied coat and your brindled fur, for your grace, your beauty, your cat smarts, your cat soul, your companionship. Thanks for being a part of our family.
You will be missed.
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