A rambling by Tom Knapp

I was never a cat person. I'm a dog guy through and through. Really.

While a dozen years with Puck, my fat and grizzled orange tabby, didn't change my mind, it certainly gave me a new perspective. I learned you can, sometimes, be both. And, now that I am once again living in a catless home, I realize that I will miss him so very, very much.

It all started way back in the '90s, when my girlfriend at the time asked me to keep her cat, Grizabelle, for "a few weeks" while she made other arrangements. Griz, who was shifted around every few months and never had a very stable home life, was a nervous cat, and consequently snappish -- particularly with my dog, Morgan, who was gentle with all creatures and even took a few bloody swipes to the nose with great patience. Somehow, the weeks became months. My girlfriend and I broke up seven months later, and she left her cat behind. Another seven months after that, two or three days before Christmas, she showed up at my door unannounced, asked for her cat and left. (She didn't even offer to pick up the tab for a year's worth of food and litter.)

But I figured I was well rid of the cat. I never even liked cats all that much, and my allergies made it tough for me to be around them for long. Still, once Griz was gone, the house seemed ... different. It was missing something, even if that something was prone to hissing at us from the top of the refrigerator. Every morning, Morgan galloped around the house to be sure the cat hadn't come back, then she looked at me with sad eyes to ask where her prickly playmate had gone.

It turns out we missed Griz after all.

When my sister-in-law offered me a spare, unused litterbox they had on hand, "just in case" I ever needed one again, I laughed and said I never would. I took it anyway.

One afternoon I just happened to be out on Lincoln Highway, and I just happened to pass by the Lancaster Humane League. It wouldn't hurt to stop and look around, I figured; after all, that's where I found my beloved Morgan. But instead of the dog cages, I headed into the cat rooms, and I spent a good chunk of time looking around to see who and what was there. Maybe 30 minutes later, I prepared to leave, content with the knowledge that there were no cats just waiting for me to come and rescue them.

As I headed to the door, I heard a voice behind me. "Hey, did you see this little guy?" one of the league employees asked me, and I turned to assure her that, yes, I'd seen all the cats. But hey, that little orange tabby in her hands, so small and furry and looking just like a mini-Griz, had somehow escaped my eye.

A half-hour later, I was back with Morgan to see how the two would get along. And yes, he came home with us, newly named Puck (after the sprite, not the hockey accessory) and sporting a bright red collar that I never managed to keep on him for long and soon gave up trying.

Every pet owner has stories to share, and I won't bore you with a litany of mine. Let's just say Puck was fat and happy for most of his life. He was a contented indoor cat who seemed to enjoy Morgan's company immensely -- although he was a little less thrilled when Marlowe, our second backup cat, was added to the party. His tail had an odd bend to it, just about two inches from the tip. He purred at the drop of a hat and sounded like a badly tuned motorboat, causing my cat-naive mother to ask once if the cat had pneumonia. He often reclined on the floor, flat on his back with his legs in the air. He loved to doze in the sun. Sometimes when I was reading at night, he curled up with his head on my shoulder and just shared the quiet.

After I got married and added a pair of kids to the household, Puck adapted quickly -- even patiently accepting whatever love-driven "attentions" were forced on him by our cat-crazy 10-year-old girl. Sure, he hissed every now and again, but just to salvage his dignity; the frequency with which he sought her out, even when she was sleeping, proved the adoration went both ways.

When Puck got sick, we thought it was just a stomach bug, or perhaps an especially hard-to-digest bit of houseplant or floor fluff that he'd eaten. When it got even worse, we took him to the local PETS emergency room and got the bad news: Puck had diabetes.

I won't bore you with all of the medical terminology that was tossed around that tiny examining room. Suffice it to say, he was dangerously dehydrated. He was starving to death despite having plenty of food. His kidneys and liver showed signs of failing. His blood, the veterinarian said, had turned to acid in his veins.

Puck was suffering, he told us, and even the most heroic measures might not make him well. Even with the best treatment, we could only hope to squeeze in another few months, maybe a year of life -- and chances were good he'd be miserable all the way.

By this time, even the children were realizing just where this was going. Molly, her eyes wide as plates, looked at me and shook her head urgently. "No," she whispered.

We asked the doctor for some time alone. We explained things to the kids. And the kids -- well, they understood.

We took Puck home to say our goodbyes in familiar surroundings. Puck was unusually peevish, a sign he wasn't enjoying the attention or, more likely, he was just too damn sick to appreciate it. Then we took him back to PETS and said our goodbyes all over again.

We've had two veterinarians and plenty of friends assure us we made the right decision. We let Puck leave this world with some dignity and with less pain than he would have suffered if we'd let him linger any longer. He was surrounded by his family to the end, and filled up with love. I'd like to think he's waiting somewhere, with Morgan and Marlowe and even my childhood dog, Boots, and we'll see them all again someday.

But -- I've said goodbye to my share of pets over the years -- one dog and two cats in the last four years -- and it never gets any easier. And, no matter how much you care for them, you always have some nagging wonder that maybe you could have done something differently. Made them happier. Treated them a little better. Gotten them additional care. Ultimately, you need to realize that you did your very best for them, and you hope they were better off in your company than they would have been somewhere else. Pets are a privilege and a responsibility, and those of us who love them know that the sadness of losing them can never erase the joy of having them.

I miss you, Puck. And I hope I did right by you, all the way to the end.

by Tom Knapp
15 November 2008