I remember the day I brought him home from the ASPCA shelter on E. 92nd St. in Manhattan, way back in September 2004. I had moved to New York in August, and then I went on vacation in Turkey -- boat trip again -- and when I came back, I was going to get a cat.
So, I poked around on the Interwebs, looking at who was available at the shelter. I thought this orange cat Felix looked like a good choice. He was playful, from his description, frisky... But then I went to the shelter. I filled out the forms. Julie came with me, so my dad was my character reference... who reassured them everything was fine even though at the time I worried I was allergic to cats (I am not).
I walked through the shelter, meeting all the little ones in their cages. Then I went into the "Diva Room," which had scratching posts, lounging pads and a tiered area where the cats could sprawl, all with a window out onto 92nd St.
That's where I found Harold.
He was skinny. Mangy. His hair was matted and greasy. He had a stuffy nose, a scrawny face and the moment his bright green eyes met mine, I fell in love. He began purring as I scratched his head. He did his little head-butt thing, moving my hand to where he wanted it.
He wasn't the cleanest cat, nor was he the prettiest. But I can express it no other way than to say that he picked me. I went to see the rest of the cats, and when the volunteer asked who I liked, I said Harold... She was surprised. "Really?"
"Yeah. I'll take him..."
And so we finished the paperwork and they put him in a cardboard carrier. Julie and I walked him home down First Avenue. I had gotten litter, a box and some food the day before. I was ready.
I carried him up to my fifth-floor walk-up and put down the box. I opened its flaps and he jumped out. The cat book said to let them meet their space slowly -- I figured my entire 320 square-foot apartment was probably small enough to warrant giving him free reign.
He walked from end to end, jumped on my bed, and found the brown cat bed I had put on the windowsill. He turned around in it once. Looked at me. Lay down. Closed his eyes. He was home.
And he was happy there. Sleeping in bed with me, his butt always touching my back... at minimum. As long as he was touching me, he was happy. I could fall asleep with my hand resting on him, or he could be nuzzled against me from behind. That's all he ever asked of me. To sleep by my side.
We moved to Brooklyn. We had some roommates who loved him and gave him good head scratches. They were won over by his persistent affection and his oddly old-man savoir faire. He had style, that kitten.
We moved to our own place, and he took to it immediately. Our home. Mine and the beast. Because when you live with an animal, you really don't live alone. You share your space, your time and your heart with another living, breathing creature who depends on you and who loves you. And who you grow to love like he's your family. Because he is. Because the sun rises and sets in his world when you walk into the room. And because no matter what's wrong, when you scratch his head and he purrs, reassuring you that he's there... you know you'll be okay.
And most of the time you just hang out. I pet him. I brush him. He taps my mouth to let me know he's hungry. He swings around to roll over, but still wants to be touching my back with his... I woke up one night on my side, with a man pressed against my front and Harold stretched out, pressed against my back. He was having none of this intruder stealing me away. I just smiled and felt loved.
And today, after what must have been a long, long sickness, which only alarmed me in the past few weeks, Harold passed away.
The vet did an autopsy on him this evening and found out he had very advanced liver cancer -- incurable and un-survivable. A tumor had burst and he was bleeding internally. It probably all happened in the 15 minute panic between his first alarmed meows and me taking his limp, struggling body and running through the rain to the vet's office five blocks away. I saw him and I knew he was dying.
He was tired all day. But he purred when I pet him. I sat right next to him all morning. I slept next to him on the sofa all week. I was trying to love him better. But you can't beat cancer when it really takes hold. We all know that.
When I got him in 2004, the ASPCA thought Harold was about 5. So, I told the vet he was around 9. They told me he was at least 12. So, much older... had lived much longer before I got him than I had known. But I did what I could to make his last years happy years. And, for better or for worse, I haven't really had any work to do this week, so I spent the chilly gray days sitting here on the sofa with Harold. Reading, watching movies, petting him. Trying to make him comfortable, I thought, as he recovered from an infection.
I believed, until yesterday, he was getting better. And today, his tiny body finally gave up its fight. The vet was shocked that a cat with that much cancer was still alive... but he was alive, alert and purring this morning. So I know he had a happy life here with me.
The vet left me the nicest message. He is a good man. He kept telling me not to blame myself. And I don't. I can't. Animals, like people, die. It's the dark, cold truth that comes with being alive. But... oh God... what I wouldn't do to actually feel his warm little furry body in my arms, all tense because he hated being picked up, and just nuzzle his cheek and tell him I love him... Just one more time. The little sounds he made that let me know he felt safe and happy.
But I can't. I just wiped his stray hairs from my keyboard. They're all over my home. I put his litter box, his brown cat bed, other things too into the trash tonight. The scratching post he never scratched (it was where I was to dump the cat nip so he could rub his face in it...) The post is still in the corner. I had to keep something. But I had to make it one thing. There will be enough I stumble on to break my heart in the coming days and weeks.
So, I toast with the very expensive special-occasion wine I opened tonight in honor of Harold. Because he existed, was wonderful and I loved him.