Blog reader: “Tell me how he died…”
Vince: “I will tell you how he lived.”
Adapted, with a smirk, from The Last Samuraï
When I came to New York City eight years ago, inbound from beautiful Vancouver and landing at Newark’s International Airport for a coffee – yes, I had flown across North America to come have coffee with a stranger in Jersey – I did not really know for sure that my life was about to change radically. It was just a hurricane-strength gut feeling.
The coffee was a success. Marie turned out to be an angel – but I had known that all along – and we pressed on towards Brooklyn, retreating from airport frenzy and public display to the privacy of a rooftop shoebox which was eventually going to become home for three.
I was greeted there by a big black cat.
His name had been formally explained to me like the recipe of a favorite cultural dish is patiently spelled out for the benefit of foreign ambassadors, who could not possibly grasp the depth of what is being passed on to them.
He was Don Estorbo De La Bodega Dominicana.
He had a history, and it didn’t start pretty. Having been a bodega duty rat catcher it seems, he had eventually been injured badly – possibly kicked in the jaw as his forever remained skewed, later rescued, sent to a remote sanatorium called Staten Island, and finally adopted by Marie when he was about one year old.
The match had not been instantaneous. There had been an adjustment period, two proud individuals in a staring duel, measuring private space and defiantly projecting a message along the lines of “You will yield to my power. Or else.”
But they were meant for each other. Like, before them, Romeo and Juliet, Bonnie and Clyde, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, Tweety and Sylvester or Arwen and Aragorn, their destinies had been entwined long before they set eyes and claws on one another. By the time I arrived, there was mythical love in the air. She was pretty, had orange hair, perfect manners and her own blog. He was fat, was pitch black with a white bow-tie, also had his own blog and swore like a sailor.
That evening, Estorbo bounced off the walls in total excitement. A first, I was told. He doesn’t normally like strangers. He seemed to agree and posted on his blog: “I played weeth orange reebons. Spoghe Spaneesh to a Frenchman. Bounced arf the walls when they looghed bored. […] Hey. Bod he’s kinda cute, you know. Por a man, I mean. I led heem taghe peectures ob me. Maybe I hire heem por my pobleecity.”
I had a blog, too. It was powered by a script called Serendipity. Seriously. Through a series of events that had started six months before I met him, Don Estorbo was mostly responsible for bringing Marie to the blogging world, and so eventually, to me. I owe him my present life.
He became dearest to me than any pet ever had. There was no resisting him. You just fell in love. So I did. Two-fold.
Marie had already carved him a strong personality. Together, we began to build upon his existing character, like Pixar’s Nemo must have emerged slowly from raw sketches and half-erased speech bubbles. We taught him to talk back, gave him a voice, an accent, expressions and mannerisms. He settled squarely at the center of our universe, content yet demanding.
Here is how Marie summed him up not so long ago in a sad email: “The cat was all these other things. Our conscience, our court jester, pointing out our worst faults and weaknesses, making fun of our egos, cracking jokes when we were falling down, lightening us up when we took ourselves too seriously, distracting us when we were focused on our navels. Looking sideways and cute when we needed cheering up. Running after me when I was weeding, for a bite of grass. Hitting us (me) when we (I) bothered him.”
Estorbo officially spoke Spanglish: he butchered English and Spanish equally well. Swore a lot, because that relieved us of the need to do so. Loved weird foods; avocado, Doritos, mushrooms, peach yogurt, mango. He remembered movies through us, so he had a thing for Mesa Verde, where a bank – no, THE bank – awaits, full of gold which to him translated into pellets (Duck you Sucker).
True, we had him wearing many outfits – never out of snobbishness or cruelty but for such practical reasons as preventing obsessive scratching or licking, protecting open wounds and breeding great blog posts.
The first time we were faced with having to protect a wound, we initially tried a “cone of shame”, the fabric kind. After watching the poor cat hit walls, chairs and his own food bowl clumsily, our hearts broke and the cone came off. Desperate measures were sought. I went straight to the baby clothes section at Old Navy. As I was sizing up outfits trying to decide between ‘new born’ and ‘3 months old’, a young women with her stroller in tow kept looking at me with a knowing smile. After a little while, sensing that she wanted to engage and give me the opposite sex parent bonding chat, I looked up holding a blue and white stripped suit and said with a wide smile: “It’s for my cat.” Her smile froze along with her thoughts as she was digesting, and having done so, she swiftly moved on to the ladies’ pants. I mentally patted myself on the shoulder on behalf of the kitty and went back to sizes.
Estorbo hated cameras. He would launch at them in hopes of destruction and chaos, yet he was utterly photogenic. His now abandoned blog is full of adorable snapshots that Marie grabbed with the passion of a paparazzi and posted for him, or through him.
He had a thing for insects; he feasted on katydids, farmed on the roof a herd of cockroaches which he called his cattle, and once in while came in with a live roach trophy, meowing proudly through a mouthful, eventually letting go of his prey but carefully placing it helplessly on its back, and devastated to see it suddenly squashed by a fatal dictionary Marie reserved for that occasion.
One night, he came back to the terrace from a rooftop excursion without the red fleece outfit he had been wearing. Puzzled, I went up to the roof to investigate and found the velcro-fastened garment stuck on the outside edge of the back fire escape stairs. This instigated a curfew. From our rooftop, he had unrestricted access to a gutted building in a perpetual construction state where he could get stuck – and once had, long before I even existed, forcing Marie to perform a daredevil rescue on a ladder far above the street.
Marie and I spending much time in South Africa, we had many a cat-sitter volunteering time to watch over the left-behind kitty. Some came from as far as Australia, others form the West Coast or nearby coastal Massachusetts. We are grateful to all and owe you our extraordinary trips to the Namib, Lesotho and Kruger.
[screeching record sound]
Diagnosed in 2013 with hyperthyroidism, our kitty had received radiation therapy and temporarily seemed to recover, coming back from a dark place to be his happy self. We had taken a deep breath and marveled at the generosity of the many who had helped us finance his treatment through a rally of support such as only the web generates them.
Then we lost our Brooklyn shoebox, moved to Harlem, and he started declining again. It was a tough year for us too, with the multiple losses of a rooftop, a terrace, a neighborhood and beautiful light, plus the appearance of never-ending, blood pressure-unfriendly apartment and neighborhood noise. We’ll always wonder if our struggle affected him too.
Last summer, diabetes and congestive heart failure superseded the cat’s latent kidney and adrenal gland issues. He fought bravely for five months, but it was a losing battle as failures were compounding. Through ups and downs, the three of us adjusted to diminished returns in quality of life, but we kept it together and fed on each other’s presence. We humans wanted our feline to live forever.
He would not.
Having received increasingly frequent care from an outstanding Brooklyn vet at VERG, Dr Slade – or Slave as the kitty called him, and incredible support from many web friends, most of whom he had never met, he had reached a point – and taken us there with him – where the very essence of philosophy was being challenged.
What does one do to assess the quality of life of an animal? Do we decide for it? Do human values apply to cats? Why are we here, humans and pets? Who owns whom? Why do we put up with it all? What makes us sentient? Why should we fight? Is it worth it? Is love the ultimate fuel, or is it pellets?
I started writing this post in early November 2014 with no other purpose than a vent for me and a snooze for the kitty. Marie had had to fly to South Africa. I was worried beyond reason. He might not make it past the turn of the week. He was resting on his new favorite mat after a trying visit to the emergency clinic where a quarter of a liter of fluid had been removed from his lungs. He looked glad to be home safe, fighting off the sedative and adjusting to another not so easy moment.
Let’s face it. He didn’t know he was sick. Only I did. And Marie of course, and the vet, and many friends around the globe. For him, it was all about there and then. Coping. No self-awareness. For a cat when it sucks, it sucks in the moment and instinct prevails. The lack of imagination is a blissful bonus that dissolves fear. Without fear, yesterday and tomorrow vanish completely, leaving only now and the next breath.
Still. We wanted to believe that our voice, our caress, the blue brush, the treats, the support, undying love and unflinching affection, made a difference. One thing is for sure, dispensing those helped us.
But cats are smart, and they feel so much more than we do, it seems. With nine lives to live and senses like only our science-fiction novels can imagine them, they ought to feel the love. They ought to gain strength from it. They might just keep going longer, and harder, and softer, because we are there holding them. I think we do make a difference in their life, payback for the padding they give ours.
Estorbo has now left us. It was almost a year ago. I had to let him go, praying that I was making the right decision.
It was the hardest thing I have ever done.
I taught me a few humbling lessons about myself. That I am a big softy in a tough shell. That I don’t want to be a god. That I need a way to compartmentalize and then shut-down particular sections of my memories. There are sequences in life that would be better erased. I will forever hate the god-like power I held at that awful moment.
So a week after drafting the beginning of this story, I changed every bloody verb to the past tense. And then I put it aside as a draft, too hot to touch, too cold to address.
Marie and I were left empty-hearted, devastated by the loss of our anchor and the passing of an era. The amount of physical comfort Estorbo had provided us with was incredible – the vibration of his purr, the nibbling of love bites as wake-up calls, the light weight of his feet on ours as we taught him to raft like otters do. Isolated even from one another by oceans and borders as Marie was in South Africa, we both had a craving for contact. For touch.
I know I must sound lame to anybody who does not feel anything particular for cats, and even a bit melodramatic to someone who does, and I respect that. The whole idea here is to laugh at ourselves if we can. Besides as I was writing somewhere recently, our reality is our own, and ours only. Realities don’t transfer well. They are created out of biochemical storms in our brains, and nearly impossible to compare or describe.
Speaking of reality, over the years a funny thing had happened to the three of us, some sort of symbiosis. No doubt catalyzed by the incredible confinement of our Brooklyn living space but also by the perfectly compatible nature of our three personalities, the sum of us had become larger than the individual parts. It was hard to tell where one’s persona ended and the others’ started. We had bonded, fused into a cohesive element, a collective mind, a trio of clowns.
Estorbo, without a doubt, was showing us the meaning of ruling over an empire, even one as tiny as 66 square feet of terrace gravel, a few more inches of living space and a stretch of open rooftop, with grand views across the New York Harbor, all the way to Jersey via the statue of statues.
Marie and I, without really realizing it, had slowly crafted a personality for the kitty that reflected ours. He had become our venting channel, our uncensored voice, our primal instincts. Through him, we could swear profusely, be rude and crude, and it was always done with a smile and knowing that these things would never exist beyond our very private world, or maybe coded to his blog as a muted extension. He kept us sane. He kept us laughing through low tides and high tides. He was our regulator, our unknowing mentor.
He made us better persons. What a claim for him to brag about wherever he is now. I hope he finds something more crunchy than virtue to feed upon out there. And I hope he is still his bossy self.
For all I know, Estorbo is spell-checking me right now.
So as Harlem itself is kicking us out, as a new page is turned and a chapter closed, as we are about to leave the premises holding much less than we arrived with, questions arise once more and meaning is sought. Boxes will be taped, a garden transplanted and our roots will be torn out of an unfriendly soil. Where we go next is up in the air. Your guess is as good as ours.
We still talk to each other through the kitty’s voice. It stings and makes us laugh simultaneously. Sweet and sour. He is presently bouncing up and down between heaven and hell, never fitting in, being expelled for non-compliance. Stills swears a lot. Complains about everything. Heaven especially sucks as he cannot even enjoy a normal litter experience.
“It sucks up here Papa,” he says, “everything is so clean. I throw up violets instead of fur balls, pig out on thin air and then I fill the litter box with poems.”