Celebrate & Remember
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My Gentle Old Lion (by Bill Pelletier)
The thing about Bert was, it was impossible not to love him. He was originally a barn cat, born on Webster Church Road, in Dexter, Michigan. He was immense, a red cat with big topaz eyes and a massive leonine head. I first met him when I was house sitting in 1996. He was two years old, and recuperating from the traumatic amputation of his left back leg after being hit by a car. In the beginning, he hid under the bed, and when he finally emerged, it was six months before he dared leave the bedroom. During the night I often held him in my arms, as he seemed to be having nightmares. He did, however, recover, and live an enjoyable outdoor life. Once I saw him running at top speed, a raccoon at his heels. He was a cat with nine lives. There was the time he rolled off the second floor porch. Not only did he survive threats to his health in later life, but he was rescued by me more than once. The first time he was missing in the woods, and once I found him whimpering and shivering, trapped at the bottom of an unused basement stairwell in the late autumn after being missing for thirty six hours.
Bert inspired devotion in all those around him, including little children. He became best buddies with my tiger cat Snapper. Bert’s two brothers used to come in the second floor window and all three red cats would lie in bed with me together. His brothers would also bring him the mice which his handicap prevented him from catching on his own.
Everyone loved him, not just because he was brave about being three legged, but because he was mellow, handsome and noble and had a great sense of humor. Whenever I ate dry cereal he would look right at me and smack his lips. He never did it for oatmeal or anything else, just dry cereal. He would joke, occasionally, pretending to bite my hand, or tug at my pant leg with his paw. He used a skylight dome on the house, covered with snow, as a slide, and had fun playing on it. He was a kind cat; he would let the others eat first, and he never touched little black Soffie when she would bat him in the face. He would merely give her a look of disapprobation reminiscent of our family lawyer. He loved being brushed and enjoyed chewing on the brush handle. Often he would sleep on his back, his stomach exposed and his single back leg sticking up in the air. Bert suffered from nasal congestion his whole life, and he would wake me in the night, snoring in tandem with my wife, and just as loud!
He was a smart cat and understood English. When I picked him up to carry him around, as he became less mobile with age, he would arch his back at my request, “Make a handle, Bert!” At night, in his more advanced years, in Ann Arbor, he would pause on the ottoman before launching himself onto our bed, waiting for my wife to chirp, “You can do it, Bert, you can do it, Bertie!” My wife adored him; she used to recline in the nude with her arms around his big furry body. Once when I was away on business, she found him waiting for her in bed with his head on my pillow on my side. After that she called him Bertie Boyfriend Cat.
Bert’s old age brought him many challenges, but he lived to be seventeen. He was resilient and stoic, a cat beloved of the Ann Arbor Animal Hospital staff and Dr. Jess Franklin, who shepherded him and us through all his trials right to the end. He survived two years of diabetes, with me giving him insulin shots twice a day, not to mention the extraction of most of his teeth and the removal of a tumor on his tail. It was not until the last three weeks of his life that his systems failed him, following a painful infection, the result of an outdoor adventure.. Before he was put to sleep I sat up with him all night, offering him comfort and vainly endeavoring to tempt him to eat. Finally he would not even drink. He had difficulty breathing and I could hardly accept it that his time had come. He had a high fever and a mass in his stomach. My wife had to make the decision and sign the papers. I scratched his beautiful huge head between his ears and whispered goodbye to my old golden lion and he was put to sleep at 10:10 on Wednesday morning August10th, surrounded by flowers as he loved their fragrance. He loved music too; he had his own small stereo, and I used to play Brian Eno for him.
In the days following his passing, I missed tending to his needs. The house felt empty. Isidonto, Snapper’s successor, was lonely without him. Caring for Bert had been a labor of love. As an older, heavier cat, he had been unable to manage the stairs and the litter, so I used towels on top of plastic bags. He always tried very hard to pee in the middle of the towels and would howl in the middle of the night to let me know he needed a fresh towel, or was hungry, or wanted to come upstairs, etc. I felt privileged to care for him.
The day he died, the beautiful skunk who had been his pal in the courtyard, sitting beside him on the pavement at night magically appeared at noon, no doubt in search of him. All nature appeared to be conscious of his passing. He had been in the habit of lying beside a voluminous daisy bush on the lawn, and once had slipped his arm around a single daisy. The day he died, when all the blooms had been gone from the bush for two weeks, a single new daisy appeared in the very same spot as the original daisy he had embraced. I plucked it and put in water in the house. A few days later, a second single daisy bloomed on the bush, in the identical place. I hardly think this was coincidence.
Preparing Bert for cremation, I wrapped him in my old trench coat which I had used for his buddy Snapper. I had wrapped Snapper in it as well, after discovering him motionless in Bert’s arms on Halloween night of 2004. I will never wear that coat again. I have saved it as it has remnants of both cats fur on its lining. I wrapped Bert up in his bed with delphinium, dried flowers from his white daisy plant, a snapshot of Snapper, and one of himself holding a flower, and sprinkled him with incense from the Liberal Catholic Church.
At home we have a table, or altar, devoted to the memory of our six original cats, all of whom have passed away over the last ten years. We have their ashes, vials of fur and whiskers, and photographs. Bert’s red brush, complete with tooth marks on the handle with fur in the brush, is placed beside his picture.
After two weeks of tears, I am hoping to establish a fund to benefit other cats in Bert’s name as he was a loving force. I have pictures of Bert I made late last fall of him meditating in the golden sunlight of a late autumn afternoon that I refer to as, “Bert’s golden lotus pictures”. I would joyfully trade a few months of my own life so that Bert might have lived to enjoy one more golden autumn.