By LAURA GRIMES
To say our cat died is ridiculously casual and wildly unfitting. Jack, mafia don and Facebook darling, all sass and sweetness, as demanding as a popped blister and as loyal as a lab, was our warp and our weft, our emotional ballast, our third Large Smelly Boy, more boy than the sum of the rest and more macho than a swaggering lot of pirates. He would never stand for being just a cat.
Jack. A name we didn’t give him but inherited from his kitten foster parents and decided to keep, both to honor his first family loves and because it fit. Solid. Straightforward. Nothing to duck. That was Jack, who died Monday, May 11 — days ago, but no one in the family could yet bear to make it public, perhaps because we still couldn’t believe it and saying it aloud would make it real, perhaps because we futilely willed to keep him to ourselves a little longer, and perhaps because the grief was so deep that it was silent and private. Funny, because Jack was never quiet.
He insisted on long conversations and had lots of opinions. But don’t take my word for it. Ask the neighbors. He talked to everyone about everything. He acted all lovey to every passing stranger, and promptly answered all manner of sounds – words, whistles, belches, farts. He wasn’t picky, as long as he had someone to talk to. Or not. He head-bumped with the best of ’em and knew how to rub a good leg. And he knew how to push newspapers onto the floor when they vied for his attention. If he were here now he would be digging a paw into my sleeve and pulling my hand away from the keyboard, insisting on having it to himself, persistently becoming an impossible pest until I would have to do something, perhaps give him a good long hug over my right shoulder, a favorite spot where he went limp. I started making bed nests for him near wherever I happened to be working to placate him, scrunching up soft blankets and pulling chairs closer.
Fifteen years ago, our gray-market kitten broker-dealer-pimp, a colleague and friend who had nothing to gain but a good deed in shilling another colleague’s foster litter, peppered me and my husband with alluring emails that waxed adorableness about Jack’s athletic feats and adventuresomeness exploring the bathtub. He said Jack was big, bold and handsome, his obvious favorite, and had an irresistible and distinctive racing stripe on his side. It all proved true, except the racing stripe turned out to be more of a mud puddle, but too late. We were done and gone, and Jack came home with his nearly identical twin sister, Alexa, who was never more than two-thirds his size, soft and quiet, and forever maintained a fiercely independent, unbroken half-feral streak.
Just as his kitten persona predicted, Jack grew up to be a big lean boy, topping out at 17 pounds in his prime, all muscle and not letting you forget it. I thought it was just Jack, but the vets would go, “Whoa! Big boy! And not a bit of fat.” And the neighbors would watch him cross the street, carrying himself with not a shred of doubt in each step, unwary, no worries, masterful, and say, “Wow. You can tell what he’s all about just by the way he walks. Look at that! He owns everything, doesn’t he?” Yep, he was the James Dean of the cat world. I got used to apologizing for him, but I didn’t need to. The neighbors easily took him to heart, the way everyone forgives Jack Nicholson.
I once watched a husky raccoon saunter past him inches away while he looked off, unflinching and unconcerned. My heart raced when I realized their paths were going to cross, but then quickly relaxed. They obviously had their own understanding, and it didn’t appear to be the first time.
When the Small Large Smelly Boy was a wee toddler, the two of us hugged while looking out the sliding-glass door to the backyard, charmed by a bird splishing about in the bath. So sweet. So enchanting. We giggled and exclaimed and watched in awe right up until Jack came bursting from the side of the house and in a great bound flew through the air and landed on top of the bird with a big splash. Show over. Horrified, I tried to steer the Small LSB to a new (funner! better!) task. But he couldn’t be fooled. “I wanna watch the bird!”
And the floaty butterfly, in all its innocent elegance, fluttering up and down like a heartbeat in the sky. Jack and his sister stretched out down below symmetrically like sphinxes, watching, seemingly mesmerized, their heads bobbing rhythmically in perfect unison, a laughable stereotype of a tennis match. The laugh was over, though, when Jack suddenly shot straight up, higher than the fence, and nabbed the colorful beauty right out of the air.
My husband and I had vowed to keep Jack and Alexa indoors, and had the best intentions, but we quickly realized we couldn’t contain them and it was stupidly impractical. She was too wild and needed the outdoors, and he was too big and busy and determined to bust anything in his way. After a few months of squealing at the little LSBs (ages 6 and nearly 3) to shut the door and fighting to tamp down the cats’ natural urges, we exhaustedly relented, caved, cried Uncle. One sunny day when all the action was outside, without saying a word, my husband and I looked at each other, and I opened the sliding-glass door and left it. Alexa immediately stole out like a pro, as if she was always meant to. Jack walked to the threshold and excitedly nodded up and down like a horse, then backed away and disappeared. We were surprised and confused until he came back a few minutes later with his favorite toy, a tiny felt boy, no bigger than a keychain, with TIM embroidered across his chest. Jack held Tim Toy in his teeth and pointed him to the outside, then he dropped him on the threshold, picked him up, dropped him, picked him up, showed Tim the outside again, hesitated for a second, and then like diving off a springboard or a big Thelma and Louise moment, he made this giant leap to freedom, taking his buddy with him.
He loved his little critters. Unfortunately, so did the Small LSB, who had a big stash of them that he affectionately doted on. Every morning my husband or I would find one in the hallway or on the landing, a steady rotating supply of favorites, and we would point and snicker like conspirators. We knew. Just wait. By the time we had forgotten about it while shaving or putting on makeup, we’d hear this indignant, pained yelp, the sure signal that the Small LSB was up and had found the stolen prize. He would march over to retrieve it and put it back with its beloved friends, saved from certain mauling. And he would grumble and scold, honestly mad and hurt, cussing Jack in toddler talk. The Stuffy Wars, we called them. Jack always seemed a little embarrassed about his obsession, usually doing his misdeeds at night and never letting himself be seen. Many years later, I watched him come around a corner with a stuffy in his mouth, and he obviously didn’t know I was there because as soon as he saw me he dropped it and pretended he didn’t notice it. I think that’s the only time I ever caught him red-handed.
The Small LSB had his stuffies. The Large LSB had Jack, his anchor, best mate, confidant. I’m not sure I can even write about what Jack meant to the Large LSB. They had their own language, verbal and nonverbal, something beyond language, beyond poetry, a bond so deep and private and sacred that my words can’t go near it. I have to respect it and leave it at that, except to say that Jack was a lifesaver for him. Which meant he was a lifesaver for all of us.
I still look for Jack’s nose pressed to the bottom corner of the picture window. I instinctively look for him on the porch bench when I leave, and I expect to see him coming down the front walk every time I come home. And sometimes, more often than I care to admit, when I take my coat off and rattle my keys, I’m just sure I hear his claws clipping up behind me on the hardwood floor, ready to tell me about his day and insist on a nip of tuna.
Jack stopped talking those last couple of days, which told us everything. The catheter with the bright pink urine had been removed, and he died in his favorite spot, over my shoulder, warm and soft, purring in my ear, likely delighted that he had my undivided attention.
As we drove home in the dark, the Small LSB said, “It’s like a novel. It’s raining. ‘The heavens wept’ and all that.” We walked in the door and all the clocks were blinking 12:19. The power had failed and gone on again 19 minutes earlier, about the time I nuzzled my face in his fur and felt him go limp. Dang if he didn’t find a way to get in the last word, after all.