The first time Max saw Skittles in the summer of 2005, he was a feral kitten who had been found at the door of Max's workplace. The woods around the print shop had been bull dozed for a new building so this family of cats must have scattered. The workers found this six week old little black and white fur ball and put him in a box to get him out of the elements. Every person that came near that kitten to help him got hissed and spat at. Max was curious and looked over to the box to see this little tuxedo looking back at him. The cat started to hiss when Max - just like in the movie Babe - said "That will do, cat, that will do." Skittles calmed down immediately and started to climb up Max's arm and into his hair. At that point, Max knew this was his cat. He called me and sheepishly asked if we could have him. Not that Max thought for a moment that I would say no, but when I had brought up the subject of a pet for the kids a few weeks earlier, Max thought it was a bad idea. I told him that of course he could bring him home and we loved him as a member of the family .
I love all types of animals. Generally "cat people" get a bad rep for not liking dogs - but I've met very few animals that I didn't like. Okay, I'm not a huge fan of ferrets - they just don't seem trustworthy. As far as pets go, I've always had cats. Maybe it's because they are independent, don't need to be walked and you can leave for a day and not have the house destroyed. On the downside, they generally don't greet you at the door with the same enthusiasm as dogs - but they also don't knock down your house guests or smell their crouches. As any pet owner can attest, pets of all stripes teach you priceless life lessons. For me, they are the closest things to guardian angels that we have on earth that we can actually see and feel. How many stories do you hear of dogs or cats warning their owners about a fire or a child that in trouble. Dogs will protect their owners with very little regard to their own personal safety. Scarlett the cat went into a burning Brooklyn building in 1996 - not once but five times to rescue her kittens without regard to the smoke or flames that were burning her eyes, ears and paws. They are loving and loyal if that's what you train them to be. If you train your pet to be vicious then don't be surprised if that's what you get. They are not snarky or sarcastic and frankly don't care how many friends you have on Facebook. They won't diss a video on YouTube or tweet something embarrassing about their owners on Twitter. Their job is too love you - that's it. If you are lucky enough, you can learn some life lessons along the way.
The first cat I ever had was named Cocoa. She was a little Siamese who always looked like she was too good for the rest of us. She was not an affectionate cat and when you got a glimmer of approval, you were grateful. I remember bringing my cat Gizmo home from college during a holiday break. He was a huge cat - 20 pounds or more whereas Cocoa was maybe 8 pounds soaking wet. The amazing thing was that she was not afraid of Gizmo. If she was sleeping on the couch and he walked by, she would wake up, hiss and smack him on the back of the head as a preemptive strike - or to say "I don't take crap from anyone especially someone twice my size." It worked, Gizmo would rarely try to chase her and when he did, she would jump up on a cabinet that she knew was too high for this fat cat to reach. He would get up to where his paws would reach the top but just didn't have the momentum with his back legs to get the rest of his ample behind up on the counter. He would fall back only to look up at Cocoa who would hiss and then walk away. Gizmo would sit up, look around and then start to clean his paw, which is cat for "I'm really embarrassed and maybe I'll distract everyone if I bathe," or "I meant to do that." The lesson I learned was that it doesn't matter how big you are, you can lure your adversary who might be twice your size into a situation that you can manage easily and they can't - using their own strength against them is a great defense.
My cat Gizmo was my best friend in college. He know everything about me - the good, the bad and the ugly. He helped me weather hurricane Kate in Tallahassee and he was always there when I needed a stomach to cry on (cat shoulders are not the best things to sob into - too bony even on a fat cat). He, unlike my other cats, he started out as an outside cat. One night he didn't come back and when I opened the door to my apartment the next day, I saw something moving in the bushes. It was Gizmo - he had been hit by a car and had crawled back home. His jaw was broken and his paw was flattened but still he had to come back to me. I wrapped him up in a towel and took him into my vet's office. It was Good Friday. The vet told me that he would give him IVs and if after the weekend he was stable he might repair his jaw but he might not make it through the weekend. I left the office devastated and went to a cathedral near the FSU campus. I sat in a pew by myself and cried quietly. A man came over to me and asked why I was so sad. I told him what had happened. He told me to have faith, say prayers and that God would take care of things. I looked down and then looked up to thank him but he had vanished - I mean way too fast to leave that big building so quickly. I realized that I might have been visited by an angel and hoped that a miracle had occured. I went back that Saturday to see Gizmo. He was not doing much better and I had to resign myself to the reality that I might have to put him down the day after Easter.
That Monday, I went in expecting the worst but found, much to my and the vet's surprise, that Gizmo was walking the best he could and demanding food. He looked so much better than on Saturday. They vet wired his bottom jaw which had multiple breaks. I took him home to feed him through a syringe with baby food and kitten formula. I also had to give him baths every other day with baby shampoo to get the dried food off of him. He got used to the baths and would stand on his hind legs with his paws on the soap dish while I washed him. I was pretty sure we were out of the woods when the vet discovered another complication - his hard palate had split and if it did not fuse together then it would expose his skull to infection and then not much could be done. I again prayed that my little tiger kitty would get over this hurdle and be okay - we had come this far. So the day for Gizmo to get the wires off his jaw came and as the vet snipped he noticed something hanging from the top of his mouth - it was his hard palate. We both gasped and then the doctor looked at the top of Gizmo's mouth - a new hard palate had regenerated completely. "I have never seen this happen in my 20 years of practice, I'm going to have to write this up in a Vet Journal." My Gizmo was whole again and would be back to eating on his own - which as you can see from the photos is something he remembered in no time. My lesson learned: don't ever give up on someone you love - no matter how insurmountable the odds. Some miracles take time.
That brings me back to Skittles who grew out of being a kitten and into a young cat who would do unspeakable things to furry slippers who were doing nothing but minding their own business. We would take the slippers away, but he would find them and then literally hump them. It became obvious that we needed to get him fixed because he was spraying too. We explained to the kids that Skittles needed an operation. Daniel - my son who is never satisfied with a simple explanation - asked what sort of operation it was. "Well," I said, "He's acting aggressive and spraying so we have to get him fixed." "What's fixed mean?" Daniel asked. "It means he's getting his testicles taken off so he won't be able to make kittens, spray and won't be destroying our slippers," I replied. Daniel thought for a moment and said "So you're basically cutting off his nuts." "I guess that's one way to look at it - yes, but nuts is not a nice word for testicles," I explained. This seemed to satisfy him until show and tell time came along and when it was Daniel's turn to share. He volunteered to his first grade class that "My mom is having Skittles' nuts sliced off."
Since Skittles started out as a feral cat, it was natural for him to want to get outside. There was a group of very puffy feral kittens who would play in the backyard and who Skittles loved to play with. We'd watch them frolic in the backyard. One day I let him out and brought him in before I left for work. Nothing seemed out of place until Max came home and found blood all over the house and Skittles with a very bloody mouth. Once again, another frantic trip to the vets only to find out that Skittles had sliced off a third of his tongue in what must have been a rat trap. I got a call from Max to ask me if we had the money to help him which with the tax check having just been deposited, we did. So Skittles got his tongue fixed and managed to do well with 2/3s of what most cats take for granted. He could still eat and groom himself. He couldn't go outside anymore and we knew he was lonely so we decided to adopt another cat named Sonny. For the first few days, they did not like each other. But by the end of the weekend, they were grooming one another and were best friends.
Then a few months ago, Skittles began to lose weight - he would eat but he seemed to get thinner and thinner. For the last two months, it was obvious that he was starting to waste away. There wasn't much the vets could do. I got a medicine dropper and would feed him a type of Pediasure for cats and give him turkey or any other food I could get my hands on that he might not reject. I was elated if he would take few ounces of the formula and just a small slice of turkey. I would bathe him in baby shampoo because he was not able to clean himself. I would pray to the same angels that saved Gizmo, but as time went on I realized that a miracle was not going to save him. He was my wounded warrior and he was getting awfully tired of the fight. He didn't seem to be in pain, but very tired. I told the kids that Skittles was dying and that they needed to spend as much time with him as possible before he died. They helped me feed him and bathe him. They would wrap him up in warm towels and hold him. They learned to not be afraid to love someone who was dying and to treasure the time you had left with them. On Thursday night, I held Skittles for the last time and talked to him softly. I held his paw and patted his emaciated body. I told him how much I loved him and sang "This Little Light of Mine." He wanted to sleep in the upstairs bathroom on the rug so I put him there with a clean pillowcase. Max got up at 5:00 a.m. and watched him take his last breath a few minutes later.
I guess that I could shake my hands at the heavens and ask why Gizmo got the miracles and Skittles didn't but the truth is there are so many miracles that Skittles brought into our life: that he got Max to let him be our pet and our friend; the fact that he survived having his tongue sliced which led us to adopt Sonny who is one amazing cat; and how to love and cherish someone who is dying. Those are the miracles - those were my lessons learned and that will do.