The Man Who Balanced A Tea Cup On His Head
And Other Fugitive Pieces: A Memoir
The waiting room was empty at 11:40 that day, that day of the appointment, the last appointment. Jack and I had been coming and going weekly for a good three months. There was first the prognosis and then the treatment, palliative radiation. The cancer was invasive, cartilage in his right nostril which had expanded the top palate in his mouth preventing him from eating and drinking properly. About age ten or so I would reckon, Sweet Jack.
Usually found in dogs, by the way; seldom in cats. Thus, a rarity; the cancer; the Veterinary Doctor told me.
Jack is a cat, a pure-bred Mackerel, which has been a household joke for some time. They are sometimes called “tiger” cats, mistakenly, but right between their two eyes the stripes can be seen to form an “M” and thus, well, you see the joke.
Problems eating and drinking then; I had been feeding him with a dropper from a slurry of canned food and unsalted chicken broth, and bits of canned food on the end of a popsicle stick. But even so he had lost weight, now boney, ribs noticeable to feel under his soft fur.
My buddy Jack, a burrowing cat, nightly up on the bed, purring and then snuggling down under the covers.
February then 2005; there had been heavy snow and Ellen Frances was off and about on a college fund-raising trip. She to more sunny and temperate climes. So, the snow was deep but the skies had cleared and the moon was shimmering on all of that new snow. I was awakened at about 2ish in the morning, a mewing sound from outside. I bundled as best I could and put on some high-top rubber boots and grabbed a flashlight. The sound was coming from the west side of the house near the furnace vent, a snowless and warm sort of place. And there he was, a little fur ball, not yet a cat but a kitten, and the light from the flashlight reflected only in one eye.
And he scooted away, under the back deck. Frighty he was and with good cause when one thinks about it, his experience with human kind abandonment.
Back inside I found a box and cut a sort of doorway in it and then a blanket and some food. I took it back outside and placed it in another corner of the house away from the furnace vent. I waited an hour and went to check and “lo” there he was in the box, curled in a blanket, Jack with one good eye, piercing the way he looked at me as if I had disturbed a well-deserved rest.
He was all of about eight weeks, I would guess, maybe a bit less, but with kitten teeth. Inside the house we went. I put more food down and some milk and let him eat and drink and then to the basement where there was a litter box. He did his business and began strutting about.
Taking ownership, possession, his law and his rights with this “well it’s about time” sort of attitude.
Sweet….And so why not, another free gift from the universe now free to join our other two barn cats, Tiny Mew and Hannah.
Tired, I went back to bed only to wake about an hour later with this purring sound coming from the foot of the bed. And I guess that was that; Jack had a home, Mr. Jack-Pot, One-Eyed Jack.….And from then on, every night, curled at the end of the bed, snuggled, no more cold.
But it remains curious to me even to this day how he arrived at the spot at our home in Michigan, far from the roadway and the closest homes in the county about a quarter mile away. There were no tracks in the snow and it was deep. So how did this fur ball get there, abandoned no doubt and how also did he lose that one eye which made him, “One-Eyed Jack.” Another mystery as to how free gifts from the universe appear.
And so we kept him, a “mate” to our other pure-bred Mackerels, Tiny Mew, mis-named as he also grew to 18 pounds, and still is, arthritic now. And Hannah, sleek and very self-absorbed, talkative, fussy, insecure, I think. Barn cats, in truth.
Jack had energy but the one eye, well, he would race to follow me down the stairs but perspective being off a bit he would miss the downstairs and start upstairs and then like that “coyote” a little cartoon cloud would show up above his head with the word “oops” inside.
And so he grew, lost his front claws, but kept up with his manners which again allowed him to sleep at the foot of the bed and he welcomed cat number three, Hannah, whom he treated like a little sister but to whom he would give a half-hearted swat now and again. Well-deserved, I might add, that little complainy shrew.
And they all came south with us from Michigan to South Carolina, lightly tranquilized, crated, that long day’s journey now five years or so ago. And settled in enjoying the morning inside the back screened in porch, the sun, birds, chipmunks….
When we came to the vets, then,t hat last day, into a room and we talked and I signed the forms and went to another very comfortable room. They brought Jack back to me wrapped in his blanket with a pair of catheters inserted in his right fore leg. I asked for a half-hour and that was fine. He didn’t fuss but purred away, cuddling in his blanket, warm and I know ready but in no rush. Pets do that, you know, when it’s time, they know and are more of a help to us than we suspect or imagine.
There was a window in the corner looking out onto a grassy area. He was stretching his left leg and paw toward it and I stood and walked over. With his one eye he looked out, cocking his head, and through the sun-lit glass to the greenery and then stretched his other leg with the catheter and pawed the window which was, as I think about it now, the barrier between this life and the next, the next where he would have two good eyes and no cancer and could frolic again and never miss the stairs.
And then he cuddled back into his blanket again and I went back to sitting down tracing the “M” on his forehead with my finger. A few minutes later Dr. Collette came in. It seems the whole staff had come to know Jack quite well during those cancer treatments and one-by-one came in to say good-bye.
I don’t know when I have been more touched by the goodness in people. Dr. Collette asked if I had done this before and I said I had with Agnes the German Shepherd. She reminded me that what we were about to do was the right thing and even though Jack wasn’t in pain he was slowly wasting away and because of that he was suffering.
I said I knew and was aware but even so…. It’s tough to lose a buddy. I peeled part of the blanket away and Jack actually stuck his leg and paw out, the one with the catheters. Dr. Collette inserted the sedative into one port of the catheter and Jack relaxed into a nice purring sleep. I gave him a kiss on the top of his head and he flicked an ear. I placed my right hand on the right side of his boney chest and could feel his heart beating softly and gently and with an extraordinary rhythm, he still there….
Dr. Collette asked if I was ready and I said I was. And so another needle in the other catheter port and there were a few more soft and gentle and rhythmic heart beats and then none and I said to Dr. Collette, “He’s gone.” And he was.
She left and came back with a lovely coffin-like box and we placed Jack in the box wrapped in his blanket. I thanked her and the staff and left for home where I had prepared a place in the garden for Jack. Ellen Frances and I then buried him and placed a vase of flowers on the mounded dirt, the resting place of Jack.
It’s an odd thing the aftermath because the other cats, Hannah and Tiny Mew, seemed to change behavior. They want to be on the bed now and will sleep away the night on the foot of the bed which is fine.
But the true last will and testament of Jack the cat was that moment in that room when we stood by the window and he stretched out that leg and pawed the glass and blinked in the sun streaming through that window, ready to pass through that membrane between time and eternity.
Ready to pass through….
They have souls, you know, animals; and I faithfully believe that at that moment by that window Jack gave me something of his soul and more so because just at that moment when I was holding him and feeling his heart beat and then stop, there was just at that a moment a very subtle “push” against the palm of my hand. Subtle as a soft breath, which was Jack’s sweet spirit leaving, his last will and his testament and a most remarkable gift to me….
Daniel James Sundahl is Emeritus Professor at Hillsdale College where he taught for thirty-five years.