The story of George

“There’s a cat on our front porch.”

The stepkid who told me this had a habit of running back to tell me every time the ESPN chyron changed so initially I didn’t think anything of what he was telling me. But after he seemed insistent that it was actually a big deal, and a couple followups to establish that the visitor was neither one of ours who had escaped nor was he a danger to our three cats inside, I headed out to the porch to see for myself.  My stepdaughter was sitting on the front stoop with a little orange fuzzball in her arms and my wife kneeling beside her.

The kitty cat appeared to be adult size from first glance, or at least adult length.  His coat was ragged and his ribs showed with distressing prominence.  I scooped him up to get acquainted and allow my wife a better look at his body, and as she inspected him (determining among other things that he was, in fact, a boy) I noticed two things right off.  One, he was light as a feather.  And two, he was snuggling right in and purring his little heart out.  He had no collar or indication that a collar was ever there.

I told one of the kids to get some cat food and bring it out, and after a few more minutes to get acquainted and show this little fellow some desperately wanted attention, we’d give him some peace to eat something.  We all wanted badly to bring him inside but not knowing anything about how sick he might be we didn’t dare endanger our other housecats.  As if to emphasize that point, he began to sneeze and that rendered the decision final, for the moment, so we set him up with a bed and a nice paper plate of food and milk.  Let me pause for just a moment to say that a kitty cat sneezing is one of the sweetest, most adorable things you will ever see, if you just see it in reaction to overindulgence on catnip or a butterfly landing on his nose, but when it happens all the time…well, it’s still sweet and cute, but it’s also very ominous.

We went inside to have dinner and left the kitty to have his.  When we came back half an hour later he was gone, but not for long.  He returned to our porch when he heard us outside again and that high-revving purr started right back up.  At this point it was nearly dark outside and I was trying hard to think of what we could do to both keep him safe and prevent him running off without potentially exposing our little girls inside to dangerous illnesses.  Our first thought was to put him in a cat carrier on the porch until morning, but he didn’t like that idea and vocalized his objection very loudly and sorrowfully.  We had a utility room in the back with a door we took down long ago, and we put the door back up and made him a little “bachelor pad” as my wife called it, to keep him isolated but not outside in a tiny box until we could be sure he wouldn’t get our other cats sick.

We had already named him George.  There’s an old Bugs Bunny cartoon with an abominable snowman character who wants a pet bunny, and his line is “I will love him and hug him and squeeze him and call him George.” And that’s what we intended to do.

George took to his little isolation ward well as we began looking for any signs that someone was looking for him and then made him the first vet’s appointment we could to see just how healthy he was.  The sneezing and the deep cough had us very worried that his skinny-ness might not just be malnutrition, but between his size and his very-friendly temperament we had a hard time telling if he seemed like a stray or a barn cat or if he might actually belong to someone.  Having three beloved pets of our own, much as we were enjoying having him visit us, we decided that we would care for him as if he were our own for now, but if someone came looking for him we would return him to his family.  The vet’s diagnosis came back: malnutrition, pneumonia, and a slight positive for Feline Immunodeficiency Syndrome that they weren’t sure about. Which meant little George was very sick.  Feeling the lump in the back of my throat, I told the doctor in the clearest possible terms that we were keeping him, unless someone showed up to claim him, so let’s treat the pneumonia.  No one ever did come looking.

On the way home we bought him his first dingle bell collar and a little green toy monster he could cuddle with in his kitty bed.  George went through two full rounds of penicillin and even though he got chubby and his coat came back in full and plush he never did shake the lung problems.  Much as no one appreciated getting kitty snot on them or their things we felt badly for Georgie when he sneezed up a loogie–he would always run off and hide under the table like he was terribly embarrassed after he had a sneeze attack.  Between his size, the pitch of his meows, and the fact that he didn’t seem to know what to do with our un-spayed female kitten when she got affectionate, we guessed his age was between two and three, though the vet put him at older than that but not by a lot.

Given his new diagnosis of a disease that could transmit through blood, just like the human variety, our new concern became getting him neutered before he did figure out what to do with a fertile girl kitty.  So George remained in an isolation room, now the bathroom, overnights until we could schedule that appointment.  He handled it like a champion.  Part of the package was to get him re-checked now that he was through TWO courses of antibiotics and had plumped up to a healthy weight, and to our great relief our Georgie tested negative for FIV.  Much as that gave us hope of a long and happy life for our new furry family member, every sneeze and coughing fit was a reminder that George had suffered permanent damage to his lungs for which there was no real cure.  The best we could do was keep him fed and warm and loved, and every day was a gift.

And what wonderful gifts they were.  I had nicknamed our female kitten a “little ball of happy” already for all the joy and delight she brought to our house, but the ray of sunshine George brought to our home shone just as brightly.  His big, wide eyes and ever-present kitty grin told us how much he absolutely loved just taking it all in. Anything dangly or bouncy like yarn or especially balloons he would chase and pounce and carry around–and when he popped a balloon with his long, sharp claws he would cry so sorrowfully.  We got him caps for his claws to try to keep his little bouncy friends alive longer but steadily he seemed to learn how not to break them even without the caps.  He and our little girl kitten became fast friends, stalking and chasing each other around the living room, George routinely getting outsmarted but not really minding.  He loved his monster and stuffed toys in general, especially a little stuffed kitty I bought at a thrift store because it looked just like him (we named it George’s “mini-me”).  He’d cuddle up with a pile of bears and cats like he was E.T., especially when the other cats weren’t in the mood to snuggle or play.  George never seemed to mind, he just went on smiling and found something else to do.  He never seemed interested in going outside, seemed like he had had quite enough of the great outdoors for one lifetime, but like almost every other cat he loved sitting by screen doors and windows to watch the squirrels and the birdies while he soaked up the sun on a warm spring day.  His coat came back in full and soft and he watched over his home like a little lion.

The only time he ever came close to sneaking outside was if he was following someone, which he did almost constantly–especially me.  George always wanted to be with his family and do what they were doing.  Sometimes he would pester the older cats trying to play-wrestle with them but most often all he wanted to do was be nearby and snuggle, especially with our resident grumpy recluse cat (who even managed to tolerate his affection when it was cold).  His people were every bit as important to him. Sometimes at night he would wander through the kitchen and dining room loudly meowing until my wife or I woke up and called his name to let him know we were right there, and once in a while we’d need to go and pet him just to ease his worries. He greeted us in the morning with chirps and murrs and occasionally a full-on meow. For some reason, any time I got out the scale to weigh myself, he would come running to “help me” and stand right on the scale.  I would pet him and thank him and either distract him with food or get my wife to come pick him up and snuggle him while I did my thing.  For a long time, I could not sit down in my recliner in the living room for more than a second before he would come bounding across the room and jump into my lap, knead on me for about twenty minutes, and then curl up on my chest if not right against my face and purr his heart out.  Didn’t matter if my little black cat had already claimed my lap, George was sure there was room for him too.  There always was.

It’s hard to give a list of the things George loved because George really loved everyone and everything, so much that we liked to say his life’s philosophy was “everything is awesome.” He liked milk, wasn’t much for people food otherwise but milk he would go right for.  He loved to be tucked into blankets when he climbed into bed or up on the couch.  He liked sitting on the dinner table, and if there was something on the table he could sit on on the table, he wanted to sit on that too.  And he loved me.  If he was on the table when I walked by he would perch up on the high back of one of the chairs and chirp for my attention, and when I petted him and acknowledged him (which I cannot remember a time I didn’t) he would often try to nuzzle his sweet, chubby teddy-bear face against my beard and climb up into my arms.  I liked to joke that he loved daddy so much because my face was fuzzy like his.

I miss him so much.

On Friday night, I came home from work well after five o’clock. George was on one of the couch footrests like usual, but his breathing was different.  His sides moved sharply and noticeably and he seemed to be having trouble breathing through his nose because his mouth was open.  I went out to get some nasal spray and a mucus-sucking bulb to try to help clear his nose out but his breathing got more labored as the evening went on.  He wouldn’t eat some of his favorite wet food and tried to go hide in the back.  We ran the shower to give him a steam bath, we sat in the back with him and tried to wipe his runny little nose, and just got more and more worried.

The original plan was to see how he was by morning and take him to our local vet first thing Saturday.  By 2:00 in the morning his breathing had reached the point where I was afraid he might not have that long and the few things I could find online said he needed to see a vet ASAP.  I called the emergency vet our usual vet works with and the doctor I spoke to said to get him right in.  For the rest of my life I will wonder if going with the original plan would have been better.

They took George right back to an oxygen tent and did some x-rays. Not surprisingly, his lungs were in bad shape.  The doctor said it was probably asthma but made some other comments about a radiology consult which I had to swallow my heart and shut down, because if it was cancer, there was no point.  They asked us to leave him overnight to give him time in the O2 and to observe after they gave him some strong steroids and antibiotics, telling us he was doing okay.  We reluctantly left him with mini-me to cuddle and hoped for the best.

In the morning all was not well.  Our poor beloved George was terrified and reacting badly, like he was panicked.  When the doctor said the “e” word I could have jumped through the phone.  It was all I could do to not do 90 MPH back to this so-called clinic. I calmly walked up to the desk and said I was there to pick up George.  I wasn’t leaving without him no matter what state I found him in or what some quack vet tried to tell me we “should” do.

Our little Georgie came out of the back covered in drool and mucus and yowling in terror.  We almost ran out the door with him to get him home.  My wife opened up his carrier and began saying his name and stroking his chest as I tried to see through the tears to drive home.  George calmed down almost immediately and wrapped his front paws around my wife’s arm as she rubbed his little tummy.

For the next 36 hours we did our best to make him as comfortable as possible and followed through with treating his breathing with steroids and antibiotics as much as we could.  We were not going to give up on him and for whatever it’s worth, it was beyond obvious that he was happier at home.  If he was going to die, he was going to die at home with the people and things he loved, not in a scary doctor’s office wondering why daddy had left him there.  The first night, my wife and I spent the night in the living room with him, trying to sleep in shifts to keep an eye and a loving hand on him at all times.  Any time we tried to pick him up and snuggle him, he would panic and weakly pull himself out of our arms, flopping to the floor if we did not set him down quickly enough.  We let him get wherever he wanted to, usually somewhere on the floor, probably because the hard surface gave his diaphragm something to push against, and we would array ourselves and his toys and blankets around him, and hope to comfort him enough so he could sleep a little.  He was so exhausted and so scared.  We fed him milk and water and a little baby food from a dropper.  We tracked his heart rate and breathing and kept sucking mucus out of his nose as we held on to hope and our sweet little boy kitty as hard as we could.

The second night, we both spent on the living room floor next to him.  At sunrise he was still breathing, shallowly, slowly.  It was about 6:30 when I got up from the blanket I had used as a cushion.  I had to work that day and then had to drive the kids to the airport that evening, I had to try to get at least a little sleep.  I petted him gently and kissed him on the forehead, and went back to the bedroom.

I heard my wife call my name about an hour later, her voice trembling.

“I think he’s gone.”

He wasn’t breathing.  His heart wasn’t beating.  I knelt next to him and told him we loved him forever, not for the first time and not for the last.  I wrapped him in one of my shirts so I will always be with him, and laid him gently in a box like he always liked to sit in.  We took him to our regular vet, who would take care of his cremation arrangements.  My wife and stepdaughter and I petted his soft orange fur one last time, I told him once again that we loved him forever, that I was so happy he came to live with us, and I told him thank you for two wonderful years.  Then I said goodbye.  I came back an hour later bringing mini-me, weeping again.  It was almost as hard to part with Georgie’s favorite toy as it was to leave him there, but mini-me belongs with George, and George would be sad if he was all alone.

My wife and the nurse at the vet’s office both said that George had “crossed the rainbow bridge” and I can’t help but cry every time I think that, because I can just see him bounding and jumping and playing his way over a rainbow, not sick or scared or hurting, and it makes me happy, and right now happy memories hurt.  But I’ve been here before, and I knew this was the ride I was signing up for two years ago when I told the veterinarian we would be keeping this possibly-very-sick kitty cat if no one else came to claim him.  And there’s no question I’d do it again in a heartbeat.  Every day with George was a gift.

My wife tells me George would not want us to be sad, and she’s right.  But Georgie was happiness itself in a little fur coat and a bow tie collar, and I don’t want to forget the happy things just to not be sad.  That’s what grieving is.  Someday, the happy thoughts won’t hurt so much.  Any cat owner knows that cats are as unique as people, and while there will be many more sweet, lovable kitty cats in my life, there will never be another Georgie.  I don’t wish I had used the time I had with him differently, I just wish I had had more.  I wasn’t ready to lose him.  But then, I never will be.

I love you forever, George.  I miss you so much.

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