When I was a kid, I loved Emily Cheney Neville’s Newberry winning It’s Like This, Cat. It’s about a kid in sixties NYC who gets adopted by a tabby tom cat who just walks into his life. Named Cat.
I read that thing a dozen times, at least.
A woman I dated a while ago told me this story about tabbies after meeting Henry: that when Jesus was born, a grey tabby crept into his manger and kept him warm all night. The Virgin Mary kissed the cat on the forehead in gratitude, and that’s why tabbies all have a prominent “M” on their foreheads.
I am not religious, but I always liked that story.
Besides, it was always my favorite place to kiss him, right there on the M.
We called him Exact Duplicate, at first. He showed up on the porch of our apartment building back in Portland next to his mom, one day, and he looked just like her, only one-tenth the size. For a few days, we saw them every afternoon when we came home, sitting on the porch together. Then, one day, the kitten walked into our apartment and stayed.
We knew who owned the cat, I went upstairs and got the story: they’d had a litter, given away as many as they could, took the rest to a pet store. But one ran away that day and hid in the cellar and then came back a day later, and hell yes, I could have him.
His mom paced the hall outside meowing for a while, that night.
Henry lived with us, now.
Henry never really lived with anyone, though, or rather in any one house. He was most definitely an outside cat (not like it was our call that he even lived with us, really) and had a route of houses he visited wherever I took him, all the places we lived.
We found this out one day a few months after he moved in, when we went outside to go to work in the morning and people we didn’t know were yelling “Hey, do you know who owns Henry?” (Tags.) We said “Us” and they said “Oh, he’s up that telephone pole.”
He did that a few times before I got him fixed, that cured it – climbed to the top of utility poles and just sat there, freaking out the entire street.
He did it the day she left, so she couldn’t even say goodbye to him, except yell it up the pole.
I’ve collected a group of virtual strangers in every neighborhood I’ve lived in since 1998 I knew solely because of my cat. We run into each other outside while I’m letting him in the house and “Oh, you own Henry…he comes and takes naps with me every day.”
That’s happened a lot. Old ladies always like him that way, especially. And he loved taking naps with them, apparently. He’d come home reeking of old lady perfumes, like he’d been out being a cuddle hooker all night.
When 9/11 happened, I’d just gotten laid off the previous day, worked in Silicon Valley, and lived in Fremont, which has big Arab and Indian and South Asian communities, some Russian/Eurasian. (A Hindi multiplex, even.) Not so many Muslims, really – a lot of the Arabs I ran into regularly were Christian, lots of Lebanese in the neighborhood. But…turbans look like turbans to bigots, and Hindus and Sikhs make good targets in panicked times, too.
So…I dunno about elsewhere in Fremont, but my neighborhood kind of drew together, people started introducing themselves to neighbors they hadn’t previously. American flags were *everywhere,* it was a like a freaking July used car lot. I promise you, if you lived in Colorado Springs or some similar right wing burg, then, there were not as many American flags in your neighborhood as mine. Pretty much all flown by people who’d moved to the United States fairly recently.
We had a knock at the door one night a week or so after and the Sikh family next door introduced themselves. They were from Kashmir, we found out. The son came over for a while after and would hang out and read our palms and argue religion with me.
There was a knock at the door and we opened the door and there was a family, father in a turban in back, grandma in front, short and round, Henry in her arms.
“I can’t take a nap without him anymore,” she said, through her grandson.
Henry was a hunter and a scrapper. One morning, I woke up to him caterwauling outside to be let in, and…I lived in an older building with one of those double-door entryways? And the buzzers and mailboxes were between the doors? Anyway, I open my door, ground floor right next to the entrance, and the entryway was full of white feathers, flying around like one of those horrible “grab the money” booths on TV.
Henry’s sitting in the middle, crying, next to the carcass. He got into the entryway, then the outer door blew shut enough that he can’t escape, but just slightly open enough for the wind to come in and throw all the feathers around.
Oh my god, that took so long to clean up. I wanted to kill him.
Once I saw him chase an entire family of raccoons out from under a house and down the street. And these were big raccoons, a couple times as big as him, at least. Running away from Henry, going “Ort, ort, ort.”
“Is that Henry chasing those raccoons?” asked the woman my friend brought, whose name I didn’t know yet.
That was not the only time I hooked up because Henry opened for me.
I don’t even know how many cuts I had to clean, abscesses I had to drain, over the years. It was a regular thing for a while. The last one was really bad, a few years ago – I think he almost lost a fight with a dog. He had to stay in the house for a couple of weeks over that one.
He retired after that, I never had to clean another battle wound.
I would not like to see that poor dog.
Henry loved to take care of smaller animals. In the fourteen years he traveled with me, a few new kittens and puppies came into the house, and he played big brother to most of them. He loved cleaning them, especially. It became a thing between him and our dog, Otis, even after Otis grew: he’d attack Henry, Henry would get Otis in a neck lock, Otis would show his belly, Henry would clean his face.
We knew something was off with him a few months ago, when he wasn’t interested in playing with the kittens anymore, and didn’t even want to clean Otis.
I figured it might be time to start making him stay inside, soon.
There wasn’t that much time left, as it turned out.
Henry loved going for walks. With me to the consternation of friends, occasionally, when I’d have to turn around and take him back to the house. (He’d follow until he was out of his known territory, then start screaming until I turned around.)
He loved going for walks with the dogs, especially, and they loved having him along. And we’d meet people, out walking, or walking their dogs, and they’d go “There’s a cat following you” and then find out it was our cat and be amazed that the cat walked with the dogs.
The last time that happened was three weeks or so ago. He went pretty fast, after that. Cancer, most likely. That and being an eighty year old man.
Henry was with me through two traumatic breakups, the love of my life, my kids moving all the way from K to 12 to college, a couple of great jobs and a few shitty ones, my first fiction publication and then publications, and one total nervous breakdown. He drove and flew up and down the west coast, drove from Oregon to Florida with me in three days when I moved here, and I almost lost him in the middle of the night in the middle of Texas. I have no idea how many people’s lives he touched, I’m never going to know, and…oh, damn, I have to go tell some people I barely know that Henry’s gone.
I don’t know when I’m going to be up to that.
So last night I got to sleep with him one last time. This morning, we took him to the clinic, and I kissed him one last time on his M while he died, and maybe when he opened his eyes again again after that, somebody’s queen of heaven kissed him hello on his M.
Surely, no tabby ever earned it more than Henry.
He got to visit one last new house. Perfectly enough, Henry is buried in somebody else’s garden. Evonne’s parents said we could use their property for Henry to rest in, he’s in their backyard with Evonne’s sister’s old hamster.
Natalie came over as soon as she heard, and then Evonne’s aunt and grandmother. Gladys picked a rose from her garden for his grave. I couldn’t help crying all over again when I saw that.
Natalie sent a picture she took with a note that just said “I love you.” Mi hermanita, you made me cry again.
To paraphrase one of the most hilarious things ever, if Henry was just a cat, I imagine, then, that lions are just lions, and gods are just gods.
I don’t know what I’m going to do without you, buddy.