Helping a beloved pet to pass on is perhaps one of the hardest journeys I’ve been on. Several times now. Gustav was our family’s cat, and he was decidedly the smartest feline we ever lived with — my whole family agrees on that one. He understood people and his emotional intelligence baffled me throughout his life. My parents are both cat lovers and when I was a little girl we always had cats underfoot in our small, warm home. When I was in college, I adopted two siblings from a pet rescue, and one of them grew into the greatest companion we’ve ever known. He was always full of mischievous surprises. At the height of his reign, he patrolled at least three, perhaps four yards in our neighborhood. His size intimidated most other cats, but really the only thing that was fierce about him was his love for life and people. Gustav had a regal presence. Visitors often remarked upon his size, his golden mantle and his auburn mane. Once, when a friend was helping me move furniture into my apartment, he glimpsed — from the street — Gus’s mug in the window.
“I didn’t know you had a golden retriever,” he remarked.
“I don’t, that’s my cat,” I said.
“That’s a cat?” He gawked.
When I think of him now, I’m reminded of the John Mayer song “Comfortable” where he’s lamenting that the love of his life was also his first, when he was naive and didn’t know what to do with such a greatness. He crones, “Why’d I have to / practice on you….” That’s how I feel about Gus in his golden years. He was the biggest cat love of my life, and I regret having to practice learning a deep love on him. I messed up a lot. I loved his sister, Zeut too — she was a brown and orange tortoise shell cat — but Gus was just different.
When he was two, he still hadn’t stopped growing. He’d grown a large, chunky frame very quickly. But he kept filling out until he was about five or six. He matured into a tall and lanky cat with narrow hips, wide shoulders and a glorious poufy mane. At his biggest he was about 15 pounds, but not fat. He was large boned and full of brawny muscle and mirth. He grew so tall that he learned to pat the tops of counters with his wide, feathered paws, searching for stuff. Anything. Whatever he found up there, he’d circle his paw around it and drag it off. I’d come home to find spaghetti noodles, cups and spoons strewn on the kitchen floor. He dragged rings and watches off my night stand, and mascara tubes and blush brushes off the bathroom counters. He ate my blush brushes. I’d find them chewed to pieces and enmeshed in poop in his litter box. He was furious in his curiosity sometimes.
He loved water when he was young. Any cup that was left out, he’d pat it with his paw and peer down into the ripples, mesmerized by their concentric movement. Then he’d bat the whole cup over, just to watch the water run. He’d sit on the side of my bathtub and lap at the water, but more often he’d stick a golden paw in and then lick the water off that. Dip after dip after dip. Mornings, he’d wait for me to put my contacts in and leap up to the sink. Then he’d catch the briny saline solution on his tongue as I rinsed the lenses. He loved the salt, I guess.
He also loved playing Monkey In the Middle. An ex-boyfriend of mine and I would crumple up paper and his ears would perk at the sound. He loved sharply folded heavy-weight paper the most. Then we’d toss it to each other over his head. He would jump in excess of five-feet high and grab the paper ball in mid-air. He’d feed it to his mouth before his paws hit the ground again, then run off with it and tear it to bits. Or he’d drop it to the ground and give us a “What else you got? Bring it on!” look. Sometimes, we could keep him jumping for almost half an hour, till he’d flop over, nicely exhausted. Gustav survived more of my boyfriends than I care to count, and he resented every one of them. He was the quintessential alpha cat.
He was an indoor cat until he was about seven, then I had to take him to live with my parents. I was working in Orlando, living in a tiny studio apartment, working 50- and 60-hour weeks and traveling a lot. My parents had a huge house with a large yard, and I felt guilty about keeping my cats cooped up with little enrichment in their lives. So they went to the Kitty Spa. There, dad taught Gustav to climb trees by literally slinging him at tree trunks. The first time dad showed me, Gus hit the trunk and slid down it. Crumpled at the bottom, he looked up at dad like, “What the heck was that for?” But he learned, and he got quite good. One night I came home from work late, after dark, and spied him racing up a neighbor’s tree for what appeared to be the sheer joy of a warm summer’s silver-moonlit night. He’d learned to pop the front door open and let himself out at will. I loved him so fiercely that I was terrified of anything happening to him.
After he became an outdoor cat, his menu choices expanded. Once he was lying on the couch while I studied and he suddenly started groaning. He had the most expressive meows. He staggered to his feet and began to vomit. I slung him under my arm and raced to the front door, positioning him to puke on the grass out front. Up came a bird’s leg. Then another. Then a beak. It seemed he’d found a nest and eaten some nestlings. Only, he couldn’t digest them. In his time, he vomited up lizard appendages, leaves, birds, what I think was a turtle foot, feathers and more. He once brought a whole bird into my father’s office and proceeded to de-feather and consume it. My mother said it looked like a murder scene. One afternoon I heard him doing his “I’ve got a gift for you” yowl at the front door, and I opened it just a sliver to see what offering he was carrying. He looked up at me with his mouth wrapped just behind the head of a two-foot long black racer. I freaked, and yelled. It startled him into dropping the snake, which thrashed around. Then Gustav freaked and bolted through the open door into the house, leaving the snake to slither off into the azaleas.
My dad used to slap his knees and greet Gustav with a “Who’s the greatest cat? Who is?!” Gustav would run to him at the sound of his name. “You are! You are the greatest cat!” Dad would sing to him. “That cat has it made,” my mom often said. We all spoiled him so. Gustav swaggered when he walked, throwing his bulk around. When he strode into a room, he acted like he owned it and we were all just visitors he humored on his turf. He was an exquisite piece of work. When I first adopted him as a kitten, you would have never known that this little orange tabby which fit in my palm would one day grow into a 15-pound cat larger than some small dogs.
Back in the day, Gustav loved to rumble. He once tackled our neighbor’s indoor cat by ramming through a window screen exposed by an opened window. Gus must have seen their cat silhouetted inside, and he tore through the screen and both cats landed inside while the family was eating dinner. The father told my dad that his kids were standing on the table as Gus chased their cat in loops around it, like something out of a cartoon. To get away from his attacker, their cat ran upstairs. Gustav chased him, then half-way up they said he stopped and it seemed to dawn on him that his house did not have stairs. He sauntered back down, they picked him up and deposited him on their front stoop. My family has been forever apologetic to them about the Great Home Invasion, but they insist it was one of the defining stories of their kids’ childhood.
He was a gorgeous cat. He’d literally turn heads. His golden mane grew long and full by the time he was six or so. His orange tabby pattern was accented by a streak of deep auburn down his back. He had ridiculously long red and gold guard hairs, and his underfur was the most amazing crimped fringe. In some light, it looked blonde, and in others it looked like a deep honey color. I named him after my favorite painter, Gustav Klimt who pounded gold leaf into many of his paintings — the umber-gold of this cat’s coat screamed of Klimt’s work to me. Plus, he truly was a work of art.
I’d never known much about cat breeds, but one day someone asked me if he was a Maine Coon. I looked the breed up, and all of a sudden Gustav’s quirky personality and staggering size made sense. The fact that he followed me around the house like a dog, chirped, trilled and huffed at everyone in the house who talked to him, and loved playing with water were all typical Maine Coon traits. His slow maturation and girth, even the reddish auburn tinge running down his back all hinted at Maine Coon – my best guess is that he is at least half or more Maine Coon. He had the largest paws – fully splayed, they were about half the size of my palm. And golden fingers of fringed hair grew out wildly between his toe pads. I used to think it was because he was an apartment cat and didn’t walk around enough on non-carpeted surfaces to keep the hair trim, but this was again a Maine Coon trait. Later my mother watched a special on TV about Norwegian forest cats, which are rumored to be the basal root of Maine Coons. I looked them up too and found a few that looked similar to him, especially the ones with long guard hairs. He literally looked well-equipped for snow and cold.
“Regal” was the word people most often chose to describe him. It wasn’t just his appearance, it was the stately, self-possessed way he carried himself. He knew he was a king among kings. “He’s a real one percenter,” my dad said.
I had to move back in with my parents when I started graduate school. It was the cheapest thing to do, and I was thrilled to be under the same roof with Gustav and Zeut again. But a year later, they moved to Maryland and it was me and the cats again, like old times. Zeut fell ill while I was interning in Arizona one summer, and when I returned home she had to be put down almost immediately. Two of her vertebrae had grown together and into the spinal canal, impinging on her spinal cord. It was the ugliest radiograph I’ve ever seen. She’d lost most of the use of her back legs and was in miserable pain. Putting her to sleep was the hardest thing I’d ever done. I felt hollow inside.
When I came home, I collapsed on the bed and cried. Gustav jumped up on the bed, trilling his trademark question-meow. It said “How are you?” and “Where’ve you been?” all at the same time. He looked into my eyes, brought his head near to me and then placed his paw on my thigh. He’d never done anything like that before. The cat knew what had happened and that Zeut was gone. He knew my heart was breaking. I scooped him up and cried even more. He’d never been a lap cat, but he let me hold him when I cried that afternoon. I swore that I would be a better mom to him, and secretly, I felt guilty because I knew if it had been him that had died, I would never have been able to bear it. He’d always been my favorite. For years afterwards, sometimes the brutal emptiness of putting Zeut down would strike at me in the middle of the night. I’d wake up and hug Gustav to me so tightly he squirmed.
December of 2006 my parents were home visiting and we were enjoying the post-Christmas denouement when we couldn’t get Gus to come home one evening. He’d taken to spending his mornings and afternoons outside, coming home when he pleased or when we called endlessly. Sometimes I’d walk up and down the street bellowing “Guuuusss–ssttaaa–aaav!” trying to rustle him up from whatever bush he’d fallen asleep beneath. The neighbors must have thought me mad. My stomach would knot for minutes or hours waiting for his sleep-streaked face to emerge from the neighborhood jungle. But this night, he showed up hurt. Our worst nightmare. He was bleeding from his mouth, bright and frothy blood. We carted him to the Emergency Vet Clinic, and I dreaded him dying. He didn’t die that night, but he almost did. The emergency vets missed it, but his tongue was severed nearly 75 percent through and he bled down his throat all night. In the morning, we picked him up and took him to our vet who did a better diagnosis. He had emergency surgery to re-attach his tongue. He slobbered incessantly out of his left side after it healed and we lovingly referred to him as Slobber-Knocker. He would slather himself in drool sometimes, but at least he was alive.
After that, and after having putting his sister down the spring before, I loved him even more desperately. I don’t think I’ve ever loved an animal more than I loved Gus. I loved making him happy, and I knew all the special spots to rub him on his chest and behind his ears. My folks moved to Maryland and Gus and I stayed in their house as I finished graduate school. We entered a golden phase of our relationship. I’d outgrown my restless twenties, and was settling into my thirties. I no longer felt compelled to go out every weekend and I was perfectly content to stay home cuddling him while reading a book. We spent lots of time together. He would refuse to go to sleep at night till I was done studying and came to bed. I knotted blankets into nests for him, and he sought them out to sleep within. I spoiled him rotten with affection, and he knew he had me under this thumb. After he got in too many fights and was too old to defend himself anymore, I made him an indoor cat again but I started walking him on a leash mornings and nights. When I came home from school or work, I’d slip the braided-cord lead over his neck and he’d prance outside, sniffing everything. It was beautiful to watch him explore out-of-doors. He’d save up all his piss for our walks and then strategically and systematically nail every scent-post marking his territory. At least, all the ones I’d let him get to. He got frustrated when I wouldn’t crawl under bushes with him and pretty much made him stick to “safe” trails we could both walk on. He’d strain against his leash sometimes, frustrated that he couldn’t go where he wanted, and he’d walk me straight back home. This cat clearly had goals. Some nights, we’d fall asleep with his paw in my hand.
When he turned 12 or so, he began having some problems. After I finished up graduate school I followed my boyfriend to North Carolina. But part of the deal of being with him was that Gus was not invited. I swallowed my pride, and my love for him, and asked my parents to take Gus in. I hated giving him up, hated it to the depths of my guts. But I was terribly in love. And I knew that if anyone loved Gus as much as I did, it was my folks. They graciously took him in. My dad said he knew it was a sin to covet, but that he’d always coveted Gustav. One afternoon, I plucked him off his purple cat stand and placed him in the car with me. We drove north for ten hours and his life was never the same. This cat that had loved ranging outside adjusted oddly to living in a townhome in Maryland. He took up residence on their couch and his movements grew more restricted for the next year. He developed a routine living on one floor of their four-level home. His back legs grew weak. I thought it was hip dysplasia, or atrophy from lack of walking around. He became blind in one eye. We thought it was old age. He began walking in circles. We thought it was because of the blindness.
It was, mostly likely, a brain tumor called a meningioma. But we didn’t know that then. When my parents moved back down to Gainesville last week, I took him with me to North Carolina for a few days. He seemed okay, just old. He walked in circles, meowed for food and loved being cuddled. He purred a lot, and I recorded him purring and huffing.
Then he went downhill. Back in Gainesville, my folks took him to a vet after a particularly scary day when all he could do was lie on his side. He slumped over when they tried to right him. He missed the box and stumbled around. The vet talked at length with them about brain tumors in cats. The symptoms fit Gustav perfectly. The vet suspected he would live about two weeks more.
When they told me, I cried for days. I bawled. I was working on freelance assignments, and I wrote and cried over my laptop with tissues nearby to staunch the flow as I typed. I cried making dinner, and I cried at night. I teared up looking through old pictures of him. I wished that he’d die peacefully in his sleep, I’d wished that for years. I knew I couldn’t bear to watch him die, but I also knew I had to be there. I drove down to Florida.
Losing Gustav was worse than losing Zeut, maybe because I’d dreaded it for so long and I loved him so much. Losing him ripped the scabs off my pent up emotions of having to give him away again when I moved to North Carolina. Part of me resented my boyfriend for depriving me of my beloved companion. Part of me felt guilty for not fighting more to keep him. I felt like I’d abandoned him, albeit with his grandparents who spoiled him rotten. I’d like to believe that Gustav was never sad over losing me in his last years, and that he never felt betrayed by me. I’d like to believe that he knew everyone who met him loved him. I’d like to believe that he also knew he was the only cat that swaggered into my heart and completely stole it.
I will never forget him. I will always love him. My life is enriched for having known him. He was a most beloved, faithful and loyal companion. Gustav’s personality was larger than life, right up to the end.
“That cat always tried so dang hard,” my dad said when were at the vet’s to have him put to sleep on Friday, June 4. His breathing had grown rough and he could barely walk. He toppled over. That afternoon, he’d told us it was time and the thing I’d dreaded doing for years was suddenly upon us. “A lot of cats would have just gotten depressed and given up, you know? But Gustav always knew he was around people who loved him, and he just gave it his all. Right up to the end.”
We held him and petted him for hours before taking him to the vet. He was still a gorgeous animal. Physically, he still looked like he did when he was seven or eight — he was in spectacular shape. Except for the brain tumor destroying his central nervous system. My heart had been bleeding for a week since we’d learned it was a tumor, and now it was bursting. But after having held him from 4 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. that morning as he wheezed and rattled, I knew we were doing the right thing. Several times he’d let out a deep breath that I was convinced was his last. Ten seconds later, he’d begin his shallow, ragged breathing again. My folks had fed him as much tuna as he pleased until he wasn’t too interested in food anymore.
“It just won’t be the same house without him,” my dad remarked.
It sure wouldn’t. Gustav was a regal presence. My house hadn’t been the same without him either. He was a gifted animal, a once-in-a-lifetime best buddy. I tearfully told my parents how I’d always felt guilty for shuttling my cats back and forth between my apartments and their home.
“Are you kidding, they loved it,” my mom said.
“Probably, yes,” I said. “I think their lives were richer for having lived with you guys and with me.”
“Honey, Gustav had so much life in him, he needed sharing,” dad said.
Dad’s words sunk in. We all thought about that for a moment, and realized how right he was. Gustav was just so much bigger than life that he needed more than one home, and more than one person to share his love and joy for life with. For every anecdote recounted here, there are a dozen more. He truly was a one percenter.
“Thank you for choosing us, Gustav,” I whispered when the vet plunged the pink anesthetic overdose into his vein. Thank you for the life you shared with all of us. You will be forever missed and forever loved.