An Ode to the King

It’s 1998 and my new husband and I are surrounded by dozens of kittens at an animal shelter.

Back then, there were no buttons you could push on your phone to watch cat pictures and videos. Want to see adorable baby animals being adorable? Then you have to physically get in your car and drive to an animal shelter or a petting zoo.

I have always divided the world into dog people and cat people. I’m firmly in the dog camp.  Dogs are solid. You can grab them and hug them, and they will not only let you, they will bask in your love as if you are the most wonderful creature on the planet. They will slobber all over your face and be insanely happy to see you even if you have just left the house for five minutes to buy milk.

But as luck would have it,  I married a cat lover.

Everyone brings something into a relationship that wasn’t there before. I contribute Edward Gorey posters and the Riverside edition of the complete works of William Shakespeare that I’ve lugged around since college. Fred brings the lyrics to every TV commercial and pop song from the 1970s – and two cats.

The song lyrics come in handy, but I never warm up to Mickey and Vanity.  Vanity is – well, there’s no way to sugarcoat it. She’s ugly, and she’s mean. She’s an unattractive black and yellow tortoise shell cat, prone to hissing. And she’s  skittish and unfriendly. Mickey, the black and white cat, is slightly friendlier and definitely more handsome, but he was adopted by Fred and the evil ex-wife, so through no fault of his own, I find it hard to warm up to him, either.

I just don’t get the appeal of cats. I come from a large Jewish family where hugging and kissing is as necessary as breathing. Cats are like some WASPy, Wes Anderson creation, standoffish and odd. I just  don’t understand why people willingly bring them into their homes.

But I’m falling in love with Fred, so, at least in theory, I’m willing to put up with them.

Within one year of dating, Mickey gets sick and dies. Fred is distraught, and I leave work to comfort him. But I’m secretly relieved because we’re getting married soon and I am not at all thrilled about the idea of sharing my new home with his cats.

So we get married and move to Long Island. A few months later, Vanity needs to stay overnight at the new vet following some routine tests. In the morning Fred gets a call from the vet. During the night, Vanity unexpectedly has died. I’m not going to lie. My first thought is, “Yes – clean slate. No more leftover cats to interfere with my new marriage.”

Fred, meanwhile, is inconsolable –and enraged that this new vet, who he trusted with his cat, has instead killed it. When we go to pick up her remains, the vet apologizes and tries to offer us his noisy, annoying office cat as a replacement. First of all, who does that? And no. Just, no.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to hide my relief and be sensitive to Fred’s loss. But it quickly becomes clear that he is devastated. So devastated that it interferes with his entire life. He’s having trouble sleeping, eating, going to work. He gets an idea in his head that he should file criminal charges against the vet. This is a problem.

I am a terrible wife, because I just want him to snap out of it, so we can get on with our new, cat-free existence which I’m sure will be just lovely once he gets the hang. But he just sinks deeper into depression. Blaming the vet, blaming himself for trusting the vet – it’s an endless loop.

After a few months go by, I realize there is only one solution to this dilemma. We need to get a new cat. I know – I hate cats. But I need to do something. At first Fred balks. He doesn’t think he’s ready for a new cat. I can understand that – honestly his track record of keeping cats alive isn’t great. But I insist.

So now here we are at North Shore Animal League surrounded by dozens of tiny kittens.

Fred is overwhelmed. He wants to take them ALL home. And can’t decide which one we should choose. I quickly realize what I need to do.

I, the dog person, need to pick the right kitten. A nice, healthy one who’ll hopefully live a long life. A friendly one who won’t hiss at me for the next decade.  And most importantly, one that Fred will have no choice but to love.

I examine tabbies, and black kittens and white kittens and calicos and kittens in all shades of orange. If they show any signs of being skittish, or mean, back they go to their cages. It quickly becomes clear that I am looking for the most dog-like cat I can find.

I finally narrow it down to two brothers. They’re gray striped tabbies and polydactyls – extra toes on each paw. One of them is really playful and cuddly. He tires himself out and then curls into a ball and falls asleep on my lap. I hesitate for a moment. This is a big decision, one that will affect my husband, my marriage, my life. I look at this little furry creature and make a secret pact with him. You be a good cat, I silently order him, and I promise to be nice to you.

Then I tell Fred, “Him – he’s the one we’re taking home.”

I drive home and Fred holds the kitten in his lap. He’s still unsure about the decision, but it’s too late now. We have officially adopted a cat. Our cat.

Now Fred is a softie and it doesn’t take more than a day for him to bond with this creature we’ve decided to name “Toby” after his extra toes. What takes me by surprise is when I find myself secretly thrilled that he sleeps curled up around my head on the pillow, and how much I enjoy having him nuzzle and crawl all over me. Finally, I can’t deny it. I have fallen hopelessly, helplessly in love with this cat.

I know I’ve got it bad when I call Fred one day from work. “Tooooby,” I say. “Toooby,” he replies. “He is so adorable,” I squeal. “I knooooow,” Fred says. We are sickening, talking about him like he’s our new lover.

Toby goes with us everywhere. We take him in a carrier to Macy’s and an old man stops to admire him, and tell him, “You should live to be 100!”

And he grows up to become the friendliest, most wonderful cat I’ve ever known. He welcomes the addition of our squealing twin baby girls and his sweet nature when they lunge for him on a daily basis is probably the reason their first word wasn’t Mom or Dad, but “cat.” When he’s about eight, he takes our new puppy, Cash, under his wing, teaches him how to sit on top of the couch like a proper feline and survey the kingdom, and wrestles with him on the living room floor. When Toby loses an eye to cancer, he wobbles uncertainly for a day or two before bouncing back and reclaiming his statue as master of the house.

We call him ”King Toby” because he’s beautiful and majestic and benevolent and warm, just like a good ruler should be. He is the Justin Trudeau of cats.

And years later, when his breathing becomes ragged one night, despite the steroids we’ve been giving him for months, we rush him to the animal hospital, and Fred holds him, wrapped up in a blanket, as the vet explains each step she is taking to end his suffering.

We bury him in the backyard and we all grieve, including Cash, who wanders around the house each day looking for his wrestling partner. I closely watch Fred for signs that he will become despondent again, but he is not the same man he was when we first got married. He is a father now and instinctively knows he can’t fall apart again. With a lump in my throat I see him comfort our young daughters, who have never experienced this kind of loss before.

Toby lived more than 14 years, a record for Fred.  He taught Fred that he had an infinite capacity for love – even in the face of terrible loss. And he showed me that I am no longer just a dog person – I’m a dog and Toby person.