Part I – INTRO: This blog has been around since a certain date. I could look that up, but that would require looking it up. I think it goes back to ’09 or ’10 or some such. Point is, awhile. And in the semi-long history of this blog, I’ve established a tradition of memorializing the dead. Death, the recognition and acceptance of, is very important to me. And yet, my most significant loss has gone unrecognized here.
Partly this is due to pride. The story of Little Bastard, to my own ears, strikes a pathetic note. It seems shameful to me, even as a lover of animals, that one animal would mean so much. It is not something I find shameful in others, not in the least, but in myself it seems like evidence of my own human ineptitude.
Part II – THE CAT HIMSELF: In 1999, Evan and I took in a LA stray who came to be known as Mama Cat. She had six kittens, of whom Little Bastard was one. I will never forget the first time I saw his face. There was a pile of squirming kittens, from white to black and all along the gray scale in between, and up out of the pile of kittens emerged a face with dramatic markings. I gasped and said, “That one will find a home first!” (And in a way, he did.) Within the first twenty-four hours of his life he earned his name. Where all the other kittens looked for a nursing spot like normal animals, Little Bastard instantly developed a unique method. He’d go up to a litter mate, frantically claw their faces, and when they’d detach, he’d latch on. “That one’s a Little Bastard,” I said. It stuck.
Two weeks later, Mama Cat became ill. So ill we had to bottle feed the litter. A curious thing happened when I started bottle feeding the kittens. Little Bastard decided I belonged to him. You could say he bonded to me, decided I was his mother. But none of the other kittens bonded to me in this way. Mama Cat continued to mother them, even if she wasn’t feeding them, and Little Bastard, throughout his life, loved her like a true mama’s boy. Regardless of how this decision originated within him, Little Bastard has clearly decided that I was his, and he went on a campaign to make me see this truth.
Time passed and kittens found homes. After a lot of hustling, I worked the situation to where all the kittens would be placed. A nice couple came to get Little Bastard. I panicked and started lying my head off. I said he was a fearful kitten (this as he lay, belly to the sky, on my lap), about how he was difficult and unwilling to bond, etc. The wife seemed confused, but the husband realized what was going on. They took a different a kitten, a semi-claimed kitten, and I kept Little B. I’ve always regretted how I handled that. (As a happy postscript, however, the kitten they did take, and named Rufus, went on to have a wonderful life with them. The college student who had semi-claimed Rufus would have been unlikely to provide such a home.)
Little Bastard grew up to become a remarkable cat. He had dreams, dreams I would watch develop over time. I always knew what he was thinking, too. I could watch him size up a situation. “If I can just get to those stairs, then I can get out that window, and onto the roof.” Even though I’d be aware of his plots and tried to defend against them, he was patient and always knew when to strike. Over the years, he made of a lot of these dreams come true. The aforementioned roof dream, the dream of leaping from a balcony into a nearby tree – after an initial second-story failure – his own personal escape from Alcatraz moment in Big Bear. By the way – I never said he was a good cat, I said he was a remarkable cat. He was named Little Bastard, after all, and he earned that name over and over again. But I never begrudged him his ambitions. Indeed, I took great pride in them and viewed them as evidence of his superiority over all other cats. Life, he believed, was made for adventures.
I really can’t emphasize enough our ability to read each other’s minds. I never had to wonder what he was thinking or feeling. Once, after few symptoms, I concluded he had asthma. The vet didn’t believe me. I insisted on tests. She came back in and said, “So! It’s a good thing you brought your kitty-kitty in today! He does have asthma!” On a happier note, when we lived in Big Bear, I decided that what Little B really wanted was to go outside. I didn’t want him eaten by coyotes, so I bought him a little red harness and a leash. The very first time I put it on him, he knew what it meant, because he could read my mind just as I read his. That harness became his greatest source of joy. Years later, in South Carolina, I’d let him outside without it. Months would go by without him wearing it. But if he heard me pick it up, no matter where he was, he’d come running, meowing loudly the entire time. Little B, fittingly, was an exceedingly loud cat. We were such a perfect match.
Bastard loved to run. A lot of cats do. But his favorite way to run was with me. I am sure my neighbors thought I was insane. Little B and I would go to the backyard and run around. Not in a way, I’m sure, that made sense to an observer, but it made sense to us. Basically, we’d both run to different points in the yard, then I’d call him, and he’d run to me. I would then praise him on how magnificently he’d run (Little Bastard loved praise) and the game would start all over again. Once, my sister Becky called during one of these outdoor running sessions and she asked what I was doing. I said, “Spending special time with Bastard.” And then I said, “Did I just say that out loud?” Because it was literally, not figuratively, but literally one of those moments where I had no intention of ever telling anyone that I mentally referred to backyard running with my cat as “spending special time with Bastard” but I’d gone and done it. Luckily, Becky had owned Rocky and understood.
When it came to humans other than myself, it’s safe to say Little B was unimpressed. He was a one woman cat. From some people he’d tolerate a certain amount of attention, but he made it clear this was an act of graciousness on his part. Back in 2003, while Evan and I were staying with his parents, Evan’s dad decided he was sick of Bastard’s aloof nature and petted him the way one would pet a lab puppy. Little B suffered through the mauling with dignity, shot my ex-father-in-law a devastating glare, then stalked away, his tail straight in the air and twitching. No cat has ever more powerfully said, “Go to hell,” than Little Bastard at that moment. So much so, Evan’s dad flipped him off as he walked away.
Part III – WHY HE MEANT SO MUCH: I went to a lot of different schools over the years, but I never moved. The first change was compulsory, because of a change in school district policy, but after that it became voluntary. I changed schools because I wanted to. I wanted to change schools because I was no longer wanted. I found it relatively easy to make friends, inordinately difficult to keep them. I could keep using sort of diplomatic language here, but let’s just cut to the chase – I was rejected a lot. Like, A LOT. Also, like, EMPHATICALLY. And by emphatically I mean with fists.
I took refuge with animals. I had horses, cats, and dogs. My experience with all three was marked by, for lack of a better term, the domestication process. My beloved Max, a magnificent and brilliantly intelligent cat, entered my life semi-wild. I went on a campaign to tame him and make him my own. My campaign worked. This was the paradigm of every relationship I ever had. Or at least, the emotional truth of my experience. I found a person or animal that struck me as bright and shiny, and I went on a campaign to make him or her my own. In the world of human relationships, I very often found short term success and long term failure.
That was what life looked like to me.
And that, right there, is the heart of the matter. In Little Bastard, I found another being who decided I was bright and shiny. Another being that wanted me and went on campaign to win me over. I was wanted. By a four week old, extraordinarily loud and obnoxious kitten, but that didn’t mean it didn’t count. It counted enormously. It counted overwhelmingly. Here’s the thing. It counts even more today. The ensuing years have not diminished the significance of my bond with Little B, but enlarged it.
I will not surprise anybody by saying human relationships are imperfect. But neither are human-animal relationships. Horses will refuse a jump they should have taken and you wind up with a broken back. Dogs, even very good dogs like Tom Foolery, sometimes don’t come when you call them.
I say this next bit tentatively, because I have so many wonderful friends and family who love me and who have done so much for me, especially over the last year. I don’t call on people. There have been exceptions, but generally speaking, I only call on people when I feel I have something to offer in return. For someone who doesn’t do math, I have a complicated abacus in my head that is in perpetual motion. It is the math of social interaction and it is something I’ve learned the hard way over the course of my life.
Little Bastard came running every time I called him. Not because I had dinner or a treat or a harness waiting for him. The only thing I had on offer was myself. And that was enough.
In 2007, Little B became very sick. He probably ingested some sort of poison. Until he died in June of 2013, he remained in some state of not-so-great health. There was one exception. In the fall of 2012, I brought him with me to Vermont. For a beautiful stretch of time, Little B was the only cat. He gained weight and felt fantastic. We hung out, talked, ran around. We enjoyed our adventure together immensely. The first eight years of Little Bastard’s life were exceptional. During the next phase of his life, I failed him on multiple occasions. I haven’t really dealt with that yet. No doubt my brain is saving it for some amazing day in the future when everything’s going great and then it’ll be like, “HEY REMEMBER THAT TIME WHEN YOU FAILED YOUR CAT REPEATEDLY OVER A SEVERAL YEAR SPAN? LET’S THINK ABOUT THAT.” But I am thankful that in the midst of that time, toward the end, Little Bastard got to live life exactly the way he wanted to. He deserved that. And so much more.
In the end, I am thankful I got the time with him that I did. It was too short, especially the good years. But to quote Dr. Seuss, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”