I didn’t want to live with a cat. I certainly didn’t want to live with a cat in my house. I was certain that I didn’t like cats. I was wrong.
Years ago, my ex-wife wanted a cat. She had grown up with felines and had great memories of them. I had grown up with a father who would sooner spontaneously combust than have an animal inside his perfect house, so I knew very, very little of cats or dogs from experience. At best, I was indifferent. But Melissa wanted a cat, so I decided to find one for her.
It was my sister, Mary, who found a stray kitten in Mountain Brook, which is an upscale Birmingham suburb very close to the local zoo. I had mentioned to her that I was looking for a cat, so she called me to come take a look when Melissa wasn’t around — so it would be a surprise for her. I went to Mary’s apartment to see this tiny furball who seemed more like a starving street urchin than the healthy kittens I’d seen in cat food commercials.
I got got down on the floor with him. He came over to me and rubbed against my face — gingerly at first, but then with abandon. I smiled and suddenly felt warmer inside. I didn’t want a cat, but something inside me did. What was I getting into?
For the first couple of weeks that Melissa and I had this little fellow, we were still living in an old high-rise apartment building on Southside that didn’t allow pets. We had just bought a condo in a suburb south of town, but we couldn’t move in quite yet. The apartment manager’s office was in the lobby of the building, which we had to walk through to leave each morning on the way to work. For those two weeks, we smuggled him in and out each day in a bag, always hoping that this wouldn’t be the day he would announce his presence right as the manager eyed us. She didn’t catch us.
I quickly came to love Oliver. We named him for the orphan in the Charles Dickens novel, because he had truly been that pathetic when we found him. He grew fairly quickly into a big cat, topping out at about 18 pounds, leaving us to joke that he had simply escaped from the zoo when Mary found him in Mountain Brook. We think he he was probably part Maine coon. I discovered that I liked and appreciated the cat personality. I loved his odd mixture of independence and affection. Soon, I couldn’t imagine life without a cat.
When Christmas season came the first year we had him, we put up a tree and didn’t think much about it. Oliver didn’t sleep with us, simply because I hadn’t really wanted a cat in the bed at night — a holdover from the attitude I’d learned as a child. On the first morning after the tree went up, I opened the bedroom door to find Christmas decorations strewn down the hall. I followed them to the living room, where I found a destroyed tree and decorations spread around the room as evenly as if they’d been blown to bits. This guy had had a fun night.
Oliver came to be a chubby fellow. OK, let’s be blunt. He was fat. I wasn’t too concerned about it. The guy liked to eat and I didn’t think it made any difference, so he lived a happy and chubby life for his first four years. He knew that his food was kept in a small plastic container in the refrigerator, so he eventually learned to open the ‘fridge. All in all, it was an entertaining life. Any cat owner would recognize it, but it was all new to me.
It was also new to me after four years when he quit eating and started losing weight. We took him to the vet, but the vet couldn’t figure out what was wrong. He was so fat that the vet couldn’t feel much of his body to see what was going on. We just had to keep watching him and hoping he would start eating again. After a couple of weeks of this, he had lost enough weight for the vet to feel something. It seemed as though Oliver had tumors, so he had to have immediate surgery.
I was at work on the day of the surgery, and I was thinking that he would probably be fine. But Melissa got a call from the vet after a couple of hours. “Our little buddy didn’t make it,” the vet said.
It turned out that Oliver had several tumors in advanced states. He was so weak by the time of the surgery that he died from the trauma of the operation. He never had a chance.
Losing Oliver was tough for me, because I’d never lost an animal. Melissa had lost them before, but it still wasn’t easy for her. My first thought was that I didn’t want another cat. If losing them hurt this much, was it really worth it? I quickly got past that shortsighted notion.
Less than a week after Oliver’s death, we had another baby furball in the house. I came to love Oscar and treasure him, but that’s a story for another time. Even though Oliver was gone, he still had a huge presence in my home and in my heart — because he was the one who first taught me to love cats.