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The Last of the First Ones

Michael Hillman

Cat lovers have an old saying, "The laps cats always want to sit on are the laps of people who hate cats most." Whether they do it out of desire to reform the cat hater or a sinister sense of humor, it is an accurate statement.

Audrey had no sooner invited me into her apartment for the first time, then Tony, made a beeline for my lap. I was horrified. I sat deathly still, anticipating the pain that I was sure would come from claws digging into my skin. It never came. Tony stared at me, wearing an expression easily translated into: "Well. Pet me already! I don’t have all day!"

Tony’s early years will be forever shrouded in mystery. He was a stray who found being a barn cat to his liking. He walked in a pacing fashion, which as he stiffened in later years, began to bear the resemblance of a ‘gabby walker machine’ from Star Wars. Cream colored and stoutly built, only his deep blue eyes hinted at any type of bloodline, in his case Siamese. While Tony found life as a barn cat good, life got even better when Willy and Audrey moved into the apartment next to his barn.

It didn’t take long for Tony to make the move from the barn to Audrey’s back step. In spite of Audrey’s best half-hearted efforts to discourage him, Tony found her doorstep quite satisfying and the friendship of Willy much to his liking. Eventually Audrey gave up the fight and with the permission of his ‘owners’, Tony officially adopted Audrey and she him.

Tony quickly settled in and, while he continued his day job as a barn cat, his evenings were spent enjoying the constant companionship of Willie and the affection of Audrey.

The lessons Tony had learned as a barn cat would pay off handsomely throughout his life. A few months after ‘adopting’ Audrey, she moved out of the countryside and into an apartment in a center of a small town. Once again, Tony settled in quickly.

As luck would have it, the new apartment was located next to an old abandoned garbage dump, which in the evenings attracted every cat in the neighbor. Skilled in the ruff and tumble ways of a barn, Tony quickly assumed a leadership role in the nightly gathers, and his yowl to the others filled the air throughout the night.

Tony took little interest in PJ when PJ and I joined the clan. Already well seasoned in the ways of a barn dog, Tony must have realized that a collaboration would yield nothing, and given that the two were on such different schedules, PJ at the barn during the day, Tony in the apartment; PJ inside at night and Tony outside, the two rarely if ever met.

The whole equation changed however with the move to our farm and the arrival of Emma.

Instinct must have told Tony that if he didn’t get his licks in while Emma was a puppy, he would never get them in when she was an adult. So the first chance he got, he corned her, grabbed her snout and began to wail away on her. Emma screamed like a stuck pig. Tony’s strategy worked, and for the rest of her life, Emma always gave Tony a wide berth.

In spite of the fact that he now had to share his day with dogs, Tony approved of his new residence. The fields were full of mice and moles to catch. The bird feeder, which Audrey always keep fully stocked, proved an easy afternoon of pickings, but best of all, the quiet road in front of our house provided a warm spot to rest bones weary from a day’s hunting.

It was not unusual to find Tony sitting on the yellow line, basking in the sunlight as if he owned the whole road. How he never got hit always amazed us, and in spite of our constant protests, he returned over and over again to the road.

Much to our relief, the range of his territory shrank in exponential proportion to his age, and soon it was confined to the yard and garden. By this time, I’m sure Tony was ready to pack it in and become an inside cat where he would always be assured a warm sunny spot on a bed, but the arrival of the ‘Binars’, a brother and sister pair of Manx kittens, threw any thought of retirement out the window.

Being tailless, Miles, the male kitten, was fascinated with Tony’s tail. Tony’s frequent twitching of his tail was often too much for Miles, who gathered great pleasure in sneaking up on Tony and grabbing it. Poor Tony, he couldn’t eat without worry of Miles grabbing his tail, and even his sleep was often disturbed.

In spite of all Miles’ playful torment, when Willy, Tony’s life long friend died, Miles and Tony became fast friends. It was almost as if Tony was mentoring Miles. As if respectful of Tony’s advancing age, Miles ceased his attacks on Tony’s tail and the two would often be found nestled together, sunning themselves.

All his life Tony was a heat seeker and as age began to catch up on him, it became an ever-increasing driving force in his life. Soon sleep took precedence even over hunting. The installation of a wood burning stove in the house was all that was needed to convince Tony that there was nothing worth doing outside. Tony’s life soon consisted of daylong naps in the study, basking in the heat of the stove with only the occasional movement to reposition himself back within the sun rays that pierced the room.

But in spite of his advancing age, Tony not only still enjoyed a good scratch, but also saw it as his right. One only had to sit down to watch TV or to read a book, and then Tony would appear. Hopping up next to you, he would stretch out his left paw and gently place it on your arm, where it would remain until you acknowledged him.

In out later years, as we reminisce about Tony, there will be at least two stories that always be shared. The first involving our First Christmas on the farm. Up until that time, Audrey, a environmentalist, had always celebrated Christmas with a fake tree. Having come from a ‘traditional family’ I wanted a real tree. So we got one. An avid climber, Tony thought he had died and gone to heaven! We had no sooner set the tree up and gone to bed then we heard it crash to the ground. At 1 am, the last thing I wanted to do was clean up broken bulbs. By 2:30 we were back in bed, only to be re-awakened at 3 by the sound of the tree falling again.

Up until the second time, we had assumed that the first fall was a result poor support. But a track of wet Kitty paws leading away from the tree clued us in that this was not the case. We had no sooner righted the tree, then Tony re-appeared and in full view of us, launched himself from the coffee table into the tree, upsetting it a third time.

To make a long story short, after being quickly ‘re-introduced’ to the tree over and over again, Tony gave it wide birth hence forth. And for years after, the introduction of a Christmas tree stuck fear in Tony’s persona. It wasn’t until Miles, Tony’s apprentice came along, that the Christmas tree resumed its rightful place as an inside jungle-jim. But by that time, we had returned to artificial trees, and had gotten better at securing it against falls.

We’ll also remember the ‘forgetful’ Tony. As he advance in age, he seemed more and more to forget what he had intended to do. He would march through a room as if bound for some import objective, only to stop quickly and sit and stare at nothing for periods sometime up to an hour, then as if he suddenly remembered, he would resume his march. While humorous, his unpredictable stops were often ill timed. Like the time Audrey had called the dog for dinner. They were running pell-mell down the back walk way, upon which Tony was also marching. The were just about to overtake him when he forget why he was walking and sat down. Unable to stop, the dogs all leaped in the same direction in order to avoid him, all landing in the same spot. Un-phased, Tony looked at the canine heap next to him, got up, and proceed on his way. The dogs just sat and tried to look too embarrassed.

The last two years of his life was not helpful to our posture, for it was unsafe not to walk around the house looking down for fear of stepping on Tony.

The older he got, the more contented Tony appeared to simply sleep away his days. Like a kitten freshly fed from a loving mother, Tony would purr for hours without any apparent rhyme or reason, other than he was simply content with his lot in life.

Age eventually did catch up with him and, the cat that once could make leaps that astounded me, began struggling to climb a single step. Soon he had to be carried almost everywhere which, based upon the loudness of his purrs, suited him just fine.

Tony slipped into a coma one cold winter day while he lay in his favorite spot. For three day we keep a death vigil, all the while keeping the wood burning stove stoked for maximum heat. During the watch, we built him a beautiful cedar coffin, and when he finally breathed his last, we placed him in it and buried him next to Willy, his life long friend.

With the passing of Tony PJ, my trust Jack Russell, became ‘the last of the fist ones.’ Given that a few months prior to Tony’s death, PJ had been diagnosed with Liver cancer, I knew his time with me was limited. As I closed the earth over Tony’s coffin, I made up my mind that until PJ’s time came, I would spend as much time with him as possible, so that when it did come, I would have no regrets. I’m glad I did.

"Farewell, Master, Yet not farewell
Where I go, ye too shall dwell
I am gone, before your face,
A moment's time, a little space.
When ye come where I have stepped
Ye will wonder why ye wept."

Part 1: Charmer's Story
Part 2: Emma's Story
Part 3: Willie's Story
Part 5: PJ's Story

Read other stories by Michael Hillman