Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Loving Max


Max, photo @ Alan Lande

I never thought I would love a cat.

In my suburban enclave, dogs ruled. We had a series of small yappers; they--and a slew of anti-feline stereotypes—surrounded me.

Cats were aloof, I was told. They didn’t bond with their owners, didn’t love their humans the way dogs did. I had no reason to question those prejudices, which were reinforced by the only cat I knew, an imperious Siamese named Missy who deigned to live with my cousins.

I never imagined that I’d own a cat and certainly didn’t envision falling in love with one.

Then came Max.

I actually had a few cats before Max, most notably a rambunctious Tabby named Buddy, who I adopted from a southern Ohio farm when I was working at my first bona fide radio gig in rural Yellow Springs. I lived on a street full of cats, and they had a pecking order, something I discovered when I made the mistake of purchasing a living catnip plant. I set it out on the porch, only to discover the poor seedling surrounded by the cat gang, who took turns ripping it to shreds. First, the big tom cat who lived next door had a go, then Buddy, who, by the way, was female. Old Wynona, with her sway back and greasy fur, had the final go at the denuded stem.

Buddy moved to Seattle with me when I got hired at KUOW in 1985 and she was around for another 10 years; always the life of the party.

This is Jiji, photo @ Alan Lande

We adopted Max, and his Tabby littermate Jiji, in 2008, I think. My son and I drove up to Everett to look at the litter of eight very young kittens who’d been rescued from an abandoned building in Ellensburg. They were being fostered at one of our region’s stellar rescue shelters.

Almost as soon as I sat down on the floor of a small room in the PetSmart outlet at the Everett Mall, Jiji climbed into my lap and started to purr. She chose us, and 15 years later she’s still a sweet and fairly unassuming cat.

Max was a different story. While I stroked Jiji, who was nestled in for the long run, her brother teetered on a narrow shelf that circled the room, then picked out careful steps like the Simone Biles of cats. Max’s black fur, white boots and whiskers were enchanting, but my son was particularly enticed by this kitty’s white and black facial markings that looked a little like Hitler’s mustache.

Cat on a warm carpet plinth. photo @ Alan Lande

We brought the kittens home a few weeks later, and settled them into our spare bathroom, the warmest room in the house.

Jiji was fearless and smart; she learned how to climb over the wooden barricade we’d set up, figured out how to maneuver through the makeshift cat door onto the back deck, and managed to climb the scratching post Alan built for them, eager to reach the carpeted platform that sat atop the post.

Max, on the other hand, while curious as cats are, was not the brightest bulb.

He wedged himself under the house; we called for him, puzzled by the faint meowing coming from who knew where. Rescue required slithering through the dirt and cobwebs while trying to maintain a bit of dignity.

Why, do you need this shelf for anything?
photo @ Alan Lande

One morning as I lounged in bed reading, with Jiji ensconced on my lap, we both heard Max yelling outside the bedroom window, feet firmly planted on the narrow veranda that wraps around the back of the house. He’d figured out how to use the cat door, but couldn’t quite manage to get back inside. I could almost see Jiji roll her eyes and she leapt off my lap and ran outside to get her brother.

I used to call Max my dog-cat because he lavished attention on us in the ways people expect from dogs: waiting attentively at the front door when he heard my car pull up, or sitting outside the bedroom door each morning, alert for my alarm. In the summertime, he’d perch on a railing outside the bedroom window, crowing like a feline rooster to let me know it was time for his breakfast. Occasionally I’d see him leap up onto a gray wooden structure in our front yard; he’d mince around its perimeter very daintily, reminiscent of the day we met him at PetSmart.

The older Max got, the more affectionate he became, especially when it was cold outside. He’d get up on the bed, all 17 pounds of him, drape his big paws over my thighs, and lay his head down on them, purring contentedly. I didn’t dare move lest I disrupt his beauty sleep.

What can I say? I loved him

These stories and many more have been bubbling up since we laid Max to rest last week.

Max was diagnosed with a swift-growing and painful jaw tumor just over two months ago. It was a horrible end for such a proud and feisty boy. He grew more needy, spending hours curled up next to me, or sitting beside me while I worked.

His death leaves an immense hole; we are truly gutted, as the British would say. Jiji searches the house for him, crying while I try to console her. I sit on my bed, knitting in hand, but no cat purrs at my side. Sometimes tears just well up as I picture him leaping up, giving me a little cat chirp of greeting. Sometimes I really do understand that Britishism, gutted, because it’s like part of my insides are gone. But not my heart. I know it’s still there because it’s still aching for his presence.

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