On Friday, I lost my cat Duce to a terrible and swift-striking illness. I am going to devote this post to remembering him, because he was such a large & special part of my life for the last 8 years. This is the last notice my friend will receive on this earth, and I want to do this right, to honor what he meant to me and to the other people he charmed and brightened the lives of.
If this strikes you as over the top, please click over to the regularly scheduled media criticism & analysis; but let me have a moment here, please, because this has struck me at a deep & unexpected level.
I got Duce just before 9/11. I have told the story often, because it explains a lot about our relationship.
I was looking for a cat as a companion to Faust; a snaggletoothed tabby I’ve had since 1994. I went to a big pet adoption event at the La Brea tar pits, looking for a kitten, since Faust is a little timid, and I didn’t want to bring in a snarly cat that would fight with him and beat him up.
I saw a cage with a sign on it that said “Tommy.” In it was a big gray tabby, who looked a lot like my other cat Mephisto, who had run away. I opened up the cage and took out “Tommy,” and he put his big paws on my shoulders and looked me in the eyes. Then he started butting his big head against my chin and purring. I petted him for a few minutes, then put him back in the cage, intending to move on to find a kitten.
Duce immediately started yowling and biting the bars of the cage, trying to get back out to me, reaching through with his paws desperately. It was absolutely touching. The woman working that booth told me that he had been out on the street for probably six months, that he had been stuck in a cage for six weeks, and that this was his last chance. If they didn’t find him a new home, they were going to have to give him the needle the next day. He was set to “walk the kitty Green Mile.” He was not a wild street cat – he had been neutered and his front paws had been (clumsily) de-clawed. He was a lovable, friendly cat, but most people were looking for kittens and that he had been stuck in that cage for six months.
He was miserable in that cage, and stared out at me, as he twisted and strained to reach out and touch me with his great big paws.
“OK, OK, you got me,” I said resignedly. I signed the paperwork and put Duce into a cardboard cat-carrier and walked the three blocks back to my house. To acclimate him to his new surroundings, I shut “Tommy,” who I quickly renamed “Deuce” – as in “Mephisto 2” because he looked so much like the cat who had run away – in a spare bedroom. I gave him food & water, and to settle him down to his new home, I slept in the bed with him. Deuce, soon to be spelled as “Duce,” spent that first entire night sleeping on the pillow above my head, licking my hair and purring loudly. He was so happy to be out of the cage, and I could feel the way that he appreciated the way I was lavishing attention on him.
A couple days later, still trying to acclimate him to his new house & brother, I went to check on Duce. I had cracked a window to let some air into the room. In my absence, Duce had jumped onto the narrow window sill, pushed the screen aside – despite the fact that it had been stapled into place – and squeezed through the narrow bars. He was gone. I was stricken with guilt and berated myself; I figured Duce had run off to wherever his old house was, following the homing instinct animals seem to possess.
But the next morning, there he was, sitting patiently by the front door, meowing to be let in. I rushed to praise him for coming back (rather than punishing him – which would send the message that I hated that he had come home), and he rubbed his big head against my leg and then sauntered inside, in search of breakfast.
I soon learned that there was no real way to keep Duce in the house.
Any little crack in a window, a door left unattended for a second – hell, he once tried to crawl up the chimney – and Duce would be gone, out in search of adventure in the wide, wide, fascinating world.
Duce refused to sit inside the house and let life pass him by. No matter what the consequences, no matter how dangerous it might be, he never backed down. Not an inch.
I tried to find a compromise – I got a little kitty harness, put Duce into it, and tried to see if he would just walk the sidewalk on the end of a leash. Duce just laid down on the lawn, clearly depressed and uncomprehending. I tried to be enthusiastic, to get him to explore the world with me standing by to protect him from it. But no. It was to be total freedom or nothing for Duce.
Eventually, we settled into a routine. He would wake me up as soon as it got light, I would stagger to the back door and let him out, hoping that he would stay in the enclosed back yard. By the time I got back to bed, I would hear Duce climbing the 8-foot fence next to the bedroom window, teetering for a second to judge conditions, and then dropping over with a thump.
Later, as I got ready for work, I would hear Duce yowing from the front porch. I would let him in; he already had bacon on his breath, and I eventually figured out that he had established friendships with my neighbors, and a little old lady down the block was sweet on him, and gave him bacon every morning. The little scavenger.
One day, when my parents were in town for a visit, my dad & I were sitting on the front porch, talking. We stopped as we spotted Duce across the street, trotting down the sidewalk. In front of him was a woman walking two huge, fierce-looking German Shepherds. Duce paid them no heed whatsoever, weaving through her legs and past the dogs on his way to his spot, sleeping under a bush on the front lawn. “Would you look at that cat? Now that’s confidence,” my dad marveled.
I moved a couple of times, in the next years, but no matter where I went, Duce quickly became famous in my neighborhood. I would be jogging a couple of blocks from my house, and I would see Duce, sprawled out on the sidewalk on his back, as someone rubbed his tummy. “Hey, that’s my cat!” I would say.
“Oh, Duce is yours? He comes over all the time,” I was told, over and over again. He had his own life that I could only guess at.
Not that it was always fun & games. Duce had a big sense of responsibility, and he felt it was his job to protect his house and his yard. This, despite the fact that he had no front claws.
I found him on the roof of my neighbor’s house, because my neighbor had a raccoon living in his chimney and Duce thought that was just unacceptable.
I wound up taking Duce to the vet at least three times, all clawed or chewed up. “Fighting out of his weight class again,” is how Janine put it.
But no matter how much punishment Duce took, he never backed down. I don’t know if it was courage or stubbornness, or some form of deep refusal to accept any limitations whatsoever. In his mind, he was the King Cat, and trespassers had best beware.
But he was not just an ornery fighter. What made Duce special was the tenderness that he had with people. He was the most dog-like cat I’ve ever known. Wherever people were – that’s where he wanted to be.
Duce worked the room at parties like a veteran Hollywood agent, making deep eye contact, flattering guests with his wide-eyed enthusiastic attention that made you feel like you were a movie star about to be discovered, and leaving behind his calling card (a wisp of shed fur). LA’s Westside Writer’s Group all came to know Duce and addressed thank-you cards to him after our gatherings here.
Janine said she knew the first time she saw Duce and I together that we could be a couple, because when I picked Duce up and cradled him in my arms, Duce responded by squirming in utter happiness, bumping his head into my chin.
Janine often showed off how Duce would “hug” her – he put his paws on her shoulders and clung to her, content to be carried around. Well, at least until what we called his “Paw Pilot” went off and reminded him he had an urgent appointment kicking the ass of some pretender to his throne. That, or a nap.
When I finally moved us into this house, I felt that at last I had found a place where Duce could simultaneously be free and protected. We have a huge back yard (well, for Los Angeles, at least), enclosed by high fences and thick shrubbery on all sides. I made sure that the kitchen door had a flap so he could come and go as he pleased; the lack of that in previous places had led Duce to mark his territory inside the house, ruining a couple of otherwise nice couches.
The yard was full of deep clover and I figured he would have more than enough to do here without going wandering. Besides, I had built high fences on all sides.
By now, I should have known what was coming. Fences were made for other, lesser animals. I found Duce on top of the garage – I still don’t know how he managed that with no claws. I would see him doing the balance-beam act on top of the 8-foot fence. He dug and burrowed little passages under it. And he spent hours chasing critters around the bushes, sometimes bringing half-eaten mice into the house as a kind of “back atcha” offering to us. Again, I made sure to praise Duce effusively for his presents, even if I discovered them by stepping into a squishy mess in the middle of the night.
But the most special bonding time we had happened in the hammock I strung outside on the patio we built. Duce would wander over and stand on his hind legs, paws on the rim, eyes asking my permission to come aboard. I would reach down and scoop him up, or he would jump on his own, and then would come the ritual. I rubbed his face until he drooled in pleasure, purring so hard he sometimes coughed. Then he would settle down into the crook of my arm as I read or talked on the phone.
I could go on and on – about the Japanese couple that lived next door to me in Culver City that wept when I moved and begged me not to take Duce away, and showed up with special salmon dinners in Tupperware for him. Or my neighbor in the front half of the duplex, who showed me how he and Duce sat on the couch, watching Dodger games and eating snacks while I was at work. Our dinner parties usually ended with us all sitting on the couch and talking, while Duce went from person to person, soaking up the love and attention before settling into my lap.
Duce represented for me all the traits I aspire to: loyalty, courage, unshakeable self-confidence and conviction, an unquenchable curiosity about the world, and the resilience to bounce back from the wounds and cruelties of the world and still maintain a bottomless capacity to love and be loved.
The trouble started a month ago. Duce had started acting strangely aloof, spending all his time outside, hiding in the bushes. He came in for meals, but only ate a few bites. We just figured he was acting moody, or that he had found another soft touch in the neighborhood, and was “eating out” again.
It turned out that he had a blockage of his intestine, and while we were gone for a week on vacation, Duce spiraled into crisis. He lost about 8 pounds, and his sleek, silky fur was rough and matted. Our pet-sitter took him to the vet, and they prescribed laxatives. But within a couple of days, he was in crisis, and we took him in for an emergency operation. His intestine had ruptured, and Duce was in agony from peritonitis, with big infections in his abdomen. What we thought was a minor problem became life-threatening. Worst of all, it meant that Duce was in the place he hated worst in the world – back in a cage, far from the people he loved and trusted, unable to explore the world.
Janine & I kicked ourselves for spending so much money on a cat at a time when the economy is so unstable. But when Duce came out of the hospital, and as we nursed him back to health, we started congratulating each other for rescuing our beloved cat once more.
By Thursday morning, we sat out on our back patio, as Duce ran around the yard, excitedly sniffing the plants. “Our kitty is back,” we said, and it all seemed worth it.
But only hours later, on Thursday night, Duce made a noise unlike any I had ever heard him make. It was a shouted “AROOO!” that contained depths of pain and despair I hope never to hear again. Duce then started vomiting all over the dining room floor.
We hoped that it was just a case of food poisoning, or maybe some kind of infection. But the next morning, Duce crawled on his own into the kitty carrier – an acknowledgment that he had given up, that he knew that something was wrong with him. Normally, it was a struggle to get him into it, as he knew that meant a trip to the vet.
Duce had barfed up everything he had in him and more during the night. He was dehydrated and panting, and drool was coming out of his mouth. Not the good kind, that meant I was petting him in just the right way – but foam and awful gurgling.
Duce was still so thin from his previous ordeal that the x-rays couldn’t show what, if anything, had happened in his abdomen. The vet said she had felt a hard mass, and speculated that there was a tumor in there that they had missed in the first surgery a month ago.
I looked down at Duce. He had crawled onto our laps, and lay there, too weak to move, panting. He had put his chin onto my hand the way he had done thousands of times before, but immediately started convulsing in pain.
I knew he wouldn’t survive another surgery. And even if he did, it would mean weeks in the cage at the vet, IVs in his now-frail arms, pain wracking his guts. And that a couple of weeks after that, it was likely that we would be right back there again.
I gulped for air. “I think it’s time,” I rasped. “I just can’t put him through this again. No more pain.”
And so the vet gave Duce the shot and his breathing slowed and he relaxed in Janine & my arms. I didn’t see him breathe his last, because my eyes weren’t quite working right at that point.
As I said, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Duce was my friend, my constant companion, and, as far as a feline can be so, an inspiration to me. Uncompromising courage. Boundless affection and loyalty. Resilience. Playfulness. Refusal to be trapped or caged.
What I tell myself is that by the end, Duce’s body had become the cage that he so feared and despised. He was trapped in there, in absolute agony. I had rescued him once eight years ago, from a life spent in misery.
I rescued him from that misery again. All the stale, worn-out bromides that it was a mercy, that his time had come – they all are true, yes, but they fall short.
I set Duce, The Cat Who Would Not Be Caged, free. It was the last gift I could give him, after he had given me so much.
If there is a heaven, I will surely see him there.
Rest in peace, big guy. I love you and miss you.