On Monday, we had to say goodbye to Cosmo, our family cat for more than 17 years. Never a big cat—a mere eight pounds at his most robust—he was felled by old age and a chronic thyroid condition that basically caused him to waste away. In the end, he just stopped eating and found a place on the floor where he spent all of his time. He was done.
But this little cat had lived a big life in his 17+ years. He was about six months old the September day he showed up on our front porch in St. Louis and announced that he was our cat. There are a lot of stray cats in St. Louis—cats are much more indoor/outdoor creatures there, and [surprise, surprise], that leads to lots of unwanted kittens. Some cat owners try to find homes for them or at least take them to animal shelters. Many, though, just dump them on the street. That had obviously been the fate of this scrawny little black cat.
More than a few strays had appeared on our doorstep before Cosmo, but there was just something about him. Even though it was apparent that he’d been on the street for much of his young life [he didn’t meow, for instance—obviously it had gotten him nothing for a while, so he’d just stopped], his manners were impeccable. He was a polite dinner guest, graciously accepting the milk or tuna or whatever that first meal was offered him and hanging around socially afterward, not just eating and running. And he didn’t merely tolerate the attentions of our delighted daughters that first day—they were two and six at the time—he genuinely seemed to enjoy it. His timing was impeccable too. Certain factions of the family [though not this one] thought it was about time for the girls to have a pet. The girls agreed [surprise, surprise]. So it was settled—Cosmo was indeed our cat.
We packed him off to the vet for a complete check-up, including shots and getting “fixed.” [As a guy, I have to admit I’ve never understood the use of that particular word for that particular procedure.] And then he moved in.
Having spent so much time on the streets so early, he insisted on the freedom to come and go. He made the most of this freedom, waking me to be let out about 4:30 every morning [he quickly learned that I was the easiest to wake]. While his territory was probably huge [recent studies have shown that domestic cats range amazingly far afield], his absolute domain was our backyard. He stalked Marion’s long, lush garden. He lounged about in the distance, the cat version of being social, when the kids played. He even watched me cut the grass—the power mower scared the hell out of him, but fascinated him nonetheless.
Being an indoor/outdoor cat was not without its dangers, of course. I don’t think Cosmo thought of himself as a small cat, so he constantly picked fights with much larger cats and frequently got his butt soundly kicked.
Even more exciting, though, was his car surfing. Cosmo loved cars. Anytime anyone popped a hood on our block to work on his car [and this happened a lot in south St. Louis], Cosmo would sit on the sidewalk, watching him. If he’d had opposable thumbs, he would have been handing the guy socket wrenches or helping him hook up jumper cables. Most of all, though, he liked car surfing. Here’s how it worked: We’d get in the car to go somewhere. When we got to the end of the block and stopped for the stop sign, Cosmo would come tumbling down the windshield, across the hood and right off the front of the car. Okay, so he wasn’t very good at it. But he was very enthusiastic about it. Even when we dashed from the house, jumped in the car and pulled away immediately, if he was outside he would somehow manage to get to the car and make it up onto the roof, all without being seen. And always with the same result.
We suspected that he didn’t confine his surfing to our car. Our suspicions were borne out when one day he came limping home with a busted hip. His car surfing days were over. The hip healed, but after that, he confined his car adventures to falling asleep in the back seats of our cars when we left them open, which we did frequently on hot days. This often meant that Marion would race off to pick up the girls at the bus stop after school and suddenly discover that she had a furry little passenger with her. And on one occasion, it meant that I made it almost all the way to my office before he appeared sleepy-eyed and surprised in my rearview mirror. I was less than happy that morning.
Cosmo was a fierce and efficient hunter too. Our neighbors Bud and Helen hated cats, but soon changed their tune when the annual fall influx of mice didn’t happen. He had quickly dispatched all the mice in our yard and theirs—and probably yards all up and down the block. Helen actually took to calling us to tell us the latest cute thing she’d seen Cosmo do.
He was equally lethal to the local bird population, fortunately mostly killing prolific, prosaic house finches. But one single kill of his impressed me more than any other with how much like little tigers cats really are, with amazing strength and ferocity pound for pound. Cleaning leaves out of the basement stairwell one fall day, I found the back half of a squirrel. When it had been whole and alive, this squirrel hadn’t been appreciably smaller than Cosmo. Wow.
But for all his animal ruthlessness, he was unfailingly gentle and well-mannered with us, almost never biting or scratching anyone, no matter what. Well, with a few notable exceptions. Once when he had been let in for the night, he shot upstairs, a cat on mission. A moment later, older daughter Claire yelled, “Ow!” He had apparently gone straight to her room and bitten the sleeping Claire—not hard enough to break the skin, just enough to register a protest. We figure it was a long overdue payback for the many times he had come streaking down from her room wearing some doll’s dress Claire had somehow wrestled him into. Mostly, though, even when his patience was sorely tried—being held too long and pestered with endless smooching, for instance—he would just raise a warning paw or even rest it on the offender’s face, making it clear he could rip you open like a catfish belly if he wanted to.
Cosmo’s outdoor adventures ended abruptly when we moved back to Chicago. Our neighborhood was less cat friendly than our St. Louis neighborhood had been, and we knew he would just be healthier not facing who knows what every day. And certainly our vet bills would go down, not having to occasionally have him patched up after his latest dust-up with a much larger opponent. He wasn’t too happy about it at first, but he eventually adjusted. But the first warmish day every spring when we threw open windows to air out the apartment, Cosmo would race from window to window, his nose muscles working overtime, remembering.
For someone so small, Cosmo had a huge impact on our family. Younger daughter Laurel does not remember life without him. Both girls honed their early writing skills with countless tales of his adventures, both real and imagined. Marion and the girls absolutely doted on him. And he returned the favor, providing them with endless entertainment, company, affection and even solace, as needed. For all the alleged aloofness cats are supposed to exhibit, Cosmo seemed to know instinctively when someone was sick or upset or sad and would stay at that person’s side.
My own relationship with Cosmo was a complicated one. Having grown up with an endless parade of pets—dogs, cats, fish, birds, hamsters, lizards, turtles—I had long ago gotten over the need for what pets offer. For much of our time together, Cosmo and I kind of viewed each other as coworkers with whom we got on okay at the office, but it would never have occurred to us to go out for a beer together. Most of the pleasure having Cosmo in our lives gave me came from the pleasure I knew he gave Marion and the girls. But that was considerable, and that alone was plenty for me.
And if one had to have a pet, Cosmo was about as good as they come. Friendly, undemanding, a gentle creature [unless you were prey or a piece of string] and a gentleman. On the rare occasion he needed to be reminded of proper etiquette [mostly regarding someone’s unattended dinner plate on the floor in front of the television], a simple firm “no” usually did the trick. For a while, this led the daughters, whenever a firm “no” was uttered in some other context—in conversation, on the television—to interject a reassuring “good kitty” to Cosmo. It began as a joke, I think, but became something they did almost unconsciously.
For all my being mostly immune to what pets have to offer, as Cosmo’s health began to fail over the last couple of years, I became more protective of him, trying to puzzle out from day to day what might appeal to his diminishing appetite [a constantly moving target], fretting when he didn’t eat or became ill and taking heart in his rebounds. I once knew someone—a great, adoring father to his little girl—who said he hated kids, just not his kid. I think that’s where I netted out with Cosmo.
The end, when it came, was about as peaceful as we could have hoped. Cosmo, once a car surfing champion, had come to hate car rides. So Marion found a vet online who specializes in house calls to spare Cosmo one last indignity, and when it was obviously time to let him go, we made an appointment. Instead, Cosmo just let go on his own, with Marion at his side comforting him. If there is any justice at all, his spirit is now happily ensconced in our old backyard in St. Louis. Goodbye, old friend. “Good kitty.”