Goodbye, Zacky


My wife Jennifer drove us to the vet while I held him in my arms. He hated the vet. I always took him, when it was unavoidable, in a cat carrier, and he screamed all the way. Today I held him in my arms instead. He nestled there quietly, holding his head up to look out at a world he last saw almost twenty years ago. Jennifer told them what we wanted. I sat with him quietly, then they called us into one of the exam rooms, took his weight, just a little over seven pounds, to see how much of the drugs they would need. He screamed for the first time when they picked him up and took him into a back room, to insert a catheter into his right front leg. He was silent when they brought him back, thin, with his once beautiful fur an unkempt disordered tangle.

The name we had given him was Zachary, though we always just called him Zacky. He came to the door one day in September 1990, lost and hungry, a young handsome classic tabby, black and gray with the distinctive circular pattern on his sides like a target. We took him in, meaning to find him a home elsewhere. The vet when we had him examined said that he was about nine months old, so he was probably born in January 1990. We convinced a neighbor across the street to take him. Happily for us, though not for her, Zacky scratched her and she developed cat scratch fever, a large swelling like a goiter on her neck, and she insisted that we take him back.

Zacky proved to be brave and adventurous. He had stopped in for a meal, not agreeing to become a prisoner for life, but that is what happened to him. For years he tried valiantly to escape, to go back to whatever journey had brought him to us in the first place. When a door would open he would make a rush for it, now and then slipping past an unwary giant. I caught him several times as he reached the end of our long porch and was heading off into the bushes. Once he escaped and we went to bed unawares. In our dry arid Los Angeles climate his bad luck was to escape into a rain storm. In the morning we found him clinging spread eagled to the screen on the outside of a back porch window and let him back in.

It wasn't that he didn't like us. He did. And he became more affectionate as he grew older. He was the most lively member of our family. Margaret, a school friend of Jennifer's daughter, lived with us for a while that first year. She and Zacky would play a game. Our big 1910 Craftsman house, in the Craftsman manner, flows one room into another, making circles beloved of children and animals: from the living room into the dining room then into the breakfast room, through the kitchen back to the entry way and then the living room again, round and round. Zacky would chase Margaret round-robin through the course, then she would turn on him and he would take the lead with her in hot pursuit, round and round they went. Margaret was the first human Zacky bonded to, with a fierce loyalty that they both remembered many years later when she would occasionally visit.

He was the most acrobatic of our cats. In the dining room he would leap to the top of an old pine breakfront four feet off the ground, then wind up and from there to the narrow lintel over the big pocket doors, run along that, jump down to the top of a five-foot cabinet, then take a mighty leap to the top of an eight foot high built-in china cabinet. There he would strut as king of the mountain. He could somehow reach almost all the plate rails of our old house, where he would balance precariously while racing along near the ceiling, occasionally knocking a picture off the wall with a crash or breaking one of Jennifer's prize teacups. Once he got past the fire screen and climbed halfway up the chimney of the living room fireplace, tumbling down looking like a furry ball of soot.

For a long time I think he was to me just one more of our several cats, and he had the parallel feeling toward me. Jennifer decided that he should be my cat. She began to carry him in to our bedroom at bedtime and set him down next to my pillow. I was honored when he decided he liked the idea and came every night to jump into bed, most of the time telling me when he had decided it was bedtime. Before Zacky I used to read in bed for a few minutes before dozing off. He wouldn't put up with that. If I wanted his company there couldn't be any split screen or multi-tasking. Open a book and he would stalk off and go sleep somewhere else. I quickly gave up bedtime reading.

Over time we became hooked on each other. Zacky had big green eyes, calm and phlegmatic. For years he was top cat in our household, just, apparently, by some feline charisma, as he was kind hearted, never fought, welcomed new younger cats into the house or ignored them, but seemed to have the respect of all the others, who plainly deferred to him. I put a cat bed for him on my desk, surrendering a good part of it to his domain. Whenever I would walk into the room he would lift a paw to me in welcome.

Somewhere the years slipped away. Jennifer had cats long before she and I got together in 1982, and there were always three or four in our household, one generation succeeding another, as their short cat lives usually ended by the time they were thirteen or fifteen. Zacky outlived many of them. By the time he was sixteen in 2006 signs of old age began to appear. In human years he was already 80. I got sets of cat stairs so he could get to his bed on my desk, to climb into two of his favorite windows, and next to my bed. He understood immediately what they were for, and now at night he would wait for me to get into bed first, then climb up his stairs, stick his head over the edge to confirm that I was there, then climb in. He slept curled up in my arms. He was small for a cat, nine or ten pounds in his best years.

Near the end of the nineties he tested positive for feline leukemia and we thought he would die, but he miraculously threw it off. In 2005 he was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism and an enlarged heart, when again we thought it was the end. From that time he was on two medications I had to push down his throat daily. I stopped traveling then, as his care had become too complicated, I thought, for a cat sitter, leaving Jennifer to visit her oldest son in Cleveland by herself. I knew a fellow at UCLA before I retired who, with his wife, did the same thing for his aging sick cat.

As he became frail in his later years Zacky became still more affectionate. At night when Jennifer and I would watch a movie on television Zacky would come and sleep cradled in the crook of my arm during the program. About three years ago we got a small dog, and had to put our cats' food on top of the dryer to keep it away from the dog. Zacky was too old to get up there, even on a ramp that I built for the others. So began the necessity that I stay with him for every meal to guard him from other hungry household animals. During the night he would get up three or four times to eat, and I would get up with him; if I wasn't there he would have nothing to eat. I became quite used to it, at midnight, two, and four every morning. Now he would sit in my lap if I read a book, or ask to be picked up while I was working at my computer. Luckily I had retired in 2005 and was home most of the time, where I spent much of it with him. I rarely said no, becoming adept at typing Google queries with one hand while cradling him with the other.

I could see he had become stiff and walked with some difficulty. Sometimes he would lose his balance jumping off a footstool or a chair and land on his back. He was generally his phlegmatic self about these mishaps. He turned twenty this January, counted as ninety-six in human years. Yesterday I was reading in an easy chair in the living room. Zacky staggered down the stairs from the second floor and came toward me. I could see his back legs were almost paralyzed. I picked him up and put him on my lap. He sat quietly, but his hind legs twitched, and he lost control of his bladder. When I lifted him up he cried out in pain. That night I brought him to bed, laying out waterproof puppy training pads to protect the sheets, and we slept enfolded with each other one last time. He got up in the night as usual, even ate in my study, but twice cried out. It was time.

At the vet's the young woman doctor carried two syringes in her apron. Zacky sat very still on the examination table and made no protest as she fitted the first into the catheter opening in his front leg. As the fluid cylinder emptied he lay his head down on his paws. With the second syringe he stopped breathing. I stood there crying.

--Leslie Evans, May 16, 2010