He was part of a litter of kittens born to a stray cat in the backyard of our apartment in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, in the fall of 2000. As they grew up, this tough little guy kicked the others out, securing the territory as his own. We called him "Blackie Whitey," because he was a tuxedo cat and it seemed somehow presumptuous to give a cat we didn't know a human name. He survived by raiding garbage cans and killing mice and birds--I'd often see huge wings flapping from his tiny mouth, making him look like a mythological griffin.
Winter arrived with particular ferocity that year, and we began to worry about him. He had nothing to drink because the water was all frozen, so we kept putting fresh bowls out. Then he started begging for food at our kitchen window. I'd wake up before dawn every morning, and somehow he knew the noises I inevitably made in that process, because whenever I turned on the kitchen light I'd see him crouched at the window, staring at me with a mournful look and making a high-pitched "MEEEEEE" sound. I'd feed him and give him water, but he was feral and TERRIFIED of us, so whenever I got even remotely close to our backyard door, he would run across the lawn into a narrow alleyway that ran from our property into the neighbor's. I'd see his tiny tuxedo head peeking out. He would only return when he heard the door lock click.
The weather got worse--many brutal blizzards and sub-zero temperatures--but Blackie Whitey instinctively hid from the elements in our storm cellar...until the snow buried the hole that led inside. Philip dug it out for him, but the cat was clearly freezing, and we didn't know how long he'd survive. Once, we thought he'd died because we couldn't find him, so we stood in the backyard shouting "Blackie Whitey!!" After a while, we heard his little "MEEEE!" in the distance. Then he ran into the yard and hid, once again, in the alley, his little head poking out as always.
He was beginning to trust us, so we decided to lure him inside the house. Instead of putting food outside, I'd open the window, put the food on the sill, move out of the room, and wait for him to jump up and eat it. He must have felt the warmth in the house, and maybe he thought "this isn't such a scary place after all," because his trust in us steadily increased. I started moving the food INTO the house, so that he'd have to jump onto the floor to eat. A couple times he started timidly exploring the kitchen, but he'd always get freaked out and run back outside. He grew used to eating indoors, though--even with us standing there--so we started moving the food farther and farther away from the window.
One night while he was eating, we shut the window, trapping him inside. He panicked and tried to escape. When he realized the window was closed, he hid in the bathroom. When we tried to grab him there, he darted under the couch. Philip pulled back the couch and picked him up, not knowing if he'd bite or scratch. He did neither. In fact, he started purring and then nuzzling Philip's neck. He'd finally given in. I think a part of him had always wanted to.
We called him Joey, but he was so gallant and regal that I nick-named him "the Little Prince." He was quiet and seemingly emotionless--he played things very close to his tuxedo vest--so I regret to say that he sometimes got ignored in favor of our obviously needy other cats, but Joe felt things deeply in a way that occasionally became clear.
Three days ago, I moved Joey and my other cat, Tommy, from Westchester to my new apartment in Minneapolis. Joey had been weak and wobbly for a while--he was almost 18, after all--but in mid-October our vet gave him a clean bill of health and permission to fly. So I took the two boys to LaGuardia with my friend Kathryn. Both cats were sedated (again per our vet), and the flight was uneventful, but when we let the cats loose in the new space, Joey could hardly move. I figured he was still under the influence of the drugs and hoped he'd snap out of it, but he didn't. He just sat in the same spot on the floor, eating little and never using the litter box. Two nights ago, I finally got him into my bed, where I held and petted him until morning. Now and then, he managed a version of his old kitten "MEEEE!" but he still wasn't moving.
Yesterday, I was doing errands when something told me to GO HOME. When I opened the door, Joey sat up in bed, tried to come to me, and fell down. I wondered if he wanted food or the litter box, so I carried him to the food. He tottered and wobbled as he tried to turn away. I put him in the litter box, but he stumbled out--and promptly collapsed. He struggled to get up but couldn't. He just lay there with his head against the tile, his dull eyes staring straight ahead.
I rushed him to the Small Animal Hospital in St. Paul, where the great ER doctor examined him and gave him a battery of tests. I knew something was wrong when the vet ushered me into a private room and said, "Make yourself comfortable." It turned out that Joey was suffering from a perfect storm of health problems: There was a large mass in his abdomen, possibly cancerous; his gums were white, reflecting severe anemia; his red blood cells, glucose, and potassium had plummeted, and his kidney functions were shutting down.
Despite the fact that I'd taken him on this trip with the full approval of my vet, I was wracked with guilt, but the ER doctor kept saying it had nothing to do with the drugs or the flight: Joey had been suffering for a while. When I told him that he'd gotten a clean bill of health in October, the vet said it's not uncommon for these types of problems to manifest rapidly in a senior cat.
I was cradling Joey in a blanket and stroking his head when they put him down. His already matted fur was matted even further by my tears. I tried to say goodbye, hoping I'd hear one last "MEEEE," but he was too far gone. Now I'm grieving the loss of the cat we rescued from the snow nearly 20 years ago, but he will always be my Little Prince.
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Beautiful story about Joey. The animals we love teach us and give us so much. So sorry for your loss.