- Melissa Westemeier
For just over five years we have had the sweetest cat. He turned up one summer evening in our back yard. The boys were playing outside and this mangled, decrepit creature limped out from under a shrub and rubbed up against D's leg. Minutes later Team Testosterone announced "We have a new cat, Mom! You're a crazy cat lady!" (Which is weird, because they are the ones taking in all of these cats, not me.) Per our existing stray animal protocol, we put the cat on the screen porch, isolated from Rose, and gave it food and water. The rule is if it can eat, drink and pass the aforementioned nutrition through its system, then I bring the animal to the vet and we take it from there.
Well, this little dude was a wreck. He had open wounds from some recent skirmishes, the tips of both ears were missing and his teeth were all goofy. He also couldn't meow, any attempt at making noise sounded like a hiss. But man, this cat purred to beat the band. He was all love, so wherever he'd come from, his trust in humans remained intact.
To everyone's surprise, the cat survived the night and I took him to the vet. Dr. L pronounced him a " Good, friendly little tomcat who'll make a great pet." I paid for the appropriate course of injections and scheduled the neutering procedure before bringing the cat home.
Our previous strays were both female, named after flowers: Violet (deceased) and Rose. No one thought we should name a boy cat after a flower. I suggested "Ash" or "Birch," like a tree. "Spiderman" and a few other names got tossed around in the discussion. Because this guy would be Rose's friend, the boys decided to use a flower part for a name: Thorn.
From the start Thorn was a cuddler. He'd come right up to anyone and hop up to their lap, ready for the loving to start. Thorn was absolutely confident that he deserved your affection simply based on the fact that he existed.
Try to imagine, if you will, a five pound tomcat, approximately a year old, who moved with swagger. He'd trot right up to children, adults and even ornery ol' Rose and nudge his forehead into them. That cat would begin purring before you'd start scratching his ears. The neighbor kids adored him, he'd appear on their back patio and the whole house would erupt with excitement--four little people would race outside to love on Thorn. Thorn responded by rolling on to his back and taking all the affection. Even people who hated cats couldn't resist his charm.
For a free cat, Thorn ended up being terribly expensive. Every year he'd have a near death experience with one ailment or another. He was mute and over the years seemed to struggle on and off with breathing. The vet ran many tests, Thorn's files grew as we tried to figure out exactly what the trouble was, but we never did get a clear diagnosis. The entire vet clinic knew our cat, he'd been the topic of much speculation while we took care of him.
We did know, however, that Thorn had allergies and every two months or so I'd have to bring him in for a steroid injection to take the edge off his itching. Yes, a cat, with allergies. Weird. You never saw a cat suffer so with swollen eyes, itchy skin, exhausted from not sleeping well. Two days after his steroid injection he'd spring back into action, jumping onto furniture, chasing Rose, acting playful.
Every morning Thorn would greet me. I'd open the bedroom door and there he'd stand, looking at me expectantly. He'd follow me to the kitchen, wind around my ankles and nip at my toes while I made coffee, and then lead me to the food dish. That cat loved a fresh pour of kibble. When I'd dump the kibble from the bag into the smaller container we keep in the kitchen, Thorn would come running to eat out of "the big bucket." The sound of Taste of the Wild Salmon hitting the metal cat dish would always bring him running.
Thorn slept in unusual spots over the years. He was fond of laundry baskets, B's closet, the back porch chair and the sunny spot by the library window. Like all cats, he enjoyed naps.
On a few occasions he'd go missing for long stretches of time, not unusual for an indoor/outdoor cat. One particular summer day he disappeared and we couldn't find him anywhere. By midday I began a search and the boys helped me, calling his name and poking in all the strange nooks and crannies we thought he'd hide in. G came home from summer school and remembered seeing Thorn by the shed when he'd left earlier on his bike. He said Thorn was hunting chipmunks. The boys headed over to the spot and there's a PVC pipe for drainage at the corner of the shed, probably six inches across and eighteen inches deep before it bends. They discovered Thorn in the pipe, invisible unless a person stood right over the pipe and looked down. Sure enough, he'd chased a chipmunk into the pipe and gotten stuck. There that cat sat for who knows how many hours, trapped with no way out. The pipe was too slippery to climb out and his backside smushed his front half into a trap. I had to reach in and pull him out by the tail. Poor cat was loopy from all the blood rushing to his head. We carried him inside, laughing at his exploits. B covered the pipe with chicken wire to prevent Thorn from getting trapped ever again.
Everyone joked that Thorn's super power was sitting or laying exactly where people needed to step. It was a miracle he didn't get stepped on more often. If I stood at the kitchen sink washing dishes, he'd plop right behind me and start licking himself. (He'd lay on his back all stretched out and lick his chest, looking more like an otter than a cat.) I got in the habit of sliding my feet when I moved around the kitchen so I wouldn't crush him. He'd make himself comfortable on the stairs, beneath rocking chairs, even beside the washing machine while people unloaded it.
This weird cat acted a lot like a dog, too. He'd come when called and follow us around the yard. He'd beg for food while we ate--D had slid him food once when Thorn hopped up onto a dining room chair and ever since that cat would invite himself to a meal with us. He'd slip his head right under B's arm and expect access to a plate of food. Thorn's nickname was "Puppy-Kitty."
Thorn was a fighter. If another stray wandered onto his turf, he'd tussle. I guess he didn't care that he weighed eight pounds, three ounces at his peak, Thorn was a tough guy. Rose would try to wrestle him, though, and he'd roll right onto his back and bat at her ears with his paws.
I'd gotten used to him getting really sick once or twice a year, but I had a hunch we were on borrowed time since last summer. A week ago Thursday he became very lethargic and struggled mightily to breathe. He would frequently hunch up and hack away, but he'd done that for years now, so we knew his problems stemmed from something terribly wrong with his throat and chest. Even while sleeping, his breathing was labored, his tiny ribs moving too fast and with too much effort. Friday morning I meant to call the vet, but I had to sub for another teacher and forgot. Friday night Thorn was struggling more. I brought him in Saturday morning and the vet gave Thorn antibiotics, a steroid injection and fluids. When we came home, he barely ate and then lay down by the litter box in the basement. He never rested in that before, ever.
All day I checked on that cat and he would just gaze up at me while panting for breath. That night I carried him upstairs to his favorite chair and talked with him. I sort of knew it was goodbye, if he pulled through it would be a miracle, and I didn't know how many more of those we had left with him. I stroked his sweet silky face and told him I loved him, that he was the best cat in the world, my favorite cat, and I was glad he found us.
I woke up Sunday morning and went straight to the chair--it was empty! My heart skipped a beat and I hopefully scanned the living room before heading downstairs. I found Thorn's body back beside the litter box. I knew before I reached out to him that he'd died.
I'm thankful I didn't have to make the call to euthanize him, I had to do that with Violet and it was so difficult. I'm also thankful Thorn didn't experience a long and painful death, although he suffered plenty. I'm glad I tried to help him, which is selfish, but it makes me feel better knowing I did what I could for him. His heart just quit, this silly big-hearted cat who would look up at us with his tongue hanging half out of his mouth before closing his eyes and purring while we stroked his forehead. We buried him below the shrub where he first appeared.
It's tough every morning when I open my bedroom door and I look down at the empty spot where he used to sit and wait for me. I make coffee without feeling the tickle of cat whiskers brushing my ankles. I sit in my chair for my morning reading and my little buddy isn't curled up on my lap or beside my legs with his tiny chin tilted up for scratching. I even miss the thup thup thup of him licking himself. Grief still clogs my throat while I type this, but I thought maybe writing it all out might help the process. Despite the sorrow of losing Thorn, we were awfully lucky he chose us to be his family.
If you're local and looking for pet care, I recommend the fine team at Kaukauna Veterinary Clinic. They went above and beyond the call of duty for Thorn over the years.