Touched by an Angel

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(In honor of Valentine’s Day, I decided to put my usual sports posts on hold in order to bring you what is probably the closest thing to a love story I’ll ever write).

For all I knew, it was just another day, a warm and comfortable fall day in coastal New England, fast turning to evening. Important moments, for better and for worse, sometimes sneak up on you unbidden at times like these.   I wasn’t thinking about anything nearly so grandiose, however: I had just arrived home from a long day at work and wanted only to eat and grab some measure of sleep before I had to wake up and do it all again. It wasn’t a more direct route, so I can’t say why I went up the back stairs to my third-floor apartment that day instead of going through the lobby. I can say that it was on those back stairs that I met the cat for the first time. He was small, skinny, sort of mottled orange in color, and extremely friendly. He rubbed up against me and I gave him kind words and gentle pats for a minute or two. Then I moved on and he did the same.

I must admit I forgot about our meeting fairly quickly, pleasant though it had been. He may have remembered it somewhat better, for a few days later I came home from work again to find him curled up in a chair in the lobby.   My landlord, Gary, uses some of that space for his office, but Gary was nowhere to be found at the time, and neither was anyone else. Yet here was this little guy, literally bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and looking for all the world like he was waiting for me. Maybe he was. I recognized him right away and gave him some more kind words and friendly rubs. Then, to my astonishment, I walked up the stairs to my apartment and he followed me.

I didn’t know the lay of the land, having moved to Hampton, NH only about six weeks before, but I figured he must have belonged to one of my neighbors and just gotten bored or lonely. The prospect of a long-term relationship didn’t enter my thinking, but we cuddled and played for an hour or so. Then reality set in: the little guy started looking agitated to the point that I knew he probably had to “go”, and that was a problem. I didn’t have any other pets; truth be told, I was (and remain) so domestically challenged that I had enough trouble just taking care of myself. Panicking, I threw some old newspapers down on the floor and ineffectually tried to push the cat in their direction, but he had a better idea. He jumped into the empty bathtub and backed his butt right up to the drain. I could only hope he had a number one coming and not a number two.   Luckily, that was the case, and as the number one swirled around and disappeared, I thought to myself that this was one cool cat. I also thought, for what would not be the last time, that he was a hell of a lot smarter than me.

He didn’t stay the night: at some point he went over to the door and started meowing, and even I knew what that meant.   But the next day he was back, crying outside the building until Gary let him in, then beating a path to my door. Eventually we established something of a pattern: I let him out in the morning when I left for work and he returned that night, or sometimes the next one. As he began visiting regularly, I made my place homier for him by providing a litter box and a stash of Friskies, although he seemed to like simple attention most of all. I loved seeing him, and his visits soon became a highlight of my routine.   If he missed a day or two I’d start to worry about him, but I needn’t have, because he never stayed away for long.

When he and I met, it was hard to tell which of us needed a friend more.   2009 hadn’t been the best of years for me. I was in the process of getting divorced, and both of my parents had recently been diagnosed with the diseases that would end up killing them within a three-year span. If all that wasn’t bad enough, I was also broke. A little bit beyond broke, if you really have to know.   My new friend, though, may have been in even worse shape. For as I gradually learned from Gary and others in the neighborhood, he didn’t have a regular owner. After being mistreated by his human family of origin years before, he had taken to wandering the streets in a high-traffic area filled with drivers who were at best bikini-distracted and inattentive, at worst shitfaced and reckless.   When he tired of playing real-life Frogger, the little guy slept on or underneath the cars at a nearby parking garage. Presumably he was a light sleeper. Compared with where he was coming from, I guess my small and not-especially-tidy apartment must have seemed like paradise. Maybe he realized that, or maybe he started to bond with me, or maybe the weather just got colder. Whatever the reason, one day he decided to stay in the apartment when I left for work, and after that he never went outside under his own power again.

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He now had a home, but my little buddy still needed one more important thing: a name.   I had held off on giving him one until it was clear he was there for the duration, but after a few months I still didn’t have any idea what to call him. I knew typical cat names like Fluffy and Mittens weren’t going to cut it, and if he answered to something already, he certainly wasn’t telling me. So he remained “Bud” for the time being, but as I observed him I noticed he loved to perch on a shelf behind and slightly above my bed, as if he was watching over me. And while I’m not a particularly religious person, the circumstances of his arrival gave me pause, for at that moment I certainly needed all the help I could get. So I finally decided to call him Angel. Later, when people gave me funny looks about that, I told them Angel was actually a male name in the Hispanic world (the female equivalent is Angela). But while that was true as far as it went, it didn’t quite tell the whole story. The cat literally showed up at my doorstep at a time when I was in a really bad place, and he helped make my life better. What could be more angelic than that?

I’d love to be able to say that my life did a 180 from that point forward under Angel’s loving gaze, but this isn’t Marley and Me. I didn’t become a famous writer, buy a big house, or marry Jennifer Aniston.   With my parents’ illnesses and eventual passing, plus the financial burden of my divorce, things actually got worse before they got better.   Work, tennis and my personal life continued to have their ups and downs, too. What improved was my ability to handle the tough moments, of which there were many. When my car pulled into its parking space after a long day, the first thing I did was look up at my window, and I almost always saw Angel sitting there waiting for me. There was something very comforting in that. I could talk to him, hug him, play with him, or just savor a silent moment with him sitting nearby gently blinking his eyes in my direction, and things that were hard to bear became a little bit easier.   In bed at night I stretched my arm out as far as it could reach, which is pretty far, and a few minutes later Angel usually backed into it, lay down and fell asleep with me. I felt safe, and I’d like to think he did too. He wasn’t the most trusting soul himself, but over time he came to understand that a hand raised above his head was now there to pat him rather than to hit him, and instead of snapping he began purring with anticipation. When he reached that point, I don’t know which of us was happier.

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That’s not to say I was any kind of cat whisperer. To be honest, I didn’t even know if Angel was male or female until my sister-in-law looked and told me. I had major issues getting him into his first carrier, one of those horrible side-entry ones: I typically had to stand it on end and dump him to the bottom, like the first bit of laundry in a laundry bag, then rush to zip it shut before he could dart back up to the opening. I ultimately got him a much more dignified top-loading carrier, but I never did catch onto things like brushing his teeth, to say nothing of trying to walk him on a leash.   I did give him plenty of food, regular medical care, lots of love, a more or less clean litter box, many hours of “pen tug-of-war” and a straight stretch of about 20 yards in the apartment on which he regularly sprinted as if being chased by a ghost only he could see. We had plenty of other fun together, too. Angel watched Animal Planet with fascination and innumerable college basketball and Red Sox games without complaint. He consistently found the sunniest spot in the apartment to plop down in, and in the dead of winter when there were no sunny spots he huddled against me so we could both stay warm. He regularly challenged me to staring contests and never lost. He loved to drink out of the kitchen faucet when it was dripping on its lowest setting, and one time when I was away Gary, who was there to feed him, swore he turned it on by himself. I actually wouldn’t have put that past him. Unlike his owner, he would have made a great politician: everyone he met became a friend, if not an admirer. Sure, he could be clumsy at times and tended to knock things over, which put him on the receiving end of an occasional F-bomb, but it was hard to stay mad at him. Even when he woke me up at night to ask for more food, he did it by licking the top of my shaved head. Human or animal, I don’t know if I’ve ever loved anyone more.

I turned 40 just before Angel came into my life, and although his age was never precisely determined, it was clear he was no spring chicken either. It wasn’t long before both of us started to feel the effects of our advancing years.   We each got fatter, but that was just the beginning. Between 2009 and 2015 I had two knee surgeries and separate operations to remove an inguinal hernia and a kidney stone. I got to the point where I actually bought a set of crutches just to be ready for the next operation, because I knew it was only a matter of time. Meanwhile, Angel’s vertical began to desert him and he botched a leap onto the kitchen counter, slamming into it jaw-first, which jarred one of his teeth loose and left him howling in agony. I kept him from choking on the remnants of the tooth, but it took a $700 veterinary visit for his mouth to be repaired. I had enough money by then that the bill wasn’t a huge problem- I had also gotten pet insurance, which I highly recommend- but even if it had been, I would have paid it willingly. Angel was my best friend, and although I never took the joy of any day for granted, I held out hope that we would have many more happy years together.

Then, early in 2015, he started losing weight and throwing up. At first, it didn’t seem like a huge issue.   Cats often vomit because of hairballs or other relatively minor conditions, and he certainly needed to drop a few pounds. His vet, a very skilled and caring man, didn’t even recommend further tests initially. But many months passed and the vomiting continued while his weight kept going down, so eventually I brought him back in. This time he was referred to a special testing center, and the results weren’t what we were hoping for. Angel had the feline equivalent of pancreatic cancer, the disease which had killed my father, and he didn’t have long to live.

I wish I had pushed for the testing to be done sooner, but from my dad’s experience I know how deadly pancreatic cancer is. Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. I tend not to see things that way, though, and I felt like it was my fault. Heartbroken, I told Angel that we weren’t going to have as much time together as we wanted, but that I would give him as much love and help as I could during the time we had. Together we went to a special animal cancer center outside Boston, hoping for some kind of palliative treatment which would lessen his pain and give him a little more time. The news we got there wasn’t any better. Sitting next to each other on the examining room bench, we heard the doctor say that Angel had just a few weeks left and nothing of consequence could be done for him.   At those words, a single large tear dropped out of his left eye and ran down his cheek. A few more than that ran down my cheek.

Though he was reduced to skin and bones and had almost no appetite, Angel still fought valiantly and came back from the brink a few times in December 2015. I had a knee operation scheduled just before Christmas and perhaps he sensed that and felt he needed to stay around to help take care of me.   And sure enough, in the days after I came home from the hospital he spent hours licking my face and laying on my chest. Although his heartbeat was frail, I could still hear him purring deeply and I knew he was happy. I wish I could have held him like that forever, but we did get to spend two bonus weeks together that I will always treasure. As I got stronger, though, he got weaker, and the night before I had to go back to work, I could tell he was really struggling with the pain. Because it was a Sunday, I wasn’t able to take him to the vets to have him put to sleep. He was too weak even to crawl up on the bed by then, and he ended up passing away on the floor just below it. I tried to be there for him and comfort him in his final moments, but only he could tell you if it made any difference.

I had Angel cremated, and now I keep his ashes in a small box right next to my bed. He has been gone a year now, and although life has continued on and I even have another cat with a remarkable story of his own, I still miss Angel terribly. I’m so grateful for the kindness, joy, healing and unconditional love that he brought into my life, but without him I feel as if I’ve lost a part of myself that I’ll never get back. Maybe that’s not completely true, though.  I’m less certain than most about where my ultimate destination will be, but wherever I end up, who’s to say that place won’t have windows? And if there are windows, maybe a big orange cat is perched next to one of them even now, waiting patiently for the day when he can once again welcome me home.

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