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Swift: Loss of cat inescapable but also unexpectedly hard

Tammy Swift

When I first moved to Fargo in the mid-’90s, one of my first orders of business was to acquire a cat.

It seemed like the logical next step for a young, professional woman. Very “Caroline in the City.” So friends helped me track down a farm feline who had given birth to a slew of kitties.

I must have been going through a “bad boy” stage back then. I automatically gravitated toward the naughtiest kitten in the lot. He seemed to get in more mischief and make more noise than his colleagues, and – with his fluffy, black hair – he was downright adorable.

I had primarily grown up with rugged, outdoor cats, so I didn’t realize how much trouble a kitten could find indoors. Sebastian chewed cords, climbed blinds and tipped over the Christmas tree. One night, he spent hours batting Christmas ornaments across the living room floor while I huddled in bed, slowly plotting his death.

Like any greenhorn, I foolishly invested in an electronic mouse and other elaborate cat toys to entertain him. He eyed these things with disdain but could spend hours batting around a ball of crumpled tin foil or jumping inside an empty paper bag. He attacked my legs whenever I walked by and left my forearms scored with scratches.

He grew and grew into a handsome, 17-pound cat with an unusually magnificent tail. His attitude also grew. Because he was long-haired, I took him in for professional grooming. Once. They told me he was the second-wildest cat they’d ever handled. (I’m assuming the wildest must have been a puma.) I used to joke that he became so enraged when taken to the vet that his cat carrier levitated.

But he stayed with me through it all. Moves to two different apartments as a single woman. A third move as a married woman. He grudgingly accepted “Irwin” – the man I would eventually marry – but only after engaging him in several vicious battles and eventually “marking” Irwin’s shirt.

Just as humans do, Sebastian eventually mellowed. He was much happier after we moved to the country, where he could crouch in the fields and pretend he knew how to catch mice. He sourly tolerated the acquisition of two dogs. In turn, the pooches viewed him with awe, as if he were a brigadier general. When Irwin wrestled with our big dog, Jake, Sebastian would occasionally restore order by flying into the room and biting Jake in the rear.

As Sebastian aged, he developed thyroid problems. He still occasionally left an eviscerated mouse corpse on the front steps, and he embarked on the Great Air-Conditioning Duct Exposition of 2010. Mostly, however, he slept. He was almost like the feline equivalent to Gene Hackman: macho, solid and impressive – but not particularly cuddly.

When Irwin and I decided to divorce, we divvied up the dogs. But we decided that Sebastian should stay in the house with Irwin. He was 19 by then, and it seemed cruel to make such an old, fragile cat adjust to yet another home. After I moved out, I was only able to see him a couple of times. But when he saw me, he raised his tail in a kitten-like salute, meowed and made a beeline to me. He remembered Mom.

Last week, I received the inevitable text from Irwin. Sebastian was a matted mass of skin and bones – and he was no longer using the litter box. He was 20 years old. It was time.

Although I knew it was inescapable, it also was unexpectedly hard. Sebastian represented several past chapters of my life – young singlehood, dating life, courtship, marriage. He had been with me longer than my husband or most of my friends. And although he’d once been a juvenile delinquent, he had grown into a pleasant elder statesman.

And so I had a good cry. Several prolonged ones, in fact. I posted his photo on Facebook, and brazenly crowd-sourced sympathy. Maybe it’s a cliché to grieve the loss of a pet via social media, but I didn’t care. It was a big incident in my life, and it deserved a mention.

Irwin buried him under the big pine tree where he used to spend hours waiting for unsuspecting mice. It was the ideal resting place.

Thank you, old man.

May you be in a place where all the paper bags are crackly and empty, the catnip is unlimited and the mice are slow.

You deserve it.