We all have companions that are relentless in their fellowship. Even in times when we long to be alone, their presence is known to us. Being a veterinarian, the companion from which I could find no escape was Death. He was a ceaseless shadow at my side; a perpetual ethereal consort from which I could find momentary haven, but never indefinite refuge.
Death mocked me. He was there, salivating with anticipation with each breath of anesthetic gas, and he was there peering over my shoulder when a sick cat or dog came to see me. His constant whispers in my ear made me a better doctor, reminding me I had to fight for each precious life in my charge, but I despised him. Never more so than when he made me a willing partner in his grand scheme.
Like all veterinarians, I sometimes summoned my loathsome companion with a syringe and euthanasia solution. Death considered me an ally in those times. But most days I thought of him as my arch enemy, with whom I was locked in mortal combat. I remember one such day.
It was August 16, 1995, and I held a young, trembling kitten in my hands. He'd been found in a car’s engine compartment, bloodied and beaten by revolving fan blades. His wounds were painful and concerning, but with medical attention, they would not be life threatening. At least, that was my medical assessment. But Death has many means by which to accomplish his goal. This kitten was a stray and the people who brought him to the clinic didn’t wish to pay for his care, nor would they offer him a home if he was healed. They told me to “put him to sleep.”
Over my shoulder, the glint of an unearthly grin appeared. Who he could not claim through natural causes, Death would take through other means. There were too many stray kittens and not enough homes.
On this particular day, I wiped the smile from the Grim Reaper’s face. For this day was my birthday. I would not take the life of any animal today, especially not of this tiny being in the palm of my hand.
The kitten appeared to be about 6-weeks old and just weaned. He was a grey-and-brown, tiger-striped fellow with gold eyes. The fan blades had claimed the tip of his left ear, most of a right-rear toe, part of a left-front foot, and all the skin of his tail. The tail was a horrific thing. The coccygeal bones were exposed. The poorly-developed muscles and ligaments holding the bones together remained, but there was no skin to cover them.
Such degloving injuries were painful and the tail demanded attention. The skin was missing not only from the tail, but also from its base over his pelvis. The entire tail would have to be removed, leaving barely a stub.
I amputated the tail and what remained of a rear toe. The wound on his front foot would heal, but the kitten would forever have unique paw prints!
The little tiger-cat became a favorite around the clinic with his playful and friendly demeanor. We started asking every good client if they wanted to take him home. We didn’t have any immediate takers and after a few days it was obvious he needed a name. Thus, Stubby was born.
Stubby stayed in the clinic while we tried to find a home for the tail-less, ear-tip-missing, minus-a-couple-of-toes cat. One day, one of our clients expressed mild interest. It was then I knew I couldn’t let him go. There was a bond between that kitten and me. Stubby came home to live with me.
The first night home, the bond between us was stretched thin. For, in the middle of the night, Stubby climbed onto my bed, dug about in my hair, and urinated on my head. I awoke at 3:00 am wondering why my hair was still wet from the shower I had taken just before retiring for the night. In a daze of near-awake but still mostly-asleep logic, I deduced what had happened. He used my hair as litter.
I found the tiger cat a bit less endearing after that. Things only worsened in the weeks to come. Stubby was a terrorist. The once tranquil home I shared with my Siberian husky and two Siamese cats was transformed into a mecca of destruction and mayhem. For weeks, the adult cats came out of hiding only to eat and use the litter pan (which they could distinguish from my hair). Stubby was relentless in his pursuit of their tails. He seemed infatuated with them and stalked and attacked their tails without forgiveness. My dog became so concerned with his constant attacks, he started guarding the Siamese against their aggressor. The eighty-pound, wolf-life beast rushed at the four-pound tiny feline in a threatening mock attack.
It had no effect.
No tail, have I.
What’s that you have? A tail?
Attack! Attack! Attack!
You had a tail.
For months, my clients would remark about the scratches on my hands. They thought they were wounds received in battle with noncooperative patients. I didn’t often admit they were actually from my own tiny kitten.
Covered in scratches and weary of the consternation he invoked in my other pets, I began to hate having this cat in my home. I loved the cat, but I abhorred living with him. Still, I was committed to the relationship. Eventually, and despite his obvious shortcomings, I managed to find something to like about the little fellow: He was overflowing with exuberance and love of life.
Soon, Stubby began to grow out of kittenhood and into adulthood. The peaceful serenity of our home returned. In the following months, Stubby found his calm. He stopped the attacks on my other cats, my dog, the furniture, the Christmas tree, and on me. What ultimately endeared me to him was that he went on dog walks.
I’ve had cats who attempted to go on walks with my dog and me before, but Stubby actually did it. Unlike most cats undertaking a hike, he didn’t lag fifty yards behind meowing for someone to rescue him from his perilous journey.
The most amazing aspect of his bravery was that he crossed streams. His preference was to find a log to walk across or stepping stones to provide a dry route, but if none availed themselves, Stubby waded through the water to follow my husky and me. He would not be left behind!
I not only learned to love this cat, I learned to love living with him.
Stubby grew to be the most adventurous, happiest, and “coolest” cat I ever met. When he walked, he strutted. He was all attitude and no tail! He was so busy living life that he never noticed he hadn’t been given a chance. He made a mockery of angst, fear, and idleness. One could learn a lot from that little cat.
When I think of Stubby, I remember the gift I was given on my birthday those many years ago: A chance to look Death in the eye and say, “Not today, thank you. This one gets to live.” With such words, Death merely waits for another day… but I revel in my power to make him wait.
It was many years before Stubby met my shadowy companion. I like to imagine he attacked his tail, urinated on his head, and strolled off into ethereal lands over stream and hills where he runs and plays with abandon.
Death never had a chance.