In early April 2021, David and The One had to say goodbye to Rory, AKA Devil Cat, the stray that made an enormous impact on their lives. It was a 14-year relationship that taught them all a little something about love, acceptance, and patience.
The day we had dreaded from almost the moment a stunning tuxedo cat first swaggered up our front walk on my forty-seventh birthday had finally come. Devil Cat–whose real name is Rory, short for Rorschach–was put down on April 12 at 4:45 PM.
And it’s taken this long to begin writing about it.
The story is all too familiar to us. Rory had late-stage kidney disease–a kinder, gentler way of saying his kidneys were shutting down. Our two previous cats, Chloe and Raja, both fell victim to it. And like them, Rory had to suffer the indignity of Melanie, our devoted vet tech, injecting him with fluids under his skin every day. I say “suffer” because he was ferociously angry at having to be swaddled in a towel, and he let anyone who was within earshot know it. And I say “indignity” because never was there a cat with higher self-regard than Rory.
“Gutted.” “Shattered.” “Broken.” I now understand how words can fail a person. None is wide or deep enough to cradle the weight of sorrow. The One and I were so bereft after Rory passed that we needed to duck out of life for a long time. Alone in our grief, we held fast to each other, soothing and cooing to the other when he fell apart without warning while looking at Rory’s toys or his empty bed, or the yard, which was his world.
Why has the loss of Devil Cat hit us so much harder than the passing of any of our other pets? What was it about this dear sweet creature that has brought us to our knees, at times keening and weeping in such pain? For more than five months, we haven’t been able to unhook him from our hearts to rest or fall into nightmare-less sleep.
I believe it has to do with the fact that, unlike any pet either The One or I ever had, Rory wasn’t loveable right out of the box. It took an incredible four years for us to fold him into our family–nervously circling each other at first, then treading carefully, eventually building trust, and most important: not punishing him when his instincts and fear of people came through in bites that sent me to the hospital for intravenous antibiotics.
Rory proved consistent, unwavering love can forever heal and change–both pet and parent.
Something wicked this way comes
A few weeks after Rory first trotted up our flagstone path, we learned from mailbox gossip that he was the vicious and undisputed lord of the neighborhood. We also discovered he’d not only beguiled us but four other families into feeding him, even though he repaid us all with a volley of gashes from his scalpel-sharp claws. In time, five homes became three, then two, then just one. While he settled upon us as his summer family–he disappeared all winter–he still took off for days, leaving what I’m sure was a wide swath of rodent death in his wake.
Yet, no matter how long he was gone, we always welcomed him back with lots of sweet talk, bowls of fresh food and water, and scraps from the dinner table. It wasn’t unusual for him to stretch out under one of our chairs and nap while we ate. (Most likely with a belly full of chipmunk, squirrel, mouse, or, yes, even wild rabbit.)
When he wasn’t terrorizing the neighbors, he hunted in our yard, followed The One from one garden to the next as he worked, sunned himself out on the warm hoods of our cars.
Still, neither of us dared pet him.
Kitty lap dance
One afternoon about two years later, The One was in the backyard reading the Sunday paper when I heard him call my name. I did what two decades of connubial togetherness afforded me: the right to ignore him. He called again, but there was a strange tension in his voice–almost a warning. I looked up from my computer and curled up on his lap was Devil Cat.
“He just jumped up,” he said. “Come get him.” He lifted the newspaper above his head. “Please, come get him.”
“Are you high? I’m not touching that cat,” I said and returned to my work. With no means of escape, and in fear for his privates, The One sat there immobilized as Rory slept.
That simple act changed everything. Until then, we were convinced he was feral or near-feral. But it was evident, at some point in his life, he had had a family. He knew love. He had loved. Then came the questions: Was he abandoned? Abused? Did he run off or get lost? How long had he been on his own? And my private question: Can we keep him?
Devil Cat moves in…one house at a time
At the time, Chloe and Raja, who were declawed when we rescued them, were still with us, and there was no way we could let Devil Cat in the house. So, over the course of the next two years, we made him increasingly elaborate outdoor residences so he could stay warm and dry. My goal was eventually to add him into our family–somehow. Maybe by having him sleep and eat in the basement. But The One, practical as always, kept reminding me he still might have a home, somewhere.
I wasn’t buying it.
His first shelter was the old doghouse left by the previous owners. We found this out one morning as we were leaving to go back to New York City during a torrential downpour. Rory sat just inside, drenched and glowering. I ran upstairs and collected a pile of cat towels to line the dog house. He hissed ominously and backed himself into a corner as I gently singsonged to him. He was having none of it. As I spread the towels closer to him, he attacked. I stifled a scream and yanked my hands out, watching them blur red and pink in the rain.
Later that autumn, we made a makeshift home on the front porch out of a small square table that we draped with old coats and covered in The One’s yellow slicker to keep out the rain. A small warm bed completed the house. He immediately jumped, started kneading the bed, which we call “making the donuts,” and made himself at home. That lasted all of several days until Sammy, one of the next-door cats, decided to go snooping. With Sammy’s scent everywhere, Rory opted for the bristly mat in front of the door.
Let the storm rage on
It might have taken us even longer than four years to slowly transition Rory from a savage outdoor cat to a moderately barbarous indoor-outdoor cat if it weren’t for Hurricane Irene in 2011. On the first day of the storm, refusing to use the small shelter we’d made him, he hunched against the front door, eyes closed, his fur riven by the rain.
“I can’t take this,” I said to The One, rummaging in the bathroom for towels.
“You can’t let him in the house. He’ll attack Raja and Chloe.”
“I’m not,” I replied. “Just open the garage door for me and wait.”
I took the towels and went outside.
Although he still wouldn’t let us pet him, Rory would always rub against us. When he saw me, he immediately began making figure-eights around my legs. I waited for the right moment–I knew I’d have only one chance–and tossed the towels over him. I quickly scooped him up and hugged him to my chest. To my surprise, he didn’t struggle or make a sound. All three-hundred and fifty pounds of me trotted along the front of the house. As I gingerly stepped down the muddy stone steps that arced toward the open garage door, I slipped. Time halted. Between falling backward and Rory–now unwrapped–landing on my chest, I pictured my red-ribboned face, me crushing him with my weight, a trip to the ER for some sundry broken bone, Rory leaping from my arms and running away. Instead, he remained quiet and still, sitting on my chest looking at me.
Now what? I somehow had to shift my weight onto my knees and push myself up with my free hand–like a corpulent tripod–while holding on to Devil Cat. Amazingly, he tolerated it and didn’t try to wrest himself free.
Once we were inside, The One closed the garage door and I gently placed Rory on the floor–perhaps the first indoor space he’d been in for years. Agitated, he paced back and forth, howling and looking for an exit. When he found none, he jumped on one of the cars then onto a high windowsill, sitting hunched and mewling indignantly at the storm.
“I have an idea,” said The One. He left and returned a minute later with a thick wool jacket and a pair of leather work gloves. Since Rory had jumped up on The One’s lap unprompted earlier that summer, maybe he’d do the same now. I put the jacket on backward and slipped on the gloves. I sat down in a chair and in a moment Rory was in my arms and asleep. (That’s us, above, in the garage. The very first photo we have of him.) He was warm and safe, and I, thankfully, was protected.
From there it was a short trip to owning the house.
Rory did eventually take up residence in the basement while Raja and Chloe were with us. His favorite bed wasn’t the pile of blankets we put out for him nor the two-hundred-dollar heated cat house. They were always empty. We couldn’t figure out where he slept because every time we opened the basement door there he was on the top step dying to come in.
One night, though, he wasn’t sitting sentinel. We crept into the basement, checked the cat house, the blankets, even the laundry basket where he’d passed out a few times after the 100-meter squirrel dash. Nothing. This time I was certain: He was lying dead in the road or was some coyote’s midnight meal. As I was screaming at The One for nothing in particular; it’s how I cope, I spotted something. In a big box of stuffed animals, I saw just his sweet black-and-white head resting on a teddy bear looking for all the world like E.T. hiding in plain sight.
Not long after, Chloe passed and ten days later we had to put down Raja due to cancer. That was when the doors to the rest of the house and to our hearts were fully opened to Rory.
And it was in our home, his forever home, that Rory and I underwent profound, and surprisingly similar, changes.
Small changes, big changes
I’ve always been a pathologically difficult person. I think my ingrained need for perfection and control coupled with the unpredictability of bipolar disorder, conspire to make me–let me say thorny. I’ve had my share of erupting at terrified cashiers for taking too long. Or ripping into The One if he doesn’t do things my way. Road rage was my frequent companion. Despite my best intentions, I had a knack for making people cower. Why some people–including The One–stayed with me, is still beyond me.
Like me, Rory could strike without notice–and seemingly without reason. I wounded with words; he with claws and fangs. But we–two immutable and fierce forces–wouldn’t survive in the same home without changing. And it had to start with me. The first big lesson I learned was I couldn’t try to break him of his catness. It’s how he survived; it’s what he was.
So punishing him when he brought live critters into the house as presents for us was out of the question. And while it was always a tense time, what with The One jumping on the nearest chair pleading with me to “get a broom and kill it!” I’d talk softly to Rory, thanking him for his “present.” Yes, every fiber of my being wanted to shoo him out of the way and save the mouse, squirrel, or chipmunk. Sometimes I was able to do that, but most times, the best I could do was escort Rory out the door, and sit in the bathroom and cry.
Or the times that I’d be softly petting him, and he’d attack my hand. No slaps on the ass, no kicks, no thrown pillows followed. Just lots of hydrogen peroxide, Bacitracin, and Band-Aids. (I did dagger him with looks, but he was always too content licking my blood from his claws.)
The space between us lessened, and he burrowed in even more. Long gone was the basement–he wouldn’t even consider sleeping down there. For him now, being with us, especially me, was the only way. At night, he’d lie on my chest or in my arms–one paw extended out in a partial feline hug. He’d stay there as long as I did.
Over time, we softened together. The very first time he bit me, I was reaching over his head. He left four nasty red-infected holes on my index finger. Eventually, I could grab his head and shake it, roughhousing, and he’d wrap his front and back paws around my arm and hang on for the ride. No biting, no claws.
While we kept moving his home closer to us, we stopped when he was inside. But now I can see Rory continued to move his home–the seat of his trust–closer to us over the 14 years we were blessed to be with him.
On that April afternoon, The One and I stood holding hands as we watched Dr. Krier, the vet who came to our home to help Rory cross over, leave with our little boy wrapped in a blanket in the back of her car. Neither of us could turn his back and walk inside. It would feel like we were abandoning him. So we watched the car pull out of the driveaway and drive down the street, and we stood there long after it turned the corner.
Dr. Krier had given us several gifts before she left: Rory’s paw print pressed into fresh clay that we were to dry in the oven, clippings of his fur, and a crystal that threw mini rainbows all over the family room–Rory’s favorite place. She also folded a small bottle into my hand along with a small sheet of paper. She explained it was a Bubble Release Prayer–a way of helping Rory cross over, a way for us to let go.
Now, I’m not a woo-woo kind of person–I was in the ’80s but everyone was in the Age of Shirley MacLaine. Dr. Krier suggested we walk around the property as one of us blows bubbles and the other reads the prayer.
“Want to try this?” I asked The One, half hoping he would say no.
“Yes, I do.” I rolled my eyes internally.
We started in the flower garden closest to the patio, where Devil Cat would crouch for hours just waiting and hoping.
“Today I symbolically release your beautiful spirit,” I read, “to a place where there’s no sadness only happiness.” The One dipped the wand into the liquid and blew lovely small bubbles that played tag in the April breeze. We went to all his favorite spots–the pool, where he’d sit for as long as we splashed inside; the gray and leafless catnip borders that in the summer he’d loll high on its scent; the sleeping astilbe, his scratching tree, where he kept his weapons of way in fighting shape. As we made our way around the entire yard, I felt lighter and more peaceful. The hiccupping sobs and burning in my throat subsided. We began reminiscing about our boy, even laughing a little.
When we ended back at the flower garden half an hour later, The One surveyed the yard, which was Rory’s domain, and he spoke one word. He spoke it so softly I couldn’t hear.
He swept his arm across the now darkened yard, “Roryland.” He looped his arm through mine. “I want to get a plaque that says, ‘Roryland’ and put it up in the trunk of the big maple.” It felt so right, so perfect.
He’s still here
Five months on, my heart is starting to mend. But being the animal person I am, it needs something feathered or furry to care for. So I’ve joined The One in caring for our murder (yes, that’s the real name of a group of crows) we call the Poe family. Bereft of an iconic Edgar Allen Poe raven, we opted for crows. And I’ve taken to hand feeding the squirrel above, that Rory so desperately wanted to devour. “Rocky” is slowly coming around, so is his new mate, Roxie.
The pain never really goes away, it just becomes part of you, like a scar. And our hearts, ever resilient, will grow around and through that scar, making our love stronger, more able to experience the joys and bear sorrows of another pet or two.
And that pet will have my childhood dogs Duke and Rusty; our first cats Ariadne and Madame Maxine; and Raja, Chloe, and dear Rory to thank for the love The One and I will be able to give it.
Originally published September 12, 2021