August 1998-June 2017
In 1998 we were all gathered at Mom and Dad’s cabin at Beech Mountain NC as we have gathered every Labor Day weekend for years. We drove down from Pittsburgh. The Knoxville Rileys drove across from Tennessee. Marti and Susan drove up from Charlotte and Mom and Dad, of course, were already there waiting.
Early in the weekend, a bunch of us went out and played Beech Mountain Golf Course. When we returned to the house Julie, Clark and I first met this little kitten. Blair and Peyton were carrying her around with Russ close behind. They showed us this tiny, tan and white fur ball.
“Look what we found underneath the deck!” they all said in unison. “Its mother must have left it.”
Dad warned, “Don’t bring it in the house or feed it! If you do, it’s yours. The mother will never take it back.” Peyton immediately made a pitiful face and continued cuddling the foundling.
Now, I’m not 100% sure that Dad wasn’t mixing up his animal wives’ tales of birds and mammals, but right or wrong, it struck a little fear in the kids. And me. With a cat at home, I was not looking for another, even in the face of the overwhelming cuteness of this kitten.
As I remember, and I’m happy for anyone to correct me, there was a general period of putting her back where they found her over that first night, some continued meowing, fretful children, worried and concerned for this helpless animal, and her still being under the deck the following morning…and all of that led to the pictures you’ll see of us as a family now in charge with yet to be named, Zoey the Mountain Cat.
Because my memory has been challenged a time or two in the past regarding the exact details of an occurrence, I asked Julie, Clark and Blair to review my story of Zoey for clarity, after all, it was eighteen years ago. Here’s what Blair had to say:
“I remember us all being excited over her, but I also remember assuming the role of mom. I can’t remember the night of leaving her outside. Did we really do that?” [Yes]
“I remember going to Fred’s [Fred’s General Mercantile – the only store at Beech Mountain] to try and find food. Fred only had adult canned cat food in stock. We fed her that and gave her milk. As I remember it, she stayed inside with us and slept in the nook in my neck.” [She was supposed to be outside where her mother could find her! Now I know why her mom didn’t come back.]
“And it was over. With Peyton and Russ’ help. I think a cat was a non-starter for Uncle Page and Aunt Maggie. We sweet-talked Mom and Dad into letting us take her home.
“I remember Zoey being “my” cat from the beginning and she rode the seven hour drive back home to Pittsburgh mostly in my lap.”
Her name, “Zoey,” also came from Blair, according to Blair. No special or memorable reason. She just liked the name. Julie recalls having some part in the naming, but cannot clearly recall it (remember, eighteen years.)
Thus began what turned into an almost 19 year affair. I remember how easily she fit into my shirt pocket at the time and how Crazy sized her up very quickly as a challenger to her home and personal comfort. She later moved towards just ignoring her while popping her every now and then with a quick paw slap as Zoey wandered towards her. Later, Zoey became the huntress, earning the nickname, “Stone Cold Steve Kitty,” courtesy of Clark and his buddy, Steve Thomas. Of course, that was in reference to the wrestler, Stone Cold Steve Austin. She would wait for Crazy behind corners and on top of tables and pounce on her when she walked by. Crazy quickly made her move on to something else.
Zoey would also sit on our shoulders and every now and then nip our ears, another reason for the “Stone Cold Steve Kitty” nickname.
As cute as Zoey was, she did not suffer much petting in her early years. If you picked her up she would give you one, maybe two strokes of her head before she would strike with a quick snake-like bite to your hand. Not very endearing. We attributed that to her early days and being deserted by her mom. She didn’t trust anybody except for Blair. She slept with Blair, and when Blair was home, the two were together. Zoey spent a lot of her time outside hunting, but when Blair whistled for her to come home, she came running out of the woods. Except one time for two weeks.
We’ve all gathered around the memory fire on this one and not surprisingly, I have barely a spark of remembrance of when Zoey disappeared for about two weeks, long enough to where we were beginning to lose hope. Blair remembers posting flyers around the neighborhood. Behind our house was a huge Pittsburgh hill that steeply rose to Steve Thomas’ neighborhood. The kids walked that neighborhood knocking on doors until a woman said she recognized Zoey as another woman’s cat. They went to the lady’s home and there was Zoey. The woman was very apologetic saying that she thought Zoey had been abandoned.
Zoey never disappeared again.
As she grew older, and when she was out of sight, walking the house, she would turn her normal “meow” voice into some other worldly and out of body sound. It didn’t sound like a cat at all. It was a deep, guttural call that sounded something like “ah rooolll, ah rooool.” She would instantly shut it off if she saw you. I made a game of trying to sneak up on her when I heard her start. I wanted to see her face to see what shape the sound took coming out. I never ever could catch her in the act so that I had a clean view of her from the front. Always, she was walking away. As soon as she felt me, or anyone, in her presence, the sound instantly changed to a normal meow.
Crazy died in the early 2000’s of old age and kidney failure. Not long after she passed, we started to notice our mountain cat gradually became more friendly and almost welcoming of petting. At some point she surprised us and started hopping up on our laps when we settled down for a little prime time TV. Then, she started getting up on the back of my leather chair while I was sitting in it. I would hear her purring, feel her paw as she stepped on my shoulder. And the purr got louder as she nosed my ear, a lick or two turned into her softly chewing on my earlobe. It tickled rather than hurt. Her purring sounded like a big engine right in my ear. It was so cool. Sweet really.
She was quite the hunter. Our Atlanta backyard played host to a chaotic crowd of squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, moles and birds of all shapes and sizes. Years ago we put up a bird feeder and bird bath. The seeds sprayed off of the feeder by the picky blue jays and dove attracted even more squirrels and chipmunks whose romantic adventures bore more and more of them.
And Zoey spent much of her time hunting them and thinning the herd. Not always catching them for sure, but man she did love to hunt and stalk her prey. Over the years she brought a couple of live birds and chipmunks in the house, which we luckily saw and captured in a Laurel and Hardy-like comedic moment, with Julie mostly screaming and hovering behind me offering words of encouragement like, “Get it!” while I used a towel like a net, gently dropping it over the bird to keep it from taking off. I carefully gathered the towel around the little creature, finally picking it up and ran – not sure why – it out the back door to release it into the wild again. I could only hope that Zoey had not damaged it in some way.
She was much more successful catching baby rabbits in their ground nest which was always tragic. Nothing cuter than baby rabbits nor sadder than dead ones.
She proudly brought us catches that were no longer living. We thanked her, catching her before she snuck under the couch.
Her favorite place to hide her kills was under the lacey leaf Japanese maple right off of the back patio earning it the name, “the dead bush.” There, she’d finish them off and, I guess, eat them some. Every so often, Burgh would catch the scent of an animal under the dead bush – thank goodness, only he could smell it – and we’d find him forcing his way underneath the low hanging tree with his rear end sticking out. All part of the comedy of life with pets.
One thing that a cat brings to a house, besides the aforementioned dead, or mostly dead, animals, is calm and relaxation. Nothing inspires contentment and a sense of being at peace with the world as a sleeping kitty lying outstretched across a step of the front stairs, with the sun streaming in through the foyer windows laying shadows of the window panes framing her like a photograph.
Zoey, when awake, was a pacer. She moved around the house in a very predictable path, leaving her paw print trails in the newly vacuumed carpet. She would go up the back stairs, down the central upstairs hallway, into our room to the chair by the window, then into our bath for a drink out of the toilet bowl. This was quite the feat. She would jump up on the seat, then lean down into the bowl, stick her paw into the water and lick it off. Of course, this would leave the seat wet, something one of us would discover later. Neighbors might have heard a “Damn it Zoey!” as one of us got a wet seat.
Then, she’d stalk down the front stairs and along the window sills of the living room bay window. She moved like a caged big cat at the zoo. Then, to the water and food bowls in the laundry room through the cat door, and back out again, up the back stairs and repeat.
Sam Ashton and Zoey knew each other well. Sam, our golfing buddy and dear friend, is allergic to cats. She sensed that right away and whenever Sam was over long enough to take a seat, she appeared from nowhere to jump on to his lap. She didn’t go for Val, who is only slightly allergic. She just selected Sam. Funny how animals sense who doesn’t want them near them and then just go for it. Sam, as always, was a great sport. “Oh, there you go. Nice. Thank you so much Zoey!” Achooo!
Over the years she ran into another feline or two who prowled through our yard and we’d hear the cats howling their scream of death. One or both of us would run outside and there she’d be, facing off with a cat always twice her size. Growling and howling at each other. We’d startle the interloper away, which retreated never losing sight of Zoey just in case.
Then we’d snag her and take her back inside for safety. A few times the howling turned into a fight and a trip to the vet to take care of some puncture wounds. Mostly, it was a all howl and growl.
Then, four years ago, Julie and I both noticed that she was a little slow and wobbly, almost like she was drunk. We took her to the vet. She was dehydrated. Further examination proved that her kidneys weren’t working as they should and that started the process of weekly visits to the vet for a “filler up” of saline to keep her going. She came back home raring to go as if nothing had happened. Then 7-10 days or so, back to the vet for a refill. Yes. I tried to do it myself at home, hanging the saline bag from the kitchen light fixture over the island. The problem was, I just could not get the HUGE needle to…well, you know…go in like it should for a subcutaneous drip. I decided it was better left to the professionals.
We, and by we I mean Julie, me and the vet, were amazed at her resilience. Because of her petite figure, she always looked like a young adult to us, seemingly never aging. Then, her buddy, Burgh, left us at the end of March. Alone, she started showing her age. The refills didn’t resolve her wobbles. She got weaker, so that effortless jumps floor to chair became something that took preparation and trial.
Julie and I both admitted to each other that she was old. Kidneys failing. Creatinin levels rising. And I remembered Dad’s failing health metrics.
We steeled ourselves to what was coming faster than we’d expected right on the heels of losing Burgh. And then, she was gone. Tuesday, June 13th. We buried her in the side yard next to Burgh’s ashes and behind the concrete bench we had put over his site.
And now it is just Julie and me. It’s not any quieter. Zoey didn’t make any noise other than her meow turned wail. Burgh had been the noise maker.
There is a definite feeling of less life going on in the house. I mean, nothing is moving itself around on its own except for the two of us. I miss that. I miss her walking across my laptop keyboard or over my iPad just like the cats do in the YouTube video. I miss her chewing on my earlobe. I miss picking her up, hearing her meow at my touch, and then, when I cradled her like a baby in my arms, I miss her putting her paw on my face to touch me as if to say, “I see you.”
I know that Julie misses her more than me. Zoey and Burgh were her buddies while I was at work. And they followed her from room to room, from study to kitchen to bathroom to outdoors. Wherever Julie went, they followed. If she were somewhere for a while, they’d get comfortable and take a nap. When she’d move on, they’d move on, Burgh probably sooner than Zoey.
So now I’m sure you’re all wondering when we are getting another animal and if so, dog or cat? For right now the answer is neither. We’re going to let this all sink in and see what it feels like. It’s too soon to tell, although a few friends have definitely suggested getting back on the bike again is the best way to heal the sadness. And I appreciate that. We’re just not going there right now. I’ve had an animal all on my own and then with Julie since 1977. Forty years. From Kritty Krat and Dusty, to Crazy to Zoey and Burgh. They’ve all been wonderful companions in similar and different ways. And we were blessed by their being a part of our lives. Ours and our children’s. We’re just going to ride with that some now. Thank you all for your consideration and thoughts. So many of you have enjoyed pets in your lives. You know what it’s like.