Gus 1998 - 2008

Hanging on my studio wall, higher than I can reach without a boost (remember when gimme a boost was followed by someone interlacing their fingers and bending at the waist in anticipation of a dirty foot being placed in their hands?) is a nail—obviously driven there prior to the landlords last paint-job. Suspended from that ivory-painted spike is a slender booklet. The page facing me bears a close-up image of two tanned, well-manicured, and unsoiled sudsy hands under a chrome faucet. I think the hands belong to a woman; but since the unpainted nails are short and no jewelry is visible, my assumption is only based on size and shape and in no way should be construed to mean I think men with svelte hands are effeminate. (The last phrase of that previous sentence is a lie.) Periwinkle words: National Hand Washing Awareness Week 3rd–9th, cross the lower edge of the image, over blurry white porcelain.

Below the image are thirty-one squares. I don’t have to count them to know how many there are because each one has a number in its upper right corner. Using an indigo-blue Bingo Marker, my paramour places a dot of ink in the center of each of the squares. I can always determine when she was away because catch-up dots are lighter, less-round, and a little streaked at the edges.

I’ve seen the new booklet my paramour plans to hang when each of the squares below the washing hands is dotted (I may offer to give her a boost because I love to hear her laugh). The front image shows the inside of an arm—I don’t know if it’s a man or a woman’s arm—where a needle has been inserted into a vein and taped in place. The needle is attached to a short red tube, which leads to a suspended plastic bag half-full of dark blood. I know it’s blood because of the vermilion words at the top: National Blood Donor Month.

Yesterday, when my paramour brought home the booklet that begins with a bag of blood, I thought back to when she hung the current-almost-finished one—now filled with candy-apple red and indigo-blue dots (she ran out of red on the page Prostate Cancer Awareness Week 15th–21st, with a picture of an elderly man hiking in the mountains....sometimes, less-obvious imagery is definitely better).

The worst page was the one with business-suited cyclists parading down a city street wearing: helmets, smiles, and little round mirrors at the top corner of their sunglasses. In muddy-taupe print, Bike to Work Week 12th–16th, tarnished the perfect-blue sky. That was the page Gus died.

Almost ten booklets ago, the very pregnant hausfrau—who reluctantly surrendered his care to me—was concerned that I would not be able to sleep with him in my house because, “this is a wonderful, indoor, red-tip Siamese, but a constant-he-is-yowling.” Her strongest fear, she confided, was Gus suffocating her soon-to-arrive baby.

At that time, he was the age that’s no longer kitten and not yet cat. Gangly. He was content to sit quietly in my apartment window during the day as long as I allowed him to sleep between my legs on hot nights, next to my head on cool nights, and under the covers—in my armpit—on cold nights.

The housfrau’s fear was legitimate: when I laid on my stomach, he would lie on the side of my face; if I turned my head, he would reposition himself in order to stay on my face. (I suspect he liked my warm breath.) Since I need cool air to sleep and have never been able to sleep with my head under a blanket, I slept only on my back or side.

His attention was always focused, his purr louder than fingers tapping on the arm of an overstuffed chair, and his head-butting-show-of-affection was a daily, solid, affirmation of his connection to me—his human.

He loved to play rough—my hands and wrists bore constant scratches (and a few scars) as testament—but he intuitively knew faces were off-limits. If interested in playing rough, I would sniffle, by audibly drawing a short breath in and out of my nose. He was always game. He taught me the sniffle-signal while purring in someone's lap; a few quick sniffles and he attacked the person petting him.

Gus would almost always come when his name was called (indoors). His sigh, exhaling a long-breath that left his nasal passages and lightly strummed his vocal chords, like a weary soldier, just before he fell to sleep was a goodnight I have learned to sorely miss.

Gus had an impressive vocal range and an obsessive-compulsive streak. If a door was closed which he wanted open, he would cry and meow at above normal indoor-voice-conversation level. If his meowling bothered me, I would sometimes shout at him or chase him away from the door. Then, he could—from a distant room—increase his volume until it became an angry-hurt, deep, baying, rapid-fire-howl. This, however, only happened after he taught me to hike with him in the woods.

After leaving Germany, Gus and I traveled through several American southwest states for almost half a booklet. I allowed him out of the tent almost immediately (even though he hadn’t asked) because there were no man-made objects in sight. At first, he wandered and I strolled after him. His explorations—with me always just over his shoulder—got longer; I intervened only when his path looked precarious or his destination was toward man-made objects. After a few weeks, I began to take the lead. If the sun was not too high-hot and the trail I chose was interesting for his nose and ears, he would stay with me until drawn off-path by a gecko, bird, or cooling spot of shade. At times we would switch the lead and he would move ahead (usually because he wanted to ‘break brush’ and walk anywhere but on a path). I soon learned what surfaces his tender foot pads could tolerate and subsequently chose all future hiking locations accordingly.

Once we were settled inside walls, he would yowl to go out when the weather was nice. Whenever I could, I would take him out into the forest and we would just walk together, for miles sometimes—me with a walking staff (to check for snakes in the dark nooks he liked to explore) and him with a bright orange neckband (If I called, he would come about half the time; the other half he just wondered: ‘why are you yelling? Can’t you see I’m right here?’ as his creamy-sandy-rust camouflaged him in some shady spot). Eventually, we hiked together enough that I stopped looking over my shoulder as much. If I got too far ahead (about 20-40 meters, depending on the terrain) he would mewl a high-pitched kitten-cry ‘hey, stop going so fast’.

We communicated—clearly—in a language of our own design. A click of my finger could mean get down, come here, look at me, pay attention to my hand, or stop that (the latter of which he understood but almost always disregarded unless I stood up, or stepped towards him). A closed mouth mewl with no tail movement meant either: I'm coming, I'm jumping up, wake up, or even just hi.

One most memorable occasion, we both climbed a huge flat-topped boulder where I meditated while he lay next to me listening to the birds and bugs ease the late evening into night. We were out there for several hours in the dark. He never left my side.

Four pages before he died, he became diabetic. I learned all about feline diabetes and especially how ignorant veterinarians are when it comes to the disease. I bought a human blood testing kit, pricked his ears several times a day (there were almost always a broken-capillary site, or three, visible from then on) and charted exactly how much insulin he got every day. He was fed only cans of meat and fish intended for humans; never pet food (all cat food is bad for all cats, but diabetic cat food is especially bad for diabetic cats) and I sprinkled an herbal powder on his food twice a day, which significantly lowered the insulin intolerance of his cells.

My paramour and I paid for a vacation a half booklet before he was diagnosed. A half-page before we left, Gus was almost completely weaned off of insulin and I was foolishly optimistic.

The pet-sitter was trained to administer the insulin and knew how, what, and when to feed. In the middle of that vacation I received an e-mail: ‘I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Gus passed away.’

Of course I wanted to blame the pet-sitter, but I couldn’t. All I could think is: he trusted me more completely than any human has ever trusted me and after nearly ten booklets I let him down. At the moment he needed me, I was not there.

He knew I always insured his safety and even though I was hurting his ear and pricking his skin with shots every day—I was his human, it was OK. If I’d have been there, I would have tested his blood, I would have administered the insulin correctly, I would have fed him properly, and I would have responded immediately at the first signs of an illness. But I was in another country.

In comparison to the remorse I feel from the loss of Gus, I have never cried as fully, nor felt as long-term saddened as heavily by any other loss (human or animal) in my entirety. I can't stop reminding myself that as his fatal sickness intensified and the moment of his death neared, I wonder what he was thinking—and—know what he was thinking. Where’s my human? I need my human. Why isn't he here?

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