A human being should be able to
change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a
ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort
the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an
equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a
tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein
Tiste the Beast
Not long ago, our beloved black cat died. Baptiste had been named for a character in the film Les Enfants du Paradis, but over time this had been shortened to Tiste the Beast. He came into our household with Janice, and when he finally left us, he’d been her companion for half her life, almost longer than she’s known me and the boys combined. Once he had been a street cat, so it’s impossible for us to know his birthday, but since he came into Jan’s life in 1981, we can verify that he was approaching twenty-four years old. Though Guinness claims the oldest feline on record survived to twenty-seven, I have to wonder whether that kitty Methuselah can have lived as full and varied a life.
Tiste was still killing mice at twenty-one. As he had certainly slowed down significantly by this point, clearly he wasn’t outrunning them, but outwitting them. I recall very clearly how he indulged in the cruelty cats are famed for. He brought his mice to his food bowl and dropped them inside, pushing their faces into it repeatedly with a paw: “See, you’re food. You’re food.” It was about that time that he started having small seizures and was diagnosed with a thyroid condition. The vet started filling a six-month prescription for it, but then suggested three months instead. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.” She backpedaled, but Jan was nonplused. He was an old cat, and we knew it had to come some day.
When younger, he had the personality of an Oscar Wilde. He’d sound off with ungodly yowls at inconvenient times, preened himself obsessively with special attention given to his penis (we used to joke that his upright hind leg indicated he was playing the cello), appeared quickly whenever Jan was enjoying an amorous encounter, and displayed an air of ironic humor tinged with superior dignity. He could be playfully bitchy with his wicked claws, but displayed surprising patience with the ministrations of occasionally ungentle children. I also remember a six-month period that he would come running when I turned on the vacuum cleaner so that he could ride on my shoulders.
Now that he’s gone, it astonishes me how different the house feels without him. He spent eighteen hours a day sleeping near the end anyway, but his large personality, so perfectly suited to the other large personalities that make our home, remained profoundly felt. He had his final seizure when the children were asleep and Janice and I could comfort him, and fought hard to the very last breath. A witchy cat to the end, he made it to midnight.
So we kept everyone home from school for a day and shopped together at the local garden center for an appropriate shrub to adorn his backyard grave. Both boys helped to dig a hole as deep as Hugh’s shoulders, we shared Tiste stories and decked him with rosemary (for remembering), and both boys also helped to fill in the dirt.
Now I see how many of our Halloween decorations are black cats, and Hugh proudly proclaims that each of them is Tiste. The boys have enough experience of death by now that we haven’t had any meltdowns or revelations of deep-seated anxiety about mortality, and there’s no great pressure yet to acquire another pet. I know it will come eventually, though.
I love animals, but I’m the only member of the household who’s reticent
about considering another creature adoption. At times I saw Tiste
primarily as a lot of extra work to do which came out of my sleep,
particularly in the last months when he’d eschewed his litter box and
blessed the basement pretty much randomly with waste deposits. Any new
life-form that takes up residency here is going to end up being my
responsibility to train, to feed and to clean up after, no matter how
earnestly it is proclaimed otherwise. Our dear friend Deb called last
week to tell me about a kitten in need of adoption, and when I said “No
thank you, I don’t want a new pet any day soon.” She cheekily told me
“Oh, okay, I’ll call back later and tell Janice.” So there it is.
would accomplish nothing to get angry. Actually, I am reminded of the
British monarch who reportedly tried to command the tide to stay out.
And when I was at a friend’s house the other night I had a quiet
conversation with his statue of Bast the Egyptian cat god. “Here you
go, ma’am,” I said, making her a small offering, “I will welcome
another of your children into our house. Please make it someone who
can get along with a dog, or a hedgehog, or whatever comes next.”
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