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  March, 2002 Wingspread
MY FRIEND, TOM
     
      By Billie Marie Zal
     
      On a frigid and miserably wet night, several of my friends dropped in for dessert and coffee. As we enjoyed a spirited conversation, a tremendous “MEOW” penetrated the din of our conversation.
     
      Running to the carport door, I peered outside. There sat a cat. Regally pathetic, he tried to hide his long tail which was plastered to his shivering hide. His eyes, met mine and he seemed ashamed that they were clouded by matter.
     
      Observing my face through the glass, he tried once again to call out to me, but only a hoarse, rattling rattle escaped his throat. Then violent coughing shook his bony frame.
     
      I rushed to my kitchen and flung open the refrigerator. Someone called out to me from the living room, “You’ll be sorry if you feed that cat. You’ll never get rid of him if you do.”
     
      Ignoring the well meant admonition, I filled a bowl with warm, sweet cream and I heaped chicken hearts on a platter. My reward was a feeble, croaking purr and a limp damp tail that wrapped itself around my ankles.
     
      The carport was well protected from drafts, but he would need a good bed for the night. Sorting through the storage room, I found pieces of old flannel and soft worn out nighties that I used to line his new quarters.
     
      I was not too surprised to find him still in his box the next morning. By now he seemed too weak to utter a sensible cat-sound, but I brought out more food, hoping that it would strengthen him. He raked his hot head against my arm, but he was too ill to eat.
     
      I must get him to the vet.
     
      I surprised myself by this decision. I did not want a cat. My home was unlittered by animals, and all I possessed at that time was a petite Chihuahua and an adorable talking parakeet named “Tweetie Bird.”
     
      So when the vet expressed his doubt that this cat (whom I would call “Tom”) would probably not survive, I did not feel any emotion of sadness. After all, he was only a stray and I did not really know him, but he had gotten to me, this helpless hunk of a cat, and his quick “ESP thoughts” came to meet mine. Suddenly I wanted that cat.
     
      I had been told to call about Tom’s progress the next day. Feeling a bit foolish that I had become so involved with this stranger, I tried to make my voice sound casual as I inquired about his condition.
     
      Did I detect a note of professional pride in my vet’s reply?
     
      “You just never know about these cats,” he said. “I didn’t have a prayer for this fellow. But he hung in there and now he is begging for a meal. This is the first time I have ever seen a cat in this condition survive.”
     
     
      I smiled. Now Tom and I belonged to one another.
     
      When he arrived home from his hospital stay, I could not shut the door on him. He would be my house cat. Fearfully (because of Tweetie Bird) I invited him in for his first inspection of his new quarters. He stalked each room, sniffing, examining, inspecting, and rubbing his scent on every nook and crevice as I followed behind him.
     
      Tweetie was fearless and appeared delighted to find a new friend. His beak and Tom’s nose met through the cage wire. I started to pull Tom away, but was rebuffed by his awful scowl. I felt foolish. Of course I should have known that he was not unsporting enough to kill a silly bird in a cage.
     
      In the years ahead he would prove himself time and again, as various creatures were brought to my door to be fixed up. Inspecting each varmint with designed boredom, he would deliberately yawn and pretend that they did not exist.
     
      This fantastic feline was no gentle soul. Having come to me in rather demeaning circumstances, I imagined erroneously that he would humble himself to show me his gratitude.
     
      He never did. That awesome pride totally dominated his personality. His habits were quickly displayed as soon as he was well again. He was a “night person” and while I could never push him out of his favorite lounge chair during daytime, at the first hint of dusk his energy became electric, almost tangible.
     
      Then at daybreak, there he sat, at my glass patio doors, displaying the wounds of some vicious battle. An arrogant, “it didn’t really hurt---you should see the other guy” expression assured me that he was always the victor.
     
      After awhile many of my neighborhood friends began mentioning that ” something was happening to their male cats.” They were just disappearing!
     
      I was embarrassed and I pitied those cats who had been murdered by Tom. Tom’s face was often infected and the vet bill eventually became astronomical. My vet finally suggested a neutering operation.
     
      “When you have a male cat as strong and aggressive as this guy, you are going to pay out a fortune on his antibiotics for the wounds,” he said. “I know you don’t want to neuter him, but it is the right thing to do. He’s got to learn to stay closer to home and stop the brawling.”
     
      This worried me. Of all Tom’s traits, his fierce masculinity was his most attractive attribute. Somewhere in his “roots” there had been some native Bobcats. He had inherited the massive head, with a wider than usual brow. His ears sat lower on his head than the common house cat, and long, curly tufts of hair protruding from those ears gave him a wild look that could make one’s spine tingle.
     
      His mouth was overly large for a domestic cat, and his fangs were exceptionally long and prominent. When he made a kill, he often brought his treasure into the house and some of them were larger than himself. Gripping them as though they were weightless, and jumping into his lounge chair, I would run screaming for him to “let it go.”
     
      His body was long, heavy, low and powerfully built. As he stalked his prey, his undersides swung rythmically against the ground. This very “maleness” made me hesitate about the operation. But Tom himself decided for me, by getting into one horrendous battle that left him with terrible wounds about his head.
     
      Happily, there was no change in his personality. He came back home, grumpily glad to see me. A hint of a purr belied the fact that he was mad at me. Now I could relax, I assumed, because Tom would not be battling his neighborhood felines anymore.
     
      He deliberately misled me; he was ready to go again and after dark one night I saw no harm in letting him roam. I should have known that he would have to prove his masculinity one last time. As I settled down cozily in bed to read an exciting new book, the night’s tranquility was shattered by ear splitting howls of agony.
     
      Dogs!!! Poor Tom, I’ve got to go rescue him!
     
      Forgetting the fact that I was clad in a filmy pink nightie, I rushed outside to save my cat. The drama that was unfolding before my eyes brought me to a quick halt, halfway down my drive. Four very large hound dogs had probably been baited by my Tom to engage in battle. Lurking in the familiar shadows of his carport, he was ready for them when they picked up his scent and came in for their kill.
     
      But as I watched in disbelief, Tom sat grandly on the neck of first one dog, fangs and talons sunk deeply in the flesh, while the others ran alongside in fast pursuit. As each hound edged in closely enough for Tom to make his move, he would jump quickly to the next, and the next until each dog gave up the chase and ran home to lick their wounds.
     
      By now porch lights were flashing on up and down the street. Tom hopped off his last victim, strutted back toward me, and scowled horribly. Did he think I looked like an idiot out there in the dead of night in my nightie? I think so.
     
      Hoping to save face, I plucked him off the ground and rushed inside. I would not intervene on his behalf ever again.
     
      As our relationship grew into love and mutual respect, I sometimes resented his fanatical independence. Perhaps that genetic background keep this majestic creature at just an arm’s length from the gift of himself to me.
     
      But something happened to disprove the decision that he would never really need me or love me.
     
      An ice storm struck our small community suddenly and viciously. Grey, drab clouds scuttled across the sky as swift winds brought moans from the great pines behind my home. Tom’s favorite dirt road just past “his” yard was a slippery mass of ice and slush.
     
      I was surprised, then, when he asked to go outside. But I had no reason to doubt his cat-sense. He had brought himself up in the forest.
     
      For once I was wrong about Tom. The storm increased in its intensity and sheets of ice encased every niche of outdoor scenery. By late night, I was trembling with apprehension about my cat. I glanced anxiously at the glass door and each time the thermometer showed another dip until it read, “Eighteen above zero.”
     
      “Tom.” I was calling out to him, with the ESP which we shared but there was no reply.
     
      My heart grew icy cold. Something was terribly wrong.
     
      Three days passed and then four. The weather remained relentless with its near-zero readings. Tom was gone for good, I was told by my friends. Everyone suggested that I just forget him and stop hoping for his return.
     
      But I would not forget him. He was alive, and somewhere, he was letting me know by his unspoken message that he had survived. I went out to his favorite road each day, risking broken bones by a fall on the ice, at the exact hour when Tom and I usually took our walks together. Standing there forlornly in the midst of the pine forest, I lifted my thoughts above and beyond the circumstances that indicated I had lost him forever. Silently, I called my special, loving, silly call that always brought a response: “Kit------Tommm-----Eeeeeee-------”
     
      And each day the only sound that met my call was the bell-like tinkle of icicles that encased the pines and made music when the wind blew. Still, another thought persisted and became stronger each passing day. It was a “knowing” coming through the delicate senses of the heart and mind that Tom would come home to me. I knew it.
     
      It was some ten days before my faith became reality. The weather had changed by now and the ice melted, and the dirt ran off the road in ugly, muddy, rivulets. The winds had let the pines rest for awhile and I had this hope for Tom’s home coming growing in my heart and my mind. I had gone down “our road” almost hourly that day, but it was time for supper and I had to go home.
     
      When I opened the refrigerator, I found his package of chicken hearts in the freezer. Pain jabbed at my heart, but I refused to give in to depression. Then suddenly, I heard a faint but insistent, “Meow......” Rushing to the glass doors, I was momentarily disappointed.
     
      An old, sick, emaciated drab grey cat with his bones showing through his hide huddled at the doors. When he saw my face he quickly hung his head.
     
      Flinging open the one door, I said incredulously, “Tom??????? Is that you?”
     
      Looking up as I called his name, I saw his eyes:(unmistakably his, because he had one bright blue eye and one canary yellow eye ) both blazing with recognition and love.
     
     
      Quickly hiding that look and replacing it with his horrible scowl, he tried to get up but fell. Taking advantage of his weakness, I laughed and cried, and hugged him fiercely to my heart. When we got to his lounge chair, he pushed me away and arranged himself in its soft cushions. But before he drifted off to a deep sleep that would last for days (arising only to eat and groom himself) I sat down beside him and talked about his adventure.
     
      I was sure, I said to him, that he had a mink trap staked out and for some reason he--not the mink--had been the victim. I thanked him for being determined enough to refuse Death when he came knocking at Tom’s heart. And he told me that he had no intention of dying. He merely waited until he had lost enough weight to escape the trap that had held him captive for two weeks.
     
      When he was strong again, I examined him closely. On his front foreleg, I found the marks of a trap. Perhaps the trauma of those awful days actually saved Tom’s life, because after this experience, he never again spent the night away from his home. Yes, he needed me.
     
      During the years that Tom was a part of my life, I kept a diary and pages are filled with notes about him. Once I jotted down a dream. Tom had come home with his tail cut off, and in the dream, I was crying.
     
      Checking the diary, I discovered that exactly two weeks after the dream occurred, Tom did come home in horrible pain. When I lifted him to his chair, I found his tail almost severed near his back end.
     
      When Tom came home from surgery to remove the tail, he was terribly humiliated with this bare stump which had once been a long, fluffy white bit of fur. Hoping that he could forget his pride, I tried to coax him outside to watch the lizards in our patio garden. He would have none of this. Never once did he leave the privacy of his home until all the hair had completely covered that awful stump.
     
      His new look enhanced his appearance. He was left with a great white fluff of hair that he proudly carried as if to say, “Bobcats do have short tails, you know.”
     
      Though my Tom suffered many indignities to his person (or so he would have me imagine) he had a great life. I moved often for a few years, and he enjoyed each new home immensely. His last home on this earth would be in these mountains amidst rocky bluffs , deep gorges, and great Oak trees he could climb. It was clearly his most beloved place. Stray cat-girls would often sneak in from the forest at night to kiss him and share their “catch” with him. One elderly girl friend who made her home on my front porch groomed him every day, and showered him with her kisses. If I walked out, he was quick to slap her; he didn’t want me to think he was weak enough to let some lady shower him with her kisses.
     
      Twice after I moved here, there were two unusually harsh winters and he almost died. But both times, he and I sat before a roaring fire in the living room, and I begged him to stay.
     
      In his last years, he remained fiercely independent and he never once really smiled at me. But his need of me was more apparent now. Often his ESP would send me running to the door, and above the blare of a TV or the din of a vacuum, I would “hear” this call. Always he would be there, waiting for the door to open.
     
      If Tom could ever have been described as loving, it would have been only during his last year on earth. Having always been aloof and deliberately disinterested in our friends, now he began to accept them. Striding into the living room, he never asked permission to leap upon a lap. And often his purrs were so loud that they shook his sides.
     
      This worried me. It was as if he might be storing up all the lovely memories he could muster in these, his last days on his beloved mountain.
     
      The years had taught me the things he loved best. He adored my old, worn out fluffy nylon nighties for his bed, and I often arranged them in my desk drawer where he curled up as I typed. If I worked too long, he arose, stretched his now aged body, and nudged me to take him and put him in his chair.
     
      There was a favorite place on Tom’s mountain.. It was a monstrous limestone boulder near my bedroom window, where a full sun warmed his old bones. From this vantage point, he could easily survey his entire kingdom.
     
      It was only fitting then, that this boulder should mark his final resting place. A deep grave was dug in the rocky soil beneath the little cedar tree which he played beneath. He was placed in a grand cedar box, lined with his favorite things. And as I lowered him into a flower-strewn grave, I said words over him.
     
      I shivered. The reality that he was gone had not fully made itself clear to me. As my tears began to fall, they blended with the sudden raindrops that preceded a violent roll of thunder.
     
      Jagged flashes of lightning rent the skies and Tom was laid to rest with an accompaniment of Nature’s elements.
     
      Now I was alone.
     
      I ran through the house to hide my naked grief, and try to find some solace in memories. At the back door, I glanced out at the great, green oaks, their leaves all shining with the splendor of the rain.
     
      “I won’t let him go...” I cried aloud. “I won’t.”
     
      Pushing the door open, I called out frantically, one last, long, loving, special call to him.
     
      “Kit........Tommmmmmmm......Eeeeeee”
     
      For a split second, there was the eerie sense of knowing that he had heard. He hesitated. But then I remembered the emaciated body, the clouded eyes, the droop to his once proud head, and I closed the door.
     
      “No, Tom. Don’t stay,” I said softly to the wind.....I will be all right.”
     
      “Goodbye.”
     
      ********************
     
     
     
     
      IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY DEAR BROTHER-IN-LAW, Louis Taylor, who died on March 4th, 2002.
     
      My sister, Kathleen, called me to let me know he had suddenly taken ill and died after surgery at a hospital in St. Louis, where they lived.
     
      Louis was a wonderful husband. He never left my sister to wonder about his love. He was all fun and jokes when we used to gather here during the holidays, and I used to tell him that he could have well been a stand up TV comedian.
     
      He was a great soldier during World War II, and he participated in the awful “Battle of the Bulge.” He told me once that he never expected to live through it. He and his company had to go forward, into the river, and they could see the German soldiers lined up with their guns pointed toward them, on the other side.
     
      He wondered why they didn’t shoot, and when they finally got across, they discovered that these men were dead. Someone had placed their frozen bodies, guns in position, to discourage these brave U.S. soldiers from crossing over. Louis was active until the day of his going Home. And my sister, Kathleen, will see him again. He will be waiting.
     





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