In 2001, two planes had crashed into New York City, both of us lost our jobs, we had to sell one of our cars, move into a cheap duplex where the heat was intermittent, and the Christmas lights we hung in the hallway looked more like barbed wire than bright bubbles of hope. Into this dark winter strutted a grey tabby who wanted nothing more than to have his head and chin tussled and rubbed. OK, maybe he wanted a little tuna, too.
He was a stray, and our fraidy cat Oz seemed to get along well with him. It was supposed to be a very cold winter, so we started keeping him inside. He was a super cuddly fuzzball. Any cat this social must belong to some nearby kid, so we put a collar on him with a note saying, “Is this your cat? If so, call us because we’re going to keep him if we don’t hear from you.” Maybe some family left him behind, maybe he had just arrived on a barge from South America, or maybe I left the phone off the hook. History rhymes with mystery, and all that matters is he stayed with us.
Clem is a gentle giant. I remember how Oz could jump to the top of our 8-foot fence in one bound, while Clem could only make it 6 feet, and claw himself up like a rock climber the last bit. Strong cat, he was. He didn’t get fixed until he was 2 or 3, so all that testosterone led to a big ol’ head that he loved to slide onto your lap and under your hand. You’d be reading a book and realize you’d been scratching his ears for 30 pages.
He never shied away from kids, letting them pet him and tug his tail and carry him around like a sack of potatoes. Dress up? Why yes, he’d love to!
While Oz was the first one to run at the site of a dog, a kid, a shadow, a puff of wind, whatever, Clem defended his turf. How good he was at defending it is up for debate considering how good I got at irrigating infected wounds.
I think that pets mark phases in our lives. Oz marked the time when we left Los Angeles and came home to Oregon, when we were married and started being grown-ups with jobs and furniture and groceries for the whole week. Clem will forever be the tabby who joined us when the world turned upside down, and we found a way to push through. New job, grad school, second career, first house, first baby. He was there for all of it, sneaking into our laps on cold evenings for a few minutes of warmth.
But in the past year, Clem’s hair has started falling out in clumps. His back legs seem like they’re barely supporting him. He eats less — nothing at all today — and while his head and heart are as big as ever, his body has slipped away to baggy skin over his ribs and back. It’s time to let him go.
We’ll miss you, buddy. We love you.