Saturday, November 5, 2011

Farewell Mi-Mi

It speaks volumes about my character that I love and care about my animals significantly more than I do about most humans. If you are someone who knows me only at arm's length - or perhaps at even a greater distance - then you might think I am kidding or being a touch self-effacing. I am not.

Margaret and the kids moved into what we refer to lovingly as "the flood house" almost a year before she and I married. Once their belongings were all unpacked and set up, their first order of business was getting a kitten. Margaret had promised the kids (who I think were all of seven and six respectively) that they could have a kitten. Prior to moving into the little ranch house on Third Street, the three of them had been living with Joe and Suzy B. and the former's cat allergy put the kibosh on any feline family members living under his roof.

I accompanied them on the drive to Janine Breslin's house. Janine and Margaret are cousins (although I would be lying if I told you I knew the degree of kindred) and at the time she too lived in Middlesex. As luck would have it, at the time Margaret and the kids were looking for a kitten, Janine had a litter of them in need of homes other than her own.

I do not recall how many were in the litter. I do recall however that upon walking into Janine's home, most of the kittens were bundled together grappling with one another - as kittens have a tendency to do. There was one standing apart from his former womb mates, silently surveying them all with a look that was equal parts superiority and scorn. Rob's eye was drawn to him immediately. No one voiced a peep's worth of opposition to his choice. Voila! In less than one minute, Milo was out of Janine's living room and in the car heading to his new digs.

As a kid, we always had pets. I am a dog lover. Cats were to me the rather annoying little pets for which my sister Evan always seemed to have a soft spot in her heart and for which my brother Kelly's dog Bo always seemed to have an empty spot in his belly. As a species, I had little use for cats. Milo changed all of that.

The tales of Milo's exploits are in our house the stuff of legend. And on a day when I am finding reasons to smile to be an all-too-hard to come by commodity, sitting here just watching the 8mm film of them roll past my mind's eye is, in and of itself, a comfort. In a life full of big moments, however, it is not hard for me to think of the one I consider to be his signature one.

In September 1999 Hurricane Floyd laid siege to a good deal of the central part of New Jersey. Among the affected areas was the street upon which we lived. Ours was one of the two dozen or so little ranch homes on Third Street. Our home had no basement - just a small crawlspace. I mention that so when I tell you that Floyd deposited close to four feet of water inside the entirety of our home, you can appreciate that all of that water occupied living space. The damage was catastrophic.

Floyd rolled into Middlesex on a Thursday. Everyone in our neighborhood was ordered to evacuate. When they were preparing to bug out, Margaret and the kids could not find Milo. He was the ultimate outdoor cat, in the prime of his life coming inside only to eat and to toss the occasional morsel of affection towards his favorite humans. Upon my arrival home from work, when the water had already risen to the level that I had to park my car up on the corner of Route 28 and Third Street and walk down the length of the street to our house, I did just that so I could try to locate him. I failed. When I went over to Joe and Suzy B.'s to tell Margaret and the kids that much like Mighty Casey I had whiffed in a big spot, the disappointment in their eyes was palpable.

The following evening the four of us were back inside of our home - not to stay there but to survey firsthand the damage wrought by Floyd and his now-receded flood waters. Proving that I am indeed my father's son and the linear successor to the title of "Idiot Projects Project Manager" Rob and I were each using wet-dry vacs to suck the water out of the carpet in our living room. A great idea in theory. However, given that the water that had evacuated from the living space remained very firmly ensconced in the crawlspace below, a simply idiotic and inane waste of Rob's time and my own.

Our collective mood was heavy and not simply because of the petri dish that stood in the space formerly occupied by our home. At the height of Floyd's fury, several blocks all around our street had been under water of a depth of six-plus feet. Having failed to bring Milo to safety with us when we pulled out, we had little expectation of finding him. Finding him alive I should say.

Wet-dry vacs are loud machines. Two of them being operated simultaneously within five feet of each other creates a noise so loud, so obnoxious and so goddamn grating that you want to take two bananas and shoot yourself just to escape it. You cannot hear the sound of your own voice. It stands to reason that you should not be able to hear the sound of a cat's meow.

And yet Rob did. Somehow, in spite of that ear-piercing racket he heard the sound of a cat's meow. He heard Milo. He immediately turned off his machine and directed me to do likewise. When I did and asked him why we were stopping, he told me that he had heard Milo crying. Children possess a faith that life tries hard to beat out of us by the time we are adults. I remember the moment as if it happened this morning. Rob did not say that he THOUGHT he heard Milo or that he BELIEVED he heard Milo or that he MIGHT have heard Milo. He said, "I heard Milo crying."

Candidly, I thought he was mistaken. Just as I was about to launch into some long, boring speech about it being OK to miss Milo and to want to hear him when he was not there, an amazing thing happened. I heard Milo cry. We opened the front door, I grabbed a flashlight and we waited. Several seconds passed. Milo cried one more time as if he knew I needed him to make one more noise so we could get a fix on his position. Upon hearing him, I pointed the now-turned on flashlight directly across the street. And directly into the bright, sparkling eyes of our cat. He was sitting on the neighbor's front walk staring right at us.

Milo lived in fear of but one thing. And that thing was water. Drinking it was cool. Being anywhere near it if and when it occupied a space bigger than his water dish was most certainly not. As my eyes locked onto his and vice versa I realized that one of us had to cross the street to reach the other. And I knew he was not moving from the neighbor's walk.

The water in Third Street was cold and waist-high. As I walked through it to get Milo he sat waiting patiently for me. When I reached him it occurred to me that I was going to have to carry him across the street, which meant carrying an animal with sharp teeth and claws a considerable distance over water. I picked him up. He held on "tight" (I think the scratches in my chest finally went away a month or so later) as we made our passage home. To this day, I know not who was happier when we reached our side of Third Street - my son or my cat. Let's call it a tie. Everybody wins.

Yesterday, more than nineteen years after Milo took that first car ride with us he took one last ride with Margaret and me. He had been struggling for a little while - eating much less and becoming far more of a homebody than he had ever been - but yesterday his struggles reached the point where he deserved relief from them. He deserved to not hurt. He earned it a long time ago. Hell, he earned it every day for the past nineteen-plus years.

We took him to same doctor's office who had so lovingly and tenderly put our dog Shelly to sleep a little more than four years ago. And I did yesterday what I did on that August morning - I cried.

"Mi-Mi" (as Margaret has called him for years) will be cremated. While the Missus and I continue to reside where we are now he will rest in our den - above the fireplace - on a shelf right next to his old canine running buddy.

This song is over,
I'm left with only tears.
I must remember
Even if it takes a million years....

Sleep well old man. You most certainly earned it.


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