copyright 1995
first publication January 1995, Roadside Interactive

Maxwell: Bridge Cat

In the summer of 1992 it was beginning to dawn on me that Sebastian, my white panther shaped cat of 15 years, was slowing down.

It hadn't actually occured to me that this might happen before he was, say, 20. I had grown up with a cat who lived 26 years, traveled the world with us during my childhood, and then ushered in and supervised a whole next generation of family members. I expected no less of Sebastian.

I'm not sure what incident it was in 1992 that finally pierced my wall of denial, but I had to admit, after a while, that Sebastian was getting tired. Maybe it was the extra long nap he took after attacking the neighbor's dog who had mistakenly wandered into our yard. Maybe it was realizing that he really couldn't see us clearly when we walked into a room and that greeting him by name might not be a bad idea. Maybe it was when I realized that I needed to wake him up to let him know I was about to run the vacuum cleaner near him so he wouldn't be startled when I turned it on. Maybe it was all of this, and more.

Still, denial can be a strong ally when one doesn't want to face the truth. It was my husband who finally reached me with the words, "Do you suppose Sebastian might like to have a little playmate?" A playmate for Sebastian? How ludicrous. Sebastian thinks he's human and hates other animals, was my thought.

But I felt the love behind the sentiment. It was not so much for Sebastian that he proposed bringing in a new cat. It was for me. A bridge cat, as it were, to ease what would surely be a devasting loss as Sebastian continued to decline.

All right, I said. But Sebastian is to have final say.

And over the course of the next few months I brought home potential playmates.

All cat owners tend to anthropomorphize their felines, putting words in the cat's mouth, insisting they know what the cat is thinking, assigning human feelings to the cat. And owners of old cats have this honed to a fine science. When you own a cat for so many years, they come to know you, and you them with a degree of exactness that belies the fact that verbal communication is not a two way street.

So when I brought home the first trial kitten and Sebastian gave me a whithering look I knew what he was thinking: "If you leave this little creature here, I will have it for lunch." Said kitten was immediately dispatched back from whence it came.

Trial kittens Two and Three brought reactions that, while different, indicated to me that we hadn't quite found the right one.

Offers of kittens came from all over. One offer came from a neighbor down the street. MamaKitty had given birth to her first litter and the little furballs were of viewing age and nearly ready for adoption. On our nightly walks around the neighborhood, my husband and I would stop and watch them frolic in the front yard, five hearty gorgeous kittens and one whom it would be kind to only say was deformed.

This last little kitten appeared to be a freak. While it's head was of normal size, its body was tiny, misshapen, and its tail no bigger than my little finger. The first time I saw it I truly wondered if it would live. But there it was scampering across the yard with its littermates, small enough to dodge under the bellies of the others.

As the summer progressed our nightly walks continued, and one by one, the kittens up the street found homes. One night we would pass four playing in the yard under the watchful eye of MamaKitty. Then there would be three. And always there was the pitiful misshapen little one, somehow managing to keep up with the rest.

Eventually the five healthy ones were placed in homes, and the little one was left to entertain himself. He seemed to be waiting for us in his driveway at night as we made our rounds. He'd greet us and walk with us, carefully keeping to the gutter, for precisely 3 driveways; then he'd turn around and go home. On our way back he would follow us precisely 3 driveways, then stop and turn around.

By and by a few things occured to me. Not only had this little guy survived, but he was growing into a normal looking kitten. And not just a normal looking kitten, but a good looking kitten with a sparkle in his eyes and a prance in his step and a friendly attitude. There was a nearly audible click. "Let's take him home to Sebastian. He might be the one," I said.

I went home ahead of my husband to let Sebastian out in the yard. All of our meetings had been arranged this way, in the front yard with Sebastian clearly the master of all he surveyed. It never took Sebastian long to make a decision and the neighbor down the street knew that if it was a no-go, the kitten would be back within the hour. Never knowing just what Sebastian could understand of human language, I always gave him the benefit of the doubt. "We're bringing you another kitten to look at," I said. "It's up to you."

Again, it didn't take long. The inspection by Sebastian, which the kitten submitted to without a flinch, was over within two minutes. Satisfied that this kitten met whatever mysterious criteria he went by, Sebastian sat back and appeared to say, "He'll do." I wasn't quite sure that this was what I was seeing. Was it only resignation on Sebastian's part? Was it a real acceptance of the kitten? Only time would tell.

In short order, with a clean bill of health from the vet, the kitten became a member of the family and was named Maxwell. To say that he blended in as if he'd always been there isn't much of a stretch. There was the additional food bowl, the additional litter box, the additional weight on our feet as we slept at night. But the working arrangement of cat personalities is what will always stand out in my mind. It wasn't long before I knew that Sebastian had chosen well.

Maxwell was a superb companion. Though he was still at that manic kitten stage and would kill toys with a typical baby feline ferocity, his rolling and tussling with Sebastian was controlled. Often I would walk into the room to discover the two of them tumbling and rolling. There would be no sound as they did this, no cries of distress, just two cats in harmonious choreographed play. And when Sebastian had had enough, the play stopped. Did Maxwell instinctively understand that Sebastian didn't always feeling like playing? Or did Sebastian somehow communicate that to Max? I only know that it worked.

I think too that Sebastian actually enjoyed his stint as Papa. He would sprawl on the floor in front of the fireplace with an amused expression, watching Maxwell's antics. Now and then he would be enticed to play and, with an experienced paw, would snatch a toy out from under a trusting Maxwell, bat it down the hall, and return to his fireplace pose seemingly satisfied that he could still hunt with the best of 'em. Or he would allow a baby Maxwell to curl up next to him for a nap and would wash his ears while Max slept.

Sebastian had nine more months, made better I think, by the inclusion of Maxwell into the household. But the end came too soon, as it always does.

The final decline was swift. After two years of a special diet because of failing kidneys, supplemented with goodies from the table, Sebastian could no longer be enticed to eat cut up chicken, his all time favorite treat. He no longer enjoyed favorite pasttimes such as surveying his domain from the railing on the front porch. He prefered dark rooms rather than being where the action was.

The decision was not an easy one. It never is. I cried for two days at theprospect, while the vet tried procedure after procedure to revive the failing kidneys, reverse the dehydration. "All I'm doing is buying him a little time," said the vet. "What you're not doing," I found myself saying, "is buying him any quality of life." And it was true. I found myself asking Sebastian if he wanted to continue when I already knew the answer. So I did what pet owners do when they love their old animals an inordinate amount. I let him go.

But still there was Max.

Young as he was I imagined that he was going through his own form of grieving, with a limited capacity to understand why his buddy wasn't there. It was then that he developed the habit of seeking me out at odd times, coming to make sure I was still there, asking for a scratch on the head or maybe some lap time. And in giving extra attention to him to help him through his loss, he helped me through mine.

Now at three years of age, Max has turned out to be a fine, fine fellow.

Slightly phobic about things like ringing doorbells, he will take up his post on the 5th step until the coast is clear. He guards the house from the perches in windows at the front and back of the house, and has long since learned that the squirrels who visit the feeder in the back yard are not the enemy. He has a growing sense of humor and almost seems to smile when he knows he's done something comical. He insists on lap time when it's least convenient, and slowly turns to jello with body parts hanging at odd angles when allowed to sleep in secure comfort on Mom's lap. Computer time is his favorite, and when it suits him, he's been known to snake out a paw and press a key. Any key. He makes me laugh, this fat boy with the dainty feet.

Maxwell truly has my heart. He's the one who makes me stop and smell the figurative roses, because life's too short to do otherwise. And he's the one who, through his sweet nature, his happy personality and willingness to bond with me, has allowed me to continue the thread, the deep relationship that can form between a human and a cat.

Our general playfulness in this house has given rise to alternate names for Maxwell . He answers alternately to Maximum One, Snack, Fat Boy and BC.

And when people ask what the BC stands for I say without explanation, Bridge Cat.

Cat Pics | Main Page