These last months, forcing myself to contemplate the inevitable, I promised myself that I would not write about Garry’s death. Everyone writes about losing his beloved pet; it seemed so cliché. But now that he is gone, I understand, and I feel driven to make him live again -- even if only in words.
Garry was 20 years, 7 months old when he reached the end of his journey. It was a long and prosperous life for him, but not nearly long enough for us. We buried him in the backyard the next day. The unseasonably warm sunlight would make him happy we knew, but nightfall brought a sharp resurgence of pain at the thought of our aged and ailing life companion alone in the cold darkness instead of sleeping peacefully in his warm bed in front of the fireplace.
A shelter rescue, he invited himself into our lives June 20, 1992. It is a tribute to the importance of Garry’s arrival that my then 10- year- old son actually wrote about it in his journal: “Today was a very exciting day. We went to a pet store in Pottstown. After looking there … we went to the SPCA building in Perkiomenville and got two male gray cats which I named Gary & Larry,” he described. The naming ritual was easy: one of his favorite TV shows had featured a funny Muppet-like character in a segment called “Gary Gnu and the Gnews.” But a second “r” soon became a unique feature of Garry’s name because 10-year -old logic dictated that if the names rhymed, they had to be spelled the same.
A gray cat with a white chest, white socks on his paws, and slightly lopsided white markings on his chin, Garry sported a long tale, always raised in happy eagerness for the activity of the moment. Jaunty white whiskers and pink paw pads completed his alert and impish look. He was also tall, a characteristic that would enable him to climb and jump everywhere we did not want him to go until recent years when bad arthritis in his hindquarters obligated him to gingerly lower himself into his bed or onto ours.
"Once Garry determined that we could be trained, he set about teaching us."
Not only handsome, but smart as well, he quickly cultivated the skill of opening heavy sliding closet doors by taking a running leap, rolling onto his side, wedging his paws under the door, and yanking hard. His motivation for perfecting this skill was simple: the treasure trove of cat food and treats lived just out of his reach behind a sliding closet door! Pleased at his accomplishment, he practiced often, going from closet to closet in the house— usually at about 3 AM.
Garry was also a master at people communication, beginning with reaching out of the cage he shared with so many other kittens at the SPCA, grinning appealingly, and grabbing for my son’s hand. Clearly, he had places to go, things to do, people to see— and he wanted out; it was a pleading in his eyes that we were glad to honor.
Once Garry determined that we could be trained, he set about teaching us. Sometimes he would direct our attention to his requests by meowing or reaching out and touching us with his paw. If those gentle reminders failed, he would cleverly determine the object in the room that was most prized or most expensive, and fixing his eyes on ours, he would sit next to it and slowly begin pushing it along with his head or his paw, moving it along table or shelf, closer and closer to the edge and destruction. Only once did we decide to call his bluff and continue to ignore him: as a beautiful and expensive vase plunged off the edge of a table, we regretted that call. Although he looked a bit contrite, he clearly thought it was our own fault for being so stubborn.
But Garry more than compensated for his overly insistent nature by contributing many good things to our family. He was supremely organized and forced us to be likewise: breakfast was set firmly at 7 AM and dinner at 5 PM, with snacks to follow at 9 PM, as well as after unpleasant rituals like nail cutting. He had a heroic and good heart, saving us from flies and the occasional bunny or mouse, while also taking a bite on his side to save his less adept and confident brother from the attack of an aggressive trespassing cat. He was glad to keep me warm on a cold night, and when I rubbed his soft coat, I always felt as though he was offering himself up as a sponge to soak from my body, whatever troublesome emotions I might have been feeling.
Permitted outdoors in good weather, as a kitten he roamed the neighborhood and returned tired at dinnertime after hearing me call him-- much to the amusement of the neighbors who were certain that a cat would never answer to his name. Later, after a neighbor set a trap that caught our other cat in its steely clamp and almost cost him his paw, we decided it would be best if both Garry and his brother Larry remained indoors. But Garry never forgot the joy of chewing on a piece of wild garlic and inhaling the scents carried to his nose by the breeze, so he became an escape artist, seizing the moment when it arose, to launch a jail break. So many times we would be surprised to glance out the door and see a cat that looked a great deal like Garry, strolling around on the deck. A few minutes later we would catch on when Garry failed to appear in the house. As we brought him in, he gave us a look that hinted at his amusement at putting one over on us yet again!
Unable to bear the thought of him never feeling the breeze and sun on his coat once again, when his health worsened, we took advantage of an unseasonably mild and sunny October day to take him outside once again. As my husband slowly followed behind him, Garry enjoyed a lengthy stroll around the house and yard, stopping to sniff at everything in his path and chew on a grass blade or two. He slept for hours that afternoon, exhausted from his adventure, but seemingly content.
“His head is willing, but his body can’t anymore,” the doctor said.
Garry loved to be held and snuggled happily on any of our shoulders, but increasingly these last months, it was hard to elicit even a barely audible purr from him. In addition to his debilitating arthritis, his gastro-intestinal problems, his increasing kidney challenges, and his heart murmur, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and as the lump near his neck continued to grow, his failing body caused him increasing pain and struggle.
That last morning, despite vomiting and not having eaten, he determinedly made the climb from stool to chair to night table to bed, so that he could settle in next to me for our daily morning ritual of snoozing and cuddling. Brave and determined to the end, he tried not to give up, seemingly drawing energy enough from our love and devotion to him. But later that morning, it all got the better of him: “His head is willing, but his body can’t anymore,” the doctor said, and a little while later he relaxed in my arms for the final time, as my salt-water tears rained quietly, soaking his still shiny gray and white fur coat. I held him for a long time, even after he was gone.
Stories about beloved pets should have happy endings, I think, but for now, this one continues to elude me. Garry leaves behind his human parents and brother, and a 10 -year -old feline brother- in -name only. Though we are grateful for his long and prosperous run, two weeks later we are still stumbling around, uncertain how to live our lives without him. Rest in peace, Garry; we will always love you.