This is a very long story and certainly nobody is required to read it. But Toonces was a sweet and faithful friend and he has more than earned a proper memorial. I make no apologies. This is more for me than anyone else anyway so feel free to skip this and I'll see you after the Heroes Convention.
Next month, Toonces would have been officially 20 years old. That's a good long run for any cat. But I don't think any amount of time would have been enough for us. Everyone thinks of their pets as special but in Tooncie's case, it was true. Because he wasn't a pet. In a house with no children, he was our family. He was a tiny, sweet, gentle, loving little guy and I will miss him always. Suzanne says he finally used up his nine lives. And that sounds about right.
Everyone that met him instantly fell in love with him. And everyone had a different name for him. I called him "Tooncie", "Boose" and "Li'l Buddy". Suze called him "Puss", "Tig", "Tigger Bumps" and, because of his small size (he was all fur and only 8 pounds of it at his heaviest) her "tiny little sweetheart." Christian called him "Peepers" because of his big eyes and because it irritated Suzanne. My father-in-law is sort of a cross between Santa Claus and Ernest Hemmingway and while he loved Toonces, I think he thought his name was not quite manly enough. So he started calling him "Toon-Man." My brother Mike, who almost never called anyone by their real name, took to calling him "Woonces", "Woon-seshun", "Tarwoonces" and "the Mibian" for some unknowable reason. Suzanne latched onto that one and later started calling him her "Miracle Mib." There was a reason for that which I'll get to.
I first met Toonces when I moved to Norfolk, ostensibly to start a video production company with a college friend of mine. I'd made an off-hand comment to my aunt that I was thinking about getting a cat because I didn't want to be alone down there. I'd even gone ahead and paid the extra deposit on my apartment for pets, just in case. My aunt, being who she was, took my "what-if" as gospel and took it upon herself to find me a cat. Turns out the father of one of her friends, an old Lithuanian immigrant living in Sandston, had the horrifying habit of allowing his female cat to keep getting pregnant and then hunting for the kittens so he could drown them in a bucket. The mother cat got wise and found a hiding place for her kittens and the old man didn't find them until their eyes had opened. At that point, he couldn't bring himself to kill them. There were four kittens. Two girls and two boys. I didn't want a girl cat because I was afraid she'd get out and get pregnant before I could have her "fixed". So I picked one of the boys, a beautiful, grey-and-white longhair with blue eyes. The old man said, "no." He wanted that one. "Well, shit" I thought. That only left one choice. And he looked almost exactly like the cat we'd had as kids named Morris which I didn't really want. I had already decided on what I wanted to name my future cat and this little kitten, cute as he was, sure didn't look like a Toonces. This was not a match made in heaven, I felt. Still, it was this one or nothing. So I bundled up this tiny little cream-colored kitten and took him back to Norfolk with me, grumbling.
We had a rough start.
I'd never raised a kitten on my own and he was so tiny he was barely a hand full. Once I let him loose in my little duplex apartment, he kept crawling under things and getting stuck. I'd move the furniture and he'd run under something else. Finally, I took the advice of a friend and put him in the bathroom overnight to get acclimated. Bad idea. The screen in the bathroom window was ajar and he got out. The next morning I woke up and found him missing. I ran outside and looked all over, finally discovering him under the stairs of the apartment next door, shivering and terrified. I brought him back inside and admonished him. Over the next week or so, he peed on my favorite chair, pooped on the carpet, knocked water over on some of my drawings, shredded toilet paper all over the apartment and knocked the trash over, getting chicken bones all over the place. I was having dinner one night while talking to Suze on the phone. Tater tots and ketchup. Toonces jumped onto the table and dragged his tail through the ketchup and started slinging it all over the room while I held the phone in one hand and tried to grab him with the other. Worst of all, there was a body of water nearby and the area was infested with mosquitos and fleas. They found Toonces. He had them so bad he was miserable.
Suzanne finally came down for a visit to meet him. I'd made him a bed in a box with the side cut out. On the top, I'd put a "sign" that read "Toonces, the cat who could take a nap." When she walked in while I was a work, he was asleep ON TOP of the box. She fell in love immediately but he wanted nothing to do with her. It took several visits for him to warm up to her and even then it was only after she spent hours combing fleas off his face and dunking them in the "flea vat", as I called it. An old margarine tub filled with alcohol. After that, he loved her like crazy. I'd finally had enough of the fleas and tried rubbing him down with flea-killing foam. He immediately tried to lick it off which I was afraid would make him sick. So I tried to wash him down in the sink. He freaked out and clawed his way up my face, over the top of my head and down the back of my neck. I had to peel him off and toss him into the chair he'd once peed in.
This wasn't working out.
I had about given up on our relationship when, one morning, I woke up and was heading to the kitchen to make coffee. There was a huge spider sitting on the floor just inside the bedroom door, blocking my exit. Suzanne will tell you I am terrified of spiders to the point of genuine arachnophobia. This thing was the size of a silver dollar, black as midnight and all angles. It was staring at me. I froze. I didn't know what to do. I was afraid if I moved, it would be on me in an instant. Suddenly, in a blur of beige fur, Toonces came out of nowhere and slapped the spider hard with his paw two, three, four times! Then he leapt back, never taking his eyes off the spider, which was stunned and twitching. I grabbed a ream of typing paper I kept around for drawing and dropped it on the spider. Toonces and I locked eyes. He'd saved me! I started laughing and picked him up and hugged him. And that was the moment it happened. We were best friends for life.
The job didn't work out and I ended up moving back home to Lynchburg with my tail between my legs. Dad wasn't thrilled to have a cat in the house and set strict rules for where he was allowed to go. But mom was secretly delighted. He took to mom and I was dismayed to see that he was in danger of becoming "her" cat. I'd found a job as an Art Director for a first aid kit manufacturer. Which is a huge laugh but I won't go into that. After about nine months of that, I got a job back in Richmond working as Production Manager for a graphics service bureau. I rented a room from my aunt but had to leave Toonces behind. I visited him at my parents' place as often as I could. Suzanne and I eventually got engaged and, when we finally got married, it was time to bring Toonces to Richmond. Mom was devastated. She had become so attached to the little guy that it was like losing an arm when I drove off with him. I feel terrible about that to this day. But Tooncie and I were best buddies. He had taken to spending every minute possible in my lap. He was a cold natured kitty and I tend to give off a lot of heat. I'd been wrong. We actually were a match made in heaven.
Tooncie settled right into his new life with me and Suzanne in Richmond. We were renting a nice little brick rancher in the western part of the county that Suzanne had shared with some roommates until we got married. Their lease was running out and they had both made other arrangements. Despite seeming to like his new home, he picked up an old habit of sneaking out.
One Christmas, he got out the night before we were going to drive down to spend the holiday with Suzanne's family. He was gone for hours. Searching the area turned up nothing. We decided I would stay behind and go to work on Christmas and print up flyers and search the neighborhood. We were hugging and crying on the couch when we heard an almost imperceptible meow. We looked up and saw Toonces looking in at us through the storm door. He had an expression on his face that was like he was saying, "Damn, y'all. It's cold out here. You going to let me in or what?" Our relief was indescribable.
The next time he got out, he ran up a tree in the front yard. We didn't have a ladder so I had to back my truck up to the tree and use that as a boost to climb up after him. I took a pillow case and put him in it. We could see the outline of his head moving back and forth and the effect was so comical we laughed ourselves silly.
Eventually, we bought our own house just down the street. A new, slapped together thing of only about 1,000 square feet. But it was enough for the three of us. Tooncie found lots of high places where he could watch things happen (and we had no idea how he could possibly have gotten up there) and there was a big bay window overlooking the back yard so he could watch squirrels and birds.
Despite his small size and his fastidious, quiet nature (he rarely meowed, only chirped) he was fearless. He got out of the new house one day and as we were chasing him down the front steps, a bluejay dive-bombed him. He barely flinched and went on the offensive, missing the bird with one lightning-quick swipe by a hair. The bird left him alone after that.
One of my favorite memories of all time occurred in that house. My mother, for some reason, hates to impose on anyone in any way. For the longest time, whenever she'd visit, she'd bring her own everything. Water. Towels. Snacks. Even toilet paper. I don't want to embarrass her but we were really scratching our heads on that one. Money was tight but we weren't destitute. One day after a visit, I found a roll in a plastic baggie in the guest room. Shaking my head, I took it into the living room to show Suzanne. Toonces came running up to me in a playful mood. In the picture above you can see the hallway behind him. Since it was the most open area of the house, we would throw things — usually a ball of tin foil or paper or a cardboard tube — down there and watch him chase them. Something made me get down in a center's stance, holding the roll of toilet paper like a football. Tooncie came up beside me, curious. I yelled, "Hike!" and stood up, going back for the pass. And damned if Tooncie didn't run down the hallway. When he got halfway down, I threw the roll to the end of the hallway. Tooncie got there just in time, leapt into the air, spinning around midair to face me...and batted the "ball" out of the air with both paws. I howled with laughter. Suzanne and I took to doing that with him as often as possible. He would do it once...and only once...every time. Then he would run off and do something else as if he was saying, "I don't like to repeat myself." When we told Suzanne's parents, they didn't believe it. So we said, "Go ahead." And he did it for my father-in-law which delighted him no end. I was so sad when, one day, he decided his football career was over and that was that.
After five years or so, the little house got to be a burden. Whenever we'd have Thanksgiving dinner, either Mike or my parents would have to stay in a hotel because we only had one guest room. And our combination kitchen/dining room/laundry room/catfood-and-water area was driving us crazy. Plus, we realized, there just wasn't any room for Toonces, now past ten years old, to get the exercise he needed to keep him healthy. He was always a light eater but he was getting lethargic. We were both making better money at that point and moved into the larger house we're in now.
Shortly after we moved in, Washington D.C. and Richmond were plagued by two assholes with a rifle that the media dubbed the Beltway Sniper. The whole thing seems kind of dreamlike now but at the time, we were genuinely terrified every time we went shopping or filled our cars up with gas, never knowing if we'd hear the shot that got us. One weekend, we were out shopping for things to spruce up our new fixer-upper and had gone to Target and Lowe's and Home Depot, all in the northern part of Henrico, about five minutes from Ashland. That was the day a man was shot and nearly killed by the sniper at the Ponderosa restaurant in Ashland. When we heard the news, my blood chilled and Suzanne was inconsolable. We both felt like we'd almost stepped into an empty elevator shaft. I was trying to comfort Suzanne. I turned off the T.V. and suggested we play the board game SORRY! to take her mind off it. She agreed. Toonces, always able to read our moods, decided his mommy needed him. While we spread the game out on the couch seat between us, Tooncie jumped up and positioned himself at the board between it and the back of the couch, looking at it...and us...with curiosity. Suze and I looked at each other, laughed shakily...and dealt him in. And he played! He got the yellow pieces and, I shit you not, he pawed his pieces every time they came around to him. I won't pretend he moved them the right amount. But it was like he was playing the game. We laughed and laughed. And you know what...? HE WON.
Tooncie really took to his new home, which was a relief. He seemed more energetic, running up and down stairs and finding all new hiding places and perches. The previous owner had installed wide window sills on the inside for potted plants and they were perfect for Toonces. He was able to sit in various windows throughout the house and look out. In the springtime, we'd leave the windows open and he would squint into the breeze coming through, sniffing the air. He was so happy.
After a few years, though, he started to slow down. He was losing weight. He was fourteen and I started to get worried. Dr. Ryder, our vet, who comes to our home, diagnosed him with hyperthyroidism. She said that if we didn't do something, he would continue to lose weight until he died. We had two options. Medication or radiation. The medication was fairly cheap but if he was allergic, we'd have to stop. We started him on it and he immediately threw up and started scratching. That meant radiation. The radiation was $1,200 and it meant we had to leave him at the vet for several days because of the danger of exposure. The money was the easy part. We cried like babies when we had to leave him there in that strange place. But we brought him home and followed all the rules they'd set forth. We properly disposed of his waste. We used gloves. We petted him but didn't allow him to sit in our laps. Well...except...the day we brought him home, I was exhausted. We spent some time with him, trying to keep contact to a minimum. But then I went up for a nap. An hour later, I woke up there was Tooncie, asleep on my crotch!!!! At that point, we weren't yet trying for children but it sure gave me a scare. The good news was that the radiation worked like a charm. He was good as new, much more energetic and it was then that Suzanne started calling him our Miracle Mib.
After that, though Tooncie continued to show a little age if you looked for it, people were still shocked to hear he how old he was. It was like there was a portrait of him in the attic getting older. We couldn't be happier.
Then, in 2007, Mike died. We were faced with the difficult decision of what to do with Mike's cat Charlie. My father was adamant that we shouldn't bring him home. But Charlie was family and was so important to Mike. So we decided we had to try. My father warned that we were going to "ruin the last years of Toonces' life." How wrong he was. After a few weeks of getting the measure of each other, the two became cautious friends. Toonces actually seemed to enjoy having another cat around, despite having to compete for lap time, food and prime window space. We wished we'd gotten him a friend sooner. Toonces and Charlie chased each other around every night, delighting us with their antics and easing the pain we were in just enough. Tooncie started going deaf, eventually only able to respond to sharp whistles. But, otherwise, he was none the worse for wear.
Then Toonces started peeing everywhere, pretty much making Suzanne's office uninhabitable. At first we thought it was a reaction to Charlie but then Dr. Ryder told us he was in renal failure. We were devastated. She said it was serious and told us when it got bad enough, we'd have to give him fluid injections and all sorts of medication. We started crying again. How could this be? He still looked terrific. We put extra litter boxes on each floor of the house and they random peeing stopped. But nothing else happened. He didn't seem to get worse. He was drinking and urinating more than usual but after a couple of years without incident, we started to think we'd witnessed another miracle. He was the Energizer Bunny. My god, nothing could keep this little guy down!
One night, Suzanne and I were watching TV and I realized that Tooncie was facing away from us on his favorite perch, the two-seater in our den. That was weird. I tapped him on the "shoulder" and he jerked. But didn't look at me. I turned him around and waved my hand in front of his face. He didn't follow it. Horrified, I realized my little buddy had gone blind. The next morning, we found him upstairs in my office. He was able to get around, bumping into door jambs and feeling his way down stairs (a heart-wrenching sight) but he refused to give up. Still, he'd decided to make my office his base of operations, so we set him up with a litter box and food and water and called Dr. Ryder. Of course, by the time she got there, he stubbornly wanted to go everywhere in the house so we had to follow him to keep him from hurting himself. Dr. Ryder arrived and checked his blood pressure and eyes. She said his pressure was higher than any cat's she'd ever seen and it had detached his retinas. He was irreversibly blind and we HAD to get his pressure down. She prescribed medication that had to be given every day. The pharmacy was kind enough to realize we'd have trouble forcing pills on a blind cat and created a solution for us we could give him with an oral syringe. And so we did.
Things continued like that for a week or so, us struggling to medicate a blind and stubborn cat and watching him bounce off walls and get lost if we picked him up. It was breaking our hearts. Then he started getting better at moving around. I noticed whenever he changed rooms, he'd look up at the ceiling and realized he was probably able to still see a little light if it was bright enough and was using the ceiling lights to navigate and get his bearings. He was so smart. We started leaving the lights on all over the house, night and day.
Then, one day, when Suze and I were in the kitchen and I was walking from one end of the room to the other and I stopped in my tracks. Toonces had followed my path across the kitchen with his eyes. I looked over at Suze. She'd noticed it too. I ran over and moved my hand back and forth in front of his face. He watched it. Back...and forth. HE COULD SEE! We snatched him up and hugged him and laughed with relief. Dr. Ryder came over and examined him. His blood pressure was under control and — she couldn't believe this herself — his vision had almost entirely returned. She'd never seen anything like it. Another miracle. Suzanne said, "He just used up another of his nine lives. How many does he have left?"
Unfortunately, we would find out. Dr. Ryder had detected a heart murmur and recommended we take him to a feline cardiologist. We did and the prognosis was not good. After all manner of tests, the doctor told us that the walls of one of his ventricles was getting thicker from the high blood pressure...it had to pump harder to get the blood circulated...and that eventually a clot would form in there. He told us he was doing fine now but he wanted to see him again in about six months. He upped the dosage on his medication.
Over the last year, Tooncie's deafness and arthritis had gotten him into the habit of getting me up at 4:30 or 5:30 every morning. It wasn't to be fed. He just wanted us up with him. As soon as I got up, he'd start in on Suzanne who, fortunately, is a much heavier sleeper than me. It got so bad I would have to lock myself in my office a couple of times a week with the fan on to catch up on sleep. He was relentless. I was irritable and exhausted all the time. I could feel years dropping off the end of my life. But there was nothing to do about it. I tried locking him in the downstairs bathroom for a few hours once but he peed on the floor and I felt so guilty I vowed never to do it again. We tried throwing rolled up socks and squirting him with a water pistol. After he went blind I promised him I'd never do that again. I was so grateful when he got his sight back that I stuck to it. And "shushing" him didn't do any good. He was deaf. I had to do it so loudly, it scared him and woke Suze up anyway.
Nights were better. He would curl up on the two seater behind my legs and in the winter, we set up a heating pad which relieved his arthritis. Sometimes we'd have a fire in the fireplace and he'd curl up in the chair or on the floor next to it, one of his favorite spots. He looked older but still in great shape for an old, old kitty. Sometimes, he would even get in bed with us and Charlie and we'd be one big happy family. Six months passed. Almost time for his check up.
I woke up Tuesday morning and realized Tooncie had let me sleep until 7:30 which was unheard of. I looked for him and found him in my office, under a chair next to the comic boxes. It was one of his spots. He noticed me and yowled. This wasn't his usual "get up and feed me" meow. And certainly not the gentle chirp we'd come to love. Tooncie was in trouble. I noticed his front paw was at a weird angle and he couldn't put any weight on it. He was week and scared. I woke Suze up and we frantically called Dr. Ryder repeatedly, hounding her answering machine until she answered. She came right over as soon as she heard and confirmed our fears. Our sweet baby had had a stroke. I'm not going to go into detail but we did spend the entire day with him, loving him and taking him outside for some air and sunshine. We never left his side for 12 hours. He wouldn't eat or drink and couldn't seem to sleep more than a minute or so at a time. Then Dr. Ryder came back and thogh I thought I was ready, I wasn't. Our sorrow was indescribable.
The next morning, I couldn't sleep. I woke up at 4:30 and went downstairs. After I cried for a while, I had to laugh. He was gone but he was still getting me up early!
If you don't have pets or don't like animals, I don't expect you to understand. Tooncie spent 20 years making us happy when we were sad and seeing us through some of the hardest times we'll ever know. He was our child, our light and the reason we couldn't wait to come home at night. He was a funny and sweet and gentle soul. His quiet purr and sweet little chirps are what I imagine an angel's harp would sound like. He loved going on vacations to the beach with us, sitting on the back porch watching the seagulls and feeling the sea breeze blowing through his fur. He loved to climb onto my hip when I was on the couch. He loved tuna out of the can and rotisserie chicken and would beg for it without shame. He would roll over on his back, look you in the eye and reach out with one paw and break your heart. He would let Suzanne pick him up and hold him face-up (but tear me to ribbons if I tried it.) Then, he would turn his head around and look at me while she did it with this forlorn expression on his face as if to say, "Are you really allowing this to happen?" He had these cute little tufts of fur on his paws so that, when he ran around a corner on the hardwood, he'd just run in place for a while like a cartoon character and make us laugh until we cried. He played a game with Suzanne that we called "Bite the Mommy" that was the cutest thing I've ever seen. He had a way of entering a room that made you hear "Ta-daaah!" in your head every time he did it. He had a gorgeous ruff around his neck like a lion and poofy hair on his back legs that looked like he was wearing pants.
And a million other little things I hope I never forget.
July 1st would have been his 20th birthday and I really wish he'd made it.
So long, my li'l buddy. Everyone's cat is special. But not every cat is Toonces. He was our little Miracle Mib. He just ran out of miracles.