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The Life and Death of a Writer’s Cat

Rescued from kitty jail, he enjoyed 14 years of freedom and grudgingly shared his home with dogs.

Leto in his youth 2005

On August 23, 2017, Leto died of old age. I removed his stiffening body from behind the washing machine. That was one of his safe places in the house, and he had gone there to die because I refused to let him out for the night. I knew that he wanted to slink away and die alone on the land because he was Super Wild Boy.

He earned that name during the first half of his life when he lived free in the vicinity of my home in Chico, California. He would come into the house regularly, almost daily. He had a feeder always full of chow, and he would stuff himself once or twice a day and depart to his secretive outdoor adventures. Leto lounged about the house as desired, but the wild always called him back.

My husband and I adopted him in July 2003 from the Humane Society shelter in Chico. He was a black kitten alone in a cage. The black kittens and cats go last, and he was the only kitten available.

We were keen to get a kitten because I reasoned that only one raised in the presence of a German Shepherd dog could tolerate the situation. A mature cat would surely abandon our home and take its chances on the streets.

Leto earned his name from the novel Dune by Frank Herbert. He represented Duke Leto Atreides. He was replacing our late cat named for the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.

Leto was brought home and given immediately to his sister, an 80-pound German Shepherd female, who promptly licked him from nose to asshole. Leto hissed and swiped.

I soon discovered that he would not eat kitten chow. A call to the vet informed me that he probably was not ready for solid food. I obtained kitten formula and bottle fed him for a few days and introduced meat baby food. Eventually, the dog nudged him toward her bowl of chow, and he learned to eat. Dog food was his first solid food, but he switched readily to his feeder that was placed on a side board in the dining room. This was kept full for many years, and he was allowed to free feed.

He blossomed into 16 pounds of sleek, black magnificence. He was an intensely private animal. He took great care in his associations. He loved his family, but shunned almost all other people. In fact, for many years our friends resisted the notion that we even had a cat, wondering openly why we had a feeder of cat chow on the counter.

We assured friends that the cat would not appear while they were present. Leto trusted no one and took great care not to avoid vulnerable positions. He took no chances for fear of returning to kitty jail.

During extended naps in my presence, he always settled in out of reach. He did not want to fall asleep knowing that I could touch him. That would be a good way to wake up in a cage!

Of course, I could pet him whenever I wanted, but he was never a lap kitty, except that one amazing occasion many years later during the cold dark of a polar vortex night when he settled in on my torso to share warmth.

After six years patrolling my neighborhood in comfortable Chico, he had moved with the family to Michigan, and now had cold weather to deal with.

Older now, he settled into semi retirement. He would come and go as he pleased during the day, but spent his nights inside. I gave him a cat box so that he need not inconvenience me about going outside in the wee hours.

The Coming of the Second Dog

Leto outlived our first dog. The few months between this heartbreaking loss and the acquisition of a new puppy were easily the happiest in his life.

He would sit in the middle of the living room, purring with blissful contentment all by himself. His joy was palpable, but as much as I loved him, I could not bear the absence of a dog.

Donna arrived at the age of eight weeks. She was all black like Leto. The matching pets pleased my husband immensely.

Silly puppy did not even know that we had a cat for a week although she suspected the presence of an “Other.” Leto would stalk his new sister and carefully avoid detection. He was supremely good at being invisible but eventually he revealed himself near her bowl.

Donna, although still a little pup, confronted him fiercely. Leto defied her with the greatest contempt and swiped at her with pitiless claws. (Claws that in the ensuing years would be broken off on her head on many occasions.) She was most disheartened at her failure to intimidate him, but Leto knew how to stand up to dogs, especially German Shepherds. He knew the rule to never run and trigger the chase instinct. His obstinate defiance stymied her, and she subsequently had to endure him eating from her bowl. She watched indignantly as he gobbled puppy chow, knowing on an instinctive level that this went against the rules of the universe.

Leto indulged in food theft until I intervened. Nothing plumps up an old cat like puppy food, and his behavior had to be discouraged until we reached the compromise that he would crunch down a few kibbles just to maintain his rank.

Poor Donna had to endure repeated commands to “Love her kitty.” Although love remained unattainable, they achieved several years of tolerance, even sharing couches and beds.

His Final Years

His long years of retirement as a partial house cat found him at my side during the writing of many novels, blog posts and freelance assignments. I could pet his luxurious fur while thinking of my next words. He appreciated my ability to be quiet and not make sudden movements.

He remained elusive to visitors. When company arrived, he would retreat to the basement, outside, or maybe what we called his panic room. This was a cupboard near the bathtub that actually granted him access between the tub and the wall where no one would ever get him. Leto could literally disappear into the woodwork. The Man was never taking him back to jail.

As the passing of years must do, Leto’s health eventually waned. He had a good life. He went out most days to patrol his garden until the very end. He is buried next to the driveway. I speak to him at his grave regularly.

With the anniversary of his death upon me, I am resolved to remove his picture from my computer desktop. Anything more than a year of open mourning would not be healthy.

I’m not sure when I’ll have a cat again. My grief still leaves me wanting him. The dog is aggressively anti-cat. Even though a black cat with black kittens has been in the neighborhood all summer, Donna forces them to keep a fearful distance from the edges of my yard to prevent the taking in of a homeless kitty.

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