It’s been six years since the death of my beloved orange tabby, Steven, even though it seems like yesterday. After he died, I wrote a story for Northside San Francisco that remains one of our most-read articles. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a shortened version in “Pet Tales” (Datebook, Oct. 26, 2011; available at www.sfgate.com.) Steven would have been 20 years old this Halloween, and in honor of his birthday and the Chronicle running his story, we have decided to run the story again as well.
July 2006 was one of the saddest and most difficult months of my life: I lost my beloved orange tabby, Steven, to a blood disorder, which came on suddenly and without mercy. He had been growing weaker daily – he wasn’t in pain, but I knew he was fading. His appetite went from ravenous to nonexistent one afternoon, and I knew it was time to make that awful decision most people with pets eventually must make.
My wonderful veterinarian, Sherman Wong, had been Steven’s doctor since he was eight weeks old, and he offered to come by my house to put him down. While that gave me some comfort, I still prayed Steven would go on his own. At 9:15 p.m. on Tuesday, July 18, those prayers were answered. Curled up in my lap, as he had been so many nights throughout the years, Steven took all the strength he had left in his little body and lifted his head to look deeply into my eyes. We both knew. I kissed his little face and said what I had always said to him: “Steven, the sun and the moon and the stars rise and set with you. They always have and they always will …” He drew two short, deep breaths, and his head fell slowly into my arms. He was gone. At first I was still; silent, unable to move. Then I let out a blood-curdling scream, pulled him up to my chest and cried into his fur, my mind a flood of memories.
Steven was more than a pet to me. When I moved to San Francisco after journalism school, my mother and my boyfriend had both died suddenly, just six months apart. I was at the lowest point of my life and in need of a big change. I moved my mother’s three finicky cats with me from Silicon Valley to a Haight-Ashbury Victorian. One foggy July evening, on the deck I saw a scraggly orange tabby, thin as a rail except for her beach-ball-sized stomach, staring longingly at the food my mother’s cats had rejected. Slowly I opened the door and nudged the bowls toward her. Although she was terrified, she came to me and promptly devoured all three bowls of food. For the next three months, I fed and talked to her, though she wouldn’t let me touch her. A roommate started calling her Kelly, after the character on Married with Children, because she was “a little blonde trollop.” The name stuck.
Over the next several months Kelly started to trust me, coming into the house and napping at the foot of my bed, one eye always open. On a blustery Halloween morning, she came for breakfast big as a house and came back for dinner skinny. In the garage next door I could hear the tiny squeaks of kittens.
On a rainy night six weeks later, she brought the kittens into our basement one by one. She then changed her mind and tried to take them back, but I shut the cat door because I knew without socialization the kittens would become feral. My roommates pitched in, and we bottled-raised her four tiny babies. The runt was an orange tabby with a perfectly symmetrical moustache on his face and rebellion in his eyes. The first time I held him in the palm of my hand to give him a bottle, he hissed at me, and I was in love. One of my roommates stared at him over my shoulder and said, “He looks like a ‘Steven,’” in reference to Doug Allen’s comic strip about an insolent 12-year-old boy. A cat named “Steven.” Seemed odd, but it suited him.
One by one we adopted out Steven’s brothers and sisters to good homes, and the little orange tabby with the moustache became my constant companion, sleeping on top of my computer monitor as I worked from home as a freelance writer. I didn’t have time to wallow in my grief and despair any longer – I had a little creature that needed me, and, as it turned out, I needed him.
Over the years he was there for me through so much. Steven was more dog than cat: fetching, coming when I whistled or called him, lounging in my lap at every opportunity, waiting at the door when I returned home. He was the smartest animal I’ve ever known – I could literally see the wheels turning in his head as he planned his next mischief. He was my constant little clown when I needed to laugh and a furry little shoulder always there when I needed to cry.
Recently I watched him lose some of that bounce in his step. He didn’t traverse the backyard jungles as often, he slept a little more, and he started losing some of his litheness and his muscle. He was by cat standards an old man. Still up to the very last week he was at my side as I wrote, waiting at the door when I arrived home, and begging for leftovers from the many restaurants I visit as part of my job. (Friends often joked that Steven ate better than they did, and it was true.)
Today as I write this in my home office, there is an unbearable silence where there used to be the jingle of his bells and the whirling, high-pitched purr that could be heard two rooms away. Steven was always a happy cat, and he taught me to be happy again when I didn’t think it was possible. While my heart is broken, I wouldn’t trade our time together for anything in the world.
I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end, the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance,
I could have missed the pain
But I’d of had to miss the dance.
– from “The Dance,” by Garth Brooks