Opinion Column

Bagheera, the cat who looked into our souls

By Patricia Anne Elford

Bagheera the cat.

Bagheera the cat.

Two cat dishes out, ready to be filled with morning mix of dry and wet food. Over 15 years of habit. One dish—back into the cupboard. One dish, filled, joins the water container on the floor. Down the hall to open the cat-room door. One slim black cat, Lickorish, emerges, meowing in his tenor voice, interrupted occasionally by his imitations of his brother’s alto.

I trudge up the stairs. No streak of black lightening passes by, ready to meet me at the upstairs bathroom, to urge me to turn on the tap, just a little, for fresh drinking, to dip the cat brush under that stream and brush his glossy thick fur as he drinks, purring. No Bagheera

He taught me to brush him. He’d lead me to the bathroom to get the water turned on for drinking. Then, after two sips, he’d paw repeatedly at the sink. Finally, I got it! Getting water turned on was a ploy to make me dampen the brush and groom him. How he purred when the light dawned and I followed through! Humans! So slow!

I open the mudroom door. It can be left ajar—no need to call out, “Back! Back!” lion-tamer style. No black blur streaks down to the forbidden basement, returning from his most recent no-no exploration veiled in cobwebs. Memories drown my mind; tears, my eyes.

* * *

Muscular, green/gold-eyed Bagheera, named by our son, Daniel, after the panther in The Jungle Book, lived up to his name. A gentle, lithe panther, with extra-long tail, he periodically raced around the house, leaping high to bat the wall. A special meow trumpeted his feat. He’d calmly saunter away.

He reminded us of his presence. If my husband Robert and I were sharing coffee and the living-room sofa, ignoring him, he’d slam a cat toy hanging in one doorway, rattling its wire. Conditioned, I’d immediately respond, “Good kitty!” Satisfied, off he’d pad. Full of fun, encouraged by “Tail!” he’d twitch and catch his tail. He’d bring a soft, small ball—his invitation to play—to drop near one of us. When it was thrown, he’d return it to the thrower’s feet, then, at each return, drop it farther and farther away. Good fetch, Human!

A great goalie, he repeatedly snagged/batted a ball thrown high in the air or over to one side, even when his back legs had grown a little arthritic. Periodically, he’d toss a ball in the air to amuse himself. Or, he’d lead me out and drop the ball at the bottom of the stairs. He delighted in chasing a thrown ball up the stairs, nabbing it and returning it to the bottom step.

Each cat dangled his lengthy tail from a chair to brush his brother’s face. When the mood struck, the brother would swat the offending tail, starting the intended brief skirmish. Occasionally, they’d meet in the hall, lick one another’s faces, and continue on. Bros!

When friends gave us a battery-powered toy mouse that raced erratically under a cloth circle, Bagheera chased the moving lump, much as he did when we made our beds. Tiring of that, “Baggers” just sat until the mouse-lump reached him and smacked it, holding it down so it could only buzz in place. Game over, Mouse!

Bagheera frequently demonstrated muscular prowess. If a door wasn’t securely latched, he’d stand up on his powerful back legs and crash it open. I’m HERE!

Sociable Bagheera looked forward to visiting the vet. Though all potential escape hatches were closed and the carrier brought out at the last minute to fool his reluctant brother, Bagheera would welcome it. If the carrier door was open, he’d enter, ready to go. When we’d arrived, unlike Lickorish, who requires two adults to be decanted, Bagheera would cheerfully exit.

Once, when both cats were visiting the vet at the same time, Bagheera was looked after first. While his brother was being checked, Bagheera moved to the carrier, hooked its door open with one paw, then, pulled it shut behind him to await our departure.

After his thyroid condition diagnosis, I’d ooze yellow gel from an applicator onto the least hairy part of his pinnea’s inner curve, one ear each morning, the other each night. I’d kneel on the floor to hold him snugly between my legs, facing away from me, to apply the salve. He would hunker down until I‘d finished.

If I’d delayed medication time, Bagheera would nag me. He’d lead me to the kitchen and purring, face away, hunkering down, as he waited for me to smarten up and get the applicator. Dosing completed, he’d be up and away, inspecting two lower cupboards or sitting at the window to chatter and tap at, or exchange in-your-face stares with, snacking jays and squirrels.

As my husband’s illness confined him to more living-room sofa sitting, Bagheera’s occasional drop-by visits turned to lengthy stays. If I were there, he’d often leap onto the sofa on my side, then tromp (across) my legs, to reach Robert. He’d paw sturdily at Robert’s arm, willing him to move it, then, settle down with his front half on Robert’s lap. Frequently, he’d rest his tail, which he used as a fifth paw, on my leg, so I was included. Loud purring. Bagheera was Robert’s faithful companion. With eye contact, they often chatted, each in his own way, taking turns.

A real communicator, Bagheera understood many English words and his “spoken” vocabulary increased with age. Sometimes it would approximate an English word’s intonations. Other times, his own variations had definite meanings. If we paid attention, we’d learn it. He was elated when we understood his communications, but we were slow.

Daniel and Bagheera’s special relationship continued despite Daniel’s having married and moved away. When they visited, Daniel would turn “Baggers” upside down and buzz with his lips on that furry stomach. Bagheera would go limp, remaining upside down, paws outstretched for quite a while. To hug Daniel, Bagheera would put his paws around Daniel’s neck, holding onto the back of his T-shirt.

One time, Daniel left the sitting-room to get a snack. His “buddy” followed. When Daniel passed the bathroom door, “Baggers” stopped. Daniel knew what he wanted but continued to the kitchen. Bagheera stayed by the door. When Daniel returned, he passed the waiting cat. Swiftly reprimanded by Bagheera’s loud “Ma'OW-raow!” Daniel turned on the water!

After our good-byes when Brenda and Daniel went to the car, Bagheera would moan brokenly, stretching up to scratch at the glass door.

* * *

In December 2014, Bagheera’s unexpected stroke slashed through our world. Though he was now silent or croaked with little voice variation, we hoped this determined cat would get better. One side virtually paralyzed, he lay behind furniture, in his cardboard cat cave, or under the piano bench. He struggled around by sliding along the wall as he moved ... ever clean, making even the lengthy trip to the litter.

Much weaker, he quit eating and drinking. Morsels I’d tucked into the side of his mouth, that I’d thought swallowed, had remained there for several hours. The vet almost cried when he saw them.

Brushed and lying down, Bagheera APPEARED quite healthy, but could no longer process food properly. Knowing he’d also had and loved indoor senior cats, I asked, knowing the answer, what the vet would do if Bagheera were his.

* * *

Bagheera’s euthanization time was set for the next morning. Daniel and Brenda shared the overnight vigil with us. We wanted to be sure Bagheera knew love until his final breath.

He chose to lie under the piano bench. We took turns lying on the floor beside him, stroking him, the other arm around him. Looking up, I saw Lickorish, silently staring down from the bench.

In the early morning, “Baggers” deliberately curved his tail, that “fifth paw,” around my arm. As I stroked him, he, purred, moving his tail on my arm, “petting” me in the same rhythm!

No carrier for this last vet visit. Snuggled on Daniel’s lap, Bagheera pushed his nose over into Brenda’s chest and relaxed. The snuggling, stroking, soft talking, praying and singing continued until our purring companion extraordinaire died.

There’s a huge cat-shaped hole in our lives. Was it worth this pain? Through tears we say, “ABSOLUTELY!” Try it. Adopt two indoor cats, preferably siblings. Interact with them. The rewards are unimaginable.

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