Last week we said goodbye to Carl the cat. I’d like to say that he was a good cat, a good pet, but he wasn’t really. He was his own personality, his own guy, and to say that we were his owners is disingenuous and not true to his character.
Carl came to us in Decatur, Georgia, in 2009, full-grown, but hurt. Andy and I had been away at my father’s funeral. We returned, rolling suitcases across the hardwood floor, stopping when we heard a meowing begin from underneath the house. It wasn’t loud, it wasn’t harsh: it was constant: meow-meow-meow-meow-meow.
We looked at each other, and abandoning the suitcases went out back to the crawlspace door. We unlatched it to find two glowing eyes staring back at us. I backed away while Andy retrieved some of Yuba the dog’s kibble in a bowl. It was all we had. The cat emerged, emaciated and stinking, his collar wound around his neck on one side and underneath his armpit on the other.
The tag read, “Miss Piggy” and there was a phone number. I called it and when I told the person who picked up the phone that I found their cat, they hung up on me. I called three more times, but they never picked up again. When Andy called from his phone, they hung up when he explained we had found Miss Piggy.
To the Vet!
Fresh in my grief, I told Andy I wasn’t going to let this cat die on me. I borrowed a cardboard cat carrier from the neighbors and left Andy at home while I went to the vet. The office was busy that day, and they had just moved into a new location with big windows and fresh paint. I placed the cat carrier on the countertop, opened my mouth to explain to the receptionist, but before I could, the cat popped out of the top, like a putrid-smelling version of a showgirl bursting out of a giant cake.
The receptionist was horrified. The cat was dirty, skeletal, and smelled like death.
“It’s not my cat,” I explained. There was a look of relief on her face—that I had not purposely neglected the cat to this degree. What kind of monster was I?
She promised rescue rates for his care, and she tried the number on his collar, but they hung up on her as well.
What’s In a Name?
We went in the back and I sat in a small exam room while they took the cat for further inspection. I read pet magazines and waited. Finally, the vet came in, and gave me the news: Miss Piggy was in fact, a male cat. Perhaps a name change might be in order? She said they would need to do minor surgery—the collar stuck under his armpit had pushed deep into the skin, and it was so infected that they needed to peel away the necrotic tissue. But there was a chance he might die during surgery, as he might not wake up from the anesthesia. If he did well, they would bathe him, but who knows how this might go?
She told me he was likely around eight or nine years old, had his claws, and had been well-cared-for until recently.
I broke down crying there in the exam room, as it had been three weeks since my wedding, and a week from my father’s death. My father and I had always exchanged cat-themed greeting cards on our birthdays, and I told the vet that I thought my father had sent me a cat.
She nodded her head, as if she believed me. “Then you should give him a better name.”
New Name, New Life
The cat stayed overnight for recovery, and when I came to get him the next day, they told me he had done fine through the surgery, but not so well that they bathed him. He was wearing a protective cone around his neck now, and shaved in multiple places for the surgery and IV sites. He still smelled like death, and now, miraculously, was even uglier than before.
I brought him home and introduced him to the dog, who was not amused. That night, the cat purred on the couch, sitting between me and Andy, the dog nearby on the floor, gently whining that he did not appreciate this new addition. We were watching our favorite show at the time, “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” a short cartoon that featured a flying container of French fries named Frylock, a talking milkshake with hands (no arms) named Master Shake, and a sentient wad of raw meat called Meatwad. Their next-door neighbor was a human named Carl, who wore dirty gray sweatpants, a white wifebeater t-shirt, and a gold chain. He spoke with the hard tones of a New York accent, and had a disdain for personal hygiene.
The smell and look of the cat seemed to be a feline analogue to the cartoon character. Thus, we named the cat “Carl.”
Carl improved and put on weight, choking down food as fast as he could manage, giving us insight as to why he might have been named “Miss Piggy.” He seemed disappointed that we didn’t feed him scraps from the kitchen, and that wet food was not an everyday affair. But he stuck around, and we gave him a break-away collar so that should he leave us, he would never have to go through the pain he had before.
But he didn’t leave, and his tuxedo coat grew back thick and healthy, but like his namesake, he was not really into personal hygiene. Regularly, the white parts of his coat were rusty from the red Georgia dirt surrounding our home.
He loved to sit in the sun on hot days, panting, greeting my piano students as they arrived for Saturday morning lessons.
The First Road Trip
A year later, we moved back to Alaska, and I drove Carl across country with me. I had gotten papers and everything, but at each border crossing, as I announced my cat, every agent looked confused, hunted around the windows until they spotted him, sleeping in the passenger seat. No one ever looked at my papers. He did well on the eight-day drive, usually sleeping in the car with the litter box at night, while I stayed indoors at a cheap motel.
When we arrived in Anchorage, he got scared at the new place with boxes everywhere, and he ran into the woods behind the apartment complex. It was June, and the light stretched into forever, but Carl didn’t know Alaska. He didn’t know what was out there.
I called and called for him, but he didn’t come. I started to worry, put out more food, but to no avail. Finally, tired, I realized he had never heard me call him so sweetly. So I marched down to where he had disappeared and said sternly, “Carl. Get in the house.”
He ran out of the woods and up the stairs in a flash. It was a small, two-bedroom place, and we lived there, me, Carl and Yuba for a year. We were cozy. Andy was in PA school in Savannah, so eventually, we packed everything up and got in the car again, this time, with the dog.
Another Road Trip, Another Passenger
We drove down the Cassiar Highway and watched black bears amble across the road. This time, I slept in the car, all three of us together. We visited friends and family along the way, taking a month to get to Savannah.
We arrived, and I think Carl was happy to have some space from Yuba, though they had cuddled in the backseat from time to time during the long haul.
In Savannah, Carl enjoyed living with Jake and George, who we roomed with. It was two humans, a cat, a dog, and a whole lot of boxes crowded into one room. But it did mean there was always a lap to sit on during the day while Andy was in school and I was at work.
Run This Town
Then we moved to a one-bedroom apartment nearby, where Carl ran the neighborhood cats. He got fat off of the kitty kibble some of the neighbors kept on their porch for strays; he bullied and pushed his considerable weight around, patrolling the block with us when we took Yuba for walks. But another unexpected benefit was the proximity of the apartment next door, where he could slip in and out as he pleased, since the doors were often open.
One night, he got stuck next door, no one the wiser that he had fallen asleep in the wrong living room. Unable to find the litter box, he pooped in the bathroom, which was considerate. The next time this happened, the neighbors’ sister was staying in the living room, and Carl chose to let her know she was in his spot. She awoke to a steaming load on the sofa bed where she slept. You see, one of Carl’s superpowers was an abundance of excrement. It was often difficult to believe that what you saw before you came from a cat and not a human of hefty size.
Another Place in the Sun
A few years later, we bought a house, and Carl was not a fan. There weren’t any porches with extra cat food in the neighborhood, other houses had dogs that barked at him, and he wasn’t allowed to go into the carriage house where our apartment neighbors now lived.
He was getting older, and Yuba was getting older, so they stuck close to home, and our daily patrols became shorter and shorter. As Yuba began to limp, for Carl, a cataract fogged one of his eyes, and he began to have digestive issues.
When Yuba passed away, Carl expressed his emotion by urinating down a crevice in the bathroom baseboard on the second floor of the house. We had completely remodeled the house by that time, and all we knew was that our beautiful new kitchen smelled like cat pee. It took us some time to figure it out, and we tore out walls and insulation and replaced and repainted to fix it. It took months.
Enter The Baby
Then, when I became pregnant, we decided to move to California to be near family. I consulted our vet, and they said they didn’t think Carl would survive a sedative for a plane ride, so I did what I could with calming wipes and herbal supplements. I flew Carl across country, at five months pregnant with a cat on my lap, to my mother’s house, where he stayed for two months as we packed up the Savannah house and moved west.
He seemed happy in the new home, lots of sunshine and quiet corners. There were no dogs to bark at him, but no extra kibble to be found either. The worst part was that when the baby came, he had to give up the lap spot to the baby, and dozed on my lower legs instead. He was content there, the three of us in the recliner, watching TV at all hours of the day and night.
But then, the baby got bigger, and I no longer spent hours in the recliner, and Carl had to be contented with sleeping on the back of the couch. Soon the baby began to walk, and then walk faster, and finally, Carl could no longer outpace the baby when he wanted to pull Carl’s tail.
The Last Adventure
During this time, Carl got thinner and thinner. Both eyes had fogged over, and he could no longer hear at normal volumes. Only the loudest and sharpest noises would catch his attention. I started giving him painkillers to help him sleep, as in the middle of the night he would meow loudly, plaintively calling into the dark. We kept the lights on low in the living room for him, but it didn’t help, and the calling became more frequent, and not just at night. It was clear he was in pain, and I hated to see him believing that he was alone when he yowled. He just kept forgetting that we were there.
Maybe he wasn’t a good cat, but we were his people. The baby said goodbye to him when I took him to the vet. I petted him and spoke to him in the car on the way there. He didn’t complain. The vet gave him a sedative inside the exam room and he slumped into my arms. We carried him outside, and I sat on a picnic table with him in my lap and I said goodbye. The sun filtered through a dappled light in the trees. It was a warm day. I thanked my dad for sending me this larger-than-life personality to keep me company, but that his portion of the journey had come to an end.
I still find myself opening curtains to let in extra sunshine for him, and checking his water bowl that is no longer there. He has left a larger-than-Carl-sized hole in our lives.
See you later, buddy. We had a good time.