When my cat Zorro took sick, we were caught by surprise. Pushing 120 human years, he was still a princely panther: a long, lean, inky-black, six-toed, part-Burmese larger-than-life alpha-male cat, just lousy with charisma.
We knew cats don’t live forever. He was 15 and a hard day was going to come. Yet he seemed immune, because he wore his bricks-in-silk strength and enormous ego like a dancer, weaving through the world and richly earning his nickname: Zorro the Erotic.
All his life he’d been the terror of Bernal Heights in San Francisco. Small rodents streets away fled his ferocity. He rebuffed pats, endearments, touch, and any mention of his six toes. Affection was only on his terms, and for women only. He was a guard-cat in charge. Oh, and he was silent, not chatty. But expressive, with huge copper eyes and look of pride. "He looks at you like he wants to eat you!" said a student of mine.
I learned Burmese are descended from Wong Mau, a cat missionary Joseph Thompson brought to San Francisco in 1930 to breed with Siamese. Zorro was a Burmese mix, and he hit all the breed’s benchmarks. "Extremely intelligent and inquisitive" — check. "Playful and mischievous" — duh! "Likes to hide shiny objects" — well, he hid his love-toy, a disgustingly mauled teddy.
But he lacked in one area: "Welcomes other pets" — never! We recall the distress of a terrier he flew at. Poor Bucket. Zorro was found in a shoebox of six kittens outside the San Mateo SPCA: two weeks old, six toes, no mother. Zorro was the most adventurous: sable-black, huge copper eyes, immense feet. With discernment, he marked my roomie, a pretty Indian-American called Zee, as his first mate. She baptized him Spanish for fox: Zorro.
Even the way Zorro showed passion was Burmese. Lying on the sofa in Rajah pose, he stared at us for hours with undisguised pride in his concubines. What was he was thinking inside that huge-eyed, predatory head? Did he know he wasn’t human? "It’s a pity he isn’t better hung," said my friend Isadora.
Newcomers he checked out fastidiously, giving them a Homeland Security once-over. He scratched men and often peed on them. There were occasional male exceptions. While I was away he would (said the others) crawl around, wailing and rogering the hell out of his furry love-toy.
But three months ago he changed suddenly, developing a "You’re not going to leave me?" face. He was clingy, moping, needy, whiney, the opposite of everything he had been, all the way to his annual SPCA checkup, when he was pronounced in rude health.
His expression seemed different; his teeth were fanglike. I found myself singing lullabies and packing my bag round the corner so he wouldn’t see. I sang him John Lennon’s "Beautiful Boy" at bedtime; he no longer hunted by night. The change was alarming. When I came home he was waiting in the submissive position, the ultimate poignancy.
But reassuringly, he reacted savagely to the arrival of an adorable gray called Bubbles who dared to come upstairs: so savage, indeed, we belled him to alert other creatures to flee. I put it down to normal aging until I came back from a trip to discover he’d developed a tiny Bulldog grin like a miniature Churchill. His coat was matted, and he’d drooled on it; he was dehydrated and uncharacteristically smelly. I called Julio Bolivar Dillon, the Vet on Wheels. Two painkilling shots later we had a diagnosis, a bad one.
“Oh, now we know. Look at this,” said Dr. Dillon, pointing to sores in his mouth. "It’s painful. Smells necrotic." The diagnosis — advanced feline oral squamous carcinoma — is common. Sympathizing, Dr. Dillon gave Zorro and me time to get used to bad news. It’s fatal, inoperable, untreatable, painful. A vet who loves surgery, he hadn’t that option. I trusted him.
At first Zorro rallied: I awoke to find him drinking a toilet bowl of water and demanding food. Desperately, we tried tuna juice and diluted baby food in eyedroppers.
But he couldn’t eat. His trademark bell stopped tinkling. Handing me prescriptions, Dr. Dillon taught me to give Zorro IV fluids, holding him between my knees and tenting his skin. At Walgreens, a kindly assistant said she’d injected her cat and it made all the difference. My sweet neighbor Lois, who fosters senior cats, demonstrated palliative care. Her experienced hands reassured.
My 7-year-old nabe, Isaiah, wanted to help. He and Zorro had bonded closely — so closely that Zorro moved in with him when I was away: "Can’t we just mix some tasty tuna, put it into a tube and slide it into the side of his mouth?" We did try.
When the inevitable moment came, I called Dr. Dillon and made a date. Isaiah got up early to say a teary goodbye. Zorro knew, and roused himself. As luck would have it, my jury duty, which seemed to have passed without calls, sprang back into life — why oh why? For long hours in a courtroom I imagined Zorro’s last hours of pain, and rushed home to find Zorro hiding behind a cactus in the yard, the only one he could reach. Dr. Dillon arrived and earned my undying admiration by crossing himself before administering the dose. Another neighbor, Edwin, held him while we sang to him, washed him, wrapped him in his blankie.
The next day my carpenter Juan earned my eternal gratitude by digging a 5-foot-deep hole in the flowerbed — "It has to be really deep, deep as possible." My builder Tony arrived with a handsome handmade coffin the right size, with lavender on top. "What’s his favorite music?" he asked. "’Beautiful Boy,’" I said, but I couldn’t sing. My student teacher, Ian, planted flowers around the grave. Tony chiseled a slate: Goodnight, sweet prince. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest ÔÇª Beautiful boy Zorro.
We put him in the box with his favorite mouse and lavender and stored it in a cooler while we finished the grave. Then we laid him on the table in the yard. He looked himself, only sweeter, as we nailed the lid.
Ian, Juan, Tony, and I lowered his coffin down with ropes, and we threw earth onto the coffin. While we filled it in, Ian delivered the homily — "You were a great little cat, Zorro."
Oh, and the terror of the hood!
Next day, adorable Bubbles dared to romp upstairs cockily. "She’s no Zorro," sneered Isaiah. His playmate Noellia asked what happened. When Isaiah explained, she wanted to dig Zorro up. Not a chance.
But I still hear his ghostly bell tinkling in my imagination. When I passed Dr. Dillon on the street recently, he asked me if I was feeling "peaceful." I said yes, but added, "Although I’m not ready to love again …."
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