I first met my best friend at the animal shelter in Frederick, Maryland. We were both down on our luck in November of 1981: he had to be left behind, at the age of 18 months, by a master who either died or moved away (I forget which), and I was unemployed. I remember that this gray and black kitty seemed friendly and well muscled, as I watched him rub against the bars of his special cage -- a cage located away from the main section and reserved, I supposed, for the cats no one was expected to adopt -- where his companion was also imprisoned. I never learned whatever happened to his companion, not that I tried to learn, since I could not even afford to adopt the one cat.
But Dickens seemed to bond with me, and I with him, so I persuaded my wife that he would make a suitable sidekick for our lonely only cat -- another waif rescued from certain death, Isis. I admit I hadn't given much thought to how well the name was suited to this new cat's personality, for I had picked out the literary name and chosen the cat that appeared to fit it. Somehow, "Dickens" seemed to fit.
But appearances can be deceiving, and it was not long before this new "brother" for Isis grew into the other connotation of his name. Dickens and Isis hated each other on sight and, all the time they were together, Dickens rarely missed an opportunity, even if he missed his object, to pounce on poor Isis! But I loved both cats and, as T.S. Eliot claimed, each cat must have three different names. Isis was dubbed the "love bunny" and Dickens' nickname became "sweet buns" -- though, to tell the truth, his hind quarters were kind of lumpy, and he wiggled when he walked. (His third name, of course, was his mystery.)
And Dickens was always my cat. I was the only living creature on whom he bestowed any affection. For example, there is a picture of me lying on my back on the living room floor, Dickens sitting smugly on my chest; sitting as if to say, "This is my Daddy; he's all mine!" Indeed I was, and his devotion extended to the point that I had to watch my feet wherever I walked to be sure I didn't step on my close-following companion. I loud screech would tell me when my attention had lapsed.
Dickens was always a "talker," whining for this or that. The challenge was to figure out what he wanted. Was it food? cleaner litter? a cuddle? a game? Not only did Dickens dislike seeing the cat doctor, but he also complained at car travel. For example, when I moved from Frederick to the Baltimore area -- an hour's drive -- he whined, nonstop, the entire trip!
As with all cats, and people, too, Dickens had problems: some vexing and some simply annoying. One of the former had to do with the litter box; one of the latter with a fondness for chewing things repelled by his sensitive stomach. In his later years, his prodigious water consumption, and occasional "plumbing problems," were his chief health difficulties, but on the whole he had with me a healthy and happy 15 years. My "boy" did pretty well: he woke me up too early, whining for his breakfast, ate heartily, looked on sadly when I left, and always greeted me at the door when I came home from work.
But there comes a time when life itself is work, a time when the load of life becomes so heavy that one has to lay it down and rest a bit. Dickens needed no help with the laying down of that load. He knew when it was time to shake off the burdens of his failing body and flagging spirit. This time, however, he would have to chase string that I did not whip around corners; he would have to play in a garden where his loving Daddy could not go. He spent his last night in this world on his favorite sofa, with his Daddy dozing fitfully at his feet.
Now Dickens' load is lifted and he is running free once more. Now I must learn to live without the loving "boy" who made my life at once so complicated and so congenial; without the friendly furry face that greeted mine every night at the door, every morning begging for attention. Every life comes to a close in time; and Dickens' time was longer than it might have been -- had I not been so taken by that "friendly and well muscled" kitty in the cage.
Dickens is no longer caged. There are other cats, but there will never be another Dickens. I will never love another furry face quite the same way, for Dickens has taken with him a part of me that cannot be replaced. Yet if I have a truly loving heart, I must love enough to let go.
When I buried him, when I returned his body to the elements and consigned his spirit to the morning air, I said, "I'm glad I knew you Dickens. As sad as I am today, I would never trade knowing you for never having known you. Go where you can be happier. Go with my blessing and this valedictory: You know I loved you, and that I shall miss you. And if I can't have you back, at least I won't hold you back. If I cannot keep you, then in love I must release you. Farewell, my friend."
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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer who now has another cat.