Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Gus: A Life of Love and Kindness

Whenever I've written a tribute to a special cat, it has been to a cat who has passed away. This tribute is to Gus, who is very much alive, and turning 13 years old this week.

Gus is a big, sweet red/orange tabby whose loving spirit has brightened our lives and the lives of the six other cats -- four now deceased -- that we have had over the years. He is the only cat we have who has known every one of the others.

I wasn't looking for a cat when I first encountered Gus and his brother Timmy.  I went to Dr. Tracy McFarland's office to get more saline solution for our dying 17-year-old Freddie, our first cat. There, in a cage in the lobby, were five beautiful, outgoing kittens who looked like little lion cubs. The receptionist told me that a postal worker had found these five kittens abandoned in a box in a local junkyard.  They had been only three weeks old, not even weaned, and close to death. He brought them in to Dr. Tracy McFarland, known as The Cat Doctor in Santa Clarita, CA.  She spent a month nursing them back to health. The staff bottle-fed and socialized them. Three -- two red tabbies and a calico -- were already adopted. The two remaining -- who saw me and rushed to the front of the cage, making eye contact and purring -- were a red tabby they had named Big Red and Blondie, a Burmese mix with faint red tabby markings. Blondie was the runt of the litter. He had a heart problem that could prove fatal if it didn't correct itself within a year. No one wanted a little kitten who could die. His brother Big Red watched him closely. They slept curled up together. They were so bonded that Dr. Tracy insisted that they be adopted together.

                                         Timmy and Gus as kittens in August 1998                                                                                

I called Bob from the vet's and begged him to come see these kittens. He was aghast. We had a much loved, dying 17-year-old cat who had always been an only animal. Was it fair or even sane to bring in two kittens at this juncture? "I know," I said. "But we have to have these kittens. There's something about them that I can't begin to explain."

Bob arrived at Dr. Tracy's office, took one look at them and fell in love. He took Blondie out of the cage and the kitten rubbed his cheek against Bob's and lay his head on his shoulder, purring loudly. Bob's eyes filled with tears. "Even if he dies soon, no matter how short or long his life is, I want every day of his life to be filled with love and happiness," he said, his voice breaking. "And I want to name him Timmy, the sweetest name I know. We'll take them both."

So Timmy and his brother Big Red -- whom we re-named Gus -- came home with us.  While our old cat Freddie found curious, playful Timmy a bit of an annoyance, he quickly warmed up to Gus.  They shared food. When Freddie could no longer groom himself, Gus would groom him. As Freddie lay on a quilt at the foot of our bed, shivering and nearing death, Gus lay beside him to warm and comfort him.

                                        Gus comforting a dying Freddie in 1998              

The day Timmy and Gus were neutered, Timmy was ill from the anesthetic most of the day -- and Gus held him in his paws, comforting him.

                                       Gus comforts Timmy on neutering day - 1998  

The love between these two brothers brought so much joy to our lives for the next nine years. Timmy's heart problem went away and he grew up healthy and strong.  Timmy, who was outgoing and loved people, eventually became my first therapy cat, working with me in animal-assisted therapy. Gus, who was equally loving but slow to warm up to strangers, limited his affection to our family and his beloved brother.

                                      Timmy (l) and Gus (r) as adults - about 2002 

And when Timmy died suddenly from melamine poisoning due to tainted cat food in 2007, we feared Gus would die as well. Not became of the cat food -- they had eaten different brands -- but because of his grief.  Gus was inconsolable. He howled all night, every night, for three weeks after Timmy's death -- until Dr. Tracy suggested that we get a pair of kittens for him to nurture.

It worked wonderfully.  When we brought home Maggie, a Bombay, and Teddy, a black and white tuxedo kitten, from a local rescue organization, Gus embraced them literally and in spirit. He quickly bonded with Maggie, especially, grooming her, holding her, sleeping with her.  He was fond of Teddy, too, grooming and hanging out with him. But when Teddy died suddenly of a neurological birth defect about a month after we adopted him, Gus was unperturbed. He had his Maggie to nurture.

                                        Gus and Maggie meeting for the first time  - 2007

                                     Gus holding Maggie and grooming Teddy

                                      Gus, Maggie and Teddy settling in for a nap  

A year later, I was in PetSmart to get cat grass for Gus and Maggie. Passing the adoption center, I caught a glimpse of a beautiful flame-point Siamese cat -- a two year old adult -- reaching a paw through the bars -- and I was enthralled. Her name was Marina and she had been relinquished not once but twice in her young life. The first family gave her up because their baby proved allergic to cats. The second family relinquished her because she was too "needy."  As she looked at me with love and longing, I couldn't resist.  There was no kitty grass in stock. We went home with Marina instead.

 Maggie was not amused, growling like a Rottweiler through the closed bathroom door at Marina for the first week she was home. (They later became buddies.) Gus was more enthusiastic, rushing to groom and embrace her.  Marina, who hadn't been with multiple cats before, was wary initially, but warmed to both Gus and Maggie in time.  She also became my second -- and last -- therapy cat, showing an amazing gift for working with clients in conflict.  Shortly after I closed my practice and Bob and I retired, moving to our new home in Arizona, Marina -- a lively, joyous creature -- became quiet and stopped eating. We rushed her to a local vet who told us that she was in end-stage leukemia with multiple organ failure. She died two days later.  The day she died,  Gus  and Maggie were both by her side, offering comfort.

                                         Gus and Marina in 2009

I was heartbroken and in an irrational desire to find another Siamese mix to replace the very loving, cuddly Marina, I searched local rescue organizations. There was a Lynx point Siamese mix kitten at a shelter 40 miles away. Her name was Sweet Pea. She looked irresistible on line. And she has taught me a lesson I should have known: no cat is ever like another.  Sweet Pea is hell on four legs. She can drive Maggie -- and even Gus -- crazy with her kitten antics that have persisted into her second year. But most of the time, Gus is infinitely patient as she nips his ears, his tail and his nose.

                            Gus and Attack Kitten Sweet Pea (aka PsychoPea) 2010          

                                  Gus, Maggie and grown-up Sweet Pea - 2011  

When my husband Bob suffers nightmares related to his temporal lobe epilepsy, Gus is quickly by his side. When I am reading in the evening, Gus snuggles up beside me, purring and rubbing. When I have a migraine headache, Gus is there instantly to comfort me and keep me company.  In all his years with us, he has never scratched or bitten anyone -- even kids who have picked him up or strangers who have rushed to pet him. He is the kindest, most gentle cat I have ever known. And he is a warm, droll companion, enjoying football games with Bob, watching with quiet bemusement as I practice tap dancing.

                                        Bob and Gus enjoy Alabama football game - 2010

                                      Gus Keeping Bob company on a sick day - 2011        

                               Maggie and Sweet Pea are quick to follow Gus' example

He is an old thirteen. He used to jump great heights to run along the tops of our library bookcases. His jumping days are over.  His gait has slowed. His days are spent snoozing between the pillows of our bed or in the little bed he has had since he was a kitten.  We wonder if he had some exposure to the tainted cat food melamine that killed Timmy. Or perhaps the loss of his brother and other feline pals has weighed heavily. Or maybe he is just getting old along with us, savoring the days, and committed to live in a spirit of love and kindness.  Not a day goes by that Gus doesn't give us the gift of his warmth and affection. And not a day goes by that we don't delight in his gentle, sweet presence. We consider every day we still have Gus a blessed one. We want every day of his life to be filled with love and happiness.


  1. Animals have a way of really working themselves into our hearts.

  2. Enjoyed your cat story!
    I am amazed that your string of cats have been able to adapt so well each time you bought another one home! Must be your influence. We've only had one cat, a calico named Kiki, who lived to be about 18 and ruled the roost over our four dogs. My daughter has two who are in constant conflict!

  3. Just a beautiful post and what an amazing cat Gus is. A natural caregiver. You and all the cats he has cared for have been blessed.
    I think I am in love with your husband after what he said when he saw Timmy. Wow.
    Arkansas Patti

  4. Hello, Kathy -- first, thank you for stopping by The Marmelade Gypsy and leaving a comment!

    Now, about Gus -- I just love this post with all my being. OK, I'm a cat person. A cat person who has an orange boy (age 13 1/2, kidney disease) that she loves with all her heart and soul. Gypsy came to me as a foundling -- found in the yard --when I already had the wonderful Stimpy. Stimpy played the role of Gus, nurturer, mentor, playmate until he died quickly and unexpectedly six years later. Like your Gus, Gypsy grieved, licking his tummy bare. I didn't get him another playmate -- he was showing "only cat" tendencies, and I want his final years (I do hope they are years) to be special, loving ones. He's my sweet boy, comforter, friend, the court jester.

    What I love about your story is how it conveys how deeply these purrballs worm their ways into our hearts, how they love so unconditionally. I loved hearing how Gus tends to Bob, how he tends to the all the others over his time. He is so filled with love, and that fills me with joy. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story with me. With all of us.

  5. So very nice to meet you and Gus! What a delightful post and I so enjoyed reading about your family. They are precious. I have one inside cat Tinkerbell and then Peggy outside who came here pregnant just had 4 sweeties. Not sure how many of them I can keep yet because of the expense of neutering.
    Sorry did not mean to write you a page long.

  6. What a wonderful family of cats you have to keep you company, to enrich your days. So good to see that both you and your husband are very comfortable around cats and that your normal lives are so intrinsically connected.

  7. What a beautiful story of love. I don't have any pets right now but had a Maine Coon (named Jackson) for 12 years until diabetes took his life a couple of years ago. I didn't want him when I got him but he needed me. He quickly wiggled his way into my heart, and miracle of miracles, into my husband's as well. After years of saying he hated cats Jackson spent many hours sleeping on his feet in the recliner and changed his whole perception of cats. blessings, marlene

  8. Thanks so much for your comments! I love hearing all about your special cats and other animals as well! It really is amazing how they choose us, whether we like it or not, and become such a part of our lives and our families. Patti, I agree with you about Bob's comment when he met Timmy. I was reminded, all over again, why I married him. But when I remind him of that moment, he says he's the one who got lucky that day -- that Timmy gave him so very much love and joy in the nine years we were blessed to have him -- and the same is true for Gus.

  9. I have a kitten that looks the same as Teddy... She is called Annie. I don`t know, maybe it is because she doesn`t get enough attention since i and my parents are at work all day, but she is a beast... Very playful and causes a lot of damage whilst rampaging around the apartment. Maybe i should get her another cat - just to keep her company while I`m gone.
    Anyway - wish you all the best.


  10. Hi, Justin: So happy you're reading my blog and commenting! Annie might do much better with a kitty companion, especially if you get a kitten. Two kittens can savage each other in play, not the apartment. Having a few toys or a paper bag for her/them to play with can help, too. They do calm down in time. But we've found that, especially for indoor cats who can get bored, another feline companion really helps!