It’s almost exactly a year since I said goodbye to Sparky, my lovely big fat ginger tom. He was an old rescue cat who’s health was failing and we had to take him to the vet, fully expecting to be bringing him home. Unfortunately he was worse than we thought and they kept him in, and on the 21st of December we had to put him to sleep. You can imagine what kind of Christmas I had. Autopilot. Now I don’t want to depress anyone at this time of year, so this is a celebration of my daft and loyal cat.
Sparky burst from his cage at the Tameside Animal Shelter and sprawled on the floor, demanding to be tickled. It was that and the fact that he was ginger that sold me. I’d always wanted a ginger tom after reading the Orlando books as a child. His personality won the day, and looking back, I think he chose me with his friendly confidence. There were other cats, exotic, and colourful, each one vying for my attention. I spotted an attractive black and white female with striking blue eyes and a ruff of long silky fur attempting some kind of ballet on her ledge, but the ginger tom at my feet head-butted my shin, just to remind me to collect his luggage and sign on the dotted line. I think I fell for his attitude and beautiful green eyes. The woman at the shelter was relieved that I’d decided to take ‘Ginger’ as he was seven, and got passed over because he was considered mature in cat terms. ‘I don’t care,’ I said beaming with happiness, ‘he’s the one. I just hope he doesn’t clash with my soft furnishings.’ The atmosphere in the office cooled slightly. ‘Honestly,’ she said. ‘You city boys!’ I had to explain I was joking. City humour.
My mother had a cat called Sparky when she was little, and so he was christened. Somehow ‘Ginger’ didn’t quite cut it. His previous owner was an elderly lady who passed away, and I wondered if he was a farm cat because he was so big and strong…and completely cool with dogs, even with my neighbour’s Staffordshire Bull Terrier who just wanted to eat Sparky. Noisily. My cat had razor claws, lightning reactions and a mean left hook. I’ve had three cats in the past, but none of them seemed to have Sparky’s presence, or intelligence. If you asked him a question, he would reply in his best attempt at speaking. It was definitely a concerted effort to be understood on his own terms, because if you interrupted his response, he would stop and wait for his turn to speak. There was a lot more going on behind that big goofy face than any of us knew. Whenever I had guests, he would position himself on the arm of the couch exactly in the line of sight between me and whoever I was trying to talk to. He had to be involved, and everyone got used to craning round his ginger bulk in an effort to speak to each other.
Although he was a big cat, I think I spoilt him a bit and on routine trips to the vet, people would actually stop and gasp at his size. Worried children would point on the tram or in the waiting room and say, ‘Mummy look at the lion.’ As I carried him in his big white cage, I would hear comments like, ‘What are they feeding him?’ I became concerned about diabetes and decided to put Sparky on a diet. He wasn’t happy about that, since demanding food with menaces was something he was extremely good at. I was effectively smashing the food cartel he was running in the kitchen. Sparky did lose weight but unfortunately it wasn’t due to any lack of calories…
As time passed he developed glaucoma which was controlled with extensive treatment, but he also appeared to have kidney problems and although I knew he had a shortened lifespan, nothing prepared me for what happened in the dying days of 2010. While everyone else rushed round preparing for Christmas, I watched as Sparky became more and more disoriented and skinny until finally he lay on the bed, writhing slowly in his discomfort. He could hardly squeak when I spoke to him and it dawned on me that this was an emergency. We took him to the vet and they decided to keep him in for observation. I think I knew it was the end, but clung to my denial anyway. A foolish kind of comfort.
When the call came from the vet, I was steeling myself. My friend Gordon provided moral support and brandy, and suddenly we were standing in the surgery saying goodbye to Sparky who was now so frail that he hardly knew where he was. He knew something was up, you could tell. I tried to reassure him, but he could see how upset I was. I told him he was going to be fine, and he made an effort to reply. I think he was asking ‘Why?’
The decision was made to put him out of his misery, rather that take the option to let him die at home. He had feline HIV and only hours to live. There weren’t any options, really, and it was the hardest decision I ever made.
You jump out of the plane.
You can’t jump back in again just because your parachute won’t open.
When you say goodbye, it’s the last page. Nothing comes after that. I couldn’t stay for the final moment. I wanted to remember him in life, not see him cold and dead. Gordon, bless him, agreed to stay and hold him. I kissed my cat goodbye. I ran out into the waiting room, unable to see for tears. I bumped into the door.
There are still people who think that animals don’t have feelings, but anyone with a brain will know that emotions are part of the instinct to survive. Without them, we would have no fear of fire or predators and just get burnt a lot or eaten. Each animal has a personality of it’s own, which is why so many of us adopt them into our families and treat them with love and respect. Our natural affection for them means we often treat them as children, and although some people find that funny, the true love for our animals becomes painfully apparent when we lose them.
I still miss him, and sometimes it feels like he’s still around somewhere nearby. A presence. A little shadow. One day I’ll get another cat, from a rescue shelter and it’ll probably be ginger. Sparky gave me so much happiness and that’s what I remember now.
As a footnote, I found this blog by Bernadette Kazmarski, The Creative Cat and the section on pet loss really helped me to finally come to terms with my grief. The blog also contains some really funny pictures of the author’s cats, and her artwork is amazing. Take a look!