I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. ~ Thoreau

Friday, November 5, 2010

Henry, a Life Interupted

Many of you will read this and wonder what it has to do with the general theme of this blog. I can save you some trouble and tell you absolutely nothing, however, I cannot let Henry “go gently into that good night” without at least pausing to honor his life and the importance he has in mine. I have many things backlogged to blog about but none as important to me as this.

In 2001 I was newly married and desperate to channel my maternal instinct into some childless path. My husband at the time had one cat, Sophie, but Sophie was solely his and solely a one person animal. I wanted my own cat, something I could love and baby, something all my own. In looking back I realize that this all consuming desire to love something and to have that something return my love unconditionally obviously reflected on the frailty of, and the seismic flaws in, a marriage that should never have been.

What I really wanted was a child but that was not to be and, as hind sight is always twenty-twenty, I realize now the marriage was doomed from before we said “I do” so it was better that we had no children. It is much easier to maintain custody of a cat then it is a child. These later realizations did nothing to quell the almost all consuming desire to mother something. We argued about the merits of another pet. I had an overwhelming desire to save every animal I saw and my then husband had a much more pragmatic view of taking good care of the one pet we had versus struggling to feed more animals or our combined minimum wage salaries.

I whined, I cried, I moped, I threatened, I wheedled, I argued, I pleaded and eventually I merely wore him down. He conceded to one more cat, but that was the limit. I could choose the cat but he would have the privilege of naming the new addition and that new addition must be declawed, spayed/neutered and vaccinated before entering Sophie’s world. These were terms I could readily agree to so off I went to the Kanawha Valley Animal Shelter looking for a cat of my very own.

When I arrived at the shelter, just like every other time I had visited, I found myself overwhelmed with the sights, smells and sounds of a small venue filled to the brim with terrified, lonely, confused and unwanted little creatures. (I applaud the shelter, the workers and the volunteers for taking on a monumental task that involves so much heartbreak and so little reward. I could not do it. I can barely stand to walk through the door. I would gladly give my last dime, all my worldly possessions and the clothes on my back to save everyone of those little souls but even if I took home each one there are countless others awaiting their spots. It is heartbreaking, it is always heartbreaking.)

I wandered into the cat room and found myself face to face with numerous pairs of pleading eyes and countless tragic little faces. I wandered from cage to cage as paws reached out to touch me and warm fuzzy bodies threw their purring weight against the bars of their confinement. You cannot put your fingers in the cages for fear of cross contamination, so I laced my hands behind my back, and stopped at each door to talk to the little prisoners. Their eyes tell sad stories of loss and abandonment, of heart break and hope, I desperately wished I could save them all.

I was pretty sure I did not want a tiny kitten for fear Sophie would make mincemeat out of it and I was afraid an older cat might already be too set in their ways to blend well into a family where the position of alpha female was already well secured. I was leaning towards a tom and had pretty much decided I would need to choose a bigger kitten when my eyes locked on a half grown waifish looking hair ball meowing at the top of his adolescent lungs from behind his bars. I walked towards his cage and he immediately set to wailing at me, reaching through his confines with arms that seemed two-times too long for his spindly body.

He looked distinctly like he had been standing at the end of the line when God was handing out the cat parts, and had gotten the very last scrapings from the bottom of the barrel. He was mostly a dingy white, with a half grown half starved body, he had very long legs, a very long tail, and a very large head quite in disproportion to his slender trunk. His head looked as though someone had placed a tabby helmet on it and cut out ear holes, his back and tail continued the tabby motif making it look as though he were a white cat dressed in costume for the tabby ball. I was in love. He had a spot on one ear which lent him a flair of quirky charm and when he rolled on his back his belly sported a single tabby spot above his navel which would forever be referred to in Seuss-ical fashion as “stars on thars.”

Like I said, I was in love. I thought him charming in an awkward and gangly sort of way. He was very much a four legged representation of the type of man I was attracted to, poised and intelligent, trapped in an uncomfortable and ill fitting physical structure. I paid his bail and had him shipped to the local veterinarian we used for his surgery and vaccination. I was over the moon. When he came home several days later I was disappointed to be questioned as to why I’d “picked the ugliest kitten in the pound?” I did not care I was in love, he was not ugly, he had potential.

I was advised his name would be Henri Cartier Bresson after the famous French photographer who specialized in quirky black and whites. That was fine by me, Henry was a perfectly suitable and charming name and he soon grew into a lovely French accent and haughty French attitude as his personality blossomed. I do not know whether cats take on the traits we believe them to have, or if we shape their personas around the traits they naturally exhibit, but either way there could not have been a more fitting name or pseudo-heritage for my Henry.

He was odd, as all artists should be. He hid his feather-tailed mice in the food bowl. He was fast and vicious with the “fuzzy-mitton” strike, he could thunk Sophie or Pablo so hard on the head you could hear the distinct sound of plunking a ripe cantaloupe and never see a thing. He tattled on his sister when she fell out the bedroom window by nonchalantly pointing with his nose. He preferred his treats on the carpet because the linoleum was too cold. He snuck into the kitchen at night to chew the stalk of my Christmas amaryllis and let his sister take the blame as he sat innocently washing his face. He loved David Bowie and many Bowie lyrics were slightly altered to suit his name and personality and, most importantly, he grew into the child I so desperately wanted.

The marriage stalled and eventually failed. I moved out, but by this point Pablo and Sheva had ingratiated themselves into our family and the cat limit had been abandoned. We divided up the children. He took the girls, Sophie and Sheva. I took the boys, Henry and Pablo. The three of us packed our belongings and moved to an apartment across the river from my parents. It was an adjustment. We were not used to living on our own but we had each other. I cried myself to sleep many a night with a cat on either side of my pillow offering wordless comfort and creating a little fuzzy family nucleus, just the three of us.

Henry would sit on the table and watch me intently as I ate my solitary dinners for one. He would give me his attentive poochy face, his mouth would purse and his whiskers would come forward and if he had opened up his mouth and begun pelting me with advice in a thick French accent I do not think I would have been in the least bit surprised. He and Pablo were my companions, my family, my therapist, at times it felt like they were all I had and at time they were the only ones standing in the gap between me and the pits of despair. Our little family grew to include Dorian, and Henry begrudgingly made a spot for him on the bed. He continued to wear the mantle of “first-born” with an air of dignity and an iron “mitton-paw” of authority.

We moved several times. I fell in love, I fell out of love, we moved some more. At one point we moved back in with my parents the four of us descended on the five of them (my parents and their three cats) like an extra, unwritten, biblical plague. We moved back into my high school bedroom. We made do. Pablo and Dorian have Rastafarian countenances, they roll with the flow. My precious Henry was slightly more high strung, with more discerning tastes and was not at all pleased to share sparse quarters with grandma, grandpa and their brood but eventually he forgave me my bad taste in men, and my inability to function normally, and we made the best of our situation until we could once again move back into our apartment.

Henry never abandoned me, he never tried to run away. Through all my bad decisions and all my lack luster choices he remained faithfully mine. He never shunned me for another, he never made me second pick. He never cared how fat or thin I was he always, faithfully treated me the same, every day, for almost ten years.

Eventually our lives settled down. We found Fred, and in Fred we finally found unconditional love and stability. Fred’s love for all of us is a lot like Henry’s love for me, it is without failing and it is faithful. He took us as we were, a motley, bedraggled crew of rejects, and he loves us without the desire to change us. Shortly after Fred came into our lives our merry band of misfits expanded to include Bettie and not long after Fred and I were married Johnnie was thrust into our lives. Henry as the patriarch of this crew took each addition with grace and aplomb if not a small measure of disdain.

As our lives settled into a more normal routine Henry seemed content. He could still cut you down with a look or dole out the “fuzzy-mitton” of judgment as necessary, but he spent more time curled on my pillow asleep or nestled deep in the covers of our bed. He never missed the opportunity to snag a treat and occasionally he would feel his inner kitten well up and be smitten with the desire to chase a toy, wrestle his brothers or dance with the string.

Cool mornings had begun to find him with a slight limp on his way to the food bowl or the litter box but nothing alarming and nothing that seemed to slow him down. I assumed he, like me, was beginning to feel the effects of age settle into his bones. His attitude had not changed and his lust for life remained the same. I still awoke in the mornings to “needle feet” massages and opened my eyes to a giant cat head peering into my face and white whiskers tickling my nose. His high pierced “meow!” would still greet me when the bottom of the food bowl was visible or when the litter box was not cleaned to his satisfaction.

He was not ill, ten is not old for a house cat.

This past Sunday, when we arrived home from church, I found Henry’s body lying in our bedroom floor at the foot of our bed. I screamed his name. I checked for breathing and a heartbeat, I found none. His eyes were open and his stare was vacant and my heart was torn asunder. I picked his body out of the floor and cradled him to my chest as I ran out of the house screaming for Fred. I fell in the yard with my beloved baby in my arms and I wept. He was gone.

I feel heartbroken, I feel robbed. I know many of you will read this and find me and my grief ridiculous. I have lost my child and there is no solace for the bereaved of another species. People say things like “he was just a cat” or “he had a good life” and while those things are true and logically and I understand them it does not ease my heartache and it does not “fix” my grief. Ten years was not long enough and describing Henry as a “pet” does not even begin to encompass everything he meant to me. I am heartbroken.

Beloved fuzzy child, Mommy loves you. I will never forget you. I hope all kitties go to heaven because you have taken part of my heart with you.

I will endeavor to wrench this blog back on topic but I am not making any promises.

Much love & sadness,


  1. Autumn, this is David Broughton. I am terribly sorry for your loss. Any lover of animals knows that they truly become family in very short order. And even if they live to be 20, they are gone far too quickly. I have no shame admitting that it was difficult to read this blog through my tears. May you find peace where you may. I personally believe that we will be reunited one day. I am looking forward to Tippi wagging her stub tail at me while chewing me out, asking me where I've been. And Bear, nuzzling his huge head under my arm for a scratch.

  2. Oh, Autumn, I am so sorry for your heartbreak. There is nothing quite like the unconditional love of an animal, and when you have shared a very emotional history, such as you and your beloved, Henry; the loss and emptiness can seem unbearable. I will not tell you that 'things will get better' because I have found that after the loss of a loved one that it never is 'better' it just becomes 'different'. I will be praying for your heart to heal.

  3. I lost some of my computer bookmarks, and couldn't find your blog address! I miss you on Facebook! I was so happy that I finally found your blog. But then read the sad news. Autumn, I am so sorry for your loss!

    Send me your email. I want to stay in touch!
    : ) Donna

  4. Donna, I miss you too, email me: earthautumndawn(at)yahoo.com


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