Just over 20 years ago on 8 July 1991, my beautiful cat Suzy died. Suzy came to us in the usual Jenkin fashion – completely unplanned. We had a dog Mina, who was a Keeshond (http://www.google.com/search?q=keeshond&hl=en&biw=817&bih=629&prmd=ivns&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=CBYWToS9OMy08QPToI0C&sqi=2&ved=0CDYQsAQ), with a thick, fluffy coat. Her original owner lost his farm and was going to shoot her (I know, don’t get me started), so Dad rescued her. Mina was exactly my age (6 months old) when we got her, so she and I grew up together.
Keeshonds are European and their thick coats do not do them any favours in the South African heat. Mom and Dad had been told that she would not live much beyond 7. When she got to 7, they started thinking about getting another dog, assuming that Mina was going to pop her clogs. Knowing we were so close, they thought a new dog would help ease the pain a little.
They did the right thing and went to the SPCA (SA version of the RSPCA). And they looked and looked and looked. Dad liked big dogs, Mom was not so keen. Neither wanted a little dog. So they looked some more. Nothing, de nada, no way Jose. So they went back for another attempt and eventually Dad said “well, what about a cat?” “No”, said Mom, “I am not really keen on cats.” “Don’t be silly”, said Dad, “cats are lovely”. Dad and his family were confirmed cat lovers.
After some persuasion on Dad’s part, they went to look at the cats. And they looked and looked and looked. And eventually, the SPCA lady showed them the older kittens. Dad went into the enclosure and they all ran about, being cute. But none actually grabbed him. So he sat down, thinking furiously. At that, a small, short-haired tabby with a bushy tail and big eyes jumped onto his lap and said “take me home”. So he did. Mom was not impressed at all but, putting my best interests at heart, put up with the decision.
I still remember vividly standing on the porch as Dad and Mom walked down the path with this massive wicker cat basket and just visible, between the wicker pieces, were two eyes and ears and a loud “miaow”. Mom asked what I was going to call her. My favourite dolls at the time were Nella and Suzy. Nella didn’t seem right for a cat, so Suzy she became.
Two weeks later (thank you very much SPCA), Suzy gave birth to four kittens in Mom’s cupboard. At the same time, Mina had 7 puppies and Pingo, the rescue dog had come to live with us (but that’s another story), so we had a rather full house.
Sadly, the kittens did not survive, two by two succumbing in consecutive nights to something we never were able to work out. In those days, there were no emergency vets so no opportunity to save them. If my hindsight is correct, Suzy probably had cat flu. She was prone to sneezing all of her life and lost many of her teeth quite early on. I remember her eyes getting gunky at times too. Once again, there was just not the level of vet care in those days and I don’t recall her being ill, just occasionally a bit snotty. So this may have been the reason her kittens did not survive. Dad buried them sadly, two by two in the back garden. Mom and Dad then had her spayed (which they had been told had been done when they took her).
Suzy soon established herself. She did not like other cats, believed herself to be human and defended the garden from every feline in the neighbourhood. She never growled – one hiss, a fluff out of her tail (her tail was amazingly lush and when fluffed out looked like a separate animal) and a look and the trespassing cat would be off. She loathed the Indian Myna (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_myna) birds which populated our area and killed every one she could lay her paws on. One epic night, she caught two which she brought into the house and put under my bed for me to admire. Dad was not impressed to be woke up at silly o’clock by an hysterical me, bits of bird decorating my bedroom and Suzy in the middle of it all, having a wash and looking exceedingly proud of herself.
For years, the Myna birds avoided our garden like the plague and it took over a year after Suzy’s death for the first intrepid Myna to land back in our garden.
She was also a champion ratter – not bothering to even catch them, she would dispatch them to rat heaven with one swoop of a claw across their throat, and decorate the garden path with them. In later years, she would bring them indoors and on one classic occasion, she brought a mouse in, only to be chased out by Mom. Minutes later, she reappeared, mouseless, waltzed in and stood in front of Mom to verify that yes, indeed she was Without Mouse.
Mom was bemused to note that Suzy’s face was bulging … so stood and waiting whilst Suzy battling to keep the entire thing in her mouth. It was a standoff, with Suzy refusing to acknowledge her predicament and Mom knowing that she couldn’t stand there forever with mouse mouth. Eventually, the tiny tip of a tail escaped out the side of Suzy’s teeth. “Aha!” said Mom. Suzy was returned outside to finish her meal al fresco and to have a major case of the cat sulks.
She was also one of the most loving cats I have ever known. She slept with me, played with me, was tolerant of being dressed in doll’s clothes and wheeled round the neighbourhood in a pram. She never once scratched me, even in error and although she could play for hours, always sheathed her claws when playing with humans.
My brother, who was a baby at the time, would be amused in his playpen by Suzy, who would either get in with him, or sit outside, her tail inside and let him catch it as she waved it about.
Suzy was responsible for the start of my snake fixation by playing with a baby green mamba one day. Dad got used to getting into his snake kit (thick, oil industry overalls, gumboots – like Wellington boots but thicker and black) and despatching Suzy’s finds before they bit her or us. I remain fascinated by snakes to this day.
Suzy slept with me every night and Mom marvelled at how she would mirror my position. If I was on my back, snoring my head off, Suzy would be too. If I was on my side, Suzy would be snuggling up into me, in exactly the same way.
When I went on my first Brownie camp, the first time I ever spent time away on my own, none of us anticipated that Suzy would miss me. She sat on the post box for two days in howling winds and rain until I returned. The look I got from her, I can still see :-).
I have written about Suzy’s sense of humour before but I haven’t mentioned her sensitivity to how I was feeling. For one rather nasty reason, despite having wonderful parents, my childhood was not the happiest time of my life. Suzy was a true outdoors cat, sometimes staying outside all day and some of the night. But she knew instinctively when I was upset and within a few minutes, would be by my side. She never failed me.
I had a white desk in my bedroom for doing my homework. When Suzy tired of being turfed off my books, she would retire to one of the drawers and sleep there until I was done.
Although she was comparatively tiny, she loved her food. She also loved cheese, frozen peas (they had to be partially thawed) and ham. She did very well for ages, eating three breakfasts. Dad would wake first and feed her. I would then get up and feed her. Mom would then get up, etc. It was only when I got into trouble for “not feeding her” that Mom realised she was buying double the amount of cat food she would do ordinarily.
Suzy used to wake me up in a similar fashion to the way Arthur does now. She was more gentle –simply tapping my cheek gently to rouse me. One day I must have been deeply asleep, because I woke up to a cat frantically swatting my nose and meeping at me. The look of concern on her face was again, very human.
As I have mentioned, she would not let any cats, no matter how sweet, near our property. Patrolling the boundaries, she saw off a huge tomcat, several gorgeous neighbourhood moggies and memorably, Callie, Yvonne’s Alsatian (more on that later).
We were completely non-plussed therefore to wake up one day to discover Suzy sitting on the kitchen chair with Kit, the new cat from next door. It was love at first purr. Kit was almost double Suzy’s size and they adored each other. Despite both being spayed, they spent hours on the roof, in apparent mating sessions, singing to each other. We often had to feed Kit (who had a perfectly good home) with Suzy, as she would not eat if he was there and not being fed and he would not eat out of her bowl. The love affair continued until her death.
Mina, by now a very elderly Keeshond at 14, was double the age at which Keeshonds normally pass. She would whine at night, as if she was anxious. Suzy would climb into the basket with her and comfort her. Mina was shaggy and a little unkempt as my parents were scared of giving her a chill, she was that frail. Suzy would sit with Mina until she slept, then climb into bed with me, smelling very doggy. I guess it was good preparation for the cats who sleep with me now, smelling of fox. Mina lived another two happy years, comforted by Suzy at night and sitting side by side with Folly, her pup.
My grandmother in the UK died when I was 14. I was very sad but truly, she was so far away, I missed out on having a typical nan-granddaughter relationship with her. I have felt her loss more as I have got older than I did then. When Suzy fell ill, at the start of my final year exams at school, we were all at a loss. We had moved house by then and were living on the other side of the country, none of us happy, despite the acre of land and the gorgeous scenery.
Suzy learned to tap on the French windows to be let in. Tap, tap, tippety tap went her claws on the glass. Mom was once busy typing away and did not hear her, so Suzy moved to the side of the house and bounced up and down on the creeper until the movement caught Mom’s eye. Mom described how she looked up, to see this cat flying up in the air, all big eyes and legs, coming down again, only bounce upwards once more. When Suzy glanced down, during the fourth bounce and saw Mom looking at her, she calmly jumped off, walked back round the house to the French windows and waited for Mom to let her in. It took a while, as Mom was too busy laughing to walk fast.
Suzy spent hours in the garden, which was beautiful. I was preoccupied with exams and my parents were busy with plans to move us all back home, so it took a few days to realise that Suzy wasn’t eating all her food. She was throwing up but not indoors and it was only when she started making a nest in the garden and on two occasions staggered noticeably as she walked that Mom realised that something was not right. She was 12 and Mom and Dad were petrified that this Was It.
A few months before, Suzy had developed sores all over her body. We had taken her to a vet who should have been shot, who upset me by intimating that she was going to die, then pronouncing that she had an allergy to fish (which she adored). Off the menu went fish and the problem continued. Nowadays I can tell you straight off that it was a flea allergy but then, (let me be a bit generous here) less was known. All we knew was that it got worse in the summer.
This vet’s behaviour (my Dad was with me and realised the asswipe was power playing) meant that we were without a vet so Mom and Dad frantically found another. They rushed Suzy down to him and Mom explained how much I loved her and that she was so worried Suzy was dying, especially as I was about to start my final exams. She was. She had had a series of heart attacks and was in multiple organ failure.
I wish to this day I knew what the vet gave her. All he said was that he could give her something to restart her system, but that (a) it was expensive and (b) may not work. She might live for three days, three months or three years but he gave her 6 months if she survived the injection.
I sat waiting for them to come home, inconsolable. My boyfriend at the time, a rather tough biker, endeared himself to me forever by saying (when I apologised for being such a mess) “Don’t be sorry, Suzy is a person to you and you are mourning her like a person. That’s natural.”
Back at the vet, Mom and Dad said that they didn’t care, Suzy just had to live. So he injected her, Mom and Dad brought her home and I sat up with her all night. Mom, knowing that such deaths were not always easy, dozed on the couch next to me. Every time Suzy started to slip away, I shook her gently. She would glare at me and then go back to sleep. By 4am, I knew in my heart we had won and she would make it. I spent two hours asleep, then sat and failed the first of my maths exams. I thought then and still think now that sitting with Suzy was a far better use of my time.
Suzy moved back with us to Durban, the same vet taking excellent care of her on the journey (Suzy and Folly the dog flew and went into kennels to await our arrival, we drove for two days across SA – this says a lot about my family :-D).
When I was 19, I moved to Johannesburg. The constant police attention, the years of living as an adult when still very young, had taken their toll and I needed to get away. I was heartbroken to leave Suzy behind but knew she would be far happier with my parents. I went home every 6 months or so and the pattern would always be the same. Suzy would behave as if I had never been away, sleeping with me, being around me and sitting on my lap. Until the last day. She always disappeared on my last day and I never got to say goodbye to her before I left.
Mom was in hysterics one day when I called. The family had been having a braai (barbeque). Callie, our neighbours’ Alsatian, loved Dad and often used to hop over the walls and visit him when her humans were at work. Often I would find Dad working away downstairs on the PC, Callie underneath the desk at his feet. Suzy and Folly were as usual, being halfheartedly chased by Dad away from the table (before giving up and feeding them under said table – he was incorrigible!) and eventually everyone, sated and full, cleared away and started to enjoy a few drinks and relax.
Suzy came and sat on the table (another absolute no-no that no-one enforced too rigorously) and settled down to sleep, happy to be the centre of everyone’s chatting and occasional stroking. Callie came over the fence and no-one batted an eyelid. Callie raced down the path and up to the table. This was such a common thing that no-one even commented.
Suzy however sat up, took one look at Callie’s happy, doggy face and growled. Startled (as no-one had never heard her growl before), conversation stopped dead. Callie, who was a lovely dog, blindly carried on and got within a paw’s reach. 15 years of mouse decapitation practice gave Suzy a perfect aim as she swatted Callie across the nose. Callie fell over herself and howled all the way back home. Suzy sat down, looked round as it to say “what?” and went back to sleep.
A few days later, Mom was home from work and doing some sewing, heard the familiar “thump-plump” of Callie coming over the fence and thought she had just better go and check where Suzy was. Suzy was at the front door, waiting just inside. One paw was raised and poking out of the door and as Callie got to the steps, she saw the paw and turned tail, howling all the way back home.
Mom never got to the bottom of why Suzy had suddenly taken against Callie. Callie lived with another dog and a cat and had never behaved badly towards her, so who knows. But from then on, Callie would slink into the house, checking carefully before proceeding downstairs to Dad.
Suzy outlived all our expectations by surviving until she was 15 – another 3years beyond the vet’s greatest hope. Dad called me to say that Suzy had come in the previous night, walking oddly and tried to jump up on his lap and fallen. Dad knew it was the end. He called the vet who refused to come to the house. One of my siblings told me later that Dad had begged and pleaded with the vet, in tears and the bastard would not make the trip. Suzy hated the vets and Dad did not want her to be put to sleep there.
Dad’s entreaties and explanations fell on deaf ears and he and Mom took Suzy there one last time. The vet said she had broken her back, which was odd because she could still walk (yet another duff vet) and Suzy died peacefully in Dad’s arms. Dad buried her in the back yard, in an old crochet dress of mine, next to her kittens.
I still miss her.