When we moved from Herzliya to Tel Aviv in 2001, we had to part with our dog, Blanche - who went to canine heaven - and with Lucifer, who went to hunt mice somewhere else. The only pet that remained with us from our quarter of a century in Herzliya was Rufus, who even then was no spring chicken (can one say "spring-cat?").
At the ripe age of 16 he peered down from the ground-floor window ledge at the local cats that gathered at our doorstep. Every time our son Jonathan came to visit us, he used to declare to the group assembled under our window: "No vacancy for the position of the Handelzaltses' cat yet."
With time Rufus lost nothing of his well-groomed charm. If anything, his innate nobility, probably due to having 1/8 Persian blood in his veins, and years of pampering by a host of caretakers ( i.e., us), was enhanced by a whiff of distinguished seniority. He used to astound us by balancing on the roof's edge, and he drove the dog crazy by changing directions in mid-leap (causing her to brake suddenly and skid all the way into the wall). He moved majestically, biding his time and tail.
When he was young, he used to walk about by himself, a little like the cat in Rudyard Kipling's "Just So Stories," paying little attention to what was going on around him. When guests came to visit, he used to perch on a stool among us, following the arguments attentively. The moment one of us made a point he used to look at the others, as if asking "any comments?" - and then fixed his stare on the lips of the person who stood up to the challenge, with all the attention his whiskers could muster. Woe to the speaker who made Rufus lose his concentration and go away.
I have to admit that I did use him a lot: I wrote about him at least 10 times in these pages and, I confess, not always truthfully. I attributed certain intentions to him, interpreted the movements of his tail and commented on the direction in which his ears were pointing. He succumbed willingly and never protested, although it stands to reason that the piece of newspaper he sat on did not present him in the best light. One of the best things about him was that his inscrutable stare always said it all. Indeed, it said whatever I wanted it to say.
Once, after I posed with him for a photo to accompany an interview in a weekly supplement (he was extremely photogenic), a female caller phoned to inquire if it was my photograph in the paper, with the cat on my lap. I admitted being guilty as charged and braced myself for some personal questions, when she asked: "Where did you get that cat? He looks exactly like ours! Could be they are related?"
The vet who came once a year to give him his shots made my day when only a couple of years ago, he said that Rufus did not look a year older than eight, and that he behaved like a real European cat, i.e., well mannered and docile. The vet said that our cat was a celebrity among his patients, but as far as I could see, such comments never went to Rufus' head.
Apart from the yearly vaccinations we rarely had to bother the vet with Rufus' problems. Once when he was young, he started to walk backward and was diagnosed with a urinary tract infection. I used to drive some distance to bring him special food for cats with "delicate" kidneys. It certainly looked like Rufus was going to live forever.
But then he started to drink. A lot. The saucer that we kept full to the brim at all times was not enough for him anymore. He wanted to drink from vases with flowers. When the vase was not big enough for him to stick his head or at least a paw in, he used to nudge it gently until it tipped over, and then he would lick the water from the table, the books, the floor, whatever. One day I found him sharing the morning shower with me, unaware that his fur was getting wet.
Prayers to God
The vet was summoned and diagnosed terminal kidney failure. He recommended feeding him with a special kind of food and offering prayers to the God of all cats. Rufus did not like the food and kept on drinking, as if he were in a desert on a very hot day. He clearly needed warmth, and whenever he saw me in a horizontal position he used to nestle up on my neck, his tail stroking my nose gently. In the winter he sat as if he were glued to the heater.
He started losing weight. What used to be a portly, royal feline turned into a shadow of his former self. His diminishing weight allowed him to keep on executing the short leap from the chair to the table, but only after a long process of eyeing the distance and assessing the odds. Once in a while, finding himself alone in the corridor, he would emit a heart-wrenching "meow" that sounded like something between "quick" and "eat." We soon discovered that if we called out "It's okay, Rufus, we're here," he would be pacified.
The fact that he was 22 (which is more than 100 in human years and rather rare for cats) was small consolation to us. I think that this wasn't easy for him, either. He did not look morose or as if he were suffering, and most of the day he used to sit in the shower. He could walk, his hind legs bent in a strange way, and it took him a lot of time to sit down.
During the very days when there were so many reasons to mourn for human beings, between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day for soldiers who were killed in Israel's wars, I held Rufus in my arms and we had to part forever. He left his life as he had lived it, graciously and nobly. I apologized to him for all the times I pushed him from my bed in order to lie down myself. He was a constant source of comfort for my family and me - the last strain connecting us to the happy years we spent as parents or as small children. He has now returned all of his nine lives to his maker, and has gone to roam in the eternal hunting grounds of the felines.
So this is it. There is now a vacancy for the position of the Handelzaltses' cat. But I don't think I'll be holding auditions anytime soon.
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