And then there was Henry

Henry Higgins Johnson Lanier Jaster Hogle.  That was his full name, although we only called him Henry for expediency’s sake.  We simply appended to his formal name the surname of every person with whom he spent a part of his life while on the journey to our home.

Born in July 1977, Henry was the cat’s cat.  He was in charge.  He feared no animal.  He lived his life fully and excitedly.  He treated people with disdain except members of the family, and even in that regard I was the only one who could pick him up and carry him around, in whose lap he would happily sleep, with whom he would dance (don’t ask) without complaint, and who shared the majority of his life.

Even now I begin to cry as I sit here writing this.

Henry was my friend.  He took care of me when I was sick, and I him.  He stayed with me always, whether happily (but loudly) taking a ride in the car or curling up on the couch to watch a movie.  We were inseparable.  He slept nowhere except with me.  He tolerated the antics of no one as much as he did mine.  He embodied the very independence that for so long I sought to understand from the world of men.  He helped me understand the importance of quality of life and how it is far more important than quantity, regardless of whether that quantity be measured in years or loved ones or accomplishments or dollars.  He loved and trusted me.  He was family.

Mom and I always believed Henry would outlive everyone in the family.  He was our companion for more than two decades, so he certainly gave it his best shot.  He had his ups and downs like every living thing, but he always came out strong on the other side.  While it’s unusual for a cat to live as long as he did, it is not unheard of.

Arco learned early on that Henry was not to be fooled with.  He was not de-clawed (a barbaric and cruel practice at best), so he was fully armed and prepared to defend himself.  When he and Arco first moved into the same home, there was a section (several rooms) which was protected space for Henry — mainly because he was a cat and we feared the larger dog — eventually dogs — might harm him.  It was for that reason that Arco, like all dogs who came after her, learned that these rooms were off limits to them.  This allowed Henry to roam freely in these areas and to enjoy safety and security from the other beasts who shared our abode.  Arco believed herself lord of all she surveyed, however, and decided one day to prove this to Henry.  She did not understand Henry outranked her in wit and skill and cunning, and he was truly the master of the house.  While he sat just inside one of these protected rooms, Arco walked up and engaged him in a staring contest.  She was many times his size (Doberman versus cat, after all), but Henry was not intimidated in the slightest.  In fact, he stepped closer to her and sat down deliberately within her reach.  Daftly accepting this challenge, Arco stepped forward and enveloped Henry’s entire head with her mouth.  He in his infinite wisdom never moved until she was confident.  She “had him” right where she wanted.  Only then did Henry act.  All four of his paws, claws extended, invisibly moved from floor to Arco in the blink of an eye.  There could be no smaller measure of time.  Claws extended, he wrapped his paws around her head and mouth and dug in rabidly.  Arco never had time to completely clamp down on Henry’s head before her mouth fell open and she backed away yelping, Henry all the while fully attached to her head and face.  His front claws were snug in both sides of her snout while his back claws anchored forcefully on either side of her chin.  Arco could not separate herself from him, yet she backed away, mouth agape, with speed and agility that Dobermans in reverse can rarely demonstrate.  Never again did Arco challenge Henry’s supremacy.  He became comfortable doing what he wished anywhere in the house without the big black dog posing a threat.

When Drew came into my life and we became lovers, he had dogs and I had Henry.  Living with me meant that Henry was king of the house and won every argument.  Dogs are not learned animals, though, and often require the same lesson many times over before a truth is really known to them.  One of his dogs, a pit bull, challenged Henry one day.  While pit bulls are renowned for their tempers and aggressiveness, I did not fear for Henry’s safety.  I sat on the couch within easy reach of both while their encounter took place.  Henry moved under the coffee table while the dog circled and barked.  Each time the dog’s snout came within reach (meaning within a foot or so of the table), Henry would reach out and slap him with claws fully splayed.  This action was repeated 10 or 12 times, eventually ending with the dog yelping away to the corner of the room to tend to its bloody wounds.  Henry, on the other hand, never broke a sweat.  Again, he was proven chief of the roost and was never challenged again by this untoward interloper.

When Derek came into my life and we became roommates, he often would make clear that Henry was truly his own cat and respected no one but my mother and me.  If Derek tried to touch him, he would move away and immediately commence bathing to get rid of the alien’s sense that deposited on him through physical contact.  If Henry and I were on the couch enjoying a relaxing moment and Derek decided to take a seat, Henry would immediately rise and prance across Derek speedily on his way to the opposite end of the couch.  If Derek interrupted this at all, he would get a swat, a hiss, or merely a very dirty look to let him know such action was not acceptable.  In fact, Derek intentionally rubbed Henry every chance available simply because he knew he could not tolerate it and bathed immediately.

Henry loved to play.  His favorite thing involved lying on his back while someone dangled a string or pen or other toy above him.  He attacked from that position in whatever way was possible.  If the game became challenging enough, he curled his ass into the air and hooked his back claws into the ground on either side of his head.  This allowed him use of his back feet for maneuvering with speed, agility, grace, and strength.  In this position, there was no direction in which he could not move more rapidly than the person with whom he was playing.  It also left his front paws free to engage whatever carrot dangled above him.  No other activity could engage him so.

I became concerned for Henry’s health some two years before his death.  His age was much advanced — certainly two decades is more advanced than any cat I had ever known.  Despite this, he was in excellent health.  Age still began to take a toll on him.  Arthritis reduced his physical activity steadily over time.  It became increasingly difficult for him to get up on the furniture, especially the bed.  I built steps for him to ensure he could still sleep with me, as this was important to both of us.  I helped him up on things if I saw he was having difficulty.  Even I in my infinite contrariness understood that time takes its toll, and age is undeniable.

In the hopes of engaging him in more physical activity and providing more companionship while I was out of the house at work each day, I adopted two kittens in early 1997: Grendel and Loki.  Henry beat up on them in the first days of their residency with us.  I believe he saw it as an invasion and direct challenge to his rule.  Within a few months, he eventually took to The Boys and began running and playing again with a fervor I had not seen in many months.  His health once again improved, and even his arthritis failed to restrain him from engaging in folly and play.  In fact, I wholeheartedly believe that he took Loki under his wing in order to teach him the most evil ways of catdom: treat people with disdain for they are convenient only under specific circumstances, but always love and cherish Daddy; avoid human contact (excluding Daddy) at whatever cost; waste no opportunity which enables you to make a person feel unclean and unwanted; never walk away from a challenge; and never doubt your own superiority.  Derek knew each of these feline tenets was true and practiced minute by minute in my home, for he knew Henry and saw what Loki was becoming under his stern but caring tutelage.  We laughed often at how much of Henry’s personality seemed absorbed by Loki.

In the last year of his life, back in 1998, Henry began his final months.  He began losing weight, just not at a frightening pace (and he carried a wee bit extra through most of his life, so part of that was a good thing).  He began losing interest in play.  He began sleeping far more than cats do (and they already sleep a lot).  He would not venture into most of the house but would instead spend the majority of his time under my bed until I returned home each day, and even then, he stayed there if there was any abnormal activity or visitors in the house.  I finally concluded that things were getting bad enough to warrant serious attention, and the vet confirmed it was simply age and the related physical degradation.  We talked of quality of life versus quantity (and I will always err on the side of quality).  We talked of looming physical ailments, worsening arthritis, and eventual suffering — all of which were rapidly approaching.  The time was coming to say goodbye.

The day came to ensure Henry would suffer no more.  It was October 28, 1998.  I took off work as I was losing a dear friend — an important family member — and needed time to prepare and lament.  A week would not have been sufficient.  I cried all morning, resting on the couch with Henry and loving him, stroking him, talking gently and lovingly to him.  I let him know I loved him and was doing what was best, that I could not stand to see him suffer, that I would not be selfish and prolong his failing life for my own desires, and that he would soon feel better and be free of the physical body that now trapped his feral spirit.

I cried most of the day, much as I am doing now while I write this, the memories striking me with clarity and emotion regarding events now seven years removed.  Even through the tears, however, Henry knew I was OK — would be OK — and that I would protect him with my life and would act to ensure his comfort and safety.  I explained that I did not want him to go but would not allow him to ache and agonize.  His life was full.  It overflowed with such diversity and memory that it can neither be contained nor explained by any one person.

I wept on the way to the vet that day.  Both Derek and Jenny were to meet me there, as I could not face this alone.  In that special yet distanced way that Henry allowed them, both became a part of his life.  They wanted to be there for him as much as I know Henry wanted them to be there during his final moments.

The tears poured from me when it finally came time for Henry to leave behind his physical pain.  After being my friend and family for so many years, I struggled with letting him go.  Yet, I am an advocate for quality versus quantity.  Henry’s doctor had made it clear he was beginning to suffer, and his age would prohibit solutions while the suffering worsened.  I could not allow him to endure that.

We three — Derek, Jenny, and I — stood in one of the veterinary offices as the doctor explained what would happen.  Henry would simply fall asleep.  He would feel no pain.  The drugs would relax him; quietly serenade his body to sleep.  This, in turn, would help his spirit take flight away from this physical world of pain and suffering, where time is a predator we all seek to escape.  Henry would know again the beauty of true rest and peace.

I fail to understand people who do not see that pets are equally important to us just as our own family members are.  The bond is the same.  The love is the same.  The responsibility is the same.  I am glad my boss at that time understood this and gave me the freedom to tend to a dying family member.

Even now, more than seven years later, I weep.  This post refused completion in one sitting.  Emotions time and again forced me to walk away, to allow myself to cry, to confirm through tears and mourning that he is still with me, and to lament that which is lost.  My heart breaks in his absence, yet it also rejoices in his serenity.

May I never — never — be without this level of compassion for my children: The Kids.  May I never be without this level of compassion for my family and friends.  May I never lose the ability to suffer the loss of a pet without embracing the strength to do it again and again and again.  May I never exist without the will and power of mind to care for the least of these, whether they be human or otherwise.  May I always understand the joy of loss and the sorrow of love.

To my friend:

Thank you, Henry, for the fond memories. Thank you for the friendship. Thank you for the unconditional love and devotion. Thank you for the innumerable good times. Thank you for your faithful companionship. Thank you for being you.

We’ve always said that you would outlive all of us, and you gave it your best shot, as you did with all things.

To my friend and companion with whom I enjoyed so many years, I will miss you. And, I will always love you!

– Jason

[October 28, 1998]

One thought on “And then there was Henry”

  1. I cried while reading this, because you evoke incredible emotions with your writing, but also because it brought me wrenchingly back to the day I had to put my Burmese/Siamese Kwi to sleep. I’d spent 11 years of my life with her and regret to this day that I let my husband ban her from my bed the last year of her life.

    She will always have a place in my heart and thoughts.

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