In winter's last days, an old cat departs on next adventure

ALICE STEINBACH

March 21, 1993|By ALICE STEINBACH

If I had to describe Max in just one word it would be: questing. Max was definitely a questing kind of cat.

He was always searching for something, it seemed. And, unlike some cats I know, he pursued each day with a singular sense of adventuresome purpose.

Sometimes Max's quest took him away from home for a few days. But always when he returned from the road, you knew from his demeanor that this was a cat who had done what he had set out to do. After such trips, Max liked to spend a few days sleeping before setting out on his next adventure.

Of course, he never had to look that far for excitement. Momentous things occurred in Max's life every day. The sun rose each morning. Birds flew overhead in Max's sky and squirrels chattered in his trees. There were backyards to be explored and trees to be climbed. There were basement doors to dart inside and furnace rooms to explore.

And, naturally, given Max's penchant for exploration, there'd be close calls, too. Getting stuck in an attic crawl space, for instance. Or being locked in a neighbor's garage for a weekend.

But such is the fate of the questing cat: It leads a life that is filled with risk. But satisfaction, too.

Which reminds me: For all the satisfaction Max got out of his exhausting, questing schedule, he also believed in kicking back and relaxing on a regular basis.

One of the things he most loved to do during his off-duty hours was to fish. Often in the spring I would see Max stretched out in the sun, fishing from the side of a neighbor's pond. Leisurely -- he wasn't a serious fishercat -- he'd rake his paw through the water, aiming at the little golden darts that flashed just beneath the surface.

And in the summer Max loved to sleep in the sun. His favorite spot was in the middle of the tall, swaying day lilies whose color -- orange -- perfectly complemented the orange-and-white-spotted Max. From my bedroom window I would spot him sleeping there, his heart-shaped face parting the flowers directly in front of him.

A lot of people thought Max was haughty. But I saw him as a cat who was particularly adept at putting his paw on whatever was irrelevant to his lifestyle. He paid no attention, for instance, to suggestions that he not sleep in the linen closet or use a silk chair as his scratching post. He turned aside such suggestions with something approaching disdain.

Somehow I always imagined that if Max were a person he'd be a lot like James Thurber: witty and urbane, with a sharp eye for the ridiculous.

Max was afraid of nothing. As a result, he ruled the neighborhood. Cat-wise, that is. Most of the catz 'n the hood went out of their way to stay out of his path. Not that he was mean. But the blood of imperial Egyptian cats flowed in Max, and he ruled accordingly.

Max had come to us as a stray kitten 16 years ago. Just showed up in the backyard one evening and never left. For 16 years he was my faithful companion and the friend of my children's youth. And to the end, despite his age and illness, he retained all the qualities that added up to Max.

The end came last weekend. And it seems fitting that Max's departure from this earth coincided with the arrival of a blizzard. In fact, the sight of all that snow briefly revived Max's questing instinct.

For the first time in months, Max wanted to go outside. And I wanted him to go outside, too. I wanted Max to feel the crunch of snow under his paws one more time. I wanted him to smell the alpine freshness of the winter air and to see a blue jay flash against the high, cold sky one more time.

And because I knew this was to be his last day on earth, there was something I wanted to see one more time: his footprints in the snow.

Outside, a break in the overcast skies threw a wide slant of sunlight against the back porch, and I watched Max position himself in the center of it.

Max always liked to be at the center of things.

Later that night, when the vet came to ease Max into his final sleep, I noticed he was purring. It was the last sound he made.

The next morning I got up early and went out to see if Max's footprints were still visible in the snow. They were.

For some reason I thought of how in springtime I used to love to smell the scent of the damp, fertile earth on those paws. It was like smelling life itself.

And then I remembered something about how life works. I remembered how beneath all the snow, the jonquils were blooming.

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