My first cat.

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Asa Gray Tucker

I have always been a dog person. Maybe I was born that way. Maybe it’s the stories my grandfather had told me — it was pretty much the same story he would tell, where the dog always caught the spy trying to get into the country, or the dog always caught the saboteur trying to blow up a factory — dog as hero to “The Motherland.” When I was very little, people would ask me if I wanted a brother or a sister. I would always answer, “I want a dog.”

Besides, I knew dogs. People we knew had dogs. No one I knew growing up had a cat. I didn’t dislike them. I was simply ignorant in the ways of the cats.

The very first cat I have met was named Simon, he was an old, long-haired Siamese, a pet of my best friend in high school. I would pet Simon, who spent a great deal of time sleeping, or looking up sleepily with slightly crossed eyes. Once when Amy’s family went on vacation, she asked me to come over, feed the cat and just be with him. “If he’s not around, just lie down on the sofa, he’ll find you,” she told me.

I came over the first day, and laid down on the sofa. In a few minutes Simon jumped up on the sofa and gingerly made his way to my chest, where he settled, purring. I wouldn’t say I was converted, but I was incredibly charmed.

We got our first cat from a shelter in Sioux City, Iowa, where we were living at the time — Amy (my husband’s sister/best friend from high school) was with us when we went to pick out a kitten. She thrust the only grey kitten of the shelter into my arms, where he purred so loudly, his whole little body vibrated. It was love at first purr.

We named him Asa Gray. A bit of a history lesson: Asa Gray was an American botanist who worked with Charles Darwin on the theory of evolution, using plants in his experiments. As an extra coincidence, once we moved to Colorado, we discovered that there is a mountain in the Rockies called Gray’s Peak, also named after the same botanist, stemming from his visit to this state. My husband loved the name ‘Asa Gray’ even before the cat.

Asa Gray Tucker was a Russian Blue mix, with a lovely and silky grey coat, green eyes, and a slightly confused, friendly disposition that belied his rather stern look. He wasn’t the smartest cat in the litter, but he liked our company, and even hung around when we had parties. From day one he slept in our bed, except when my father came to visit up in Iowa. Then, still a kitten, he chose to sleep with him (my father is still proud of that).

About a year after we got him, Jeff & I went on a trip to Ireland. Our friend and her daughter fed Asa, visited him, and kept his litter box tidy. When we came back, 11 days later, Asa was so desperately happy to see us, rubbing ankles, meowing, and purring like crazy, we knew had to get another cat to keep him company.

We went to a house where two mama cats had litters at the same time, and had our pick on the day before they were given to the shelter. As I was playing with a black kitten with brown eyes (a striking combination), I looked over at Jeff to see if he would be interested. That’s when I saw Jeff holding a tiny, mostly white Siamese mix kitten, and he was in love. Jeff had the goofy smile, the raised eyebrows, and he was holding the baby as if already sheltering it from the world. I gently placed the kitten I was holding down— we had found our other cat.

Since we were recently back from Ireland, we named this new beauty, Inish ( ‘island’ in Gaelic) Joyce (for James Joyce). From the start she was a “talking” kitten, mewing loudly and often. All I had to do was say her name, and she would meow in return. The conversation went something like this:

“Inish?”

“Meow.”

“Inish?”

“Meow.”

“Inish?”

“Meew.”

Hey, I didn’t say it was a stimulating conversation.

Asa warmed to and bonded with Inish instantly and forever. I would walk into the bedroom to find Asa studiously licking Inish’s ears or face. She let him do it, but only rarely would return the favor.

When we had our non-furry daughter, Riva, a year later, Inish quickly learned to run away from the crawling baby. Asa wasn’t quick on the uptake. As Riva slowly made her way to him, and then gently (just like we taught her) and awkwardly petted him, he would look over at us, cowering and terrified, and let out pathetic mewls.

“Don’t look at me,” I told him, more than once. “You had plenty of chances to get away. You still do. Now what are you going to do?” He did nothing. And he never learned. After we had our son, Sammy, the scenario would again be repeated. (When I was pregnant with my son and we were choosing names, my husband slapped his forehead in frustration and said, “Damn it! We already named the cat Asa!). Hell, Inish didn’t let Sammy touch her for the first six years of his life, but Asa would sit there, watching this little human make unsteady and slow progress towards him on all fours, and then complain when receiving clumsy baby love.

As Asa got older, before he came to bed, he would get confused. As Jeff and I would already be upstairs, in the bedroom, we would hear him downstairs meowing a most pathetic “ma-row, marow,” at a loud volume. It was baffling, almost like, “Anybody home? … Hello! Anyone?”

“Asa, we’re upstairs. Come to bed,” I would call him, and he would obediently trot up the steps, to settle at our feet, purr for a little bit, and then fall asleep.

Asa didn’t have a middle age. From being a kitten, skinny and tiny, he went straight into old age, and stayed there for the rest of his relatively long life. Asa Gray Tucker died about a year and a half after Inish died, at the age of 17. I would have bet money on the old cat kicking the bucket first, but he simply did what he always did — survived, until right before he died — he became as old in body as he was in mind. He stopped eating much, his spine protruded like the ridges on the back of a dinosaur, and just like that, he could no longer even jump onto our bed, but rather had to be picked up. He went downhill ridiculously quickly, and after a family meeting, we knew it was time. I held him as we put him to sleep, just like I held Inish prior, as I promised them when they were babies that I would. Asa Gray went to sleep for the last time.

I miss that cat, I miss his sweetness, his purr, his heating our feet in the middle of winter. I miss his absurdly soft fur. There was never a cat like that — though he was only the second cat I’ve ever known, Asa Gray is now the standard by which all other cats are judged. And found wanting.

Writer and storyteller, immigrant, wife, mom, knitter, collector of jokes, lover of cheap, sweet wine.

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