It was August, 1998. Bob and I were driving the length of the North and South Carolina coasts looking for places to host our wedding. We stopped in Wilmington to visit Bo and Jill at their place on 4th St. We parked on the street and got out of the car. The house across the street from Bo and Jill’s was abandoned, and lots of the wood from the house (joists, rafters, studs…) had been removed and piled in the front yard. The wood pile was covered with cats. We stepped toward them, but they all bolted. All except one: a tiny striped kitten who walked right over, looked up at us, and meowed. We couldn’t take him right then, but we decided his name would be Archie. A few weeks later, after we had finished our wedding hunt, Bo and Jill brought him to us.
The first few weeks (months?) Archie kept us awake all night playing with us in bed. To combat this, I would walk around before bed and gather up all the furry toy mice we had in the house (a dozen or so?) and stash them under my pillow. Throughout the night when Archie would bounce into our bed to attack Bob’s feet or tangle with my hair, I would reach under the pillow, toss one of the mice out of the room into the dining room and off he’d go, tumbling after it. This would go on all night. He was ridiculously cute, but we swore we would never get another kitten.
Our older cat, Elkin, hated him. We kept them separated for a while — even brought Archie with us to Charlotte one weekend so they wouldn’t be alone together. Didn’t matter. Every time Archie came near, Elkin hissed or clawed at him. She died a year and a half later of cancer. Or evil.
The morning Elkin died, Michelle was visiting us from DC. Bob and I had been awake all night, first at home, and then at the emergency vet, and we were telling Michelle all about it. She was sitting on the floor of the hallway and Archie walked over and hit her in the face. You would have thought he’d be happy that Elkin was gone. He just knew there was a disturbance in the force and blamed Michelle.
Archie thrived as an only child — he craved attention, loved to be held, spent every possible waking, and sleeping, moment with us. On us. He was far more like a dog than a cat. We loved him fiercely.
Sometimes he sat with one arm outstretched far in front of him. We called him “The Long Arm of the Law.”
At his peak, he weighed about 16 pounds. He was a big cat, for sure, but he wasn’t obese, as you might expect. We called him “dense.”
He was not a so-called finicky cat. He was happy to eat most human food, including, but not limited to, corn on the cob, avocado, pasta, cornbread, tofu, eggs, and french toast. We declared his motto: “Eat first, ask questions later.”
One afternoon, when I was pregnant with Lucy and Zoe, I was taking a rest and Archie was lying between my legs with his head on my stomach. One of the babies kicked right where his head was, hard. He jumped up and glared at my stomach. That was the end of my lap for about 4 months.
Near the end of the pregnancy, Bob and I were talking about how our life was about to change, making guesses about how we would feel about the new babies. “I realize this is a stupid comparison that we’ll laugh at after they’re born,” I remember asking. “But, like, how much more than Archie are we going to love the babies? I can’t imagine loving anyone more than that.” “Yeah,” Bob agreed. “I can’t either.”
The morning the babies were born, my parents were alone in our house getting ready to come join us at the hospital. As my mom rushed up or down the stairs, Archie reached out and smacked her on the leg. Another disturbance in the force; apparently he could sense the size of our family changing.
After the babies came home, there was quite a bit of crying. Sometimes I would be tending to one baby while another baby cried for a few minutes. Whenever he felt the noise had gone on too long, Archie would come yell at me — had I heard the crying baby and was I planning to do something about it?? Hello?!
Both Lucy and Zoe’s first word was cat.
When the babies were crawling, Archie would sit on a footstool, above the fray, keeping watch. The first thing Lucy and Zoe pulled up on was that footstool. Archie had to seek higher ground.
There was no toy in the house more exciting than Archie. If he walked into the room where they were, all their attention turned to him. He tolerated it.
All our friends knew that they could pet Archie until he told them to stop — abruptly and rudely. The irony was that Archie never didn’t want to be in the middle of everything. Even when he was surrounded by people he didn’t like. As long as Bob or I were there, Archie was there.
When we moved to Charlotte, our new house had a cat door to the fenced-in backyard. Archie was not likely to jump the fence so he was allowed to come and go as he pleased. He all but stopped using the litter box in favor of using the great outdoors, which we didn’t mind one bit. When Bob and I would be sitting on the couch watching TV at night and we would hear the cat door swing, one of us would announce, “Goin out.” Later, when the door would swing again, one of us would say, “M’back.” Every time.
One night a stray cat followed Archie back in to the house and beat him up in our living room. That was the end of the cat door.
The vet who “fixed” Archie as a kitten didn’t do a perfect job, it turned out. Now that he was spending more evenings on the couch with us, he would sometimes try to get sexy with my arm. We decided he thought I was his wife.
When Archie was about 11, we started talking about the fact that he might not be around forever (Elkin had only been 8 when she died). Lucy and Zoe were still so young, and we didn’t want to not have a pet for them, but we also didn’t want to find ourselves in the position of having to “replace” Archie. Just like Archie was already there when Elkin died, we wanted a new cat to already be here. One afternoon some friends found a litter of kittens abandoned at our neighborhood park. It was meant to be. We took 7-year-old Lucy and Zoe over to their house to pick out a kitten. Of course we came home with two: Mark and Ivy,
Bob and I were determined for Archie to be more accepting of the kittens than Elkin was of him. So we kept them separated to the extreme — Mark and Ivy lived in the guest room, with the door closed, for over a month. We would bring them out from time to time, and Archie would sniff around. But the minute he became angry, we would put the kittens back in their room. We wanted Archie to know that this was his house, not theirs. That he was in charge.
It worked. Eventually Archie tolerated them, and Mark and Ivy were released from prison. The house was as peaceful as it could be with three cats and two 7-year-olds. Lucy and Zoe preferred the kittens to Archie, so he got a bit of a break, except when the kittens would chase his tail. He even started bathing Mark and Ivy, though sometimes he would growl at them while he cleaned. We called that a “mad bath.”
It became obvious that Archie had fully accepted the kittens when we realized he rarely slept alone. Most of the time, he could be found curled up with one, or both, of them.
It was always clear that Archie was the alpha cat. If Mark and Ivy were eating and Archie nosed in, they would just move out of the way and let him eat their food.
Archie grew older. He moved more slowly, especially when going up or down the stairs, his meow became more gravelly, as though he had been smoking all his life, and he seemed to ignore us when we called him, which was weird since he was such a sucker for our attention. One day, Zoe and I decided to test something. We snuck up while he was sleeping and turned on the dustbuster right next to him. He didn’t budge. Apparently he was deaf. It’s amazing how hard it is to distinguish between a hearing cat and a deaf cat.
He became even more affectionate, if this is possible. If someone was on the couch, he was not just on the couch with them but leaning or sitting on them. If you put your hand in front of his face, he would lick it until you pulled it away. If you picked him up, he never asked to be put down. If he woke up and didn’t know where anyone was, he would yell until someone showed themselves. Routines were established. He never broke them. We all depended on them.
In the winter he perched over the vent on our living room floor whenever it was on. We called it his sauna.
In January 2017 Zoe had surgery for a broken arm and Susan and Hart brought her a giant Get Well balloon. The balloon got clipped to Archie’s back at some point and he proudly walked around the house with it. This began a long adventure in finding things for Archie to wear. Butterfly wings, top hats, a Santa suit, a shark fin, wigs, more balloons. He tolerated — even seemed to enjoy — them all.
One day I saw him stumble. Then I saw it another day. Then Lucy told me she had seen it happen, too. I told Bob. “We should keep an eye on this. His legs might be getting too weak to hold him.” An hour later Archie couldn’t stand up. I thought he had had a stroke, so I took him directly to the vet. They ran labs and reported that everything actually looked perfect. He had something called “Vestibular Disease.” Basically, cat vertigo. They don’t really know why it happens, but it usually just fixes itself on its own. It did.
After the vertigo, he could no longer jump up on the couch so we got a little bench for him. Problem solved.
Another year went by. Archie turned 20. He was losing weight, even though he ate and drank anything he was offered.
One day he started knocking his water bowl over. Deliberately. Like, he would go to take a drink, inspect the bowl, and pull it over so he could drink the water off the floor. It was hilarious, but messy. Bob rigged up ways to keep him from doing it.
A few days later we discovered he had badly cut his paw. When I took him to the vet to get it checked out, they ran some tests to see if he had hyperthyroidism — to explain his now serious weight loss. The tests showed nothing but a healthy old cat. Except he was still losing weight. That week, he stopped eating. In two days he went from being “Archie” to being a very frail cat who could hardly stand up. He still slept in the bed with us, as he always had, but now I woke up with worry every time he moved. So did Bob. Very different from the way he had kept us awake all night as a kitten.
Finally I took him to the vet one more time so they could tell me what I already knew: that he was ready.
We never would be.
We never will be.