Farewell, Mr. Sweet-Eyes: Stumpy’s Loss and His Legacy

The phone call I dreaded woke me up at three in the morning. A doctor on duty at the Animal Medical Center, Dr. Worwag, very gently tried to break the news to me: Stumpy, my 15-year-old orange-coated cat, a character known and loved by many faithful readers of this column, was not going to make it through the night. They’d managed to stabilize him after congestive heart failure, but other related complications had grown more serious, and–after nearly three days of intensive care–they hadn’t been able to turn the situation around. Any further effort, Dr. Worwag said with a kind of compassionate precision, “would not save his life but only prolong his death.” Did I want to come up there to say goodbye?

I’d known this moment had to come. After all, Stumpy had a serious heart condition almost all his life. For the 14 years I’d been privileged to spend with him, I had to give him heart pills twice a day, and the superb Animal Medical Center cardiologist who treated him this time, Dr. Sharon Huston, had said it was remarkable Stumpy enjoyed such good health for so long despite his serious hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

Still, knowing the time would come hadn’t prepared me emotionally for that

3 a.m. call. I stumbled out of my apartment in a state of shock and hastily hailed a cab, hoping to get up to the animal hospital before it was too late for a final farewell. Dopily, I asked the cab driver, who had an Indian name, if he believed in reincarnation for animals. He said something about believing that everything that decomposed would be composed again. The specter of decomposition was not very comforting. Screw re-

incarnation: I needed to see Stumpy alive one last time.

There are those who say that the bond that develops between animal and human companions can grow to be just as powerful (or more so) than that between human beings. In part, because the love is more pure and unconditional; animals are less flawed and fickle. I had that kind of bond growing up with dogs (let me give a shout out to Tiger and Loki). I had that kind of bond with my first cat, Smooch, a sweetheart Siamese runt I got from the Yippie commune on Bleecker Street. But the bond I had with Stumpy was unlike any other.

There was something about that little guy: I’ve described him as “a comic genius with a tragic sense of life.” But that doesn’t completely capture the layers and depths of his contradictory charms: suave ladies’ man and contemplative philosophe , wild stray from the mean streets of the Brooklyn waterfront and a gentle comforter who radiated a cosmic sweetness. An utterly unique creature. I know: Many people think that about their pets, and they have every right to. But I wasn’t alone in thinking it about Stumpy. Something about that cat communicated itself even to those who only read about him in my columns.

A few weeks ago, for instance, my research associate Emily Gordon told me that she ran into a magazine publisher she once worked for and, in the course of their conversation, mentioned that she was doing some archival work for me on my Shakespeare book.

“Really?” the publisher said, with a mixture of curiosity and envy. “Then is it possible you’ve met Stumpy ?”

I got that a lot. The Stumpman seemed to strike a chord with readers of my columns devoted to him. To many, he’d become more than a great cat–he’d become a great New York City character. Last year I called upon readers of this column who wished to enlist in The Edgy Alliance, an informal association of cultural enthusiasts and obsessives, to send in suggestions for future columns. While there were many erudite, literate, inspired suggestions from the realm of high culture and pop culture, there were, in addition–sometimes in the same letters–dozens of requests that came down to: Give us more about Stumpy .

I loved the fact that readers responded to him the way I did, and I suspect the credit may be due less to my prose than to the eloquent photographic portraits of Stumpy by Observer photographers James Hamilton and Nina Roberts. It was Mr. Hamilton’s 1997 portrait, in fact, that succeeded in getting Stumpy and me a new home, kept us off the streets. I’d had to leave a sublet on short notice at the very moment that 10 years of work on a book was approaching its final deadline. In desperation, I wrote a column headlined “Writer Needs Help Finding Apartment,” a plea to readers to help me and Stumpy find a new place. Stumpy came through; he adopted a waif-like pose for Mr. Hamilton so compellingly poignant (the caption read: “Please find me a new home”) that the responses poured in. I got the place I’m living in now thanks to Stumpy. (But he’s no longer here to share it, dammit.)

And then the photos of Stumpy that ran in 1999 really sealed the deal with readers. Those shots (by Nina Roberts) accompanied a column called “Stumpy versus Lucille: The Great Pet Debate” (reprinted in my collection The Secret Parts of Fortune ).

Ms. Roberts captured two distinct sides of Stumpy. There is the majestic and regal pose, the comic-arrogant look that sends up its own self-satisfied majesty. The pose that says, “Yes, it’s my world, but I’m content to allow you to live in it as long as you pay proper tribute to my greatness.” And then there’s the fawn-in-the-forest side, the sensitive, questing Christina’s World Stumpy captured curled up in his acrylic plush doughnut cushion, the cat forever seeking, searching into the Deep Mysteries of Life.

What’s remarkable about those photographs is that they managed to convey his appeal to a wide audience, even in black-and-white. Because part of what made Stumpy so striking to those who met him in person was his coloring: the luminous coppery radiance, the golden shades and marmalade markings of his luxuriant coat. (Those who have seen the four-page color spread of Stumpy photos in the inaugural issue of Animal Fair magazine–Nina Roberts again–will understand what I’m talking about.)

Of course, it was more than the color–it was a kind of luminous presence . I remember what a deli guy said about Stumpy’s coloring, a guy I used to buy Stumpy’s beloved Fancy Feast from (his favorite flavor: “Savory Salmon”). When I showed him a color photo, he said, “Up in the Bronx, we call a cat that color a mambo cat .”

Mambo cat! Yes! There was some kind of spooky voodoo thing going on with that cat, some sense that he could see deeper into things than you might imagine of a creature who liked to sleep 20 hours a day. Maybe it wasn’t sleep; maybe it was deep meditation. But there was something more going on in those eyes.

Women could see it. Stumpy was a total babe magnet who used to greet woman visitors with the insouciant charm of David Niven wearing a silk smoking jacket. He’d walk up to them and give them a confidential wink, like he knew they were really there to see him and not me, but they both had to keep up a pretense, maintain the fiction for the sake of propriety.

Stumpy’s special friend, Marianne Macy, was the first to apprise me of the wink that she found “extraordinarily seductive.” Another friend, Cynthia, described Stumpy as “a masterful comedic actor and a great flirt.”

Very recently, Zee, a new friend of Stumpy, gave a beautiful name to that sweetly seductive thing he does with his eyes: “sweet-eyes.” Zee, a Trinidadian woman of Indian descent who stayed with me as a home health-care aide after I returned home from some serious surgery recently, bonded instantly with Stumpy. She took to putting her face next to his and saying in a demanding and cajoling voice: “Give me sweet-eyes, Stumpy. Give me sweet-eyes!”

By “sweet-eyes,” she was referring not to the seductive one-eyed wink, but to his two -eyed wink: to the way he’d lazily squeeze both eyes shut as if overflowing with the sweetness of existence, an excess of cosmic pleasure that he’d then beam out with gracious complacence to the lucky recipient.

Sweet-eyes! It wasn’t a sugary sweetness, a sentimental sweetness. Stumpy had a, well, edgy side, let’s say. He could sometimes be irritable, scratch or nip at those who (literally) rubbed him the wrong way. And much of our interaction (as opposed to the seductive looks he reserved for chicks) was combative–hours of play-fighting and sparring that sometimes left scarring on my hands and arms. I think he thought of me as a long-lost oversized litter mate–many who know us both have observed that our hair color is eerily similar–a litter mate that he was supposed to fight with, in preparation for hunting prey together.

He still had a wild streak in him that dated back to the days of his youth on the Brooklyn waterfront. It was there, on those mean streets, that he was found one day, a one-year-old orange tabby, wandering dazed and bleeding with his tail half bitten off. A wonderful Brooklyn Heights cat rescuer picked him up and brought him to a vet, where most of his tail had to be amputated (hence the eponymous Stump).

Till the day he died, Stumpy never disclosed the circumstances of the waterfront tail-loss trauma, although at times he would hint that it was “mob-related.”

But in any case, shortly after the rescue and the tail-ectomy, there was Stumpy put up for adoption, languishing in the window of a Brooklyn Heights pet store when Liz Hecht, a heroic animal-rights activist, cat rescuer and founder of Citizens for Alternatives to Animal Labs (and also a redhead), came upon him and called me up. I’d told her I’d wanted to get a companion for my Siamese cat Smooch, and she said she’d found this year-old cat with a bandaged tail in the pet-store window with a bunch of kittens, and that I ought to take him because everyone else would go for the kittens first and he might never get adopted. But I wanted a kitten myself, I told her.

“O.K.,” she said in her best imperious manner (she’d been captain of the Yale polo team), ” be like everyone else .”

The next day, I took Stumpy home.

Maybe his early exposure to the savagery of life on the streets and the cruelty of human civilization was responsible for the gentleness, the sweet contentment he displayed in the secure home I gave him. Because whatever craziness was going on in my life, I always made sure Stumpy never feared the street again, and that he always got twice-daily doses of heart medicine for the condition that we discovered a few months after I brought him home.

He also got extraordinary care from two gifted vets: Dr. Gene Solomon of the Center for Veterinary Care, and Dr. George Korin, who has a house-call service. But I think Stumpy knew that he had, in effect, a sword hanging over his head, a shadow over his heart all his life. That intimation of mortality gave his every moment a special kind of sweetness, a sense both sensual and philosophical of the sweet, fleeting nature of life, a delight in the simple pleasures: his favorite flavors of Fancy Feast, a catnip mouse, having his chin scratched, and lying belly up on a window ledge with the sun warming his snow-white belly fur.

There was something very brave about his attitude toward his heart defect. But eventually, despite constant check-ups, it caught up with him. He waited just long enough, it seemed, until I’d recovered sufficiently from my hospital stay to be able to take care of him. (He’d been very noble in caring for me. In the past, he’d do that kneading thing that cats do every once in a while. But after I got back from the hospital, as soon as he saw me lie down he’d virtually gallop up, leap on the bed and knead away for dear life. A very touching, very healing gesture. God, I miss that cat!)

Anyway, he showed no symptoms of an impending attack before or during my recovery–but one morning, I woke up to hear him gasping and saw him limping badly. It turned out he’d “thrown a clot,” as the vets say, to his front paw and suffered congestive heart failure. It’s not clear which caused the other. I managed, after a struggle, to get him into his much-hated cat carrier and get him up to the Animal Medical Center in less than a half hour. They immediately put him on oxygen in the intensive-care ward and began desperately trying to save his life.

He hung on for nearly two days more. I visited him that afternoon, and he looked angry at me for bringing him up to this weird place where they were sticking tubes into him–anger which I thought was a good sign. But the vet on duty told me I’d better think about the resuscitate-or-don’t-resuscitate decision, because that call could come at any time.

And then the call came.

I don’t know if I can bear to try to capture those last two beautiful and terrible hours that Stumpy and I spent together up at the Animal Medical Center. I was there with him from 3:30 to around 5:30 a.m., when he got to see the dawn for the last time.

It’s funny: A couple months ago, I wrote a Bob Dylan column in which I named what I thought was the most powerful and emotional quatrain in all of Dylan’s work and asked readers to write in and name their candidates. I’ve gotten a number of eloquent replies which I hope to be writing about soon (I’m still open to suggestions, so send yours c/o The Edgy Alliance, Box 105, 577 Second Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10016).

Anyway, the quatrain I’d selected (from “If You See Her Say Hello” on Blood on the Tracks ) kept running through my mind that painful dawn as Stumpy and I said goodbye to each other:

And though our separation

It pierced me to the heart

She still lives inside of me

We’ve never been apart.

That’s how I feel about me and Stumpy, but, as I say, I can’t dwell on that; I can’t do justice to Stumpy’s courage and stoicism and generosity in those last hours. So instead, I want to cut to a conversation I had a couple days after he died.

I was talking to Julia Sheehan, Errol Morris’ wife, about Stumpy. She’d developed a long-distance fondness for him from reading my columns and from photographs I’d shown her when I visited them in Boston. She’d sent Stumpy a catnip mouse that became a favorite of his.

Errol, of course, is the brilliant documentary filmmaker whose first work, Gates of Heaven , is both a funny and a touching account of dueling pet cemeteries–and, I believe, a lovely philosophic disquisition on the very nature of love itself.1

Anyway, I’d told Julia the thought that crossed my mind in the first hours of my grief: to have Stumpy stuffed by a taxidermist. Laugh if you will, but I couldn’t bear the idea of not having him physically present in some form. In fact, Julia said, she’d bought a “freeze-dried” cat at a store in Soho called Evolution, but Errol hadn’t liked it. It turns out that a number of pet owners are choosing to have their pets preserved by a kind of mummifying process Julia referred to as freeze-drying. She put Errol on the phone, and I asked him why he didn’t like the freeze-dried cat.

“Well,” he said in his trademark deadpan, “it had a disapproving expression.”

O.K., no freeze-drying for Stumpy. Instead, I got him a plot at the really lovely, low-key, old-fashioned Hartsdale Pet Cemetery. I wanted there to be a specific place on earth devoted to Stumpy (although I’d really like to clone him: Jurassic Stumpy!).

But there was something else Julia said in that conversation–something that will be, I hope, a more far-reaching way of remembering Stumpy and preserving his beautiful sweet-eyes spirit. What Julia suggested was that I set up some kind of fund in Stumpy’s memory, something that readers who’d related to him over the years could contribute to. I know that a couple years ago, when I asked readers to donate in Stumpy’s name to Pets Alive–the wonderful rescued-animal refuge in Middletown, N.Y., run by Sara Whalen–many had been extremely generous.

There are a number of deserving places in addition to Pets Alive (363 Derby Road, Middletown, N.Y. 10940) that could benefit from help, including the Animal Medical Center (510 East 62nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10021) and Liz Hecht’s Citizens for Alternatives to Animal Labs (P.O. Box 682707, Park City, Utah 84068).

But as I thought about it, the organization that may be closest to my heart–and closest in spirit to the story of Stumpy’s life, to the spirit of Stumpy–is a group called City Critters.

I first heard about City Critters from cat-care person extraordinaire Faye Beckerman and her dedicated associate, Jennifer Gould, who both volunteer for it. It’s a group devoted to rescuing cats in Stumpy-type situations: injured strays, ailing or aging cats that have been given up by their owners, abandoned kittens. Not just rescuing them and turning them over to a shelter (and often, a grim fate), but nurturing and fostering them themselves, often in their own homes and offices, putting them up for adoption in selected locations (there’s a Petco at Second Avenue and 31st Street, and a Sunday-afternoon showing at the Natural Pet at 20th Street and Third Avenue). And not giving them away without assuring that they’re going to good homes. (Those interested in adopting well-cared-for cats, or in volunteering time or space, can call 212-252-3183 or try http://www.citycritters.org.)

It turns out–I only learned this later–that City Critters’ co-founder and president is a woman who was a high-school classmate of mine, Holly Staver (Go Bay Shore High!), so I can vouch for her seriousness of purpose. The organization needs both money and space to care for the cats they save. Contributions to City Critters are tax-deductible, and if you mark your check prominently “For the Stumpy Fund,” Ms. Stavers has promised to name something lasting and significant after Stumpy to reflect the value of the contributions he brings in. (I’m thinking of something along the lines of “Stumpy’s Adoption Corner” or maybe, à la Jerry Lewis, “Stumpy’s Kids.”)

So please think of all those waif-like strays out there who deserve to live the life of Stumpy. Give generously to City Critters in Stumpy’s name! Either send a check payable to City Critters Inc. directly to P.O. Box 1345, Canal Street Station, New York, N.Y. 10013, or send your City Critters check to me to pass on to them (hopefully in a massive total), and I’ll acknowledge your contribution with an Edgy Alliance Membership card graced with a cameo of Stumpy. (Send them to me at Box 105, 577 Second Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10016.) I have a feeling that Stumpy’s karma is powerful and pervasive, and that such a gift will repay the generosity of the giver in many, many unforeseen ways.

When I say that Stumpy’s karma is pervasive and that somehow he’s still around, let me mention something that happened the day after my talk with Julia and Errol. On the morning I was preparing to go up to Hartsdale to select a grave for Stumpy, I was watching the recent Michael Hoffman version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on cable–the one in which Kevin Kline does a terrific star turn as Bottom, playing him as a very Stumpy-like dandy, both pretentious and self-deprecating (Bottom and Stumpy: a coincidence?).

Anyway, toward the close of the play, in the hilarious amateur theatrical production of Pyramus and Thisbe , I heard this amazing line.

Thisbe has just come upon the dead body of Pyramus (played by Mr. Kline as Bottom), at which point she says:

Dead, dead? A tomb

Must cover thy sweet eyes .

Sweet-eyes! It was a sign from the little guy, I know it. Anyway, I’ll close with just one moment from that pre-dawn interlude between life and death that Stumpy and I spent together up at the Animal Medical Center. They’d brought him out to an examining room; he was sedated and a bit dazed. It was heartbreaking to see the bandage wrapped around his neck where he’d had a catheter inserted into his jugular, and the little snap pads on his paws where the heart-monitor wires had been attached. It took him a while to recognize me and to respond. But toward the end, just as the dawn was lighting the sky over the East River, which was visible out the window, Stumpy looked up at me searchingly. And once more, for the last time, he gave me sweet-eyes.

1 Readers might be interested in a transcript of a conversation between Errol and me (about his work) that took place at a MoMA retrospective in December of 1999; it’s available on his Web site, http://www.errolmorris.com. I should mention that he also wrote the foreword to my book, The Secret Parts of Fortune. (It can be located as an excerpt via the book title on Amazon.com.)