Rusty went peacefully yesterday at 5 pm. He had just turned 4 ½ years old.
The first time we met Rusty, we knew he was special. Jen knew it first: we went to a breeder on the Lower East Side to pick out a cat from a new litter. I had my eyes set on a slightly older, spunky bluish-grey boy with wild eyes who looked like he was on a constant catnip high. A family had taken him in and promptly returned him for being a handful.
While I was amusingly considering names for him (he looked like a Sammy or Psychobutt), Jen noticed a little red fluffy guy with a big pink nose who was trying to nurse from his mom. He was a little too old for that; the mom had already weaned off his siblings. To drive the point home, she sharply pushed his face away with her hind leg. He looked up at Jen with watery eyes and a hurt expression. Jen fell in love.
Born on September 5, 2005, that year’s Labor Day, the new litter of kittens was given trade union-related names. The original name of this little fluffy red guy was Jimmy Hoffa. Jen wisely renamed him Rusty. (My suggestion for “Doktor Otto von Fluffybutt” got overruled.)
Immediately, there was a connection. When it was time four weeks later to pick him up, the breeder told me I should hurry – Rusty was sitting on the carrier, staring at the door. He was ready for his new home.
While people give us credit for his friendly, mellow, and happy demeanor, I have to admit he was like that from the beginning. Expecting him to hide in fear or uncertainty, I was shocked when he strutted out of his carrier and calmly checked out his new digs. He used his new litterbox with no prodding or direction, then jumped on my lap as if we were old friends, and then slept in his cat tree, knowing it was for him. Rusty required no training, and in fact, he ended up training us to accommodate his amazing energy, playfulness, affection, and curiosity.
There are so many stories that illustrate what a special and unique creature he was. He always had to be in the same room as Jen and me. If he was asleep in one room and we moved to another, he’d sense it, get up, and move closer to us. He had a different position for everyone’s lap – stretched out across my belly and chest with his nose in my armpit; squished up along Jen’s side; straight down our friend Lou’s legs with his butt in Lou’s face; sprawled across our friend Rhea’s feet.
He had a special bond with humans, more so than with other animals. At dinner parties, he had to join in, sitting in his favorite chair when our chairs were in a circle, looking at people as they talked, and eating when we ate. When a friend or neighbor would leave, he’d stare at the door, hoping they’d come back. He didn’t meow much but had big, expressive, intelligent eyes and you always knew what he was thinking. Likewise, he’d pay close attention to people as they spoke to try to understand them.
Rusty didn’t mind being picked up or hugged or kissed. He loved bellyrubs and would roll around on his back like a puppy. He greeted us at the door, begging for bellyrubs. In the morning, he waited patiently for us outside our door – not for breakfast, but for a morning cuddle on our laps.
He was a long-bodied, long-haired tabby who could perform amazing acts of acrobatics. Chasing after a feather on a wand, he could do a 6-foot-high triple Lutz. Bouncing a mouse toy high off the hallway wall, he would jump close to the ceiling, propel himself off one wall onto another one, finishing off with a backflip. He had amazing accuracy and reflexes. A common game was “Rusty Baseball”: he would sit in his favorite chair and I’d toss a mouse toy toward him. Instead of catching it, he’d whack it right back at me with incredible aim and velocity, always making perfect contact no matter how bad my throw.
He loved his toys. If he spotted a mouse toy being scooted across the floor, his eyes would get big and bright, his body close to the ground and tense. Tossing the mouse, he was a heat-seeking missile. He loved this round toy that had an inset ball that spun around. It was continuously novel for him - if we spun it, even years later, he would stop whatever he was doing to stalk it out. When he wasn’t playful, he’d sometimes stroll by it and give it a forceful whack, just to show it who’s boss.
No matter how much we played and how wild he got, he never bit or clawed. He was always extremely careful about his claws, even though I was sometimes negligent in trimming them. Not that he minded – he liked having his paws massaged.
He loved his various perches and high areas so he could survey everyone and everything from that vantage point. Ironically, brilliant as he was, he could never figure out his cat bed and would sleep under it. He was silly and sometimes would stick his tongue out or sleep in ergonomically impossible positions.
In many ways he embodied “cat-ness,” but there were some cat-like things he never did. He didn’t go after shoelaces or strings (except for the tails on mouse toys). He didn’t bump heads or “make biscuits” or rub his body against legs or furniture. It seemed he never felt the need to mark his territory. He respectfully maneuvered around our clutter and was careful not to knock anything over. For a long time as a kitten, he cooed like a pigeon instead of purred.
He was never greedy with food, grazing when hungry and stopping when sated (one of the few things we didn’t have in common!). He preferred eating socially and would wait until Jen and I were having dinner. If we left the vicinity while he was chowing down, he would stop and follow us. Many evenings were spent sitting on the floor next to his food dish.
Rusty never complained, held a grudge, or showed resentment. Instead of giving us the cold shoulder upon returning from a lengthy trip, he treated us as if we never left. He splashed around happily during baths. As much as he hated medicine and pills, he never blamed us for such unpleasantries.
When he got sick and had to be taken to the vet often, Rusty never put up a fight or cried. He went into his carrier with only gentle direction. He was so calm and curious that he won the hearts of every doctor, technician, and staff member. His biggest worry was deciding whose marriage proposal to accept from the female staff.
Rusty was diagnosed with aggressive, high-grade lymphoma in October. There was no reason or trigger – it was simply bad luck. There was hope that we had caught it early and the chemotherapy would succeed. That seemed to be the case, thanks to Rusty -- he treated the cancer like one of his mousies and battled it valiantly. He quickly went into remission and had a few great months where he was spoiled rotten and was showered with love.
The cancer relapsed and Rusty quickly lost weight. We tried again with a different chemo and Rusty was bravely hanging on without complaint. But we could clearly see that he was uncomfortable and his best days were behind him. He loved us and everyone he has ever met and was fighting to stay here with us. He was such an amazing boy, though, that he deserved to be in peace and not struggle any more. Throughout his treatment, Rusty was extraordinarily brave and noble. I am so proud of him and I wish I could be more like him.
I’ve been saying goodbye to him the past five months, but I was never done saying goodbye to him. I don’t know if I ever will be. He went peacefully on my lap with Jen and me petting him. In one second, he was sleeping; in two seconds, he was gone.
He was such a huge part of our lives and there is an irreplaceable vacuum now. If feels like there are black holes in our apartment, in every space that he would occupy. I see his afterimage in the corners of my eyes and it’ll be awhile before I no longer carefully open a door or watch where I step to avoid his tail. He was never a very vocal cat, but the apartment has never been so quiet.
If you’ve met Rusty, you knew what a remarkable, funny, loving guy he was. If you never met him, I hope I imparted an approximate if incomplete sketch of him. Volumes could be written about him.
If you have pets, take them in for regular check-ups, even if they seem fine. Enjoy every day with them – they deserve our fullest attention. Listen to them if they want to play or cuddle or eat or want to be walked. Animals ask us for the simplest things from us and it makes them the happiest to know we care about them. They will love you forever.
Many animals struggle before they find loving homes. Many need to be rescued and rehabilitated from cruelty, violence, and pain. To honor Rusty’s memory, please consider a donation to Animal Haven (animalhavenshelter.org) or the ASPCA (aspca.org).
People have said that Rusty was lucky to have us; the opposite is truer. It was the greatest gift to have spent these years with such an amazing and sweet little boy. Rusty, we love you and appreciate you. You will always be in our thoughts.
PS – View our slideshow tribute here:
Love, Adam and Jen