When a beloved pet dies, it leaves strange, ragged holes in your heart. Bao - most often called Bowzer - died yesterday. I feel a sad wind whistling through a hundred places in my day where he should be, but isn’t.

I still hear his funny, gruff mrrrow when I come in a room and I move my feet out of the way of where he should be. I look on the counter, expecting to have to shoo him off for what would be the 25,000th time.

He loved to sit on 12 packs of cola. When we brought the groceries home, he’d wait for the soda pop box and hop up, posing like an Egyptian temple cat, dignified and goofy all at once.

He loved the inside of boxes, too. Especially my husband’s size 13 shoe boxes. He’d lay in them, squished down, with bits of tail, and paws hanging out all around. He’d even pour himself into a small round reed waste paper basket I had. He’d curl his paws over the top, completely upright. He had the look of, "I bet you can’t resist me when I do cute stuff like this," in his eyes.

He’d roll on the floor, reminding me of a (fuzzy) Rubenesque temptress. Curling those two front paws under his chin, he’d cast goo-goo eyes at one or all of us. Then my son Jonathan would call him and Bao would rush over to spend time on his back, feet straight up in the air, in his lap. He looked like a taxidermist’s model. Jonathan could even carry him around and Bao would stay like that. If you slid the stuffed cat down your legs, he would slowly go, head first, and like some sort of peculiar blob, ooze onto the floor and just flop onto his side.

Bao would rush into the kitchen if one of his people tarried there more than a moment. He was devilishly plump because he begged like a champ. He loved bits of meat, of course. But he also loved pastries and would insistently push his nose in my face if I had French fries.

He had claimed the top of my over-stuffed chair as if he were a colonial explorer planting the flag of the motherland. He stretched out there and when I sat down to read, he’d gently touch me with his paw. If he was hanging over the edge and I pushed him back with my head, he’d give me a few good grabs of the hair and then flip on his back and almost chuckle.

If I looked around at him he’d softly put his paw on my cheek and start his sweet, breathy purr. Sometimes he’d get up and stretch, putting two paws on my shoulder. I knew he meant business and I’d usually move my book out of the way for him to slowly bump his striped bulk into my lap. Depending on his mood, he would either bonk me hard with his head and knead with his claws, or just sit and snooze. He covered my entire chest, into my lap, up to my shoulder. He was hard to argue with when he wanted attention. When his lovely resonant purr would start, it passed into my heart and a warm peace surrounded and filled me.

"We could call him Bao. That means ‘snow leopard’ in Chinese," my clear-eyed young son Jonathan proclaimed when we brought the kitten home. Jonathan was learning Chinese at the Academy of World Languages. Bao quickly evolved into Bowzer and was often Bowzee. He answered to them all.

When we met Bao, he was in his own cage at the SPCA.  An elegantly lined tabby with dark-yellowish eyes. Four months old and full of the spirit that would be with us for almost 12 years. We bonded with this charming creature immediately. When we went to the front desk and asked about him, the woman looked up the number and announced, "That cat’s dead."

Well, no, he wasn’t dead, but we went to double check the number, just in case we’d gotten it wrong. After all, he did grab our fingers when we tried the read the collar tag. Yep, right number, allegedly dead cat. She described him from the records and it seemed to be the same cat. She volunteered that he’d been put to sleep because of an unspecified temperament problem.

My husband has never been much for foolish talk, so he had gone back to the cage to present Exhibit A, one live, American short hair kitten, to the front desk. It was against the rules, but it made the point. Since he wasn’t dead, they let us adopt him.

He came when we called. Better than some dogs we’ve had! He’d come when we didn’t call. He thought he owned everyone’s lap. And at night would push like a small, furry bulldozer with an endless fuel supply to get under my husband’s blankets. It took a while, but eventually Bao learned to sleep buried under the covers without pawing and clawing John’s stomach.

He had slowed down a little in the past year or so. And some days he would be so scarce we would all go into a, "Oh, no, Bowzer’s getting old and hiding" mode. Then he’d show up at dinner. His generous derriere on my son’s chair, his front paws on my husband’s chair. Face turned, eyes wide and beguiling. He lived for bits of chicken or beef or pork. Then he’d happily eat a green bean or bit of corn. Sometimes he’d get overzealous and earn a bop on the head. Didn’t slow him down a bit. One second later, two paws on John’s leg and he’d be back with his list of demands.

Lately he would stay on the back of my over-stuffed chair when we ate dinner. Yes, we eat in the room with our TV and not at a table. But we eat together almost every night! And mostly home-cooked (by me) food. Most of his life he begged from John, but in the past few months, he tried to snooker me into sharing bits of food with him. I could feel him breathing on my neck as he waited, not so patiently, for remnants of dinner. I think he was getting lazy in his golden years. I never replaced John as the favorite source of tidbits, though.

He rubbed on everything. Not a place lacks his scent. He owned the house as surely as if he held the mortgage.

And now, poor Willi, his friend and co-conspirator. He’s followed me around all morning begging to be picked up. He knows Bao is gone, I think. Willi is a lynx-point Siamese. It was a mutual adoption when our neighbors tossed him out and we began feeding him on the front porch. He was so skittish and wild. My husband spent weeks handling him and calming him down. I would bring Bowzer out on his little red leash.

He and Willi would greet each other with dignity, like elderly men at the park.  Bao would lie at the very stretched end of his leash, and Willi regarded him, carefully out of reach. One day our neighbors said we could have Willi. We told them he’d be an indoor cat, then, because we don’t have outdoor cats. Too nasty a world out there for pet cats.

We opened the front door, Willi strolled in and spread himself - long and lean - in the middle of the living room. Bao came up and touched noses. Willi was home.

He and Bao hung out together most of the time. When I’d give them catnip, Bao would rush up and sit on the first pinch I’d put down and eat the next. Willi circled around watching. Sometimes he’d eat what I put down by him while Bao was rolling in the stuff he sat on and rubbing the patch he’d just eaten. Eventually Willi would get catnip-high too and they’d have a quick, furious wrestling match which ended with clumps of fur and two thundering cats back and forth through the house. Then they’d curl up together.

Willi would squeeze around Bao in one of their basket sleeping spots. Or Willi would lay stretched on him on the top of my chair. Or in my chair. That was one of their favorite spots.

Picture to the left is Bao & our full-grown Manx, Tundra

It has taken several years for Willi to become as loving as he is now. I think Bao taught him a lot of that. Bao never met a creature he didn’t love. Kittens entranced him. When we brought Snowy home as a tiny black and white thing, Bao followed him around with the most adoring look on his face. Snowy hissed at him. For two weeks. And then he let Bowzer lick him and they became good buddies.

Snowy is now an "upstairs cat" because he and Willi don’t see eye to eye on anything. He could come down any time, but he won’t. Willi goes upstairs and stares at Snowy, who takes exception to that and begins his cat singing, roaring and growling, smacks at Willi and then gets his cat butt whipped. It is mostly noise and fur. But the bad feelings persist. I have tried to counsel them, but Willi tells me that Snowy was a real bastard cat to him in the beginning and now he won’t take any more nonsense.

Bao loved dogs. Our dogs, my brother’s dogs. Any dogs. For years he and our ditsy-brained Siberian, Jaeger, would play. We called Jaeger our Valley Girl dog. She was always cheerful and clueless. In her younger days, she would sit for hours at a closed door if she thought my tiny Manx was in that room. Jonathan would point to the floor and say, "Jaeger, look, spot!" She'd bound over and stare where he had pointed, long after his finger was gone.

Jaeger would chase Bao through the house and he’d let her catch up, mouth him and lick him. Bao knew how to handle dogs. Except day before yesterday when he dashed out into the pre-dawn springtime through an accidentally unlatched door. Our female Akita, sweet, loving Cypress, chased after him. Akitas were bred to hunt bears in Japan. A small, compact bear dashing by in the dark....

I took him to the vet, hoping that he wasn’t in as bad a shape as I feared. All day, I could draft off hope, be comforted in denial. Until that evening. The vet called to warn me that Bao was declining. He wasn't able to maintain his body temperature. His ragged breathing was back, probably indicating that he was bleeding into his lungs. They were doing everything medically possible. She was kind, gentle and genuinely regretful. You see, Bao was still his wonderful, sweet self at the vet’s - even in his terrible pain. I knew that he wasn't going to make it. I didn't want him to die without touching him again. Sobbing, I told my family I was going to see Bao.

So we all went, together, to say good-bye to the best cat in the world.

Copyright 2003
Constance Lee Menefee
Cincinnati, Ohio