The Lives of Tumbleweed
Cynthia didn't know that Pumpkin, the orange long-haired cat that had been part of her life for nearly a decade, was dying of cancer; she thought he was lonely. She decided to find him a companion.
Cynthia chose her new kitten the way a million kittens have been chosen. She noticed the charcoal and tan tabby was the smallest of the litter, and was getting the worst of the mock battles with his brothers and sisters. His fur was an ungroomed tangle, and there was terror in his eyes. She felt she was saving him.
As it turned out, that may have been perfectly true.
By the time he acquired a name — Tumbleweed — Cynthia realized there was something wrong with him. There was something in his running that seemed clumsy even for a kitten; his eyes looked beyond his toys when he played; he dipped his whole face into his water bowl to determine where the water level was. She suspected vision problems, and brought Tumbleweed to a veterinarian to be sure.
Cynthia still has the vet's written record of that visit. The vet notes "exaggerated front leg lift" and "head bob" — symptoms of "cerebellar hypoplasia". Another note says: "Educated O." By that the vet meant the owner was apprised of the problem. There is no mention in the notes of the fact that the vet gently offered the idea that the broken Tumbleweed might be put to sleep.
The cerebellum is the part of the brain that handles muscle control and body equilibrium. Hypoplasia means underdevelopment. Probably due to a virus his mother carried, the development of part of Tumbleweed's brain was arrested in its immature state, and Tumbleweed never would be "normal".
Cynthia looked at Tumbleweed, and Tumbleweed, in his unfocused way, looked back at Cynthia. No, there was no way she could have Tumbleweed put to sleep. The vet smiled, clearly relieved, and pointed out that Tumbleweed might learn to adjust to his disability. That sometimes happened.
Pumpkin slowed, ailed, and died in his tenth year, tolerant to the end of the clumsy kitten that always wanted to play. Tumbleweed's kittenish gallop developed into that of a Great Dane pup, his paws nearly flying over his head as he ran, but it was effective. His rolling walk looked too cool and affected to be regarded as clumsy. His purring mechanism sounded like it was missing on a couple of cylinders, but it worked. He learned to stick just his nose — not his whole head — into his water, to find out where to lap it up. Only a careful observer would notice anything wrong.
He had other less endearing traits. After he was neutered and had his front claws removed Cynthia arrived at the vet's office to discover a "CAUTION: VICIOUS CAT" sign on his box. It seemed he could not easily be handled, and the vet had the puncture wounds to prove it. Occasional houseguests, and even Cynthia, discovered that Tumbleweed would purr one moment and attack the next. He was forever chewing on household objects, regardless of their edibility; venetian blinds made of enameled steel, for example, were regular victims. This particular habit was something Cynthia figured she could put up with— until she discovered he not only was chewing up household objects, but swallowing them, too.
That discovery occurred the day after Tumbleweed was afflicted by a sudden and prolonged attack of dry heaves. When these persisted, Tumbleweed found himself at the vet's office again, this time being x-rayed. It was, quite literally, a startling picture that developed. There, in the midst of the feline digestive organs, was about six inches of coiled telephone cord.
The veterinarian told Cynthia the surgery required to remove the foreign object was life-threatening, and expensive. It was clear this was a second opportunity to put away Tumbleweed, and for the second time Cynthia refused.
Evidently this was not normal cat behavior. The vet, thinking of writing up Tumbleweed's case for a veterinary journal, preserved the phone cord in a jar.Tumbleweed acquired a new partner: Mister Mistoffolees, a buoyant and amiable tiger with bluer and lighter coloring than Tumbleweed's. While the two played exuberantly together, and generally got along, there was a rough patch about the time they moved to Florida.
I never had owned indoor cats, and I didn't like the very idea. Moreover, Tumbleweed had special requirements; for example, for obvious reasons no telephone cords could be left dangling within his reach. Even cat toys had to be carefully selected. They had to be too big to eat (like his beloved and much-abused Teddy bear), and could contain no feathers, since feathers made him wild.
But Cynthia and her cats were a package deal, and I didn't fight it.
Tumbleweed acquired the notion that a bathtub or a throw-rug was no different from a litter box. His play with Mistoffolees sometimes drew blood on both sides, and (with his very effective teeth and hind claws), he was the terror of Cynthia's friends— including me.
In our first year under the same roof, Tumbleweed and I did not distinguish ourselves for our restraint. If he hissed at me, I growled at him. I attempted to correct his failure to use the litter box by application of noisy lectures he did not find compelling. If anything they made the problem worse.
To my credit— or perhaps to Cynthia's credit, since she was ever the mediator between Tumbleweed and me— I took the hint: punishment is a lousy motivational technique. We started rewarding Tumbleweed with praise and with edible treats when he used the litter box; we ignored him (but didn't rant and rave) when he did not. Very soon he preferred the litter box again.
The violence persisted, though, and that was harder to be gentle about. Cats can make some scary noises and do serious sudden damage to a bare foot or ankle, and no cat was ever better at those things than Tumbleweed. A midnight trip back to bed from the bathroom was risky business. Eventually, here's how I did it: if he stalked me, I snatched him off the floor and held him at arm's length, got back in bed quickly still holding him, pulled the sheet over me, then tossed him toward the foot of the bed. This usually evoked a furious hiss and a frustrated but ineffectual parting swipe. ("What's happening?" a half-awakened Cynthia would say. "Nothing," Tumbleweed and I would reply.)
Our triumph in the litter box wars had at least reduced the number of daily scuffles, teaching us that Tumbleweed's behavior didn't reflect an innate obstinacy. So why do animals bite? Because they're afraid. We posited that Tumbleweed was not an evil-tempered, vicious cat; he was insecure. He had spent his two and a half years of life living either with a much larger and experienced cat (Pumpkin), or a cat that possessed far more physical competence (Mistoffolees). If it may be said of a cat that he was compensating for an inferiority complex, then Tumbleweed certainly was.
Our prescription was frequent attention and physical contact. I rarely passed by Tumbleweed without an affectionate rub of his forehead, or a two-handed back massage, even at the risk of offending Mister Mistoffolees, whose constant angling for attention made me nickname him Mister Underfoot.
The change was prompt and welcome. Tumbleweed was no longer an aloof growler. He was almost as likely to join us in front of the stereo or TV as Mistoffolees was (although he would never be a lap cat like Flees). Even the fights between the two cats settled down to a more kittenish scale.
I had never met an animal that I had to win over several times a day— I thought this was a quality only of wives— but that's the way it was. For the rest of Tumbleweed's life, when he and I encountered each other walking in opposite directions, he paused long enough to receive a couple of obeisant strokes of his back and I paused long enough to apply them. It was a small price to pay for harmony.
The Look That Kills
So far the reader will have a very lopsided picture of Tumbleweed's abilities. While it is true he jumped off a low chair with exaggerated preparation and care, he could also take a couple of quick steps across our small kitchen then scramble to the top of the refrigerator, six feet off the floor.
His walk was the walk of one of the big cats, with an exaggerated rolling of shoulders and the suggestion of immense power under control. Always long and slim, probably less than nine pounds at his heaviest, he somehow looked big. With two feet on the floor he could reach 38 inches up a wall.
His coat, black stripes on a tan background, contributed to a wild look, although it was scrupulously maintained. His handsome but fierce ocelot face, along with his unfocused and spooky eyes, finished the job.
No wonder he scared people who didn't know he could be scooped up into a compact and harmless furball resting in the crook of Cynthia's arm.
It may be that his own notion of his abilities exceeded the reality. One day, for reasons we can only guess, he jumped 55 feet from our balcony to the ground.
This is a bad distance. Cats have survived falls of seven stories and more, because they have time to position themselves properly to generate wind resistance— like flying squirrels. They reach their maximum velocity, and 15 stories is no worse than 10. But 55 feet can be deadly.
We didn't know at first where he was. We checked atop the bookcases, inside the kitchen cabinets and the clothes dryer, everywhere. It was Cynthia who decided to look downstairs. Minutes later she was back, Tumbleweed in her arms— Dead, I presumed. But no. Except for a white whisker bent at a 90-degree angle, there appeared to be nothing wrong with him. (A thorough exam and x-rays later confirmed it.) The whisker fell out after a few days.
Cynthia had found him slinking in terror through the parking lot, suddenly deprived of the limited smells and sights of his world and hurled into a universe with innumerable new ones. Did he meet the great blue heron that sometimes visited the swimming pool? Did he stir the interest of the feral cats that lived under the deck? Did the squirrels that live in the palm trees chatter at him? Did a dive-bombing crow or gull send him scurrying from the relative safety of the bushes down to the parking garage? No telling how many lives he used up dodging cars, since we have no firm idea how long he was there.
For a long time, Tumbleweed was not allowed on the balcony unsupervised.
The Wit and Wisdom of Tumbleweed
If he didn't have a head for heights, he was smart about many things, such as how to interrupt dinner.
For hygienic reasons, I do not allow cats on the kitchen counter. Cynthia thinks a cat on a kitchen counter is decorative, as a bowl of fruit. Tumbleweed, of course, saw no limits to his domain, but well understood our conflicting views of the issue.
Imagine me then, enjoying my dinner, seated facing Cynthia with my back to the kitchen. I see a glint of amusement in Cynthia's eyes. That's my clue that Tumbleweed is a step away from me on the piano, waiting for me to spin around. When I do, he shoots across the bar counter at the opening to the kitchen, pauses to glance at my progress, slows to a trot across the kitchen counter, then drops nonchalantly to the floor.
Sometimes I took this in the spirit it was meant: a gently kidding demonstration of my laughable powerlessness in my own home. Some days it made me furious. One time I snatched Tumbleweed off the floor and locked him in the bathroom, then sat down to resume my meal. At the time this bathroom had a tightly fitted door that was difficult to open; I had at least once helped an adult human guest open it. Moments after I locked Tumbleweed in, he pranced into the living room, lifting his legs like a Lipizzan stallion, and, I swear, grinning.
Some cats don't understand doors; they'll always try to push a door that opens inward, for example. When Tumbleweed was on the inside of a slightly ajar door that opened inward, he wrapped a paw around the edge of the door and pulled it toward him. When the door opened away from him, he pushed. I never saw him get it wrong.
But this time the door was closed. To get out, Tumbleweed had to turn the doorknob counterclockwise about 90 degrees, then pull the door open. He did it in seconds.
Unlike Houdini, Tumbleweed was happy to divulge how a trick was done. I locked myself in the bathroom with him and waited. He hopped from the toilet to the counter adjacent to the door. With his right paw he slapped the doorknob. It took a few tries before he worked out the amount of friction required to turn the knob a quarter-turn, but when he felt the latch bolt clear the jamb plate, he held the knob in place and pulled.
As the door swings slowly open and Tumbleweed leaps free, I pause to let you consider the previous sentence and his subtle little brain.
Supervision can be variously defined. First it means you watch the cat when it's on the balcony. Sometimes it means you nap out there on the balcony with the cat. Eventually it means you check on the cat now and again when the balcony door is open.
One day the door was open and Tumbleweed was on the balcony and Cynthia and I were in the living room, a few short steps from the balcony and well in control of the situation.
Then we saw Tumbleweed lock and load. All his springs suddenly wound tight, and all his focus was on something in the sky we couldn't see from our viewpoint.
I will always visualize the next 25 seconds in super slow-motion.
"Noooo Tuummbleweeed," one of us or maybe both of us said before he even moved as we spun and sprinted in super slo-mo like Baywatch lifeguards toward the balcony and only just reached it as Tumbleweed took two maybe three four steps and launched himself over the balcony railing into space fifty-five feet over the ground and snapped his jaws around the little pigeon flying by.
Bird in his mouth he turned left in space pushing off nothing but air yet tracing a lean arc that brought him back over the balcony railing to land with the bird in his mouth on the balcony floor already running, with Cynthia, too late for anything else, turning to chase him back into the living room.
"Noooo," I said as I divined Cynthia's intentions. "Not in the house—"
But Tumbleweed ran, followed by Cynthia, followed by me, through the living room into the hall where they slowed, confused by the dead end, and maybe it was there I outdistanced them and opened the back door and the four of us, bird, cat, Cynthia, I, spilled out into the outside hallway and I started tapping Tumbleweed's nose to suggest to him the idea of freeing the pigeon from his jaws which he did after a few taps and the four of us sat for a bit in our four corners letting our pitty-patting hearts slow down. Seconds passed, and real time resumed.
One of us held Tumbleweed, and one of us reached for the bird, which rocketed to a phone wire fifty feet away to deeply thank or curse the god of pigeons.
While Tumbleweed was not always subject to gravity, he was subject to the mundane diseases of housecats. He had dental problems, inlcuding an infection that cost him a fang. (Some cats let you brush their teeth. Tumbleweed was not that kind of cat.) He survived a serious bladder infection when he was 14, and, when he was ten, pancreatitis.
A cat with a severe case of pancreatitis has the same chances of survival as a human with a severe case of pancreatitis: 50–50. So say the experts. But nobody bequeaths million-dollar grants to fund the study of feline pancreatitis. The likely cause of pancreatitis in a human is alcohol abuse; the likely cause in a cat is unknown.
Tumbleweed could keep no nourishment down, not even water. We took him to the vet for injections of fluids, but she could do no more. Cynthia cleaned the carpet often, even if she often awoke in time to snatch up the cat and move him to tile that was easier to clean. Days passed, heavy with worry and dread. He became weaker and weaker.
One day instead of being worse or dead, he was better. The next day he was better still. Then he was healthy again.
The episode seemed to have had no lasting effect on Tumbleweed; I think it took a couple years off the lives of his owners.
It was overeater and erstwhile diabetic Mister Mistoffolees who would leave us first. A massive adenocarcinoma grew in a tangle inside him, leaving us no choice to make but which day should be his last.
Tumbleweed sniffed and searched for months, at first anxiously, then resignedly. As it became more evident that he was not sharing his territory, he changed. He didn't grudgingly join us in the same room but out of reach as before; now he joined us on the same couch or chair. He moved into the spot on Cynthia's side of the bed that Mistoffolees had once warmed. He might even tarry on our laps for a bit, before he realized what he was doing and moved to a more dignified position.
It took us 15 years and Mistoffolees' death to figure it out: Mistoffolees had always been the alpha cat in this pride. Lethally cute and disarmingly chubby, he didn't look the part. But Tumbleweed knew it. Tumbleweed wasn't naturally aloof; feline propriety demanded that he honor Flees' territory and stand off.
Never again challenged in his superiority, Tumbleweed was in his final years an affectionate and gentle companion. If he still enjoyed terrifying the occasional veterinary technician (and anybody in the waiting room at All Cats Hospital), it was all in good fun.
Eggnog season — the weeks from late November through early February that Farm Stores eggnog is available — was a good time for Tumbleweed. He kept his digestive tract tuned to handle dairy products in the off season by drinking Half and Half and lapping up vanilla ice cream, but it was Farm Stores eggnog (the only brand worth drinking, in his expert opinion and Cynthia's) that really got him purring.
But this December he started to seem listless. Even if we took into consideration that at 20 years, five months, he was just shy of 100 cat years, it seemed he was sleeping too much. More worrisome still, he wasn't finishing his eggnog.
One morning I discovered he was bleeding from the side of his mouth. So that was it, we thought: an abscess. He presented no objections when we hurried him to All Cats, Cynthia holding him in her arms.
Dr. Deborah Edwards, Tumbleweed's long-time nemesis (and occasional savior), prepared him for dental work by putting him under. We were home awaiting the call to go back and pick him up.
The call came unusually early. I heard Cynthia say, "I'll put Bruce on the phone."
Dr. Edwards explained as she just had to Cynthia that Tumbleweed had no abscess; he had a very fast-growing mass on the side of his head, undetected in a recent checkup. She could prescribe a painkiller, and do a biopsy to determine if it was cancer, but —
I asked her to keep him under the anesthetic until we could get back there.
Cynthia had the presence of mind to grab Teddy, Tumbleweed's lifelong plaything. When we got to the hospital and were directed to the operating room where Tumbleweed lay asleep on the table, Cynthia tucked Teddy under his paw.
Copyright 2019 Bruce Kula