On March 15, 2009 we put my cat Jill (Jillian, Jilly, Jilly Bean, Jillkin) to sleep at an emergency vet. We didn’t know for sure why her kidneys failed, but it was sudden and unexpected. At times Jill could be grumpy and stubborn, but she was usually friendly, curious, and she was always very loved. I lamented at the time that it was “never going to be time to feed the monster again,” and we would always miss her. I didn’t expect to have another pet for a long time.
But then life intervened.
A Friday night two weeks later, my fiancée and I were waiting for a movie to start at the Regal theater next to the Crossroads mall in Bellevue. We saw that the Petco store adjacent was hosting some cats for adoption. We had no plans to get a new pet, especially not so soon, but we took a look anyway. I liked the look of a big cat (“Yoda”) snoring lazily in his cage, but Jane preferred a tiny black cat with a shaved belly and a curious face. After looking for a few minutes, we left for our movie.
In our seats, waiting for the previews to end, Jane remarked “She’s black and white. We could call her Domino.” and I spent the rest of subsequent movie impatiently waiting for it to end: the name was so perfect I couldn’t imagine living in a world where it wasn’t hers and she ours. Unfortunately, the pet store closed before our movie ended, but we were back bright and early the next day to adopt her.
A street kitten, under-weight, under-furred and under-age (she was allegedly a year old but plainly was only a few months) she took to her new home immediately; her fur grew in and she eventually stopped chasing her own tail.
Domino was playful and alert, and always pushing boundaries. We let her out a few times, but she kept getting hurt, one time returning with teeth marks on both sides of her little ribs suggesting that a dog had gotten its jaws around her entire body. After that, she was confined to our new deck– as soon as she stepped off, we’d pick her up and put her back on it. She clued in and began keeping a single paw arched back to the bottom step of the deck, her other three triumphantly planted in the grass. It was soon a common sight, one so comical that it was ingrained in my memory to the point that I never bothered to take a picture. I’d’ve never believed if I hadn’t seen it.
Unlike many cats who are standoffish or aloof, Domino was empathic– if we ever cried or even sounded sad, she’d immediately appear and start rubbing up against us, a furry friend without advice, just love. We bought her a fancy bed, but she never wanted to sleep in it– she always snuggled up to us instead.
When we moved from Seattle to Austin in 2012, we decided to drive rather than fly to make the trip easier on her– drugging her for a flight seemed cruel and unnecessary. A day into the trip, we realized what an error we’d made… she spent the first two days of the trip hiding in the back of the car, climbing up to the dashboard to peer out, then, terrified at America whizzing by at 75mph, jumping into the back or a lap to lay back down. This process repeated every few minutes until she’d fall asleep for short naps.
By the third day, she was plainly miserable; when we finally rolled into our new driveway, the first order of business was to let her out to explore her new back yard. Her backyard explorations were rare after that– we’d seen coyotes and snakes in the neighborhood, and between those threats and the blazing Texas summers, she was happy enough as an indoor cat. An occasional foray into the backyard to nibble some grass or roll around on the patio seemed to keep her happy.
We grew up together.
In 2013, we nervously brought our first son home, worried about how Domino might react. She kept her distance. In fact, if anything, she seemed terrified, avoiding both his crib and her food bowl. Her odd behavior went on for a few days until I finally figured out what had happened.
Tied to newborn Noah’s car seat floated a congratulatory Mylar balloon, and having never seen one, Domino was terrified of it. I foolishly made the mistake of trying to carry her over to it to show her that it was nothing to be afraid of. She clawed her way out of my arms, over my shoulder, and down my back, peeing the whole way. Later that afternoon, Noah peed all over me as I changed his diaper, and I joked that it was “pee on Dad day.”
After we got rid of the balloon, Domino was the perfect big sister, tolerating a toddler who would occasionally pull her tail or chase her around, never lifting a paw against him no matter how rough he wanted to play. Her patience continued with our second son, and it paid off– as they grew up, the boys were always happy to snuggle, pet her, and build increasingly elaborate cat forts out of whatever cardboard boxes they could get their hands on. She humored them and snuggled them every chance she got.
But she snuggled with all of us, including sleepy mom and dad.
When my wife asked me to move out a year ago, there wasn’t much debate — our cat was coming with me. Domino kept me company through the roughest pandemic year alone in a new home. Two or three other cats in my new neighborhood roamed free and Domino noisily defended her turf through the windows. As the weather cooled down, she started keeping me company on the porch, and then demanding to go out between dinner and bedtime. A month ago, she went out late and didn’t come back until first light, banging on my bedroom window and demanding breakfast.
So I didn’t think too much about it as I acceded to her demands and let her out the back door at around 11pm the night of November 9th, 2020. “Be good. Don’t get in trouble!” I admonished as always. At 12:30am, I checked for her, but she wasn’t around, so I reluctantly went to bed.
I woke up a few times in the night and checked for her, but she wasn’t around. When I woke up at 8am, I was officially worried. By the afternoon, I was papering the neighborhood with posters, updating the contact info for her microchip, and learning about all of the web resources for reuniting lost pets (some of which are pretty cool).
Going to bed alone that night with her still at large was hard. And it hasn’t gotten any easier over the last week, no matter how many posters I’ve put up, or web postings I’ve scoured.
Sounds like a great cat, huh? Well, you haven’t heard the real story yet.
Back when Noah was four, his right knee started swelling. We assumed it was bruising from a fall, but he didn’t complain about pain and the swelling didn’t go down in weeks. A series of doctors’ visits, scans, and a fully-anesthetized MRI led to a diagnosis of PVNS, a non-cancerous tumor that nonetheless would require major surgery on both the front and back of Noah’s knee. The expert doctor at Dell Children’s Hospital assured us that it was as clear a case as he’d ever seen, and we needed to do the surgery soon to ensure that Noah’s leg would grow normally. I pushed for doing the operation right away, but Jane suggested we do it later in the fall so that Noah would be able to recover without the temptations of the swimming pool and other summer fun.
Around this time we noticed Domino had developed a large growth (about the size of a large marble) in her neck, a recurrence of a problem (keratin buildup?) she’d had previously. We hoped she’d get better on her own again this time, as we had bigger worries now.
Throughout August and September, Noah would watch cartoons on the couch, and Domino would lay her swollen chin on his swollen knee. When it came time to go back to the hospital for Noah’s operation, the doctor was gobsmacked– the mass was completely gone. He had no explanation– he’d never seen anything like it. The doctor asked us to do an MRI in an attempt to figure out what had happened, but after confirming that Noah wouldn’t need surgery and an MRI wouldn’t change anything for his diagnosis, we declined. We were overwhelmed with relief. Domino’s growth disappeared too.
I’m not saying my cat cured my son (and vice-versa), but our best doctors don’t seem to be in a position to say that’s not what happened either.
I miss my friend.