Thirteen years ago I met my wife, Christine, on what she insisted at the time was “not a date per se, just drinks.” That not-a-date lasting long into the morning, I came home to my townhouse that I shared with my ex-fiancee, Kristin, who was in the process of moving out. The next night, Kristin was involved in a nasty car accident (the at-fault driver being, of course, a Charlottesville police officer). Of course, she was free to stay as long as she needed to recover.
Kristin and I had adopted two cats during our time together. Our first cat was Reggie, a mackeral tabby with massive eyes and curious demeanor. He got along famously with everyone. A few months later, we decided he needed a friend, so Kristin found Jinx, a tiny, nervous black kitty who took no shit. Reggie was my cat, and in the breakup we agreed that the cats should stay together.
After Kristin had surgery and was looking at a months-long recovery process, she decided that she needed a cat of her own, a therapy animal to help inspire her healing and to keep her occupied as she was out of work for a while. She wanted a kitten, so Christine, Kristin and I headed off to our local shelter when we heard that they had too many kittens and needed them adopted out to make space. It was there we found Toberon, quickly shortened to “Toby,” a tiny buff warlord. He was playful and rambunctious; when we took turns holding him, he bit Christine on the face. He was perfect for Kristin and we took him home that day.
Toby quickly took over the household, attacking his big brother and sister without hesitation or remorse. While hunting a fly, he knocked over one half of the pair of pedestal lamps I had downstairs, shattering its glass shade. Toby had attitude, one time I told him he couldn’t walk on my keyboard and he looked at me squarely with his deep coppery eyes and said, myarp! before skulking away. I’ve never been called such a name in my life.
Kristin moved back to Iowa some months later and took Toby with her. I had grown to love the tiny demon and cried tears of loss. I insisted to keep a silly piece of canvas art we bought at Target, a caricature of a cat that looked just like him.
Kristin’s time in Iowa found her moving into an apartment that didn’t allow cats, and not wanting to surrender him back to a shelter, she asked if I’d take car of him. Without hesitation I consented and drove up to the airport one December evening to pick him up—did you know you can send pets alone on airplanes? We brought him home and re-introduced him, his big brother and sister not sure how to feel about the chaos demon being back home.
Toby being reunited with Reggie and Jinx
The next morning, I walked down the stairs to find that overnight, Toby had knocked over the other half of the pedestal lamp set, him standing proudly over the shards of glass awaiting me at the bottom of the stairs.
Toby earned the nickname “troublemaker” because he was always the first to explore whether an object obeyed the laws of gravity. He would constantly pick fights, seemingly out of boredom, as he had no issues sharing food or litter boxes with his siblings. He didn’t hate our dog, Sadie, who mostly left him alone, and after Sadie passed in later years and we brought home our cheese man, Queso, he would sometimes give him a whap on the nose but otherwise was happy to share the same couch.
Nearly a decade ago, Reggie snuck out when we weren’t looking, and we never found him after that. We suspect another home took him in; one day we found a note on one of our LOST CAT flyers that read, “I found him and he’s my n*gga now.” Knowing Sir Reginald, there was no reason to doubt this was anything other than true.
We didn’t give up the search for Reggie, and every weekend we would go to the shelter and look at all the mackeral tabbies to see if he’d show up. We thought we found him one day, but instead found “Alex,” a plump and stubby tabby with a scarred cornea that looked solid black. He had a label on his crate, “please do not take out with other cats.” Looking at the volunteers playing with all the other cats, we felt bad for him. Poor sick wonky-eyed boy! He’s so lonely and needs attention!
Turns out, he was just an asshole.
Tyrion, as we would rename him after adopting him, loved to bully other cats. He was a perfect match for Toby. The two brothers would become the best of frenemies, keeping each other in check. They tolerated each other, every once in a while we’d even catch them on the couch with their butts touching, but they never really took to snuggling with each other. Often they’d fight, occasionally in death grasps, but five minutes later had no problem sleeping in the same sunbeam. It was shy little Jinx who was the real murder machine. Tyrion and Toby would both pick on her, and every time they’d end up trudging down the stairs, her claws embedded in their foreheads.
Toby and Tyrion hesitantly touching on the couch.
When Kristin and I were together, Jinx was diagnosed with a heart murmur and given only a few years to live. She made it to ten. The week after Christine and I were married, we brought Toby in to have his chronic sniffle looked at: vets suspected nasal polyps and performed a small procedure. Something happened and Toby had a stroke after the procedure. He was unable to move his legs. We spent all of our wedding gift cash in rehabilitating him at the emergency vet. Eventually, we took him home and convalesced him in the dog’s crate. He couldn’t move, so every few hours we had to flip him onto his other side like a pancake.
After a week of this he was walking, after two weeks he was jumping up on counters and knocking things off. We’d never been more proud of him being back to his troublemaking ways.
Toby sits on an entertainment stand while a dog looks on from a crooked couch, Tyrion scratches on a cat post.
When I left for Berlin, I left Christine, and really Toby, in charge of the house. I was away when Jinx passed, and again when Sadie passed. As time went on I began to feel more and more guilty of the time I was missing. I get home often, and Christine can come to Europe whenever she wants, but it’s hard not having the daily chaos of a cat screaming at you for food or stealing your potato chips. One time we had ordered Thai for delivery, I was eating a “thai spicy” Pad Kra Pao. Toby jumped on the counter and insisted to share some of my food—he stole a spicy thai chili pepper. I figured I’d let him have a taste, it would hurt, and he’d learn his lesson.
He at the whole thing and defiantly shit outside the litter box instead.
I think about moving back to Virginia often, and Christine and I have been having more and more discussions about where we want to end up. Seattle? Vancouver? Berlin? Somewhere outside of Charlottesville? Our beautiful little Fifeville home? I told her wherever we go, I need to have a library. I have another few decades yet and I want to think about my archives. In the meantime, I try to suppress my sinful guilt by coming home as frequently as I can. We had a vacation in Ireland and the UK planned and I would head back to Virginia afterwards. I was looking forward to being back in the home we call “the Zoo” again.
Toby headfirst in a Chipotle bag.
Our friend, catsitting, texted us Sunday night and said Toby didn’t seem to be eating. Before Christine left on Friday evening, he was active and vibrant as usual. The next morning, she said she was taking him to the emergency vet, because he wasn’t moving.
Christine and I said goodbye to Toby on a video call sitting on the ruins of a signal tower on a picturesque cliff overlooking the sea in southern Ireland. He recognized our voices and seemed at peace. He was ready to go. As he passed, a sunbeam cut through the clouds and bathed us in warmth.
Cancer had come, his heart was enveloped in fluid. There was nothing the vet could have done except ease his suffering. We wouldn’t have even been able to make it home in time if we left right away.
The pain of my loss, really of my guilt of not being present, was eased by the faith that Toby knew everything. Everyone thinks their pets are special, but Toby was. He was supremely intelligent and knew how to communicate with us better than we did. He was vocal, sometimes demanding, but also caring. He’d bring us fresh “kills” (his ribbon on a stick), ask us questions, and demand the proper pets and scritches. To help combat Tyrion’s weight gain, we bought Toby a box that only he could access through a microchip-activated hatch. When his brother was blocking it, trying fruitlessly to get in, Toby figured out how to climb into the box from the top.
Many cats are problem solvers but it was Toby’s intuition that set him apart. When I was struggling, he’d come in to cheer me up. When I was bored, he’d insist on playing the “chase me” game. He invented a new game at three in the morning, where he’d rattle some objects on the dresser and when we woke up to throw him out, he’d dive under the bed. After two or three rounds of this, we’d have to outsmart him, pretending to lay back down. As he climbed out, we’d grab him and eject him from the bedroom. Eventually he learned to always choose a different path out from under the bed.
Toby perched in a cat house inside a large tube.
Toby was an indoor cat, but I’d take him outside from time to time. Once, he ran headfirst into the neighbor’s poison ivy-dense underbrush, his eyes dilated wide with the “wild animal” game he was playing. He found great amusement in the way we used rake handles to try to scare him out. I never worried about him running off, he knew his home and knew where the good stuff was. He just needed some adventure from time to time.
Before I moved away, sometimes I’d take him on a car ride and let him out of the crate. He enjoyed standing up on his hind legs and looking out the window of my truck at all the scenery passing by. In another life he would have been my road trip buddy as I set off across America to write the book I’ve been planning. In this life, I was looking forward to the day I could bring home to Berlin. I imagined making a comfy little spot on the table next to my bed for him.
Toby’s loss is an underscore for the time I’ve lost being away from home these last few years, and while I always knew this was a possibility (I have always made sure to say goodbye to the animals as if it was the last time I’d ever see them), the sting of unrecoverable years doesn’t numb with age. I left for Berlin because neo-Nazis were trying to kill me; in the years since, I’ve defeated every single one of them. I wonder what I’m still doing there anymore.
The answer is my career, and that I actually love living in Europe. I love not speaking English, I love the travel opportunities, I love the challenge it poses and the depth it has given me. American emigrants wear a different attitude. I’m good at my job and my career is moving in a nice direction. I’m authoring my own story in a lot of ways. There’s something positive and hopeful about that.
It’s not without its cost, and one of the payments come due is that I’ll never hear Christine shout “Toby!!” again as he knocks a full glass of water off the coffee table. I’ll never see him climb the christmas tree and perch wide-eyed in the branches. I’ll never hear him walk into the bedroom and announce, “harro?” Toby was my son for thirteen years, thirteen privileged years where I got to have a little fuzzy jerk keeping me honest. I can lament the nights apart, but instead I’ll remember the mornings together, how he’d jump on the counter, reach out his paw, and demand chin scritches as I made coffee.
Toby in a christmas tree with pupils fully dilated.
Memory is love’s last expression and grief is its penultimate. It will be a long time I grieve the loss of this singular soul and my best buddy. Pets bring so much bittersweet joy into our lives; perhaps it is because we know their lives are so much shorter than ours that we love them so much more deeply. Toby will be loved and remembered forever, and if there’s a life after this one I hope he’s resting in a sunbeam there, too.