Zephyr came into Greg’s life because of the child of a girlfriend who wanted a cat. Because Zephyr lived at Greg’s house, he quickly became Greg’s cat more than anyone’s, and so in the breakup, Zephyr remained Greg’s cat.
My first impressions of Zephyr were that of a strong, healthy hunter. I’d only known Greg a few weeks when I saw Zephyr leap onto the garden gate, balancing there on a bit of metal not even an inch wide with a baby rabbit in his mouth. The rabbit was more than half Zephyr’s size. Every other day there would be a new animal that Zephyr had hunted. Nobody was exactly pleased about the stray foot or tail on the front porch, but we were proud of Zephyr’s prowess.
Zephyr was always a needy cat. He behaved more like a dog than a cat, so Lytenian nick-named him Zeph-dog within the first week of knowing him. Zephyr would beg at the counter like a dog, wanting to know what you were eating. He’d whine at the bedroom doors at night, wanting to come into your bed to sleep with you.
Unfortunately, Lytenian and I moving in caused a lot of conflict with Zephyr. We both cared about the cat and wanted what was best for him, so we tried to adjust. Lytenian hoped that his allergies would acclimate to Zephyr. (Sometimes, someone with a cat allergy can adjust to a specific cat over time.) On the contrary, Lytenian’s cat allergies seemed to get worse, and he spent the better part of a year with hives coming back repeatedly on his body and face. He was often so sick that we thought he had the flu, but whenever we would travel away, his symptoms cleared up, and when we’d return, they came back.
We tried mitigating the allergy issue with a robotic vacuum that would automatically run each day in addition to a lot of other cleaning. We did extra loads of laundry, Lytenian took extra showers, and we all tried our best to keep cat fur out of Lytenian’s life. All of these efforts helped, but occasionally Lytenian would accidentally leave his door open and find Zephyr in his bed. Then he would have to wash all of his bedding, and he would break out in hives again the next day.
In addition to this, there was Zephyr meowing at the bedroom doors at night. While he’d done this some of the time before Lytenian and I arrived, something about our presence made him do it more. So much like a dog, it was as if Zephyr felt it was more unfair that he didn’t get attention with more of us around, or perhaps Lytenian’s avoidance of him made him feel like he simply had to win Lytenian’s affection. For whatever reason, Zephyr began meowing at the doors every single night until we were all awake. We would put him outside because there was nothing else to be done about it.
One summer I proposed that Zephyr just stay outside all the time.
Greg asked, “What would we do in the winter?”
“I don’t know. We can figure that out when it gets cold.”
We went forward with the idea that summer. Zephyr seemed very healthy and the vet was actually impressed at his regular visit. Not only did his physical health improve, but he emotionally seemed to become less needy during that first summer of living entirely outside. If humans didn’t give him attention, he just walked off into the fields to amuse himself with hunting.
Zephyr was healthier and Lytenian was healthier, so we seemed to have made a good decision. We bought Zephyr a heated bed for the porch in the autumn so that Zephyr could stay warm on chilly nights. In the winter we ended up keeping him in our downstairs bathroom during the coldest nights. Greg had to build a wooden protection screen for the bathroom door because Zephyr would scratch to seek attention and let out his frustration. At least he was warm, and we let him back outside every day to play in the snow.
Zephyr staying in the downstairs bathroom wasn’t a happy situation for anyone. He’d meow and meow in there, which made me feel so guilty and unhappy that I couldn’t eat. We couldn’t use the bathroom with him there. Lytenian because of his allergies, and me because of my sensitivities to the cat litter, and all of us because it was too small to navigate the wooden screen, the cat litter, and Zephyr himself.
One day Lytenian had the idea to build Zephyr his own house, and Greg decided it was a good idea. The next summer, Greg built Zephyr a house using SIPs as a model, with foam sandwiched between two pieces of wood. The cat house featured a heating bulb to provide warmth any time it dropped below 45ºF and a thermostat that Greg could read to be sure Zephyr had a warm place to be. In addition, we moved Zephyr’s cat bed into the cat house, so he had additional warmth beside the heat bulb and insulation.
This solution seemed to make everyone a lot happier. Sometimes when Greg was really stressed out, he would go outside to lay there with Zephyr, and when he’d come back inside he would take off his clothes, and shower, and mention how much he cherished his time with Zephyr and how calming it was for both of them.
Zephyr seemed strong and healthy, and maybe this led to him trying to expand his territory. At the time, our community had three households with dogs and five households with cats, and I imagine Zephyr might have felt that all these other animals were encroaching on his space. Afterall, Zephyr had been here much longer than the others. Perhaps this is why Zephyr managed to tussle with two dogs at once and come away alive, with a gash on his back and one front leg injured. This encounter was expensive all around, as Zephyr’s leg required surgery, and at least one of the dogs required care as well. When I questioned Greg’s choice to spend so much on repairing Zephyr’s leg, Greg cried. He couldn’t justify not spending the money and watching his beloved friend lose the use of his paw.
For a time it seemed like Zephyr’s injury might be more serious than we had first assumed. He seemed disoriented often, likely feverish. Thankfully, after a few weeks he began behaving a little more like his old self. He didn’t hunt down rabbits anymore, but the occasional mouse or other small critter turned up. Zephyr was less playful, but he still wanted affection. Sometimes he would start purring just because someone stood beside him on the porch. Greg spent a lot of time with Zephyr after the injury to his front leg. He was worried about him, as we all were. Zephyr sat in a strange posture with his injured paw up off the ground. We worried that he was in a lot of pain, and we all wondered if his quality of life was so poor that it would have been better if he had died. We felt guilty for having these thoughts, and guilty for Zephyr’s pain. We – humans – were calling the shots on how life would go for the animals around us, and somehow we’d messed up. Even though nobody intended what happened, there were more than enough guilty feelings.
Zephyr seemed better for a while, more playful again. He started doing as he used to – running up to our car when we’d return from grocery shopping. Just like a dog, we’d have to watch for him every time because he insisted on coming too close for us to see him. We often had to get out of the car to find him before we could pull up to the house. Zephyr wasn’t ever found actually under the car or in front of the tires, but we were always concerned when he ran up to the car and out of view.
Zephyr followed us around on walks on the property, often walking beside us all the way to the parking lot, or most of the way to the mailboxes, or down toward the treeline. He followed Lytenian and I too, even though Lytenian couldn’t pet him, and I rarely pet him so that I wouldn’t transfer fur to Lytenian. Still, Zeph-dog seemed to know we were family too.
While Zephyr continued to hold his paw up in a strange way, he seemed to walk normally, and he even jumped the fence occasionally. Yet as this summer began we worried that he seemed less active than ever. At eleven years old, he seemed as lethargic as a much older cat. Still, he went over to Greg’s construction site most days to watch Greg at work and poke around at everything curiously. Greg enjoyed the company and sent photos and videos of his antics to his family.
This past Wednesday, Zephyr was attacked again by a dog. Greg was getting into bed, but halted because he heard the clinking of dog tags and knew something wasn’t right. He went outside immediately in his bathrobe, but the injury had already been inflicted. Zephyr’s injuries were serious, and Greg brought him to Cornell because it was the only place nearby open so late.
Even with surgery, Zephyr didn’t have good chances for survival and one of his hind legs would have had to be amputated besides. At one o’clock in the morning, Greg had to make the decision to see his friend put down. I was asleep at the time, so I learned about this at two o’clock in the morning when Greg came into my room and asked me in a shaking voice to hold him.
Lytenian, Greg and I were awake past four o’clock in the morning, alternating crying with sharing stories. I’m crying again now, writing this. We did the best we could to balance all of our conflicting needs. Lytenian’s allergies, our needs for good sleep at night, and Zephyr’s needs for shelter and affection.
As a community we’ve all tried to balance the complex web of needs of pets and their owners.
Greg talked to someone about Zephyr’s death who implied that perhaps the dog ought to be put down. Greg, sick with his own grief and guilt, was horrified at the thought. After his own ordeal, the last thing he wanted was to put others through the same pain.
In the morning Greg and I went to a far corner of community property where Pixie was buried. Pixie was like Zephyr’s younger sibling in a way, acquired because our neighbor’s son admired the orange cat next door and wanted his own. Pixie was known for being the most affectionate, and sweet cat. Pixie didn’t live very long here, perhaps because her nature was too trusting. Pixie was the only cat that Zephyr seemed to like, as if Zephyr saw this smaller, younger, orange cat as his own somehow. Zephyr and Pixie were often seen together in our front yard. Greg felt that Zephyr might like to be near Pixie in death, as they were in life.
Greg and I dug for some long period of time yesterday morning. When the grave was nearly three feet in depth, Greg walked back to collect Zephyr. I collected flowers and pinecones while I waited for his return. Greg carried Zephyr’s body in his arms and placed him gently down. Greg cried hard and I cried with him.
“My little buddy is gone,” he said.
It occurred to me then that Zephyr was like Greg’s child, and I cried harder. Pixie’s owners joined us, and Salvatore. Greg placed Zephyr’s food bowl in his grave with some food and I found myself crying again. The boy who had admired our orange cat so much put a buttercup in the grave and then Greg and I carefully refilled the grave. We arranged stones on top, and the pinecones and flowers I had gathered. The boy gathered some more buttercups that were growing near Pixie’s grave and scattered them over the Zephyr’s grave and said, “From Pixie.”
We all stood there quietly for a time.
At home again, Greg was exhausted after a night containing only two hours of sleep, and digging a grave through rocks and clay, and he went to bed. Disturbed by the loss of Zephyr, I found myself feeling extra protective of my flowers, checking on them and spreading eggshells to defend them from slugs. Lytenian and I tried to carry on with life, but as Lytenian was folding laundry he asked me about the funeral. As I told him about it, he began crying again, and so did I. “Zephyr was Greg’s best friend,” Lytenain said through his tears. “Zephyr was there for him in a way that nobody else could be, and now he’s gone.”
I set my breakfast – which I was eating at three o’clock in the afternoon – aside and wrapped my arms around Lytenian.
“I think I’ve cried more about this cat than I did for either of my grandparents,” Lytenian said.
I nodded. As it is often said, you don’t know how much you care about someone until they’re gone.
Rest in peace, Zephyr, 2009-2020.
Authored by Raederle Phoenix
May 29th 2020