Wilbur was probably the most loyal friend I ever had. With great sadness and eyes filled with tears, I said goodbye to him this week as he crossed the rainbow bridge. Wilbur made that passage in much the same way he did everything else…with calm dignity.
Seventeen years ago Helen (adorable wife) and I moved into a new home that we had just completed on the lake and surrounded by trees. It was early winter and a squadron of mice decided to move in with us and take over our basement. I was building several houses at that time and complained about the mice to a brick mason on one of our projects. Buddy, my brick mason friend, lived in one of the nearby farming communities and offered me one of the thirty feral cats that he fed daily as a way of bringing the mice under control.
Always a cat lover, I thought long and hard about his offer. The problem was that Helen had professed a strong disdain for cats and convincing her to allow one into her new home would be a real challenge. At the end of the work day, I returned to Buddy and said I would accept his offer, but I had three specifications for a cat. First, the cat had to be an ardent supporter of the Tennessee Volunteers and therefore it needed to be Orange and White. Second, the cat had to have the potential to be BIG. No scrawny wimps would be tolerated. Third, if the new addition did not work out or if Helen put her foot down, Buddy would allow me to bring it back to his feeding station. He said he thought he had just what we needed.
Several weeks passed and I had all but forgotten about my discussion with Buddy, but one Sunday morning Helen and I returned home from church to find a large cage on our front porch. Inside the cage calmly sat an orange and white cat. On top of the cage was a note that read “My name is Tom and I’m yours”!
Tom was a mess. Hair was missing on one-third of his body from mange. Blood and other junk were seeping from his nose, and fleas were having a field day on his naked skin. Nevertheless, there was something very appealing about this orange mess. When he was released from the cage, I expected him to run for the woods, but instead, he walked over and began rubbing his head on my pants leg as he chattered away in a low mutter. He had me from hello. Helen’s nurturing instincts took over immediately and said we needed to get him to a Vet and get him cured of his ailments. Thankfully, that was the only discussion we had about allowing him to join the family.
Being that it was a Sunday, there were no Vet clinics open so I confined our new friend to the basement and went to buy some cat food, a water bowl, kitty litter and litter box. Helen placed an old blanket on the basement floor as a bed. The next morning I opened the basement door to gather Tom and take him to the Vet. Sitting on the top step, was a cat and a half-eaten mouse. I assumed he was giving me a deposit on the rent and the Vet bill.
It was a good thing because the trip to the Vet was expensive. After treatments for mange, a respiratory infection, de-worming, and neutering, I was left holding a tab for over $400. There was no way that this cat was going anywhere until our basement was free of rodents. He was officially ours and put to work immediately. The veterinarian estimated his age to be about three years.
Over time, this arranged adoption worked out extremely well. From the day he returned from the veterinarian, he was my constant companion and followed me around like a lovesick puppy. Because he was constantly talking to us, he was given the name Wilbur from the owner of the TV talking horse of the 50’s. Helen loved the way he chattered away and it gave her someone to talk to in the mornings when I was still in the non-contact zone. For someone who never liked cats, she soon was admittin’ to being smitten with this kitten.
Wilbur was polydactyl, meaning that he was born with six toes on his front paws as opposed to the five toes of normal cats. He also had an extra dew claw between his thumb and first toe. Mice, once caught, never had a chance with Wilbur, and within months we never saw another one in our basement. He also did a number on moles, chipmunks, and even small rabbits in our yard. This cat was born to hunt. Surprisingly, he gave birds their distance. I always supposed that Helen had laid down the law to him in their morning conversations.
Laid back but never lazy, Wilbur went through mice and Meow Mix in a frenzy and his weight soon ballooned from 14 to over 26 pounds. His mange went away quickly and he was blessed with a shining orange coat and a shimmering white patch across his chest. I was blessed with the big cat I always wanted. Wilbur was a real stud…metaphorically speaking. Although we had five animals in our household, Wilbur took the “Best Pet” trophy almost every month.
His ability to capture mice notwithstanding, it was his charm that warmed Wilbur to everyone. He was a people cat. Unlike most cats that are indifferent and downright disagreeable, Wilbur never met a stranger. After we downsized to a smaller home, I was concerned as to how he would react in a neighborhood with a lot of folks out walking the streets. My concerns were unfounded. Wilbur soon got to know everyone and sought out anyone who would permit him to rub his head on their ankles as he had always done to me.
Time marched on and seventeen years after arriving at our doorstep as an orphan, Wilbur, at age 20, began to let us know that it was time to say goodbye. Instead of sleeping on our feet and leading me to the treat basket the first thing every morning, he began sleeping in a closet. His weight dropped precipitously to around 12 pounds, and suddenly he did the one thing he had never done–he stopped using his litter box. Time and kidney failure had taken a toll.
On Monday of this week, knowing that the inevitable was coming, I did everything imaginable to avoid making a call to the Vet who had first treated him so long ago. Finally, I placed the call, made an appointment, and cried all the way there. We diverted to pass by our former home where he first came to us. I suppose it was to recall some great days and perhaps another way of stalling for more time.
I entered the veterinarian’s office where I was greeted warmly by the staff who spoke in hushed tones. The Veterinarian led me to an office and left me alone with Wilbur for a few minutes together. When he returned, he was extremely comforting to me and incredibly and professionally humane to Wilbur. Within a few minutes Wilbur passed quietly, and my loyal friend was now a memory.
So long, Wilbur, we’ll try Easin’ Along without you.
It is so very strange not having him around…I miss him more than I can put into words.
Special thanks are extended to Dr. Bihl and Volunteer Veterinary Clinic for many years of professional care for our animals and for the kind comfort extended to me this week during a very difficult situation. We remain eternally grateful.