But on Friday evening, February 6th, as I was just another commuter sitting in traffic in just one of many Chicago suburbs, I saw the most beautiful sunset that I’ve ever seen in my life.
It began as bright pink streaks in the sky and I remember thinking that it was the kind of color that only looked good in nature. I looked forward as the car in front of me moved. When we stopped again, I looked back at the sky.
As I watched, another world materialized before me. In the distance were mountains—all pink, orange, and red, all sharply defined. I realized that these mountains were actually tremendous sand dunes, and a vicious sandstorm was raging on one side of the mountains. There was a purple valley between the sand dunes and I, the type of purple that the Rocky Mountains become when you see them from afar. I realized that we commuters were on another mountain, and that the reverse was true—if you looked down from atop a mountain, the land below would look purple. The wild sandstorm raged on in the distance. I looked deeper and deeper. The car in front of me disappeared, the stores by me disappeared. The sand dunes had startling clarity. I could see every wave, every shadow, even the grains of sand. The sandstorm was so huge that, had it been real, it would have stretched hundreds of thousands of feet into the air.
Then the brake lights of the car in front of me disappeared and I realized the light had turned green and for the first time in my life, I was disappointed that the traffic was moving.
When I looked again, the tremendous sand dunes with the enormous sandstorm and the purple valley in between us had disappeared. We were back on flat earth. There were only subtle streaks of pink against an encroaching midnight blue blanket of night sky.
Then I thought about George. I had just seen the most beautiful sunset of my life and George, in his feline way, was not here to experience it. The sadness was sudden and hard. He was one day too late…or was he?
It was the winter of 1998-1999. The snow had, over the past weeks, accumulated by the foot and the bitter artic air had settled in to stay.
Early one morning, my dad told me there was a black and white cat on the deck outside. In this weather? The deck was a maze of pathways dug through the deep snow—more for our four indoor-outdoor cats rather than us humans—and it took me a few moments to find the black and white cat among the piles of snow and sharp early morning shadows.
He—and it was definitely a tom—was not on the deck but beside it, beneath the large picture window I was looking out of. He huddled against the cold. I tapped the window glass and he looked up at me.
He was a large black and white ‘tuxedo’ cat and possibly the thinnest, sorriest-looking thing I had ever seen with my own eyes. He could have been handsome but his face was mangled and swollen. One ear looked more like black cauliflower than a cat ear. The thick tomcat cheeks and neck were instantly recognizable but the rest of him was all bones, with missing patches of fur and black lumps of scabs here and there. It was obvious to me that he had been in many fights…and had lost most of them.
But his eyes had no hint of fight within them. They were large and soft and worried. They pleaded with me through the glass.
Strays had come and gone over the years. Our cats seemed to attract them. We did our best to not feed them but occasionally there would be one that visited time and time again over the course of a few weeks. Only then, and rarely, would we consider giving the cat food and water. We did not want to encourage them to stay, but we were not cold and could not turn a blind eye to an animal in genuine need. In the end, the alpha cat of our resident tribe would eventually scare the stray off for good.
Within the eyes of this black and white tomcat, I recognized not just need but urgent need. He was not here to fight. He was here to survive.
I had a strong urge to feed him and provide him with warm water, so I did.
And the next morning, before school, I fed him again. And again the following morning. My dad, who was often up before me, would eye me in a “Your mom won’t approve” way but I knew that he, my dad, did approve.
Every morning the black and white tom would be waiting either beneath the picture window or at the far corner of the deck. He would wait patiently and not approach the food and water bowls I set out until I had retreated back into the house. Somehow, I knew that he was really not afraid, but respectful.
Before long, my dad was feeding the cat as well. My mom did not but she would watch the cat through the window.
“Don’t feed him!” my mom said, but with a hint of a smile. My brother stayed out of the whole affair but he, too, felt sorry for the cat. The beat-up, starving tom had won us all over.
And the strangest thing? It’s something that we still talk about, something we still marvel at. None of our four cats seemed to mind the presence of the black and white tom. The most flabbergasting thing was our alpha cat, Connie. Connie was all business. She was notorious for instantly disliking any other cat besides herself (and Tiger, remember Tiger? But that’s a story for another day). She did not hesitate to fight for her territory and her orange tabby ears had the chips and scars to prove it.
It was her custom to be let out the first thing every morning. She would return a short while later then ask to be let out again. Initially, we worried about what she would do when she came across the black and white tom huddled among the huge piles of snow and refused to let her outside when he was around. But she protested—loudly. Once we realized that the tom probably didn’t have a single aggressive bone in his body, we let her out. She trotted outside, paused to look at him, and trotted on. We were astonished. Normal Connie behavior was to hiss, to chase, to throw a tantrum. When the tom saw Connie, he respectfully creeped back to the far corner of the deck.
It’s your territory. I don’t want to fight you for it, he seemed to say. And he kept his word.
The snow thawed and we continued to feed the tom, who slept beneath the deck at night, no doubt in a nest of old leaves. While no longer a bag of bones, he was still skinny. It also became obvious that he had a raging infection in one leg, which was grossly swollen down to the foot and very painful for him to move. No wonder he had come to us for food. Even if he could find small animals among all the snow and in the bitter sub-zero temperatures, he would have had no way of running after them. We knew that if we did nothing more than feed him, he would become extremely sick.
By then my mom had long resigned to feeding the tom, and even fed him herself. She worked as a receptionist at an animal hospital and we decided that she should bring him in and have his wounds looked at.
None of us had ever touched the tom—he always maintained a respectful distance—but my mom reported that she had no difficulties whatsoever getting him into a carrier.
Of course, you cannot have a family of dedicated cat lovers take a stray, wounded cat—a kind one that they had been feeding for months, no less—to the vet only to put him right back outside. He was tested for FeLV, guessed to be about five years old, neutered, vaccinated, had various abscesses drained, and was sent home with antibiotics and a name. The staff of the animal hospital, who were smitten by the tom’s laid-back charm and handsome two-toned face, took note of his massive shoulders and neck and named him George, after the boxer.
When I arrived home from school that day, I found George laying in a pool of sunshine in the family room, one white paw stretched out, looking at the deck outside the glass sliding door with relaxed, half-closed eyes. At last, he was on the inside looking out. At last, he was home. I put a hand on his head and he looked up at me, happy. It was as if I had petted him a thousand times before.
Where had he come from? We had speculated on the question when we first discovered George outside, and we speculated again. He was so kind, so gentle. There was no way he had been a stray his entire life. Maybe he had gotten lost as a kitten. Maybe he had been neglected and decided to just leave. Maybe his prior owners didn’t care to neuter him but were tired of him marking his territory in the house and kicked him out.
Whatever the reason, with us, he was where he belonged. And he knew it.
George was a gentle giant. He wrestled with the other cats but let them win. He was always good to hug and hold. He did surprise us on occasion, however. We quickly found out that he loathed dogs with a burning passion when he climbed up a horrified neighbor’s leg to get at the Labrador puppy in her arms. He chased the Jack Russell terrier next door until she was whimpering and crying. And I’ll never forget the time I saw a usually-placid George jump four feet into the air to catch a dove in mid-flight. And that handsome face! It was impossible to not fall in love. George was beloved by my family. On February 5, 2009, at the estimated age of 15 years old, he passed away in the arms of my parents.
Looking back to a decade ago, I now know just how dire George’s situation had to be. Realizing that his life was at sake, he went against his unintrusive nature and asked us for help. We gave it to him, and in turn, he gave us ten wonderful years. So thank you, George, for taking a chance with us.
And maybe, just maybe, that gorgeous sunset was his thank-you to me.
George enjoys the sunshine outside,