home origins newsletter articles links happy endings

New York Times
July 24, 2010

The Vagabond Cat That Came to Stay


CAMBRIDGE, England — He came unannounced out of an Indian monsoon, hauling himself onto our Delhi verandah one morning 16 summers ago — tiny, skeletal, bedraggled, a black-and-white splodge so limp as we lifted him from the polished flagstones that we feared he’d drowned in the sheeting rain.

Even by alley cat standards, he was not much of a kitten, the size of an open hand, unable in those first few hours to stand without falling down. More pitiable, his whiskers had been snipped off, an indignity suffered when he’d petitioned for refuge in a shanty near our home, where children made sport by taunting strays.

Last week, as he reached the end of his adventurer’s life, 5,000 miles and a world away from his beginnings, we comforted each other with those first memories of the cat we came to call Scuzzi — for the scruffy, ragamuffin state in which he arrived as much as for the scrappy, streetwise, step-aside, endlessly talkative character he became.

It is not in the nature of cats, at least in the case of the platoon of strays we have adopted in our travels around the world, to freight themselves with speculations about their fortune in finding human refuge. From the get-go, Scuzzi behaved as if he knew how blessed we — as much as he — were by his turn towards our verandah when all other hope for him was gone.

Over the years, he became an indispensable part of our lives and our children’s, a loyal companion yet always a vagabond, his wandering habits blending seamlessly with our own.

So when the debilities of old age finally beset him, with his cat’s brief span dooming us to a painfully early parting, the family debate about whether to end his life prematurely, or grant him the last full measure of sovereignty by allowing him to die in his own time, was as agonizing as anything we have known.

Life has its rhythms, with endings that return full circle to our beginnings, and so it was for Scuzzi. On that first Delhi morning, an Indian government horse veterinarian, the only kind available, waved away suggestions of a quick end to his suffering. He assured us that Scuzzi would survive, and ultimately thrive, with a proper diet and the balm of human kindness.

And it was to the mercies of another vet that we turned at the end. By then, Scuzzi had entered the last throes of kidney failure, barely a third of his normal weight and so stiff he could no longer lift or turn his head. Just as at the beginning, he was threatening at every step to topple as we took him on the final, halting tours of his favored garden retreats.

Even then, the old fighter had not wearied, nor his primeval radar failed. From the moment he emerged from Delhi’s drains, he had the DNA of ancestors who survived generations on the meanest streets. Later on, his chatty ways with humans won him friends wherever he wandered, and the open doors of others’ homes provided him with a network of favored retreats, sometimes for days on end.

But he was never so amenable with animal kinsmen, particularly cats.

His strongest urge, to the end, ran to patrolling in search of a handsome Black Persian — a stray — who made his home amid the tangled undergrowth around our Cambridge home. On one side, there was the battlefield we called Falluja — the sprawling gardens of a world-renowned expert in international law, with Jack Russell terriers resident and primed for Scuzzi’s incursions; on the other, the deep woodland of one of Cambridge’s sprawling colleges, which became Scuzzi’s Anbar.

Many were the days when Scuzzi and the Persian met in combat, Scuzzi coming home with deep scratches on his face, fur hanging in clumps from his flanks. No counseling, no remonstrance that he, too, had once been alone, unfed, and frightened, made the slightest impact. For Scuzzi, civility ended where the hinterland began. Once aboard the good ship of family life, the drawbridge in his mind had been raised, and no other cat could hope for rescue.

His long-range patrols astonished us. Once, when he had been missing nearly a week, my wife, Jane, then working in Baghdad, reproved me at long distance for not having called the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which has a missing-animals database in Newcastle, 250 miles away. Waste of time, I thought, but I called all the same. “Black-and-white cat, you say, Cambridge? No problem,” the R.S.P.C.A. man said, clicking his mouse. “He’s on the roof of the university library, been there five days.” And so he was, three stories up, cowering from a losing fight with one of the library’s own battalion of strays.

Now, with the family gathered and only hours to go, he was still agitating for a chance to go out on one last, remorseless patrol. And it was that instinct, in the end — the fear that he would disappear into the undergrowth, too weak to return and too remote to be found — that helped settle the family debate that had lasted weeks, through the cat’s equivalent of dialysis, insistent blood tests, and variations in diet. Anything to keep him alive.

John Grieve, the thoughtful family vet who had cared for Scuzzi as his illness worsened, told us consensus was imperative if we resolved to end his life. After scouring the Internet for advice, Jane and our two adult children who grew up with Scuzzi, Jamie and Emily, agreed that with all quality of life gone, and nothing ahead but suffering, the humane thing was a painless end. But my sense has long been that death is in the gift of God, or Providence, not man. And I felt we should treat Scuzzi as we knew him — the most independent, do-it-my-way of all our cats — and not deny him the right to exit life on his own.

The singularities of our family life weighed heavily. As a career foreign correspondent for The Times, and the son of an itinerant air force officer, I have lived a vagabond’s life; so too has Jane, whose family lived more than 200 years in colonial India. For 30 years and more, assignments in far-flung places have been the root condition of our lives. Wherever we have gone — Africa, Soviet Russia, China, Bosnia, India, Afghanistan, Iraq — we have adopted strays.

Perhaps that has been because, in a sense, we were strays ourselves; or perhaps, more simply, because the animals, at each move, became mementoes of all we’d left behind.

In the last week, our debate stretched on. What would Scuzzi say, if he could, I asked; as he rested on Jane’s shoulder, what did those sad, amber-green eyes convey? Help me to my end? Or let me live, until I let go on my own? His suffering was evident, but so, too, the family’s anguish. I saw, finally, that I risked becoming something I had come to loathe in years spent in places ruled by ideology — a man capable of placing principle, tortured or otherwise, before kindness, common sense, and the common good.

On Tuesday, Mr. Grieve arrived to administer the barbiturate, needle and vial wrapped in a towel. He suggested we gather where Scuzzi would be at ease; we chose an upstairs bedroom flooded by the warm light of a sky-blue summer’s day. Then we laid old Scuzzi to rest at the foot of the garden, deep beneath an apple tree where he liked to laze away his summer days, his last retreat a cardboard shoebox set within a haven fashioned from slabs of gray Welsh slate.

I thought then of Rupert Brooke and his poem “The Soldier,” which I have carried in a fraying, folded paper to distant wars. Days before he died in 1915 en route to Gallipoli, Brooke wrote of languid times spent with friends before war came, in the lush meadows along the Granta, a river near our home — terrain that Scuzzi, too, had roamed. Looking beyond the possibility of his own death, and what became his burial in a foreign field, Brooke saw eternity in ways that soothed away all pain.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Page updated on August 6, 2011