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In Memory of My Best Friend, Dos: 1986-2001
From the heart and soul of Steve Best, Ph.D.
I first arrived in Austin, Texas in 1987, by way of Chicago. The following year, I decided to rent a house in the charming Hyde Park area of town. Since I have been a cat lover my entire life, it was not a problem when the current tenant told me the house came with a cat. With great interest, I asked where he was, and the tenant escorted me to the back porch. There, sleeping on the middle step was the most massive and magnificent cat I have ever seen. It was love at first sight.
The cat was two years old, with a dense gray and brown coat, and freakishly large paws that made him look like an escapee from the island of Dr. Moreau. One could easily mistake this gentle giant for a wild bobcat or a raccoon, as did many frightened people. Only months later did I learn that he was a Maine Coon, a particularly large, gorgeous, and intelligent breed of cat whose origins are surrounded by fascinating myths and folklore.
He was named after Theodosius, the last emperor of a united Roman empire, a rather violent fellow intolerant of any religious preference but orthodox Christianity. I cannot take blame for this abominable name (although he certainly carried the air of a proud tyrant), but fortunately he also had a nickname, "Dos," appropriate enough since he was big enough for two cats. For the next 13 years, Dos was my constant companion, my confidant, my shadow. Through every book I have written, Dos was always there with me, lying on stacks of papers, helping me get through the drudgery.
I soon learned how intelligent and special he was within the first week of my privilege to be his caretaker. One day, after walking a couple of blocks to the bus stop, I noticed that Dos had followed me the entire way, and I had to turn around and lock him in the house. Otherwise, he was determined to ride with me on the bus. I realized that following me down the street was a habit with Dos, and so every night after midnight we adopted the custom of taking a long walk together through the town, with no dog ever able to intimidate him. Sometimes during the day, to the delight of all onlookers, we would actually jog together for a block or two until one of us tired.
Dos had lots of quirky habits, like quacking instead of meowing, drinking out of the bathtub, sleeping on his back with all four paws extended in the air, hanging out at apartment pools, and purposely knocking keys and books off my desk at night until I let him go outside (I observed him doing this many times at 3 or 4 a.m. as I pretended to be asleep). I also noticed how much he liked to ride in the car, and he put his paws up on the dashboard to look out the window excitedly. Dos had this act down way before "Toons," the cat from Saturday Night Live. Unlike most cats, Dos liked to ride in the car for relaxation, and I often took him with me on errands around town. In size, intelligence and many habits, Dos was like a dog (or Roman emperor), enough to make me wonder about reincarnation.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Dos played a major role in my dating life as a happily single bachelor. For whenever I spoke to women about him, they always wanted to meet him and I never had to say, "So, want to go back to my place to listen to some music?" Like an over-protective parent, Dos always could sort out the good from the bad, and any prospective girlfriend both had to receive his approval and to absolutely adore him (and yes, sometimes he got the bulk of attention and affection!). One unfortunate visitor was greeted with a roaring hiss. As always, Dos was right; that one just didn't work out.
When I finished my PhD and took a job at the University of Texas, El Paso, Dos drove with me the whole way, sitting in the front seat of a clunky U-Haul van. He never uttered a quack, but after an hour or so knew it was no ordinary ride and that we were leaving Austin for good. We moved so many times together, dislocation had become routine, and he always excitedly explored his new surroundings. Dos never strayed far from home base unless we were walking together. Wherever he was AWOL, a quick whistle always brought him into sight within 15 seconds.
This summer Dos turned 15. During the last two years, he began to move a little more slowly, ambling ponderously across the landscape like a Brontosaurus. Still, I thought this King of Beasts would last forever and outlive me.
Yet with a horrible, unexpected suddenness, my delusion was shattered. A couple of months ago, I noticed he was gasping for breath. I rushed him to the vet and got the terrible news: Dos was seriously sick with cancerous tumors in his lungs. I brought him home, which became a hospice, and we began to make our final peace and loving gestures with each other. Two weeks ago, Dos left the world. He died on the vet's table, his head cradled in my hands, fighting for the breath his weak body could no longer give him.
Through the years, I have lost many animals and family members, but oddly enough, I have never seen anything living die. To watch the being I loved most, my best friend in the whole world, take his last breath right before me, to hear the death rattle in his lungs, to see him writhe and struggle for a life he was not ready to give up, was unbearably painful. I could not stop the torrent of tears as I hugged his lifeless body in my arms and kissed his massive head.
Only a fellow animal lover could make sense of the claim that an animal - not a human - could be one's best friend. After all, skeptics would say, Dos didn't talk to me, didn't tell me he loved me, never thanked me for anything I ever did. How naively, myopically wrong. Animals do not need human language to communicate to us and express their deep love and appreciation; they do just fine with sounds, gestures, and unfathomably deep eyes. In fact, they do better, since they never lie and their faithfulness is unfailing.
When my human friends who understood what I was going through expressed sympathies over my loss, I replied, "Dos was family - only closer." Grief over the loss of a beloved animal can be deeper than that over a friend or family member, since typically we spend more time with our animals and our love for them is more pure and unconditional. I never could understand what Gandhi and others meant when they spoke of unconditional love until I put it in the context of what I feel for nonhuman animals. No matter how many times Dos broke glass bowls, knocked over lamps, or clawed the furniture, anger never tainted the pure force of love. The challenge is applying this kind of peaceful attitude to the two-legged animal known as Ego Maximus. And that is where I usually fall short. But if I see humans as having tails, pointy ears, and whiskers, I sometimes do better.
No one who met Dos could help but love him. Time and time again, the most ardent cat haters were won over by his charm, personality, and often cranky independence. Strangers would stop and take pictures of him, and then give them to me later, as is the case with the first picture above.
Dos and I went through everything together, good times and bad. He was always there for me; and now he is gone forever, irreplaceably gone. I loved him as much as any love could possibly be given. I take comfort in how we enriched each other's lives and our friendship crossed species boundaries.
And so, Dos, I offer these words that we never needed in your memory. Goodbye, my wonderful friend, I will never forget you...
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