Remembering Boris

When I first lost Boris, I didn’t think it would hurt so much. I left his food and water bowls on the floor for months after, bits of food still in the quickly evaporating water. His pet steps are still by my bed and couch, and his toys, until recently, were lay all over the floor. After almost 11 years with him, I fear that my memories of him will fade with time, and that is why, in part, I’m writing this.

When I first saw Boris, he looked so depressed. He was big–18 pounds–and nine years old, with short grey-and-white hair and the brightest green eyes that I had ever seen on a cat. He was lying in his cage, his front right leg hanging out the bars, his face with the saddest expression lying on the bottom of the cage on his blanket. He looked like he was purposely sleeping his time away. Quite frankly, he looked stunned to be there–and he probably was.

It was November of 2010, and I was in the Toronto Humane Society (THS) for the second time in a month to look at older cats that were available for adoption. Earlier that weekend, I had been to the City of Toronto’s animal shelter on the Exhibition grounds, where I saw a beautiful female calico cat that I would have loved to have adopted, but the staff said that she was feral and needed weeks of proper socialization before she could be adopted. So on a cold and grey late-afternoon Sunday, I again walked into the THS’s Queen Street East location, two hours before they were scheduled to close, to look at older cats that I could adopt.

I had grown up with both dogs and cats. My parents had a dog when I born–I can’t remember its name but can clearly remember the little white dog. Yet I do remember the cats we had had from my early childhood, including Saturn, a male tuxedo cat; along with a female Siamese cat whose name I can’t recall; and Sasha, a female tuxedo cat. Interestingly, Sasha, who lived well into my university days, and the Siamese cat were pregnant with liters at the same time when I was six. The Siamese cat would put her babies on my top-level bunkbed (my younger brother had the lower bed); I would wake up to kittens between my legs. As I grew up, we always had dogs along with cats, and at one point, when I was in high school, we had two cats and two dogs, including a 17-year-old Sasha, who had to manage a full-grown 100-plus-pound Rottweiler. (Sasha successfully put Jazz in her place.)

I had been living alone in a bachelor apartment on the seventh floor of a twelve-storey apartment building in midtown Toronto for almost two years when I had decided to adopt a cat. I was working for the YMCA of Greater Toronto on back-to-back contracts, first in their call centre, where I was registering children in summer camps; and then on a second contract, where I was registering university co-op students into a government-sponsored job-making program for which the YMCA had been awarded the contract to administer. Both positions were temporary, and I had no idea what my employment prospects were going to be beyond this. By the time I had begun seriously thinking about getting an older cat, I was in the second of these contracts and, unbeknownst to me, three months away from being unemployed, with no subsequent job opportunities lined up.

At the time of my visit, the THS kept their dogs downstairs in cages spread over three or four rooms, the walls and floors made of concrete; every time a person entered, the dogs would bark in unison, their yelps echoing and piercing throughout each room. I did a quick walk through of the dogs, and although I would have gladly adopted one, I knew that I wasn’t prepared to take on the responsibility: I lived on my own in a small apartment; I was out all day at work; and I didn’t want to have to go down seven flights of stairs every time the dog needed to go to the washroom. An older cat, I figured, wouldn’t mind as much if I was out all day. An older cat, I figured, could use kitty litter. An older cat, I figured, would be more content being inside. And because I lived on my own with no children in my life, I decided that an older cat would be happier with my quiet, solitary life. So an older cat it was!

For Boris, the THS was a sad place

The THS cats were kept upstairs in about six separate rooms. Some of the rooms were closed to the public, since some cats had medical issues like FIV (the feline equivalent of HIV) and feline leukemia. However, most were in open rooms where the public could walk in and interact with the cats. Each room had cages stacked two high around the perimeter, while the larger rooms also had cages in the middle, again, stacked two high. Each cage was perhaps three feet across, three feet deep, and perhaps three feet tall. It was one of the larger rooms that I saw Boris; he was in an upper-level cage in the middle of the room, and when I saw this older and sad yet huggable-looking cat with a name that made me think of a Russian florist, I knew that I wanted to give him a home.

The photo and description of Boris that the Toronto Humane Society had on the front of Boris’s cage. I subsequently had it framed, although he did look so sad in the photo.

“Boris was brought into the shelter when his owner had passed away,” the description of Boris said on the front of the cage. (All the cats had a bio, complete with their photo, on the front of their cage.) “The family members who brought him in said he hadn’t been using the litter box. He had not been neutered, and his litter box wasn’t regularly cleaned, which may have been the cause behind his house soiling issues. THS veterinarians neutered Boris and placed him under observation to monitor his litter box use. Since being in the shelter, he has used his litter box every day. Boris is a very friendly and affectionate cat who enjoys lots of attention. He has shown a positive response to the other cats in the shelter and because of his friendly and easygoing personality, [he] may do well with children.”

I went to the cat area’s reception area and told the receptionist that I was going to adopt Boris. Boris, I learned, had been brought in after his previous owner, who had had Alzheimer’s disease, died. Sadly, Boris had been with the owner for some time before family members decided to check in. To add to this, Boris was at the THS for about two nights when a family adopted him; they returned him the next day after he hissed at the cat that they already had.

I was put through a litany of questions to make sure that I was a good match for Boris. The woman at the THS warned me: Because I lived high up in an apartment, I had to cat-proof my balcony. Cats apparently have poor depth perception, so falling off the balcony is a danger for cats. I was grilled on what I would feed him. I didn’t dare admit that I was strongly considering putting him on a raw meat diet–the one true diet for which a cat’s body is designed for. To appease her, I said that I would feed him a mix of dry and canned food; I even named the brands that THS staff was feeding the cats. She asked if I would ever take Boris out. I said no, since I lived in a multi-storey building, but secretly I was considering getting a leash and taking him for walks. In my head, I was going through what I thought she would want to hear. Sure enough, the woman let out a “Yes!” as we finalized Boris’s adoption. I had gone unprepared though: I didn’t have a cat carrier, nor did I have a car. (I have a diver’s licence but no car.) When I asked if I could put Boris on hold and pick him up the next day, the woman’s face dropped. She probably thought that I would spend the night thinking about my commitment and decide not to take him. But that wasn’t the case–my mother, who at the time lived an hour away from Toronto, told me that if I were to get a cat, she would drive me and the cat home. The woman reluctantly agreed to put Boris on hold, telling me that she would do this for only 24 hours.

The next day was Monday, and I worked until 5PM. Sure enough, though, my mother came down. We went to Petsmart and got a carrier, kitty litter, and pet food–organic, meat-based dry and grain-free canned food for Boris’s immediate meals. When I arrived at the THS, I paid for Boris’s adoption–I got him at a discount, since he was a senior cat–and we went to his cage, and for the second time, I got to pick him up. Unfortunately, like the day before, Boris wasn’t too affectionate. He just lay in my arms like a dead weight. But we put him in the carrier and went to my mother’s car. We put Boris in the back seat, where he sat quietly in his cage on top of the rear seat. We got to my building, went up to my unit, went in, opened the cage, and let Boris explore. Frustratingly, Boris went straight under my bed. My mother and I sat on the two large, comfy seats that I had at the time–I no longer have them, since Boris eventually tore them to pieces–talking so that Boris would get used to my voice. After doing that for half an hour, we went out and got take-out dinner and brought it back home to eat. We used the food to get Boris to come out from under the bed; it turned out that Boris was an enthusiastic eater. But as soon as the food was eaten and my mother had left, Boris was again under my bed, and I couldn’t coax him out.

Boris loved those big comfy seats I had when I first got him. Unfortunately for the chairs, Boris tore them to shreds in no time.

For the first few days, Boris stayed under my bed. I was worried. I didn’t know if he’d ever come out. I was, of course, at work all day, but I sensed that Boris was out to eat or drink. Yet he didn’t leave anything in either of his kitty litter boxes. (Because of his litter issues, THS staff has recommended that he have two boxes so that he always had a clean place to go to the washroom.) On the Friday of that first week, I called the THS while at work for advice; he would come out, they assured me. Cats, they told me, hide until they feel safe. When she said that, I thought Boris would die of a kidney infection because he wasn’t coming out to use his litter, they told me to give him time. The woman sounded panicked, as if I was going to return Boris. I wouldn’t have, but I left the conversation not feeling anymore relieved.

Boris finds his confidence

But Boris eventually came out. I stayed home most of that first weekend, and it was my food that coaxed him out. By Sunday morning, Boris was sitting on the chair by my bed, his front legs resting on the arm, as he watched me sleep. And he had peed in his litter box sometime throughout the night! And when I went to work all day Monday, he greeted me as I came home and followed me around my apartment, including into the kitchen, where he sat and meowed as I made dinner.

Boris proved to have an easy-going, friendly personality. He greeted me habitually when I came home from work. He liked to sit with me as I watched TV. He loved to stare at me with those intense and beautiful eyes of his. He loved to sit by me as I ate dinner and walk all over my lap until I gave him some. Did I mention that he had a dominant personality?

Boris had a knack of demanding food when I ate. His favourite meal? Chicken, particularly Swiss Chalet. His favourite desert? Ice cream.

He also had this quirky bump on his forehead, an idiosyncratic formation of his skull that, when you petted the front of his head, you’d feel the bump But petting that bump, along with his beautiful eyes, made it easy to forgive him for his transgressions. My initial twin seats that I had? Boris ripped them both to shreds. My next seat was a leather couch whose legs that he had, within a month, punctured with his claws. A part of his clawing was no doubt that he was a cat, and that’s what cats do. But in the larger scheme of things, he was bored. And although I had intended from day one to take him for walks, my mother told me that walking him was a bad idea–Boris was an indoor cat, my mother reasoned. He wouldn’t like it outside. He should stay outside. So for the first six years I had him, Boris left my apartment just once, and that was to go to the vet.

Boris gets bad news from the vet

The first time I took Boris to the vet was about four years I got him. Boris had started vomiting shortly after eating. Everything else about him was fine: his appetite was the same, and he was using the kitty litter. But he couldn’t keep his meals down. So to the neighbourhood vet we went, where the the veterinarian told me that Boris had a mass in his stomach, and given Boris’s age–he would have been around 13 at this point–it was unlikely to be benign. I left Boris at the vets while they took an x-ray. I walked home, where I started sobbing. I couldn’t believe that I would be losing him. When I went to the vet to pick Boris up, the vet confirmed the mass in Boris’s stomach. They could operate, but it would cost thousands. I made the decision not to do anything; if Boris wasn’t in obvious pain, I would leave him be, but if it became too painful for him, I would consider euthanasia. Oddly, though, within a couple of days, the vomiting stopped, and Boris never became obviously sick. (When I took him to the vet again, a couple of years later, the vet–a different one–was unable to confirm the presence of a tumour.)

It was that next visit to the vet that proved that Boris’s health had permanently changed for the worse. It was May, and Boris would have been 14. I had a visitor, who looked at Boris and pointed that he was walking funny. And I noticed that he indeed had a peculiar gait: He was waddling on his hind legs. Instead of walking on the toes and pads of his hind legs, he had them bent under his body. His hind legs now resembled skis. Of course I did what everybody does now and went on the internet. I essentially became an absolutely unqualified veterinarian. The internet told me that Boris’s symptoms were likely diabetes, which is apt to affect cats when they get older. I booked an appointment at the vet for a couple of days from then. When we went, the vet performed some bloodwork on Boris. The tests indeed confirmed that Boris was diabetic. Boris would now have to receive insulin shots twice a day–from me in needle form–and I would have to feed Boris specially formulated cat food for diabetic cats. This last point disappointed me, since I had had Boris on a raw-meat diet, supplemented by grain-free organic dry food. But the vets warned me that the bacteria in raw meat can interfere with the insulin, so Boris would have to swap the raw meat for the diabetic canned food.

It proved easy to administer the needles; I gave one to Boris in the morning with his breakfast and one at night with his dinner. Boris was such an enthusiastic eater that he was too busy eating to even notice that he was getting a shot. All I had to do was put the needle in him above the shoulder of his front right leg. And that went on until the day he died. Yet within a couple of days of Boris’s diabetes diagnosis, my mother called with this epiphany that Boris should go for walks outside. Boris, she reasoned, was bored inside. (Remember that my mother told me six hears earlier that Boris should stay inside.) My mother brought me a cat harness and leash that she had used on her cat Hugo, who was actually my sister’s cat from when she was in Thunder Bay getting her teaching degree but then gave to my mother once she decided to move to South Korea to teach English. The harness was a tad tight for Boris, who was significantly larger than Hugo.

Boris starts going for walks

The next day, I took Boris out for his first walk. The harness was on, the leash was attached, and I carried him down the elevator and out to the side of the building, where there was a large patch of grass. Boris wasn’t moving; instead, he stood there crying, looking timid. He wouldn’t move, so I picked him up and carried him to the rear of the building, where there were some flowers growing. He walked around the flowers and sniffed them but then stood there and cried again. The total length of his first walk? Five minutes.

The second day of his walk was ten minutes, thanks in part to a woman sitting on the patch of grass to the side of the building. To this day I don’t know why she was sitting there, but she was excited to see me carrying Boris outside, and she was enthusiastic when I dropped Boris beside her. Boris was enthusiastic, too, and he walked around her as she talked and petted him. The interaction with this woman was a big help, and no doubt it hastened Boris’s calmness outside. Within the week, Boris was walking on his leash, which was extendable, allowing him to walk onto people’s lawns and sniff their gardens. I developed a routine that first week where I would carry Boris to the end of the street and get him to walk back to the building. At the end of the street there were a row of houses that shared a laneway that allowed the cars to park. It was essentially a dirt lane with trees on the adjacent property; I would go up that laneway and let Boris walk. By the end of the week, I encountered a neighbour walking his miniature poodle while talking on the phone to his wife. I heard him exclaim, “Somebody’s walking his cat on a leash!” As we finished our interaction, he asked why I bothered putting Boris on a leash. I wondered that too, so on the next day, I took Boris out to the end of the street again, but this time I took the leash off but kept the harness on. Boris walked up people’s front lawns and then came back to me. So the next day I kept the leash and harness at home, and Boris was fine. He stayed with me and watched me like a hawk. He never left, except for one time, when, while listening to music, I lost track of him, and my neighbour in the building came running to me to tell me that Boris had walked back to the building on his own. This was a huge feat, since Boris couldn’t walk too fast on account of his age and his odd, diabetic-affected walk.

Boris liked to walk through people’s gardens and explore. He became very brave outside, meeting dogs and wildlife and came to believe that he owned the street.

The walks had the effect of making Boris even closer to me than he already was. I discovered that during the summer, the sun was too hot for Boris. In the summer months, it was best to take Boris for walks during dusk, which turned out to be his favourite time during the summer. He liked sitting in the sun as it set while the dusk breeze hit his face. His summertime walks over the years would last an hour a day. Sometimes I would take him for even later walks, sometimes at eleven at night.

When we went for those walks, Boris and I would see all the wildlife: rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, opossums, woodchucks, and, on one Sunday morning, a fox. The raccoons caught Boris’s attention the most. It must have been the way the way they walked? Boris once tried to chase a family of raccoons across the street.

The neighbourhood cats were in interested in Boris, with one of the cats, an all-black cat whose name I never discovered, following Boris all the way down the street during several walks. Most of the neighbours, too, got to know Boris and would stop to talk to us. Boris’s personality changed after we started our walks: whereas before he would hide under the bed if anybody came over, he now became a calm, confident cat. The things that scared him at the beginning of the walks–people, dogs, cars, noises–didn’t bother him anymore.

If people came into our apartment, he would go up to them and greet them. But, importantly, the walks cemented his attachment to me. He always slept by himself before the walks, but after the walks began, he would snuggle with me as I sat on the couch or slept on my bed. If I was sitting at my desk working, he would come over, lie on the rug, and roll on the floor, exposing his belly. I am confident that he was appreciative of the walks, and to this day, I am convinced that cats need to get outside in order to be normal cats. A cat that stays inside all day everyday is a neurotic cat.

Once Boris and I started going for walks everyday, we bonded so much that he would snuggle with me every night. This is what I would see when I woke up.

Boris stayed with me as my precarious work situation shifted to a permanent, more financially rewarding one. The first few years of my new job saw me going to an office, forcing Boris to be by himself for a long stretch during the day. But once the COVID pandemic hit, my job transitioned to remote work, and, ironically, it was because of COVID that I got to spend the majority of day at home with Boris for the last year and a half of his life.

Boris was happy that I was home all the time. He would sit on the couch and watch me as I worked. He loved that I would eat lunch near him, and he would even come lie on the floor beside my desk, exposing his belly to me.

Once I transitioned to working at home in March 2020, Boris was happy that I was home all day with him.

Boris even became a photographic muse for me. To keep myself busy during the initial COVID lockdown, I started taking online photography lessons at a local college, and to help me on my photographic journey, Boris became my main muse as I tested out my new digital SLR camera. He was a ham, always indulging me as I snapped photos of him.

I am particularly proud of my largely black-and-white photo of Boris that I took for a photography class. The instructor showed me how to edit the photo to highlight Boris’s gorgeous green eyes.

Boris’s last days

But after the first fifteen months of my working at home, Boris slowly changed. He would occasionally not go into his kitty litter to pee, forcing me to mop the floor. (He had been randomly pooping outside his litter boxes for months, so I thought little of it.) He stopped coming onto the couch to sit with me while I watched TV or eat dinner. (I’d have to pick him up and place him on the couch.) And at bedtime, he’d only snuggle with me while I fell asleep, and by the time I woke up, he’d be lying on the floor.

It was his last day that upsets me. It was late August, and, as usual, I was working at home, yet I wasn’t paying much attention to Boris, who had spent much of the day under my bed. He had been spending quite a lot of time there for the last couple of weeks, but he always came out to eat or beg for my food. And he wasn’t going out for walks with much enthusiasm, as I would often have to pull him out from under the bed. In retrospect I should have recognized this as a tell-tale sign that he wasn’t feeling well, but I just didn’t see it.

It was a Friday, and I wanted to go to the Distillery with my camera and take some photos. So before leaving, I fed Boris, who started to eat enthusiastically when I placed him in front of his food. I went out around 5pm and got home around 8pm. On my way home, I bought dinner to cook, and once I got home, I was cooking my meal in the kitchen, when I heard Boris make a deep, strange moan. I came out to check on him, and I saw that he had come out from the bed. I returned to the kitchen, made my dinner, and ate it while looking at the computer. It was only after I finished my dinner that I again checked on Boris, who, was now lying under the coffee table–an unusual place for him. He had also dropped about five large pieces of poop. His legs were spread out, and he was flat like a pancake. I lifted him onto the couch, where he lay normally but kept shaking his head. (I realized later that this shaking was likely a seizure.) Nevertheless, I still didn’t realize how serious his condition was. I put him on my bed and lay with him for an hour. Yet–madly–it was only after I went out for 40 minutes and returned to see that he had peed all over my bed and was madly drooling that I finally realized that things weren’t good. It was almost midnight, and I began calling all the emergency vets, but because of COVID, they were all taking just one patient a time and were fully booked except for one in the west end. I had to call a taxi to take Boris to the vet. Once I got to the vet, I couldn’t go in with Boris, despite the fact that we were the only ones there. Instead, I had to have a conversation with the vet on my phone from the parking lot. The prognosis? Boris likely had had a clot in his foot. It was probably blocking the blood from getting to his head. The vet could give him pills, but Boris was 20, and there was no guarantee that he wouldn’t have another stroke. Euthanasia was the kindest thing to do. The vet pulled a cot out to the back of the building, where I stayed with Boris during his final moments. The taxi driver stayed with me the entire time as Boris passed away.

The aftermath

I felt terribly guilty for not recognizing Boris’s illness. I felt guilty that I had left him alone for over half an hour, despite the fact that he was suffering. But I hadn’t clued in to what was going on until it was too late. And for the first few weeks, I couldn’t bear to clear my space of his belongings–his partially eaten last meal, his water bowl, or his toys lying all over the floor. His absence left a big hole in my life. I missed his presence. I missed our walks. I missed cuddling with him in bed. Most of all, I missed him. But I also felt a relief. I no longer had to worry about his insulin shots. I no longer had to worry about him peeing all over the floor. I no longer had to worry about him getting sick. And that sense of relief made me feel guilty.

The guilt and the sense of loss ebbed over the first couple of months–enough, in fact, that within two and-a-half months, I was back at the THS looking at cats. (I even adopted one–18-year-old Gretl.) But as guilty as I feel over Boris’s last night, I realize that he spent eleven happy, fulfilling years with me. I realized that he was a happy cat who enjoyed his life, had all the comforts of life, and got to go for walks. I realize that he appreciated me. And I appreciated him. He gave me over a decade of companionship. And for that, I thank Boris.

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