Underfoot originally belonged to a colleague of my ex-husband Jesse's when Jesse worked as head of the architectural model department at Development Design Group, an international architecture firm in Baltimore specializing in commercial developments (think shopping centers and retail complexes) all over the world. Jesse's coworker and friend, Lori Ferrara, owned (and still does) a large flat in the Station North section of Baltimore, which she shared with several cats. One of those cats was a kitten Lori had rescued from the "mean streets" of Baltimore, where he'd been fending for himself. She named the kitten, with his outsized but skittish personality and a habit of getting in the way, "Underfoot", and taught him to live in harmony with her other cats. Underfoot was coached in such social graces as not jumping up on any surfaces on which food is prepared or eaten. He was taught to allow his short coat of solid gray fur to be brushed regularly. He knew his name. He learned to come when called.
|Like any cat, Underfoot loved to bask|
in the sun
When Underfoot was about four years old, Jesse's brother Jay and Jay's wife, Susan, moved from their native Kentucky to Baltimore so that Jay could take a job at DDG with Jesse. Lori generously offered a portion of her flat as temporary living quarters to Jay and Susan. After about a year, Jay and Susan were able to move into their own apartment. By that time Susan had fallen madly in love with Underfoot, so she asked Lori if she could keep Underfoot. Lori graciously agreed.
In 2006, Susan became ill and moved back to Kentucky to be near her four adult children. Jay was working long hours with Jesse, and I was given a key to his apartment so that I could take care of Underfoot during Jay's extended absences. I visited Underfoot every day, cleaned his litter box, fed him and spent time playing with him. My affection for the large gray shorthair grew with every visit. I could tell he looked forward to the sound of my voice calling to him through the apartment door as I fiddled with the key. He began to be comfortable in my presence.
|Underfoot had an outsized personality|
LIFE WITH ME
In September 2006, Underfoot came to live with Jesse and me. My ancient farmhouse, constructed in 1862, has a small basement which was hand-dug in 1937 from the red clay earth beneath the kitchen when electricity came to suburban Baltimore County. This unfinished basement space with dirt walls was open to the crawlspace beneath the rest of the house, and therefore fair territory for all manner of raccoons, groundhogs and other critters to regularly visit, so the first thing we did was to enclose the subterranean room with "jail bars" (vinyl-coated wire closet shelving turned on its side) so as to create a secure place for litter boxes and cat food that would allow our new charge to see, feel, smell and hear the elements and wildlife outside without actually coming in contact with it, or its dangers. We pried open a long-painted-shut cat panel in the kitchen-to-basement door so that Underfoot could come and go into that underground space as he pleased. Underfoot was smart. With just a few treats for enticement, he learned quickly how to navigate the swinging wooden cat door.
|Underfoot was always near me, by day|
and by night
Jay was a chain smoker, and I believe that Underfoot came to me with an addiction to nicotine. I smoked only an occasional cigarette after my evening meal in those days, but whenever I would light up, Underfoot would jump onto my lap and strain to reach the trail of smoke wafting from the glowing tip. When I quit smoking completely in 2007, so did Underfoot.
Underfoot was not a small cat. Weighing in at a hefty 17 pounds, he was a big presence, full of personality with a surprisingly large vocabulary. Since I work mostly at home, Underfoot became my constant companion, spreading himself out across the desk in my home office as I typed away at my
|Underfoot loved to spread himself out|
across my desk while I worked
For instance, like most old houses, the basement beneath my kitchen sports a stairwell which leads to an exterior wooden door that can be opened by lifting it up from outside. Over the years the framing around this exterior panel had shrunk, leaving a gap on one side of the plywood 4' by 4' door. The gap was small, no more than an inch wide and an inch tall. Underfoot liked to sit on the top concrete step inside the basement and peer though this tiny hole out onto the cement patio beyond. He'd watch the legs of birds and chipmunks scamper by. It seemed like an innocent pastime to me.
|Underfoot and Ember play with a baby|
ring snake they brought up from my
unfinished basement. I rescued the
snake and put it back outside
Until it wasn't. One day I came home from conducting research for my longtime employer at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. and found feathers and a half-eaten avian body on my kitchen floor. There was Underfoot, proudly showing off his catch. How on earth did an "inside cat" manage to catch and kill an outside songbird? I was truly perplexed until I watched him peering through that gap in the door frame one day. Apparently, crouched on that top stair in the basement, Underfoot lay in wait for an innocent bird to walk by on the patio outside. In the flash of an instant, he was able to reach one front leg through the tiny gap between the exterior plywood door and its 2" by 4" framing, catch an unsuspecting bird with a single flick of his paw and pull it back through the gap into the basement. I was astounded at his dexterity.
As upset as I was about the demise of a beautiful songbird, I was more than impressed with Underfoot's considerable one-handed hunting prowess. I figured it was a fluke, likely to never happen again. Until it did. Over the course of several years, Underfoot caught a total of seven birds that way. It was when I came home from a day of research at the Library of Congress and found bright red cardinal feathers on my kitchen floor that I finally put my foot down and closed the gap between the exterior basement door and its framing. But I never could suppress the pride I felt at Underfoot's hunting skill and the ingenuity with which he repeatedly pulled off such an amazing "sleight of paw".
|Helping Jesse review project drawings|
at my dining room table
Through the tough months during which Jesse and I made the difficult decision to end our marriage in 2007, Underfoot was there to comfort me. I shed more tears than you can imagine into that thick gray fur over the years. We were inseparable, Underfoot and I. Knowing Underfoot would be there to greet me as I got home from my research was comforting beyond words. And just because I boarded up the hole through which the birds had been caught in the basement didn't mean the gifts presented at my feet came to a stop. Any frog, mouse or grasshopper who wandered into the basement through the "jail bars" from the surrounding crawlspace was fair game for Underfoot, and he proudly showed off these occasional prizes to me.
Jesse and I remained best friends even after our separation, and his brother Jay had dinner with us frequently on Sunday evenings as he continued to struggle over the death of his wife. We knew Jay was overwhelmed by his grief, but we were devastated when Jay was found dead in his apartment in September of 2008. Underfoot seemed to cling to me even more closely after that.
|Underfoot let Elfie snuggle up|
with him for naps when she was little
|Elfie, left, and Underfoot, right, loved|
to spend time in my office as I worked
In 2012 I decided to adopt a third cat. Underfoot was now 12 years old and Elfie was three. All they did was sleep all day and I felt both could stand to lose a pound or two. I thought that a bouncy new kitten might be just the thing to breathe a little liveliness into my lethargic feline household. And it was.
Little Ember was a tiny black Bombay, a rescue who had been set afire by a juvenile delinquent in Baltimore City and severely burned. She'd lost the cartilage from both her ears, and had almost lost her tail. She underwent a number of surgeries to repair the deep burns along her spine both before and after she came into my custody, and for two years she had to wear a little shirt I designed from an infant's onesie to protect her burn scars from compulsive licking. I named my new kitten "Ember" in keeping with the vowel-first theme and hoped that Underfoot and Elfie would take to her and she to them (you can read all about little Ember in my previous posts here, here, here, here, and here). I needn't have worried.
|Underfoot loved Ember. We were|
such a happy family!
Both Underfoot and Elfie quickly accepted high-spirited little Ember, who bounced off walls and ran amok as if she was full of jumping beans. After a couple of years, Ember didn't need to wear her protective shirts anymore, and my three fur-babies and I settled into a contented and happy coexistence. When they weren't napping, my three "children" spent time watching the "squirrel channel" and the "bird channel" through my dining room windows, where I had strategically placed bird feeders for my own closeup viewing pleasure as well as theirs. I positioned fluffy cat beds on the radiators in my home office and in the dining room, and Underfoot, as he had with Elfie, soon taught Ember the art of spreading himself as broadly as possible across the work papers on my desk.
In 2016, little Ember was suddenly felled by some previously undiagnosed illness over Labor Day weekend. By the time I got her to the vet she had lapsed into acute diabetic ketoacidosis with major organ failure. There was no reviving her, although the vet tried mightily. I was heartbroken, never imagining that my older two cats would outlive the youngster. It was two years before I felt ready to try adoption again.
|In 2018 I adopted two kittens from a|
feral litter: Sojo, left, and Stache
Despite his protestations, Underfoot began to accept the kittens and was just getting to know and like little Stache when tragedy struck again. Stache suffered oxygen deprivation during her spay surgery which caused seizures, a stroke, and within a few days, her death. Left with only the wild and cagey Sojo, I wasn't sure how Underfoot and Elfie would adapt to this less than sweet-tempered interloper, but eventually something of a truce was established.
|Eventually, Underfoot learned to |
tolerate Sojo's presence in the house
A WONDERFUL LIFE
For the past year and a half my little feline family has coexisted contentedly; Elfie ruling over the upstairs rooms, Underfoot enjoying his kingdom on the main level, and Sojo dividing her time between the two. Sometimes I'd find her lounging on my bed upstairs with Elfie, other times she'd be out on the sunporch/laundry room floor with Underfoot.
One of Underfoot's most endearing habits during our years together was to reach up to me with his front legs and ask to be picked up -- just like a toddler might do. For frequent visitors around whom he felt comfortable, I could even entice Underfoot to ask to be picked up on command. Once hoisted, I would drape Underfoot over my shoulder and carry him around as I went about my business. He just wanted to be in my arms and, until several minutes of his extra weight became too much, I was just as happy to have him there.
|In July 2018, Jesse and I built|
a cat tree in my dining room
|Underfoot going for the |
|Underfoot taught Sojo the finer points|
of spreading himself across my desk
|Sojo, from left, Underfoot and Elfie|
curled up in heated beds in my office
When Underfoot began to vomit clear bile in the middle of the night, I questioned my mobile vet. Dr. Seibel explained that, like horses, cats need to have something in their digestive tracts at all times, and now that Underfoot could no longer help himself to the dry kibble whenever he liked because of his dental fragility, and was dependent on me for nourishment from canned food alone, too many hours were lapsing between the time I went to bed at night and the time I got up in the morning. Vomiting clear bile was a sign of hunger, she said.
|Underfoot was known for his unusual|
poses. This was called the
So a few weeks ago, when Underfoot's breathing began to become labored, I wasn't taken completely aback. I knew the end was coming and would probably come this year. He had already lived longer than either vet thought possible after his weight loss in January. Then, in late August, I broke my leg and was no longer able to get down the stairs for Underfoot's nightly feeding without a Herculean effort. Enter Jesse to the rescue. Despite being divorced for several years now, Jesse is still my near-constant companion, and he generously agreed to stay with me until I am back on both of my feet, which likely won't be until mid-November. So Jesse dutifully began arising every night to give Underfoot his 3:00 a.m. feeding. That was nice, in a way, because Jesse and Underfoot had a chance to bond again. Jesse took his time with Underfoot at night, just as I did by day. Underfoot was surrounded by love and he knew it.
|In 2009, Underfoot, left, and Elfie|
posed for a perfect Christmas card
photo as they "waited for Santa"
Underfoot's appetite remained good, but the heaving of his abdomen with every breath in early September alarmed me. I knew I wasn't going to take any heroic measures to prolong his life. Still, I wanted an assessment of what was happening, so I called my mobile vet. Dr. Seibel came on Thursday and put her stethoscope to Underfoot's chest. His lungs were "so noisy," she said, that she couldn't hear his heartbeat for the commotion. She said his lungs were so filled with fluid that his chest muscles weren't strong enough to help him breathe on their own, so he was utilizing his abdominal muscles to help, hence the heaving with every breath that I observed. She surmised that wherever his cancer had originated, it had now metastasized to his lungs. When she finally was able to detect a pulse, she said his heartbeat was irregular. "Breathing arrhythmia," she said, was caused by the intense effort needed for every breath.
Still, she noted, Underfoot was eating and drinking and producing healthy-looking litter-box deposits. He didn't seem to be in physical distress. "Watch for breathing through an open mouth," she said. "Or noisy breathing." After she left, I decided that I could not let him suffer. I would take the weekend to say goodbye and then call her to come euthanize my darling boy early next week.
|At 19, Underfoot's face reflected the|
demeanor of a "grumpy old man"
|Rest easy, my sweet Underfoot. You|
made me a very happy mom for
But when we returned to my house from the doctor appointment and found Underfoot had crossed the Rainbow Bridge, we changed our minds. Perhaps Jay was telling us he had come for Underfoot, to relieve my furry friend of his discomfort and to bear him on to Susan, who will cherish and adore my beloved Underfoot until I can be reunited with him someday.
“Grief is not a sign of weakness, nor a lack of faith. It is the price of love.”