by Gina Sestak
Dusty was a nasty cat, wiry and rough-furred. He was a stray before my mother took him in. He bit anyone who touched him and ate like a ravenous beast, clearing his own dish in seconds, then chasing her other cat away to gobble that one's food as well. She told me Dusty never purred.
In 1997, facing surgery, my mother asked me to take Dusty to a shelter. I refused. She asked my brother and, when he refused as well, tried to get a neighbor to do it. I offered to let Dusty stay at my house. She told me I'd be sorry.
And so I caught the cat and drove him to my place. Dusty bit me, too, and scratched. He yowled all the time, pacing the rooms like a prisoner, and attacked me while I tried to sleep. When I permitted him to go outside, he invaded a neighbor's home through a cat door and sprayed her furniture. I tried to keep him in the house after that but, one day when I came home from visiting my mother in the hospital (the surgery hadn't gone well), Dusty was gone. He had managed to find a weak spot in the bottom of a basement door and force his way out. The broken boards were pushed outward, coated with gray fur where he'd squeezed through.
I put up signs in the neighborhood, placed ads in the newspaper, posted to a missing pet site, and asked around, all to no avail. I called the shelters. Whenever my mother asked, "How's Dusty?" I would lie and say, "He's fine."
Several weeks after he disappeared, I got a call from the Humane Society. Pittsburgh Animal Control had picked up a cat who matched Dusty's description. They were planning to euthanize him; he had bitten one of their workers, and so was deemed unsuitable for placement.
I didn't recognize Dusty at first. He was emaciated, having lost 4 of his 12 pounds. When I tried to pet him, my fingers encountered dozens of splinters in his neck and shoulders. These souvenirs of his escape convinced me of his identity.
I paid a fine and brought him home.
Dusty had never seen a veterinarian. I took him in and got him treatment for a respiratory infection and a tape worm - no wonder he'd been hungry all the time! His rough fur became soft and glossy. I pulled out the splinters. Still, he continued to bite and yowl. Stressed out by my mother's worsening health, I would lose all patience and just scream, "SHUT UP! SHUT UP!" It didn't help.
At wit's end, I decided to change the rules. I told him that, from then on, any time he opened his mouth I would interpret his yowling as a request to be petted. I began to grab him, hold him down, and pet him 100 strokes every time he meowed. To my astonishment, he liked it. He began to purr. He would follow me from room to room and sit on my lap, chewing my buttons, or go to sleep with his head on my feet. He would sometimes even fall asleep with his head in one of my shoes -- the first time it happened, I was afraid he'd passed out from the smell, but he was only dozing peacefully.
When my mother passed away in September 1997 her other cat joined us, and Dusty welcomed him as a long lost friend. Dusty always wanted to play and, if Taffy and I weren't in the mood, he would bite us until we chased him. The cats shared duties as my bed companions and de facto alarms clocks, making sure I got up at 5:00 a.m. for work every morning, even on weekends and holidays. While Taffy was content to wake me with a purr, Dusty would hide over the side of the bed and pop up to bite my toes until I'd get up.
In recent years, both cats developed age-related health problems. Dusty's heart began to murmur, and his kidneys to malfunction. I took him to the vet every month or so for monitoring tests and gave him daily medication. I restricted his diet and bought expensive food he hated.
Last Tuesday afternoon, Dusty went outside. When I checked on him a few hours later, I found him dead on my back porch. The vet examined the body and pronounced it a natural death. The vet said Dusty didn't suffer.
And now I miss him. He used to greet me at the door whenever I came home. He would come when I called. He liked to snuggle up and purr. He even appeared in a short film for me, my first project in a Motion Picture Fundamentals class. The assignment required taking a dozen or so black & white photographs, then using them to construct a moving-stills film with music. I called it Dusty Seeks Enlightenment:
Wherever Dusty is now, I hope he's found enlightenment and peace.