“I’ll handle everything with Mom, as long as you take the cat,” Harry told Mark.
The first part of this proposition made sense; after all, Harry lived near Joyce, their mother, in Florida, and Mark was in New York, where the brothers had been born and grew up. Joyce, in her mid-eighties, had been living in her own apartment in a “supportive housing” complex and was doing pretty well, until she fell twice and needed to be hospitalized. Then, not long after, came the first stroke. No longer able to care for herself, Joyce was moved from her apartment and into a “memory care” center that Harry had found, just a half-hour’s drive from his home in an Orlando suburb.
Even before she entered the twilight world of the frail elderly who, on a good day, might recognize the faces of their children and remember their names, Joyce was finding it hard to cope with the cat and its needs. Gabby—changed from Gabriel, as the name tag on his cage at the Lady Lakes Animal Rescue Center identified him—was a Siamese and tabby mix, with bright, intelligent blue eyes and the typical Siamese chocolate-point coloring on his ears and body. He had a distinctive white line that bisected his face from his eyes to his nose. His paws were white; the front ones looked like gloves, flat and slightly splayed, because Joyce had him declawed as a kitten. “I had to do it; he was ruining all my furniture!” Joyce protested when Mark told her that what she’d done was cruel.
People who don’t live with cats think they’re aloof and undemonstrative. Unlike dogs, they don’t give you unconditional love, so they say. Gabby flouted the stereotype as if it were his personal mission. He’d take to any human who showed him attention and affection. When Larry, Joyce’s second husband and her sons’ stepfather, was alive, Gabby would plant himself in his lap, loudly purring as he relished Larry’s caresses. When neighbors visited, sometimes with their dogs, Gabby would run to the door to greet them, ever curious, always fearless. After Larry’s death and the sale of the house, Joyce and Gabby moved into their new home, the cozy apartment in the complex for old people who could still manage their lives but were glad to have a hospital and nursing home nearby, on what the promotional brochures called “the campus.”
For a while, Joyce and Gabby were happy. “When he looks at me with those blue eyes, I just melt,” Joyce told Mark during one of their telephone catch-ups. But she also complained about Gabby, especially about his habit of getting in bed with her and pulling and biting her hair when he wanted her to get up and feed him. Worse, he sometimes got under the walker she now was obliged to use. That’s what precipitated one of her falls. As Joyce became frailer, she regretted that she no longer had the strength or the patience to give Gabby the attention he craved—no, demanded. (True to his Siamese heritage, he was a very vocal cat with a wide repertoire of sounds, from little chirps to full-throated howls.) Deprived of that attention, Gabby became sulky, distant. “I think he’s pissed off at me,” Joyce told Mark, with a sad laugh.
What Mark and Harry soon learned was that their mother had found human companionship. Guy, short for Gaetano, lived in the same building as Joyce — right across the hall, as a matter of fact. It began with them greeting each other in the hallway, then sharing a dinner at the complex’s dining room (and complaining about the food), going to concerts and other diversions the complex offered, becoming a couple. And why not? They had a lot in common, including loneliness. Guy was a widower, and, like Joyce, an ex-New Yorker who became a “snowbird” after retiring. That he wasn’t Jewish but instead Italian and Catholic mattered not the least to Joyce; quite the contrary, it was an advantage. Back in Brooklyn, Joyce had a “thing” for Italian men. “They’d pinch your ass!” she giggled to Mark and his partner, Joe, during a reminiscence-filled lunch at the local Red Lobster. Mark didn’t bring up an incident he remembered all too well from his childhood, when his father, Simon, beat Joyce because he was convinced that she was fucking one of the neighborhood’s “wops,” a butcher whom she had praised as “handsome like a movie star.”
Harry discovered that Guy and his mother were more than a couple of cute oldsters enjoying each other’s company when he stopped by unannounced to visit Joyce late one afternoon. When she didn’t answer his knock, he opened her unlocked door, walked in, and saw her and Guy entwined on the sofa, their clothes in disarray. “We weren’t doing anything!” Joyce screamed. Harry, nonplussed, hesitated a moment before saying, “It’s OK, Mom.” “But we weren’t doing anything!” she repeated. Guy’s grin gave the lie to her protests.
Mark laughed when Harry related the story to him over the phone. “Good for Mom,” he said. He laughed even harder when Harry told him that the second thing he noticed after Guy and Joyce en déshabillé was Gabby, who was perched on a shelf near the sofa, peering down wide-eyed. “I’m sure he never expected to see geriatric sex when Mom got him from the rescue center,” Mark said. “Hey, it’s Florida,” Harry replied.
Mark and Joe met Guy for the first time when they joined him and Joyce, and Harry and his wife Sonia, for lunch at an Orlando seafood place Guy preferred to Red Lobster. Though he was in his early nineties, Guy was a catch – handsome, tanned, dark-eyed, with a full head of wavy white hair, a “total Napolitano,” as Joe said. If Joyce and Guy had known each other in Brooklyn, Simon might really have had something to worry about. Guy was born on Ischia, the volcanic island in the Gulf of Naples, and immigrated to America with his parents and younger brother when he was fourteen.
Joe asked him, in Italian, what the ischitani eat, knowing what the answer would be.
“Guy, cosa si mangia ad Ischia?”
They laughed. Rabbit, of course, a staple of cucina ischitana.
“Oh, I could never eat a rabbit!” Joyce exclaimed. “They’re so cute!”
“Me, neither!” Mark said.
“Why not?” Guy replied. “They’re not Easter bunnies. They’re wild animals. Kinda tough. You gotta cook ‘em good, with wine and tomatoes, some garlic but not too much.”
“Oh no, Guy! I just couldn’t!” Joyce said.
“They eat cats in China. Can you imagine that—Gabby in a stir-fry over rice?”
Joyce shrieked. “You’re terrible!” And then she laughed. She squeezed Guy’s arm and pressed against him; he kissed her cheek. “Ya love it,” he said.
And she plainly did. It was obvious that Guy doted on Joyce, was crazy about her. He even called her “my little sunshine,” which really threw her sons. Their childhood had been anything but sunny; Mark and Harry often felt that a dark cloud had settled over their home, with its emotional weather Joyce’s dark depression and untamed anxiety. The brothers grew up with her telling them that they “stink on ice,” that they were “rotten bastards” (or “bastids,” as she would say), that they had ruined her life. The worst was the visits from the cops responding to neighbor complaints about the ruckus next door. Not only was it embarrassing to have the police show up; their presence felt threatening to the boys because their mother inevitably blamed them for her rages. “Be nicer to your mother,” one officer scolded them. When Joyce was like this, Larry, her distressed, confused husband, could do little more than hug her and whisper, “It’s OK, lil’ pup, it’s OK” which sometimes calmed her mood storms but other times only enraged her further. Joyce was prescribed various medications, which she called her “happy pills,” but any bliss they brought her was fleeting.
Yet here she was, coming up on her eighty-fifth birthday, all chatty and laughing, telling stories about her sons’ childhood antics—a few made them cringe–and, clinging to her late-life boyfriend, happier than they’d ever seen her.
Over the next year, Mark and Joe would talk about that lunch, that day of Joyce’s happiness in a love affair that would last barely a year. Despite his apparent good health and joie de vivre, Guy suffered from congestive heart disease. A week after his ninety-third birthday, he began to “fail,” as his nephew put it — “his legs were so swollen he couldn’t walk”– and two weeks after that, he died in the hospital, having never regained consciousness after an attack the nephew called “the big one.” Joyce had already had her first stroke, and her thoughts and speech were scrambled, her memory a disintegrating patchwork. She wasn’t told about Guy’s death and she never asked why he stopped coming around.
As he promised, Harry took care of her. He researched memory care facilities and found one, close to home, that was highly rated on a website and apparently had no complaints filed against it by disgruntled relatives. Still, Harry was worried. “It’s not like New York here,” he told Mark. “The state doesn’t really regulate these places.”
Before Joyce could be moved to her final residence, there was the question of what to do with Gabby. Harry was violently allergic to cats, so he couldn’t take him. Nor could he contemplate giving him to a shelter. “They kill them, and especially the older animals no one wants to adopt.” Gabby was now almost ten years old, and according to Harry, he seemed old, listless and depressed. “He’s such a sweet cat, you know I’d take him if I could,” Harry told Mark.
“Look,” he said. “I’ll handle everything with Mom, as long as you take the cat.”
Mark flew to Orlando to visit Joyce. She was still in her apartment, with a full time aide, a middle-aged Jamaican woman of serious demeanor who called Joyce “Mama” and was, as Mark and Harry observed, a calming influence on their mother. Mark told Joyce that he was going to take Gabby with him to New York and she nodded agreement. “That’s good. He doesn’t play anymore.”
Mark joked that Gabby would be a snowbird in reverse—an old guy moving from Florida to New York. Joyce smiled wanly, seeming to get the joke. Or so Mark wanted to believe.
Gabby’s move didn’t go smoothly. Far from it. First, he resisted being put into his carrier. But the worst was at the airport, when a TSA worker demanded that Mark take Gabby out of the carrier. He said he had to “inspect” him, as if he might be concealing a terrorist bomb. Mark took him out of the carrier, with Gabby howling, squirming, and kicking. His hind paws still had their claws, and they did an efficient job of shredding Mark’s new shirt, a birthday present from Joe.
“Is this your cat?” the TSA worker demanded.
“He’s my mother’s cat,” Mark replied.
“What are you doing with him?” the worker asked.
“I’m adopting him because my mother is fucking dying!” Mark exploded.
Back in his carrier and having gone through airport security, Gabby kept howling. Mark slipped him a few treats through the bars of the carrier but he ignored them. Nearly an hour after their flight’s scheduled departure, he and Mark boarded the plane. Mark had paid extra for a seat with more leg room to accommodate the carrier. The woman in the next seat, seeing Gabby, exclaimed, “No! I am allergic to cats! You cannot sit here!” Mark explained that he had paid extra for the seat and was not moving. The woman summoned an attendant, who decided in her favor. Mark and Gabby were sent to another seat, in the rear of the plane, without the extra room Mark had paid for. Mark seethed the entire flight; Gabby eventually settled down and went to sleep. When they landed in New York, another attendant, a young, clearly gay Latino, whispered to Mark, “That woman was the c-word. She should’ve been moved, not you. Complain to the airline and you’ll get a refund.”
“Heeere’s Gabby,” Mark announced as Joe opened the apartment door.
“Jesus, what happened to your shirt?” Joe said.
“Tell you later. The whole thing was a fucking nightmare.”
He set the carrier down, opened its door, and, after a moment’s hesitation, Gabby emerged. He glanced around at the unfamiliar surroundings, saw the bedroom door, and ran toward it. Mark had brought his bed from Florida, and he pushed it under his and Joe’s bed. Gabby headed for it, disappearing under the bedspread. For the first week or so, Mark would bring Gabby’s food to him. He carried him to the litter box, which he took to immediately. What he didn’t realize was that he’d have to share it. With Sal, the Siberian tabby that Mark and Joe adopted when he was a few months old, a tiny feral thing rescued from a Queens cemetery. Now, at four years old, Sal was big and bulky, with a beautiful, thick gray and cream coat. He hadn’t lost his kitten skittishness, though; noises startled him and he ran and hid whenever the doorbell rang. When he got his first glimpse of Gabby, he froze, turned, and squeezed his bulk under the sofa.
But soon, quicker than Mark and Joe expected, they got used to each other. “Maybe they figured out they’re gonna have to share the same space,” Joe suggested. “Cats don’t work that way,” Mark replied. But relations between the established cat and the newcomer from Florida did become amicable, notwithstanding the occasional growl, hiss, and jostling at the food bowls. When Joe saw them sharing the litter box, he knew that the adjustment was well underway. He told this to Aaron, his and Mark’s weed dealer, while they were sampling Aaron’s latest wares. Aaron exhaled, nodded, and said, with a sage-like air, “If they’re pissing and shitting together, that’s a milestone. Everything will be fine now.”
Gabby no longer spent his non-eating, non-pissing-and-shitting time, under the bed. Lithe and remarkably agile for an older cat, he took advantage of his new home’s opportunities for exploration. Mark and Joe lived on the twentieth floor of their Queens high-rise, and they enjoyed what the agent who sold them the apartment called “a million-dollar view” of the Manhattan skyline. Gabby came to appreciate the view; he’d lie for hours on the window ledge, staring at the vast world outside, rousing himself only when birds darted past the window. He even managed to climb to the top of the living room wall unit, some seven feet high. The first time he did it, Joe and Mark were amazed by his athleticism; this was a feat big lumbering Sal had never even attempted. Soon, it became a game: “Where’s Gabby? Where’d he go?” they’d say, knowing he was perched atop the unit. Gabby would reply with a “Meep!” and then climb down, surefooted, to meet them.
During the last phone conversation Mark had with Joyce, he told her that Gabby was doing fine, and that he and Joe were crazy about him. Joyce, still occasionally lucid before her second and final stroke, said, “Sometimes I miss the little bastard. But I’m glad he has a loving home.”
The next time Mark visited her, with Harry, she was comatose from the second, devastating insult to her brain. She was moved from the memory care facility to the intensive care unit of a hospital run by Seventh Day Adventists. The brothers noted that although there was nothing but religious literature in the waiting room, at least the TV was not tuned to Fox News. As so often happens with declining old people, especially those who’ve lost the desire to live, Joyce fell prey to a series of physical calamities; besides the aftereffects of the stroke, there were intractable urinary bacteria that resisted all antibiotics, and finally, a raging infection with Clostridium difficile. To contain the deadly C-diff, Joyce was placed in isolation. When they visited her, Mark and Harry had to wear head-to-toe protective gear that made them look like astronauts. No direct physical contact was possible; latex gloves came between them and their mother when they held her hand or stroked her hair.
At Joyce’s yahrzeit, the first anniversary of her death, which Mark and Harry observed at Harry’s home instead of a synagogue, Mark cried when he thought of his mother’s last days. Harry reproached himself for not “doing enough for Mom” but Mark would have none of it. “You did everything you could,” he assured his brother. “You knocked yourself out taking care of her.”
They hugged. “How’s Gabby doing?” Harry asked.
“He’s great. Joe and I took him to the vet for a check-up. The vet said that looking at his results you’d never think he was almost fourteen.”
“Ya know,” Mark continued, “you might think this is nuts, but I feel that Gabby’s our last connection to Mom and when he’s gone, so’s that connection.”
“That’s not nuts.”
“Well, what do you think about this? He’s such a great cat that I’ve been thinking about having him cloned. You know, like Barbra Streisand did with her dog.”
“Now, that is nuts,” Harry laughed.
I am an author, journalist, and critic living in New York City. I have contributed features, reviews, essays, and opinion pieces to a wide range of print and digital publications. My ruling passions are culture and the arts (especially music, movies, and theater), politics, social science, social and political theory. I have written about all these topics, for such publications as The Nation, Film Comment, Newsday, Gay City News, The Advocate, Cineaste, In These Times, The Italian American Review and Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide. I also am a contributor to the online publications PopMatters, The New York Journal of Books, Rootsworld, La Voce di New York and I-Italy. I am the author of An Offer We Can’t Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America (Farrar, Straus, Giroux), and a contributor to the Routledge History of the Italian Americans, Mafia Movies: A Reader (University of Toronto), and The Essential Sopranos Reader (University of Kentucky Press).