Ernie died peacefully Tuesday, July 24, 2018, with Maggie and Chico at her side at the veterinarian’s office in White River Junction, Vt., following a period of ill health caused by a tumor on her jaw that was suspected to be cancerous. She was an estimated 16-18 years old.
She is remembered for her near-omnipresence in seven apartments across three states; for her vocal commentaries on the goings-on of the day; for her gruff, regal and fluffy exterior and unparalleled stink eye; and for what she couldn’t hide just below the surface: her loyalty, kindness and warmth. She is remembered for making us laugh.
Not much is known about the first half of Ernie’s life, before she was found in a box by shelter staff outside the MSCPA in Jamaica Plain, Mass., in the waning days of 2009, returned via microchip, and then mysteriously found again. Did she get along with her siblings? Where did she live? Did she have a family who loved her? What happened to them? We’re not even sure what her name was, except possibly the designation scrawled on the window of her pod at the shelter: Arion. If somebody did care for her, I wish I could let them know that everything went all right over the last eight years.
Things didn’t start out so sure. In one of my deepest pits of depression, I went to the MSPCA after dark on the third day of that year, “just to look.” I had seen her picture on the MSPCA website, and I sat with only her. I loved her. At 18 lbs and wildly fluffy, she was one of the biggest cats I had ever seen, with gigantic double paws. Her pupils were dilated from the stress of shelter life, but she said hello and sat with me. I decided I should sleep on it before making such a commitment, but a woman working there told me if I was confident I was going to adopt her, I should do it then, because it would save not only Ernie but some other cat waiting waiting to be rescued. Suddenly enough, I was in a cab with a cat in a cardboard box, and we were on our way.
Arion became Arnie became Ernie. Our Mission Hill apartment was covered with New Year’s confetti, and Gabe, Holly and I didn’t see her at all for the first two or three days. When she emerged, she did so cautiously, slinking along the perimeter and into the nooks of our old building. The first time I felt like she was at ease was Jan. 29, 2010; I know because I took three pictures with my Blackberry and posted them to Facebook, all different angles of the same nap she was taking next to me on my yellow couch, the unofficial origin of hundreds of Ernie photos. I was thrilled.
From there, the confident, demanding, grumpy-on-the-outside, mushy-on-the-inside Ernie we all know and love started to emerge — but slowly. It’s hard to remember how far she’s come, but for the first few years, I was amazed every few months when I took stock of her progress.
And even as she was recovering from abandonment, she kept my heart pumping through some of my most difficult months. There were times when getting up to change her food or litter box were virtually the only reasons I got out of bed. When I slept away sunny days, she napped with me, not judging, just present. When I had isolated myself from friends and family, I couldn’t isolate myself from Ernie.
Throughout our friendship, she also facilitated some of my best days. When Chico surprised me by leaving a dress I had wanted but couldn’t afford in my Lebanon apartment while I was gone for a few days in 2013, the only reason he had the keys was because he was taking care of Ernie. Last September, that dress turned out to be my wedding dress.
As I got my life together, Ernie was there for everything; or else, she was there when I got home. She saw me through my big move, my first full-time job, buying a house, getting married. When Chico came into the picture, she made him her family. From my 22nd birthday to my 30th, she was the force behind thousands of laughs, each one propelling me ahead.
There were challenges. She suffered through an extended period of living with two corgis, Lilo and Louie, and a cat, Che, when I moved in with my parents and brother in 2011 and then interned, without her, in Hawaii. And although one of her great joys was hating her Thetford frenemy, Chris Mullens the cat, there was one time where Chris scratched her in the eye, causing months of vet visits and painstakingly applied eye drops. (Her thirst for blood was not quenched.)
Overall, though, she happily adapted to life in the Upper Valley — maybe from a previous life as a country cat? — and loved rolling around outside. And as much as she loathed cats and dogs and tried her hardest to kill them, I was so proud of her patience and benevolence toward everything she actually could have harmed, including ducklings and bunnies. When Flip-Flop came home in 2014, she loved Ernie so enthusiastically, and Ernie was so overwhelmed by it, that we had to get Flip-Flop a bunny friend to channel her adorations; enter Bartleby. When we adopted our senior rabbit Peanut, in 2016, Ernie finally found a four-legged friend who operated at her pace, and they spent many afternoons napping together, on the opposite sides of the room.
Ernie did not only exist in relation to me or others; she had her own interests, including chattering at seagulls, flossing with window blinds, eating plants, killing cacti, being in things she shouldn’t be in, cardboard boxes in general (we bedazzled her favorite), and inserting herself between the sheets whenever a bed was getting made. She treasured zip ties and hair elastics. She ran lots of errands, getting up suddenly as if she had just looked at the clock and realized she had somewhere to be, but whenever we asked her “what’cha doing, Erns?,” she didn’t answer. She hated toys, except when she didn’t, and she loved belly rubs, until she’d had enough. She played rough, but never broke skin. She loved to sit on the porch. She got a lion cut most summers and looked ridiculous. She was frustrated by our poor execution when she doled out commands. She insisted on smelling every plate of food Chico and I ever ate and more than once intruded on a bowl of cereal milk. By some counts she had 30 toes, and she reviewed movies on a 30-thumbs-up basis. Far from the anxious shelter cat of 2009, she was mouthy — especially in the morning, or whenever in the presence of a milk jug or can opener — and had a distinctive “mrrahhh” that she used when she was happy, sad, angry or indifferent; you just had to know what she meant. Her naps were epic.
Ernie had a lot of people friends and fans, including dozens who treasured spending time with her in real life, and hundreds who knew her online from the “ernie in things ernie shouldn’t be in” Facebook album, the #postcardsfromernie Instagram tag or as a guest star on Flip-Flop’s Instagram account. Since her passing, many commented that she was their favorite cat, or even the only cat they ever really liked. One of my favorite things about Ernie is that when a group of people got together, she would pull up a chair and hang out, sitting in the circle the same as everyone else, taking in the conversation and contributing a thought here and there. Sometimes she got it wrong and sat on top of what everyone was doing, like a game of cards or writing materials, but nobody ever held it against her.
My other favorite thing about Ernie is that she was always 5 feet away and 5 minutes behind. If I moved from one room to another, you could bet that Ernie would do the same a short time later. The thought of being picked up was revolting to her, and only rarely did she do something that resembled cuddling, but she always wanted to be near me and Chico, and for most of the last eight years, she was.
I am crushed by her absence. She wasn’t my baby; she was my best friend, my dearest buddy, my deputy in all things related to spending time at home. I hope so much that she enjoyed growing old with me, and I will be grateful for her friendship for the rest of my life. The house is quiet without her.
Black and white photo at the top of this page by Emily Smith; Boston, Mass., September 2010. The MSPCA is online at www.mspca.org. Adopt; don’t shop.