He was not your usual black cat. They are usually the stuff of Halloween decorations – of medium size, sleek and lean, with long thin tails. This cat was large and fluffy, technically still a short-hair, but with thick black fur with brown undertones. Brushing him often yielded enough fur for another cat, with an endless supply in store. He had a large skull, big yellow eyes and a slightly flattened face and nose, no doubt the result of unknown Persian ancestors. His paws were as oversized as his head, and his tail was a long fat triangle; broad at the base and tapering down to a paintbrush of fur.
He was from Ohio, Oberlin to be exact. He was rescued in town by a student at the Oberlin School of Music. The singer named him L’il Bat, after a character in the opera Susanna. He must have been the cutest little fluffy black kitten. When bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch moved to NYC several years later, with his cats, he was singing the role of Schaunard in Baz Luhrmann’s Broadway production of La Boheme. This was the beginning of a very successful opera career, with touring and appearances across the country and in his native Canada.
This is where I come in.
I was still singing at the time and was an avid reader of an opera chatroom called the Opera Forum. In addition to chats about various aspects of singing, readers could also ask for help or services. Daniel was looking for a cat-sitter. I had just lost one of my two cats, and Mookie, the surviving one, was depressed. I thought temporarily having two more cats around would cheer him up and help him get over losing his buddy Felix. Plus, the guy was paying. I offered to take them.
Daniel came over to Brooklyn to meet me, look at his cats’ potential new home. Despite my wreck of a house, he offered me the kitties. He would pay me for room and board, and his cats would be safe and pampered. Daniel fully expected to come home from his tour and take them back. He brought them over and introduced them to their new world.
I will always remember that moment. Both cats were in a soft carrier that Daniel had taken on the subway. He unzipped the top, and two heads popped up, a big black one and a large orange one. Both cats leaped out of the carrier and hid under the couch where they remained for the rest of his visit. We chatted for a bit, talked about cats, opera and renovating houses, and then Daniel got ready to leave. He reached behind the couch to give Lucky and Bat a last pat and scratch and say goodbye, and Lucky promptly bit him. “Take that, abandoning Dad!”
Lucky, Bat and Mookie never got along all that well, but they did learn how to co-exist. When Daniel came back from his tour, he came to visit. Lucky had chilled by then, and affectionately stuck his face in Daniel’s armpit, his favorite place on people he liked. Daniel was becoming quite the young opera superstar and had been booked for more tours. He couldn’t afford to keep paying me to take care of them, but that was ok, by that time, I had fallen in love with both cats. When he asked me if I wanted to keep them, I was overjoyed. (Daniel Okulitch is now one of opera’s finest bass-baritones, with an international career – Bat and Lucky’s Dad did good!)
Bat and Lucky were inseparable. Mookie was elderly when they came into our lives and died a few years later. He was a wonderful cat, the first one I had in my adult life, and my first Brooklyn kitty. He lived to be around 18, which made him an old man in cat years. Other cats came into the house. Literally. Two walked in the kitchen window, looked around, and decided to stay. One was pregnant and gave birth shortly after, and the other brought what I thought was a mouse in her mouth to me one day. It was her kitten. I had become an instant Crazy Cat Lady.
Bat loved the new kittens. I have lots of pictures of him with the tiny kitlets curled up on or next to him. Throughout his and their lives, he was always a cat that other cats snuggled with. He was patient and kind, and never swatted at them. He was a very chill soul in all ways. Even after Lucky died about eight years later. Which is not to say he didn’t have his ways. He was the poster child of passive-aggressive behavior.
Where many cats will demand affection by head butting you, or rubbing against you, or leaping into your lap, Bat would sit in front of you and stare at you. If you didn’t pet him, he would very calmly extend a claw and stick you. *Jab* We called it “giving you the Claw.” Getting the Claw was painful, and it kept you alert. I often would be involved in working and not notice that he was sitting there. *Jab* If that didn’t get your attention in a few seconds, he calmly repeated it. *Jab* If you were eating at the table and he was there. *Jab* He usually got petted after that.
But if you stopped for some reason, and he still wanted to be petted – you got the Claw. If you were watching tv and you didn’t notice him there on the floor, *Jab*! That guaranteed a lap for as long as he wanted one. He terrorized me and my neighbor Deb, who often came down to my apartment to watch TV with me. He preferred her lap to mine, but then would sleep on top of my chest all night. No Claw then, just contented purring.
Bat was a big cat, with the largest skull and paws of any of my cats. He was the king of his domain, so I started calling him Batasaurus Rex, the King of the Batasaurs. It’s silly, as are most cat nicknames, but it stuck, and I always called him the Batasaur. Both he and Lucky used to go outside in my backyard in Brooklyn. Lucky always hung out in the yard, but Bat would disappear. My neighbors had plenty of nights where they could hear me outside calling for the Bat at 2 in the morning. Sometimes he came, sometimes he didn’t.
Mr. Passive-Aggressive would sit on the fence, or in a tree and watch me call him. Sometimes I could see him, or the reflection of his eyes. But he wouldn’t move. And if I went to get him, he’d run into a neighbor’s property. He spent a couple of nights outside all night. The last night he did that he came home with a large tear in the loose fur under his belly, by his leg. I rushed him to the emergency vet in Carroll Gardens.
Unfortunately, they had two days of bad emergencies, and couldn’t get to him, but fortunately, he was in no real danger. The tear was only in skin, not muscle. They kept him, made sure his wound wasn’t getting infected, and sewed him up two days later. When I came to get him, the doctors and staff had to come and tell me what a handsome gentleman he was, and how much they would miss him. He had charmed them all. They charged me a reduced rate because boarding him was their call, but I still got a bill for over a thousand dollars. The Bat never went outside again. The Batasaur was not happy. Neither was I.
I went though some tough times in Brooklyn after 2007. I was depressed over losing my job and not being able to find another – in any industry. I was writing non-stop, building my reputation as a writer about all things historic in Brooklyn, but I wasn’t making enough money. I was going to lose my house. My tenant and friend Deb and I decided to move to Troy. We found a house and I became the tenant. Moving day for the cats was epic. Both of us had many cats, and they went upstate in two trips in a U-Haul van. There was a lot of howling.
But we managed, and we built a home. The Batasaur took over his kingdom and reigned for many years. His best friend was P-Boy, who had been the tiny kitten carried into the house by his mother those many years ago. P-Boy and Bat were often the only cats people saw when they came over, as most of my cats are very shy around strangers. The Bat would always be out, inspecting all visitors. Some of them got the Claw, if they stayed long enough.
I knew the Batasaur was getting old. His fur began getting white hairs on his chest and paws - salt and pepper, like me. He started to slow down, and he stopped jumping up on everything. He still wanted to get up there, though, and figured out elaborate trails to get him from the floor, to a box, or a chair, or a windowsill, and then onto the table or my bed. His favorite place was sitting on top of my right arm as I used my mouse. He would be perturbed if I pulled my hand out to type. Sometimes I couldn’t get anything done, and I’d have to put him on the floor. That usually meant I got the Claw. He would eventually settle in right next to my arm. The Great Compromise.
The vet diagnosed him with a thyroid deficiency, and for the last year of his life, I had to give him a small pill twice a day. Of all the cats I’ve ever tried to medicate, he was the best. He would never run, he let me pick him up by the scruff and pop the pill in his mouth, and he always got treats afterwards. Soon, the rest of my cats figured out the treats part, and so Bat’s medication was Treat Time for all of them. Cats are opportunists.
In the last few months, he slowed down even more. He started to lose weight, and he stopped grooming his stomach. His fur started to clump up, and Deb and I brushed him often to try to get rid of the clumps on his side and back. You couldn’t touch his stomach, he wasn’t having it. The vet said not to worry, the clumps weren’t hurting him or pulling on his skin. His weight stabilized with his medication, but he wasn’t as sleek and filled out as before.
He couldn’t jump up on the bed anymore, but could pull himself up with his claws, like a rock climber. Once, my arm was too close to the edge of the bed when he latched on to pull himself up. That was incredibly painful!! Took a long time to heal, too. I looked like a victim of cat abuse. I began making sure he was on the bed before I got in, and he usually stayed there all night. I started picking him up whenever he wanted to climb somewhere. I knew it was only a matter of time. I’ve seen the signs before. The Mighty Batasaur was in his twilight. He was an old man.
He went to the vet several times in the last few months because I was concerned about him, but even on his last vet visit, everything was fine. They ran bloodwork, and all was well, even though his breath was becoming a bit labored. The vet couldn’t hear anything with her stethoscope because he was purring too loud. “He’s old,” she said, “Just take care of him.” I took him home and he died two days later. He walked into the living room, had a heart attack and died in a couple of minutes. It was quick, I was holding him, and he was gone. Looking back, he was probably 19 or 20 years old. He died about a month ago, but it’s been hard to write about him.
The funny thing is that I still see him. Deb has seen him too. A couple of times. He’s in our peripheral vision, passing to our side on his way somewhere. He passes through when we are watching television. Sometimes one of my other cats, none of whom really match him in body type or coloration, look like him as they run up the hallway towards me. It’s only when they get close that I see it’s not Bat.
I’ve had cats that I’ve loved very much, and mourned tremendously, but none of them came back. The Batasaur is a ghost cat. He watches over us. Maybe he’ll move on, when he’s ready, but right now he’s here, and I have no problem with that. Batasaurus Rex always got what he wanted.
My name is Suzanne Spellen. I've been many things: a writer, historian, preservationist, musician, traveler, designer, sewer, teacher, and tour guide; a long time Brooklynite and now, a proud resident of Troy, NY.