Me: “Bennett, what’s this black cat doing in the house?”
Bennett: “Oh, that’s May. You know, from Mom’s house. Since Mom sold the house, she can’t keep May anymore. She’ll only be here until we can find another home for her.”
Me: “Yeah, I know who May is. Well, I guess she can stay here until we find her a good home.”
And so began our five year relationship with the best kitty ever. (You may think you have, or have had, a good kitty, and I won’t argue. But May was the BEST kitty ever.) We never found another home for her, because, to be blunt, she HATED other animals, and everyone we knew who would love to have her already had at least one other pet. After a few months of trying – and a few months of her sitting on my lap for what seemed like hours every day – one day I said to Fran “Well, I don’t suppose it would be horrible to have her on the boat.”
So she came on the boat, and became “May the Boat Cat”. (Also known as MayMay, Maybelline, Sweet May, Maybelle, “our sweet little old lady cat”, The Princess, sometimes The Queen, and my personal favorite, Honey Bunny.) The first time she set foot on the boat, it took her all of about 6 seconds to settle in. We brought her in during a driving rainstorm, set her on the floor, ran back to the car for another load of stuff, and when we returned, there she was, stretched out on the carpet with a “yeah, this will do” air about her that never changed over five years.
Well, she didn’t love EVERY minute of boat life. There was that first time she made a long crossing – about 8 hours, from Florida to the Bahamas, March 1, 2018. It was a bit rough, and before too long, this pretty little black kitty looked positively green. By the end of the rough part of the day, she was stretched out on the cool clay in her litter box, with her tongue slightly hanging out, and drooling a little. Think of your worst New Year’s Day hangover.
But the next day, off we went for another 10 hours (on totally flat seas, thankfully), and she behaved as if the day before had never happened. And that’s pretty much how she was for most of the 4,000+ miles she was with us on Smartini: over a year in Florida, 8 months in the Bahamas, 4 months in Turks and Caicos, many months in the Virgin Islands, and all the way to Grenada and back, with a stop or two in every island nation along the way. Oh, sure, once in a while, when it was a little rough, she’d give us her famous stink-eye as if to say “You couldn’t have waited for a little nicer weather?”, but most of the time, she was just sleeping in one of her comfy spots, whether the boat was moving or not.
She began life as Maddie and Bennett’s cat, at their mom’s house in Indianapolis, when Maddie was 7 and Bennet was 4. She was an indoor / outdoor cat there, and we would see her outside sometimes when we would pick up or drop off the kids, but for all those years, she was just a cat at someone else’s house. That changed in December 2015 when the exchange between Bennett and me, above, occurred. The change started slowly, but it wasn’t long before Fran and I grew very fond of this little old lady cat.
I am pleased to say that she loved me more than anyone else. I don’t know why, though. Fran did EVERYTHING for her – fed her, kept her litter box clean, cleaned up after her when she horked up a hairball, bought her toys, bought her favorite hangout (the “Treat Perch” – more on that later), and in the last year, would make tiny bites of whatever she was eating to satisfy May’s very-late-in-life interest in human food. But although May clearly loved Fran, she would get up from Fran’s lap and the petting she was receiving to come sit on me, as soon as I sat down, nine times out of ten. Fran was “the help”, and I was her human. I am so very lucky.
May made a lot of friends in her five years with us, but I don’t think anyone was a bigger fan than Benjy Ellis, who we met while cruising the Eastern Caribbean. He lives with his parents Jason and Kim on their sailing catamaran, Mimzy. Benjy would come onto Smartini for the express purpose of spending time with May, and she loved it!
However, in a very, very close second place comes Zoe Fisher, who came all the way from Australia with her parents, Claire and Anthony, to spend a week with “May the Cat”. (Zoe thought that was her name, and called her that all week.)
We said, many times during her stay with us, that she had virtually none of the bad habits that many cats have, and that she did exactly what we both wanted from a cat – sit on our laps when we wanted her to, and let us pet her. She never insisted on that (although she would often suggest it!). She never knocked things over just because she could. She was fully clawed, but rarely scratched anything other than the carpet (which we hate anyway). Until a few months ago, she rarely made a sound – if she said “meow!”, you better see what was going on, because it was unusual. She didn’t have the loudest motor in the world, but she purred almost all the time when she was on your lap and/or being petted.
She had a particular dislike of dogs, which I guess shouldn’t be surprising, but she did grow up with a dog (Maddie’s “Skip”). Just after we arrived in the Bahamas in March 2018, we met some people on another boat and invited them for dinner and dominoes one evening. They brought their little dog Bailey, who was very well behaved – didn’t even eat May’s food. We put May in our room while they were there, and all was well. The following morning, May was in our room meowing up a storm, which was VERY unusual for her. We couldn’t figure out what was wrong – she had food, she had water, what could it be? But Fran dumped out her water bowl and washed it, then refilled it and set it down. May drank like she had been in the desert for a month! Bailey must have drank some of her water, and May did NOT want to drink from the same bowl that a slobbery dog drank from! From that point on, we never talked to her about a dog without saying “slobbery dog”.
One minor flaw: she did have Bitchy Resting Face, or as we liked to call it, Stink Eye. As you can see in the picture below – a picture taken when she was perfectly happy, I can assure you – she could make you feel as if you had done something so horrible, so loathsome, that you didn’t deserve to be breathing the same air as her.
During the five years that she was with us, she wasn’t with us all the time. She lived with Susan and Rami in Indianapolis for a few months in 2016. Susan was the one who discovered that May hated to sit on bare skin! She would put a thick towel on her lap in the middle of summer so The Princess could sit on her, and not be grossed out by Susan’s bare legs. May lived with Robin for several weeks when we lost Maddie. Robin learned first-hand how temperature-driven May was, in her very air conditioned apartment, when May would sleep right on her chest, staring into her face with a “does it have to be SO COLD in here?” posture.
We weren’t always on the boat, either. Paul and Denise flew all the way to George Town, Bahamas from Minnesota in May 2018 to spend a month on the boat with May, while we went to Italy. Brian The Pet Sitter cat-sat with her in Key West for a few weeks in November 2017. A woman (whose name escapes me – maybe because she let May escape the boat!) cat-sat with her for a few weeks in the US Virgin Islands in 2019. Peter the Turtle Man (manager of Nassau Harbour Club Marina) cat-sat with her for a few weeks in Nassau, Bahamas. (We paid one of the dock hands to do it, but Peter liked May so much, he came onboard twice a day to sit with her and give her treats.) In Grenada, Lamar cat-sat with her for a month in November 2019. In all these cases, it went like this: the sitter came onboard the first time and sat down, May hopped in their lap for petting and treates, and they were buddies. She was like that.
After she had lived on the boat for a bit, Fran noticed that there was nowhere May could sit and see outside. She searched online and found a window perch for a cat, and put it in one of the side windows, but May wasn’t interested. Fran was determined, and by then, May had already become quite a big fan of Friskies Party Mix and Temptations, so Fran used these treats to lure May into the perch. May quickly learned to love the perch, in part because it was a soft place to sleep in the sun, but also very much because she had a good chance of someone giving her a few treats if she sat there long enough and looked cute.
Speaking of cute… if you aren’t a cat person, skip this paragraph, OK? You’ll want to vomit a little, probably. But when May would curl up in the Treat Perch, or in one of the chairs, or on the floor, or especially in your lap, in a perfect circle, with one paw over her nose, and her tail covering most of her face… she was SO DAMNED CUTE! But she never let us get a picture of that perfect moment – she would wake up and move just before we could snap the shot.
You might wonder what it was like doing all the paperwork and jumping through all the hoops necessary to get a pet into all of those countries (18 in all). Well, you’d have to ask someone else, because we did it only once, and it was such a nightmare that we decided to simply not declare her again. And we didn’t. She never left the boat*, so it didn’t matter anyway. Many countries wouldn’t even ask on their forms. Some did, but didn’t follow-up with a question asked by an agent. Some did, and I would just lie. Sorry. Throw me in jail for cat smuggling.
(* She did hop off the boat several times in the marina in Turks and Caicos, but that was the one country into which we legally checked her in. She also escaped from the boat in the US Virgin Islands for a few days while we were gone, but there’s no special requirement for a US citizen to bring a pet into the US Virgin Islands. And yes, she did hop off the boat in San Salvador, Bahamas for just a few minutes, but our story in the Bahamas, if asked, was always going to be “We picked her on the dock in Freeport – she’s a Bahamian cat.”)
I mentioned that May was already 14 years old when she came to live with us, in December 2015. (Coincidentally, the same month we bought the boat.) Yes, she was an old lady: 19 in cat years is the equivalent of 94 in human years. But until literally yesterday, no one would have guessed her to be of such an advanced age. She didn’t look old. She didn’t act old. She had her sight and her hearing, and she was a good jumper (almost always in the case of jumping onto a lap sitting in a tall chair).
Almost a year ago, right after the COVID situation started heating up, we were in the Virgin Islands, and May had pretty much stopped eating. We took her to the vet on St. Thomas, who did some blood work and determined that her kidneys were failing – a common malady among geriatric cats. But the vet showed us how to administer fluids “subcutaneously” (with a needle under her skin), and told us that some cats can live for many extra years with this treatment, to make up for what the kidneys have stopped doing. May, being the best kitty ever, took that needle under the skin and 200 ml of saline solution every four days since then, and almost never complained about it. Her appetite returned – and then some! For the first time ever, she started to act interested in what Fran and I were eating. Eager to get her to eat anything, we started giving her small bites of our chicken, beef, pork, fish – all of which she eagerly devoured – except the fish. That developed into her only bad habit – begging for food at the table. (Sorry, Chris – you saw her at her worst in this respect.) But hey, she was an old lady – let her have what she wants! (As Fran has said many times, “When I’m 94, I hope someone lets ME eat cake for dinner!”)
This summer, back in the US, and with the boat “hauled out” for hurricane season, we bought a used minivan and started touring the country. With our limited experience of having May in the car (she didn’t like it!), we would have liked to have left her with someone, but we couldn’t ask anyone to take on the “stick her with a needle and administer 200 ml of fluids every four days” routine. So Fran made a rolling version of the Treat Perch in the van, between the front seats, and off we all went! 15,000 miles, 34 states, at least 20 friends’ homes visited, and May was with us the whole time. Florida to Maine and back to Florida. Then off to Texas and Colorado and Nevada and California and Oregon and Idaho and Indiana and all the states in between. May would typically be restless and mouthy for the first hour or two each day on the road, but would eventually settle in and sleep like the dead for most of the last several hours. The only bad stretch was our one overnight, from Houston, TX to Fort Collins, CO. She never settled in, and was still unhappy and restless and mouthy when we finally pulled into a rest stop for a nap at 5:00 a.m. One of the longest nights of my life. But it was worth it to have her with us all summer.
Because of her hatred of other animals, and because many of the friends and family we visited have other animals, she was often relegated to the bedroom we were using. Which wasn’t bad – being an old lady cat, she slept all day anyway. But when our hosts had no pets, and she could have free reign of a house, she seemed to truly enjoy it. Her favorite place was Beth and Pat’s place in Maine – a large, two-story-plus-attic home built in the 1890’s. She would come down from the attic covered with cobwebs, and looking totally pleased with herself.
At Susan and Rami’s house in Indy, she really wanted to go outside, so we tried a little harness and leash. Yeah… that didn’t work out so well.
In early November, while visiting friends Dean and Kim in Idaho, Fran noticed that May was suddenly acting a little strange. Almost as if she couldn’t see everything that was going on around her, surprised when we would walk up to her to pet her. The next night, in a hotel room in Wyoming on our way to Fort Collins, CO, it got worse, and by the time we arrived in Fort Collins the following day, it was obvious – May had become totally blind! We were at Fran’s sister Ingrid’s house, and Ingrid has a house full of pets, so she has a great and long-term relationship with a local vet. She called, and we were able to get May in that same day. Yep, she was blind, alright. One of the problems with feline kidney failure is high blood pressure, which we didn’t know, but which May had. And one of the problems with high blood pressure in cats is “hypertensive retinopathy” – detached retinas caused by high blood pressure. They gave her some BP meds and sent us home, with at least the hope that the retinas would reattach and the vision return. Those were some sad hours, sitting with her, knowing that she must be totally confused about why her world was suddenly completely dark, and not knowing if it would ever be any better for her. There were tears shed, I don’t mind telling you. But the blood pressure DID come down, and the retinas DID reattach, and within 36 hours, she was seeing almost normally again! To say that we were happy would be the understatement of the year. We were overjoyed, knowing that our little old lady May was back to normal, and no longer suffering. Although through it all, she never made a sound, never reacted badly when we would pick her up – she just stared around the room, with eyes that wouldn’t see. It was one of the saddest things either of us have ever seen.
We arrived back in Florida after Thanksgiving, and still had to put the boat back together after the summer’s haulout. Our friend Chris offered his spare bedroom to us, and all three of us were happy to take him up on it. We ended up spending seven weeks there, enjoying Chris’s amazing cooking and hospitality, most of the time with May having the run of the house, which she enjoyed immensely. But she had picked up another slightly annoying habit of waking us up about 6:30 every morning to be fed. See, it’s really hard to give a cat a pill, but May needed a tiny little pill of BP medicine once per day. With advice from dear friends Curt and Sondra, we started giving May the cheap Publix canned food, and putting her little pill, all crushed up, into the food. (They have a 20+ year old cat who wouldn’t eat ANYTHING until they tried the Publx food, and now she eats 3 cans a day!) Well, May LOVED IT! So every morning, when her little kitty brain told her it was time for breakfast, she was on the bed, walking over both of us and letting us know, in no uncertain terms, that one of us needed to get up and fix her breakfast NOW! (Which we did, because, you know, she’s a little old lady.)
A week ago today, we finally got the boat back in the water, and two days later, we all moved back onboard. It took May a day to settle in, but she did, and for about three days, all was good. She was back in the Treat Perch a dozen times a day, sitting on our laps for petting in the evenings, and yelling for us to get her breakfast ready at 6:30 a.m.
And then yesterday, Fran noticed that May was acting a little weird, and in fact, saw her having what looked like a mini seizure, a couple of different times. Last evening, we saw it again, so this morning, we took her to the vet. (The aforementioned Curt is a vet in Melbourne, FL, about an hour up the road from where we are in Ft. Pierce.) After an exam and some blood work, Curt called with the bad news. Her kidneys were on the verge of total shutdown, and there was nothing we could do that would restore her to normal. She could have a blood transfusion, and hormone therapy, but even that would only prolong her life, not restore the quality of it. So an hour later, after a last long bit of cuddling and petting and telling her how much we loved her, we said our final “Bye, May”. And she went to sleep on my lap, where she had spent so many countless hours over the past 5 years, and we cried.
February 5, 2021
If you want to look at a couple hundred pictures of May, we’ve shared this Google Photos Album, May the Boat Cat. None of them are spectacular images, but we sure are enjoying looking at them today.