Column: Hemingway, 6-toed cats, insulin & me

When Ernest Hemingway lived in Key West he kept many, many cats.

Hemingway, the Nobel Prize-winning author of “The Old Man and the Sea” and so many other manly works of fiction, who worked hard and played even harder, remains an inspiration to many a journalist. Particularly those who, while stuck sitting through a Zoning Board of Appeals meeting’s running of the side yard setback variances, dreams of running with the bulls in Pamplona.

It’s said he admired cats’ spirit and independence, and that some 60 cats still occupy what was his home, now a museum. Not just your garden variety felines, mind you. They’re polydactyl, meaning they pad around on not-so-little, extra-toed cat feet. Many are likely descended from his first cat, a polydactyl given to him by a sea captain.

So I figure if it’s good enough for Hemingway, it’s good enough for me. I mean, we have a lot in common. Well, except I’ve yet to win a Nobel, have never lived in Paris and have never machine-gunned sharks from the end of a dock. Not yet, anyway.

We don’t have 60 cats, but on some days it sure seems like it. Over the course of a lifetime I’ve migrated from the “dog person” ranks to the “cat person” category and am now counted among select few holding the “cat caregiver” appellation.

Some background: My first pet was a cocker spaniel named Pal. I named him meself. Gimme a break, I was 5 at the time and said something insufferably cute such as “He’s my pal.”

Next was a Saint Bernard adopted from an up-island breeder who wanted to retire her. For a dollar and the promise that we’d keep males of that breed at bay, the AKC-registered Lady Jane Bergenlander came to live with us. In me college years she was responsible for putting me on crutches for 10 days, but that’s another story.

Had a hamster at one point, as did my baby sister. One day we decided to let them play together and quickly learned more about the birds and the bees than ever was spoken in the classrooms at St. John the Evangelist. Me Ma, God be good to her, didn’t quite know what to say when we asked what the heck they were doing.

Me Mrs. was a catophile, or felineophile or whatever. What? The word’s ailurophile? Isn’t that some kind of dinosaur? No? Anyway, at one point the colony of fur-bound ferals counting on her for food reached about 25. When we wed, I became a cat person by default. At first I missed having a dog, a slavishly loyal companion who’ll be there for you, even if you find yourself sleeping on the couch. Or so I’ve heard. Cats, on the other hand, seemed standoffish, selfish and snotty. But in spending time with them, I’ve learned that each has a distinct personality and many are quite happy to interact in a companionable way, minus the slobbering and chewed shoes.

I’ve also learned their language, sort of. On a Saturday one of our semi-ferals was meowing her head off at me. “You wanna go to bed?” I asked her and, after I opened the door to the garage, she trotted off happily. Hearing this, my new daughter-in-law asked, “Wait, you could understand her?” Well of course, said I. Wasn’t it obvious?

Bet Hemingway was also a cat whisperer.

So it came as absolutely no surprise that a surprisingly gentle red tabby showed up one day, walked into the house like he owned it and all but emptied the water bowl, a sure sign of diabetes confirmed by the good people at the Southold animal shelter. Can’t just ignore that, nor did we have the heart to put him down, especially after our daughter christened him “Phillip,” for reasons still unclear to me. So now every morning and evening, Phillip gets a shot of two units of insulin. He barely notices.

But getting the thyroid medicine into Posh, the oldest of our indoor cats — named by my son after a member of that annoying ’90s pop group The Spice Girls fer cryin’ out loud — is decidedly less pleasant.

Never, ever would I have imagined growing up to become a Grade Z Doctor Dolittle. So much for spending my afternoons sipping anisette at a sidewalk cafe along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

If you’ll excuse me, I think it’s about time to start drinking dark rum, to write one true sentence, the truest sentence I know, and to make plans to head to the tropics in search of the giant marlin, which I will kill even though he is my brother. Right after I head to the store and pick up some more litter. Lord, how is it possible for so much to come out of creatures so small?

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