When I was 20 I was entering into a major transition in my life: I was moving into my first apartment and going to be living alone. This also coincided with me deciding to go against my doctor’s orders and stop taking Zoloft. He told me that because I had recurrent depression it would come back; and I said that I knew this but I trusted in myself enough to know how to handle it. I hated how I felt bipolar if I missed one day of meds, hated the numbness I felt from it when it was “working” and hated the stigma I felt because I was on it.
Still… this was not a small deal. On top of this I was about to enter into my sophomore year of college where we would be studying Meisner. Which, for anyone who knows anything about acting training, you cannot be numb and be taking Meisner. It’s a technique that requires you to be vulnerable; where you are discovering more about yourself than you ever will in your entire life. After experiencing what it was like to live alone with depression while subletting for a summer and with Meisner about to start, I didn’t know how I was going to do it.
I then heard about the Dollar Adoption Days held by PAWS (Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society). For one dollar you could adopt a cat, have them fixed and get their shots, plus if you got one cat, you could get a second for free. I always knew I wanted two cats so they could keep each other company while I was in class. So in August of 2007 I headed to the west side of Philly to find my new cats. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, except I knew I wanted a cat who was cuddly. When I saw Gwen it was love at first sight. Gwen immediately rubbed his nose against my fingers as they poked through the cage and rubbed his body against the door to satisfy his need for affection. Then I found a 6-month old tuxedo cat who seemed to be the yang to Gwen’s Yin as he couldn’t care less whether you pet him or not but was still very friendly. So by the end of that day and a long bus ride home with my new kitties in a crate, I had now adopted my cats for $1.
The name “Gwen” came with the cat as given to him by his previous owners. Being that he was all ready three years old I didn’t want to change it at this point and confuse him. I assumed Gwen was a girl because of the name. Six months later, I took him to the vet for a follow-up to find that she was in fact a he. After a bit of name research I found that Gwen is a somewhat common guys name in Ireland, and with my last name being McHugh, I decided to give him the very Irish middle name of Gavin – making his full name Gwen Gavin McHugh.
Over the first year of having Gwen and Midnight as my cats I witnessed America’s Funniest Home Video level events lead by these cats. Gwen was a polydactyl cat, aka, a “Hemingway” cat. This means that he had more than the normal amount of toes: six toes on each front foot and seven toes on each back foot. They believed that all cats who had this many toes were descendants of Ernest Hemingway because he had so many cats that this was a mutation as a result of inbreeding. I was delighted by this because I got really into the Les Amis de Paris and thought Hemingway was a sassy, sassy man. The toes also lead to some Gwen shenanigans.
Gwen was a fat kitty and loved to eat. So I had to keep his food away from where he could get to it. If it was on top of the cupboards he would climb up there just to knock the bag over and get to it. So I put a plastic crate over the bag, and placed this crate underneath a shelving unit. Gwen used his mighty paws to reach through a hole in the crate, poke a hole in the bag, scoop up the food, pull the food out HOLDING IT IN HIS PAW, and eat it out of his paw, like a damn human being.
He could also see dead people, I kid you not. It was no secret that the Adelphia House, which used to be the Adelphia Hotel in the 20s, was (and I’m sure still is) straight-up haunted as fuck. Strange things were constantly happening in my apartment – and Gwen’s eyes would dart to random spots on the wall, were he would stare intently; and when I took a shower, he’d stand guard outside of it, even though water wasn’t exactly his thing. Both Midnight and Gwen protected me at night. Midnight would sleep at my head, and Gwen at my feet.
My cats followed me to my next two apartments in Philadelphia for the next two years, until they couldn’t follow me anymore. I had been accepted into the National Theater Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center where there was a strict no pets policy. I was grateful that my parents were able to take them in, and the plan was always to take them back when I had settled into a pet-friendly apartment again. Afterwards, I moved to a sublet while I was doing a directing internship at an experimental theater company in Philly at another sublet and couldn’t take them with me again. Soon after that I moved to NYC where I was living a month or two at a time bouncing around place-to-place.
After five months of doing this, and a year and a half away from my cats, I was moving to Los Angeles. I wanted to take my cats with me but I learned something about Gwen that made it impossible. The vet told us that Gwen gets anxiety from change, and when that would happen his intestines would flare up. Even moving the furniture around could cause this. I learned this while he was still living with me and was recommended to rub fish oil on his food for a few months to help with the swelling. As a then-strict vegan, I did this, because I loved him.
I loved him so much that when the harsh reality of how me moving across the country could potentially have adverse affects on his health, I asked my parents if they would take him and Midnight in for me permanently, since I didn’t want to separate them. Gwen had more space to wander and play and would have stability. Every time I came home to visit it was like he remembered me. He would come into my room and cuddle with me, he’d want attention while I was doing yoga, and he was just always there – and there for my parents, and for Midnight, too. He just loved everyone.
When I found out Gwen died the night I was driving back from Palm Springs, I immediately started crying. The last time I was home I realized Gwen was getting older and it was possible it could be the last time I ever saw him, and I hate that I was right. I’ve always missed out on my chance to say goodbye to the ones I’ve loved who have passed on. Gwen loved people, and I hate that he was alone when he died. I hate that I couldn’t have been there to bury him myself. Gwen was more than just a pet to me, he was a friend who loved me and comforted me and helped get me through one of the toughest transitions of my life. He helped me grow up.