Regarding Henry.
October 23, 2009 10:24 AM   Subscribe

I am concerned about the welfare of my ailing neighbour's cat. [Slightly long.]

I live in an apartment building. I have been on good terms with my across-the-hall neighbour, Mr. S, for years. Mr. S is a retired gent, closing in on his eightieth birthday. We first met because occasionally he opens the door to his apartment so his cat can wander out into the hallway. All the neighbours on the floor know the cat, Henry by name, and most seem to stop to skritch his head when he is stretched out on the carpet. Early on, I realized that with his apartment door open, if I opened mine as well we got a nice cross-breeze in the summer (a great boon in our non-air-conditioned building). Henry seems to like me and my place a lot, and for my part I think the cat is great. Some days Henry spends an hour or three lazing around on my balcony, napping in the sunshine. Because of our friendship, Mr. S has always been the one I leave my spare keys with when I am out of town and need someone to water the plants. (Note: Mr S lives alone save for the cat, whom he dotes on. I suspect part of the reason that he lets Henry into the hallway is for the human contact that Henry brings his way.)

Earlier this week I was thinking that I had not seen Mr. S for a few days and wondered if he was ok. Wednesday of this week, I ran into another of our neighbours from the floor who mentioned that Mr. S was in the hospital with pneumonia. I headed over to the hospital later that day and found my neighbour there, on oxygen. The nurse warned me ahead of time that he had had a minor cardiac event and was "a little confused," so I was prepared for the worst, but he was actually doing pretty well. He was quite happy to see me, greeted me by name, and asked about my health and how my plants were doing.

After the pleasantries, the first thing he said was "I am sure you want to know about Henry." I did mention that I was concerned that Henry was being looked after when he was in the hospital. He said that he had been walking along when he had blacked out, and the next thing he knew he woke up in the hospital, so he had not made any prior arrangements. However, post-arrival he had managed to get in touch with the part-time caretaker of the building to feed Henry. Mr. S then asked how Henry was, and I said that I had not seen him in days -- the door had not been open and Henry had not been in the hall. Mr. S was disappointed by this news, as he knew Henry liked to come over to visit me. Mr. S then said, "I don't know why I didn't think of you to look after him -- he loves it over at your place." He then began giving me feeding instructions and tried to give me some money for the food... I said I'd be happy to take care of Henry but asked him to hold off until I was in touch with the part-time caretaker.

Ultimately I visited with Mr. S for an hour or two. The confusion that nurse had mentioned was slightly in evidence, as a couple of times he lost the thread of the conversation and wandered off to unrelated topics, but in general he seemed as with it as any septuagenarian. One thing that concerned me was that it seemed no one else had been in to see him for the week or so he had been in the hospital. I know he has kids who live many hours away but I have no idea what their relationship with him is. So far as I can tell, no one else in the building had been in, and my Get Well card was the only one on his bedside table. Indeed, the nurses assumed I was one of Mr S's kids, arrived at last. I told Mr. S I'd be back in to see him in a couple of days.

The next day I saw the caretaker. I mentioned that I had been in to see Mr. S and I asked the caretaker if he was still feeding Henry, and he said, "Not any more -- I gave him to someone else in the building..." This surprised me, as I didn't think Henry was really his to give away. He justified this by saying, "S isn't coming back." I mentioned that Mr. S had asked me to look after Henry and I would be happy to do so. The guy shrugged and said, "Well, I can ask, but I already gave them the cat, so it's theirs now." I am slightly concerned that the 'new owners' of the cat might decide that having a cat is not really for them and take Henry off to the SPCA or just dump him outside somewhere. As well, it seems less than perfect that Mr. S's wishes in this matter were apparently never asked and are now being ignored; it feels like the caretaker's laissez-faire attitude has trumped what Mr. S wants.

So there you go. I feel like I am in a small-scale, low-stakes version of what happens to some families after the incapacacitation of a parent: "Mom told me she wanted me to have the good china." "She never said that to me!"

So what do I do? Forget about this and assume Henry's new owners are fine people who will take care of him? Pursue this with the part-time caretaker? Tell Mr. S that his beloved cat has been given to away to some random people and have him get in touch with the caretaker so I can look after Henry as he asked? Get in touch with the new owners and let them know that if they find the cat too much, I would be happy to take him?
posted by Wendy BD to Human Relations (46 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Oh my lord. What an ass.

Please do get involved. This is no different than if the caretaker had removed Mr S's TV and computer from his apartment, on the theory that "he's not coming back."

I would advise you to get the name of the people to whom the caretaker "gave" the cat, then go see them and explain the situation. Explain, specifically, that the cat was not the caretakers to give. If being nice doesn't work, I'd escalate to getting something in writing from Mr. S, but I don't think there is any need for that -- yet.

Also, frankly, I'd get the keys from Mr S (if you don't have them already) to make sure there is nothing else the caretaker "gave away" and I would also contact whomever employs the caretaker to let them know that the caretaker is, in essence, stealing something that he was entrusted to watch over.

Please do help Mr. S in whatever ways you can. He needs a friend.
posted by anastasiav at 10:31 AM on October 23, 2009 [24 favorites]

Nice ...

Definitely follow up with the new owners and get Henry back--odds are good they will be reasonable about it.
posted by Kimberly at 10:38 AM on October 23, 2009

Get in touch with the new owners and let them know that if they find the cat too much, I would be happy to take him?


What an awkward, confusing situation. The "caretaker" sounds like an ass.
posted by radioamy at 10:40 AM on October 23, 2009

I would find the people who have Henry and speak to them. Hopefully they will understand.

And I agree you should probably keep an eye on the place, that the caretaker doesn't decide that "he's not coming back" justifies any other actions that are not actually his responsibility.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:50 AM on October 23, 2009

Also, frankly, I'd get the keys from Mr S (if you don't have them already) to make sure there is nothing else the caretaker "gave away" and I would also contact whomever employs the caretaker to let them know that the caretaker is, in essence, stealing something that he was entrusted to watch over.

Yes, do this. Giving away someone's pet constitutes theft! God, how awful! Definitely find Henry and ask to take him in. Though Mr. S is old, he's not dead, and in the event he returns home (which does happen sometimes) to find his beloved cat gone I'm sure he'll be entirely justifiably upset. It was absolutely wrong for the caretaker not to talk to him about this first.

Also, is it possible that no one's informed his family of what's going on? You might ask him, if you visit again, if you can make any phone calls for him. Also, maybe send a get well card around the apartment building?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:03 AM on October 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Who does the caretaker report to? That person should be made aware of what his/her employee is doing (making decisions about a tenant's belongings because "he's not coming back").

Also seconding the suggestion to try to contact Mr. S's family with his permission. It doesn't really affect the cat, but it seems like the smart thing to do if his health is suddenly failing.
posted by Meg_Murry at 11:12 AM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Agree with Meg_Murry that this caretaker should be reported and with others that you should approach the neighbors who now "own" the cat and make Mr. S's wishes known. They have been hoodwinked by the caretaker, as well.
posted by Lieber Frau at 11:17 AM on October 23, 2009

anastasiav is right on all counts. Jesus christ, how upsetting. Don't rely on this so-called caretaker to get the cat back. Just go talk to the new "owners" yourself and hopefully they'll understand.
posted by booknerd at 11:17 AM on October 23, 2009

Jesus! Please contact the people who have Henry immediately, and explain the situation to them. If they're not complete assholes, they will give Henry back to you and you can care for him until Mr. S returns home. If push comes to shove, they have no property rights in the cat as he was not the caretaker's to give away.

I also agree that you should do your best to find and notify members of Mr. S's family. It may be that he has none--in which case, please adopt him as your own. It's terrible to be old and alone.
posted by HotToddy at 11:21 AM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seems like there are a lot of assumptions here.

Who's to say that Mr. S didn't tell the caretaker to give away his cat?

Mr. S might have forgotten that he told the caretaker this, given that he's been so out of it. Mr. S might or might not have been lucid when he told the caretaker this. If not lucid, the caretaker might not have had the benefit of the doctors telling him that Mr. S was "out of it". If lucid, Mr. S might have forgotten his prior instructions. It's also possible that while you thought Mr. S was lucid while talking to you, he wasn't.

I'd broach it with Mr. S without the assumption that it was done behind his back.
posted by lorrer at 11:26 AM on October 23, 2009

Response by poster: Also, is it possible that no one's informed his family of what's going on? You might ask him, if you visit again, if you can make any phone calls for him.

I know his son, about five hours' drive away, is the point of contact for the hospital. As I say, I do not know if he has been in yet. When I was into the hospital to see Mr. S, I did ask him if there were any calls I could make for him and asked him if he wanted to give me his son's number, but this was during on of his stretches of being less than perfectly lucid, so I did not get the number. I did leave my cell number in the get-well card if he needed anything, but no call so far.

The nurse I spoke to when I was in Wednesday evening said that each ward has a social worker who deals with situations like this, and that apparently the social worker was unaware there was a pet involved. I left my number with the nurse and asked her to have the social worker in question call me, and then called the hospital again the next day (yesterday) and left a message again for her to call me, but no call yet.

I would not be comfortable calling family without Mr. S' blessing. I am not family, just a neighbour, and I do not want to step on anyone's toes here, but this situation seems not entirely right.
posted by Wendy BD at 11:31 AM on October 23, 2009

lorrer, it sounds fairly clear from OP's conversation with the caretaker that he didn't have Mr. S's permission: "This surprised me, as I didn't think Henry was really his to give away. He justified this by saying, 'S isn't coming back.'"
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:31 AM on October 23, 2009

Nthing the "call the new 'owners' and get the at back ASAP" sentiment, as well as the "caretaker is an enormous ass" and "call his supervisor" sentiments. And please do keep us updated with whatever happens. Good luck.
posted by Captain Cardanthian! at 11:34 AM on October 23, 2009

It's been a week or two since Mr. S's cardiac episode and no one has visited? Check with the hospital to see if they have contacted his son (I am not sure they can disclose that though). But I don't think you're stepping on anyone's toes if you intervene on Mr. S's behalf. You're his friend and neighbor. You've already involved yourself, and you're definitely emotionally involved and concerned about Mr. S's welfare and that of his cat's. Call his family, not accusingly like "where have you been," but just to give them a status update and to tell them that you have been visiting Mr. S and checking in on him, and asking if there's anything else you might be able to do. Express your condolences. If they volunteer that they will or won't visit, then you know whether or not Mr. S will be taken cared of. No, you don't have to fill in for his family if you are unable to or would not feel comfortable doing so--but at least you would know whether to contact a social worker in the event that no one will be there for Mr. S. He's a septuagenarian, and while he appears to have been very independent, right now he needs someone to look out for him. If you feel like things aren't right, they probably aren't.
posted by dhn at 11:43 AM on October 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

And I agree you should probably keep an eye on the place, that the caretaker doesn't decide that "he's not coming back" justifies any other actions that are not actually his responsibility.

Reposting this for emphasis. This guy has already appointed himself the executor of Mr. S' estate, and has started disposing of his belongings. It would be foolish to assume that he's going to stop at the cat. I've seen this very recently with my wife's 90-year-old great-aunt, and it ended very badly for all involved.
posted by deadmessenger at 11:53 AM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

You are not "just a neighbor". You may be Mr. S's sole friend and he needs you right now. Stop telling yourself things that dismiss that. You are the one looking out for Mr. S and Henry both. The son can't bother to visit; his bloodline does not make him more important than you. Go find Henry and fix this. The longer you wait the harder it will be. If you wait until you hear Mr. S is on his way home, it will be much worse for you and him both. Stop worrying and overthinking! You know what you need to do. You knew it when you wrote this question. Go!
posted by fritley at 12:08 PM on October 23, 2009 [7 favorites]

You are the only person who has demonstrated an interest in Mr. S's wishes and well-being. If someone else (e.g. his son) comes along and convinces you that they have a larger interest, go ahead and relinquish the field to them.

It's not all about blood relatives. Friends and neighbors form a large part of the social structure of our society. Unless someone else even closer to Mr. S steps up, it's incumbent upon you to do your best for your friend.
posted by pointless_incessant_barking at 1:15 PM on October 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

I am not family, just a neighbor, and I do not want to step on anyone's toes here, but this situation seems not entirely right.

You are a friend, and a part of his community. As such, its your responsibility to help as much as you can. Do unto others, and all that.
posted by anastasiav at 1:23 PM on October 23, 2009

Response by poster: It's been a week or two since Mr. S's cardiac episode and no one has visited? Check with the hospital to see if they have contacted his son

The hospital has contacted him -- I just don't know if he or anyone else has been in yet. As I say, I have no idea how close he and his kids are; I am not a fast friend who sees Mr. S everyday and chats with him about family and whatnot. I would just chat with him in the hall or in the lobby for a few minutes a couple of times a week. The knowledge that he has children only came up when last summer I asked him to water my plants while I was going to the west coast and he mentioned idly, "My daughter lives there."
posted by Wendy BD at 1:29 PM on October 23, 2009

It may be that the caretaker felt sorry for the cat, who would have been locked in the apartment with minimal human contact; it may also be that the family that now has the cat asked about the cat, and is giving it a nice home and affection.

This may not be the case, but please be slow to guess others' motives. A generous interpretation of these events, at least until proven wrong, will probably make negotiating a lot more pleasant for everyone.
posted by amtho at 2:15 PM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Please get the cat back from wherever he's been taken. If Mr. S does return home, he'll be devastated to find his companion gone. It's terrible that 'caretaker' decided to appoint himself as someone who can decide when and if someone will return home.
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 4:23 PM on October 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Call/Email the building's owner or management company ASAP and notify them the caretaker has begun to inappropriately remove personal property from the apartment of an elderly tenant who is in the hospital without the tenant's consent.

Explain that you are aware of this because you live directly across the hall and you have visited your neighbor in the hospital.

Tell them your next phone call will be to report this to the police.

Then do that. Visit your local precinct and file a report. If anything is missing from Mr. S's apartment, you put him or his family in a position to file criminal charges, file an insurance claim, and perhaps recover whatever is missing. BONUS: A visit from the police will hopefully prevent further theft by the caretaker.

This is fairly outrageous. The management company should take swift action to fire the caretaker. You will be doing your neighbor and the entire building a huge favor if you pursue this.

Good luck. And thank you for being a good neighbor.

Please let us know how things go for Mr. S & Henry!
posted by jbenben at 6:30 PM on October 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Yes, nthing that you need to talk to the neighbors and get Henry back! Thank you for being so concerned about this...that is really great of you. Mr. S will want Henry back when he comes home, I'm sure.

And yes, definitely call the management company asap and use jbenben's wording.

Please let us know what happens!
posted by min at 8:01 PM on October 23, 2009

Knock on door of Henry's temp home: "Hi, neighbors, I'm Wendy. I live across the hall from Mr. S. I've been visiting him, and he's concerned about Henry's welfare. How's Henry?" You casually make it clear that Mr. S has not relinquished ownership of Henry. Not confrontationally, but more "Mr. S is really looking forward to coming home and seeing Henry."

It's not clear to me if Mr. S is coming back home. If he comes back, Henry goes home, you make plans to be the backup. If he doesn't come home, you've met the family that has Henry, and you have to decide. Are they good cat owners? Do I want to initiate a custody fight?

I think it would be kind to talk to Mr S and suggest he call his kids. He's very fortunate to have you as a friend.
posted by theora55 at 8:12 AM on October 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Can we get an update?
posted by HotToddy at 8:32 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I was in to see Mr S in the hospital last night. There is scope for cautious optimism regarding the situation. Update later today.
posted by Wendy BD at 5:12 AM on October 26, 2009

Response by poster: Okay, here is the update:

I was in to see Mr. S again last night (I unfortunately had unalterable plans to be out of town for a couple of days this past weekend, so it was my first visit since last Wednesday night). He was looking better, and was off the oxygen, but seemed a little more thoroughly confused. I learned soon after that he gets irritated with his oxygen tube and pulls it out, but that makes his thinking cloudier, so the nurses have to put it back in several times a day. He greeted me -- not by name though -- and shook my hand and asked how I was. He apologized for not getting up, but (he said,) "I just got home from the hospital yesterday and I am still so tired. I came home and went right to bed." After some pleasantries, he leaned forward and looked at me and asked, "How's Henry doing?" I assured him Henry was fine and was looking forward to seeing him again.

By the way, I gave some thought to the suggestions upthread about getting something in writing from Mr. S about Henry, but I think it hardly appropriate to be having someone who is in his condition begin signing things.

After a visit with him, I went around to the nurses' station and mentioned I had been leaving messages for the social worker daily for most of a week but with no response. They asked me to write down my number and the social worker would call me. I dutifully gave my number to the hospital for the fifth or sixth time in a week. I mentioned to the nurse that this was growing to be a matter of some urgency and gave her the briefest outline of the situation (caretaker giving away cat and who know what else with unknown approval from Mr. S' family). She agreed it should be addressed as soon as possible, so she pulled Mr. S' file and called his son, conveyed the situation to him, and put him on the phone with me.

After I introduced myself, the son explained a bit more of the situation: Mr S is the last surviving of ten kids in his family, and the next generation (including Mr. S' children) all moved away. The son had been up to visit last weekend and is coming up again next weekend, but in the meantime was very glad to know that his dad had a neighbour looking out for him and visiting him. He asked me a few questions about how his dad was doing and asked him to tell him he was coming back to see him again soon.

He told me he had been the one who asked the caretaker to find someone to look after Henry but had no idea that there was anyone in the building with a connection to the cat already. The son then asked, "Would you be willing to look after Henry?" I told him I would be delighted. I am going to meet with the son next weekend when he returns to town again, and he is going to speak to the people looking after Henry now and explain the situation.

The bad news is that it looks like Mr. S will not be coming home to the apartment again. The doctors think some of the damage is permanent, so barring some miraculous turnaround he will likely wind up in a nursing home. As two of Mr. S' sons live in the same city a few hours away, I think that is likely to be his new location. Fortunately, it is not that far and I am there a several times a year for a day or two, so I would probably be able to see Mr. S now and again.

So there we have it: The caretaker seems to have been acting out of ignorance and not malice, and the apartment is otherwise intact, so far as anyone knows. The son is arriving this weekend to begin clearing it out and begin making arrangements for where his dad will live. Henry may be coming my way, and even if he is not, the son will assure himself that Henry is in a loving home. The perfect resolution would see Mr S. come home and be reunited with his beloved little friend Henry but if we can't have that, we will do the best we can otherwise.

So as I said, scope for cautious optimism.
posted by Wendy BD at 9:13 AM on October 26, 2009 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: By the way, thanks to everyone for their suggestions. It is heartwarming to know that the story of an old guy and his friend Henry the cat touched so many people.
posted by Wendy BD at 9:15 AM on October 26, 2009

Thank you so much. Henry's plight has been preying on my mind! I'm much relieved.
posted by HotToddy at 10:18 AM on October 26, 2009

Me too. Thank you so much for taking the time to post a follow-up.
posted by amtho at 10:55 AM on October 27, 2009

Response by poster: For anyone still reading:

The story has an ending. Mr S is somewhat improved but it looks like he will never be recovered enough to return to his apartment and his kids are now looking into assisted care facilities for him. His son met the people who have been looking after Henry in the interim and says that they are nice folk and Henry seems okay with them so he does not see the need to relocate Henry again. He says if he had known about my connection with his dad and Henry he would have had Henry go to me. I asked him to let them know that I would be happy to look after Henry if they need to go out of town or somesuch. Of course, I ahve never net them, so who knows if they will ever take me up on it, and if I go pound on their door now, I am just some weirdo from elsewhere in the building who is obsessed with what is now their cat.

So: while it worked out as best as could be expected (Mr S getting the care he needs, Henry in a cat-friendly home), I feel a little like I have lost two friends here. I used to see them both every day or two, and that will not happen any more.
posted by Wendy BD at 7:55 AM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sorry to hear that, Wendy. That's hard.
posted by infinitywaltz at 12:28 PM on November 2, 2009

Response by poster: And for anyone looking into this thread months later for resolution -- if you have tears, prepare to shed them now. Mr. S died a few hours ago. He developed a serious case of pneumonia and spent his last few days in the ICU. He fought pretty hard, but his lungs were not up to it. I will be attending his funeral this weekend.

This sucks more than the telling of it.
posted by Wendy BD at 4:50 PM on January 15, 2010

Response by poster: And a final update:

While Mr S was first in the hospital a couple of months ago, I brought him a small framed picture of Henry I had taken the summer before: the cat stretched out in the sunshine on my balcony. That was a bad day for Mr S when I got there -- he was agitated and didn't know who I was, who he was, where he was -- but I gave him the picture and he said, "Oh, there's my little friend," and instantly calmed down. He got all teary-eyed and cradled the picture in his arms and kissed it, so happy to see Henry again. Every time I was in after that, Henry's picture was there on his bedside table where everyone could see it.

At the funeral yesterday, as Mr S lay in repose, I saw that the framed picture of Henry was there with him in the coffin. No other mementos of his life, just his cat friend. And when they closed up the casket, he had a crucifix in his hands and his picture of Henry tucked in next to him. I am happy that the picture meant that much to him.

Afterward I met more of his family, who all greeted me with some variation of, "Oh, you must be the one who is looking after Henry now!" and spoke to me of how much he loved that cat. After the funeral I phoned my mother, who told me that when she had visited once and talked to Mr S in the hallway for a few minutes while scratching Henry's head. Mr S told her then that his biggest worry was what would happen to Henry when he was gone.
posted by Wendy BD at 7:44 AM on January 18, 2010 [94 favorites]

Wendy, thanks for sharing the update. I think it's wonderful that Mr S had such two caring friends--Henry, and you.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:17 AM on January 18, 2010

I must be getting more religious in my old age, because the only thing I can think to say is "God bless you." And thank you for the update.
posted by HotToddy at 10:45 AM on January 18, 2010

Dammit Wendy BD, you made me cry.

Pets are such a huge part of our lives. You reminded me of my cat Shadow all over again. Not many days go by that I don't miss or think about her.
posted by matty at 10:57 PM on February 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Thank you for the update. What a touching story! And I am happy Henry has a home, but still sad for you that it isn't with you.
posted by JenMarie at 12:30 AM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Aw Wendy, I'm sorry about this. What a sad week for you. You were such a sweet friend to Mr.S and Henry.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:50 AM on February 7, 2010

I, for one, believe Mr. S and Henry will be reunited when Henry passes on. Maybe I'm insane, but its a nice feeling. God bless you Wendy, thanks for being so kind to Mr. S. and Henry.
posted by allkindsoftime at 4:37 AM on February 7, 2010

Wendy, you are an angel on Earth. There's a Jewish word - Mitzvah - and you've done a big one with your loving actions. Everyone wishes they had a friend like you.
posted by dbiedny at 6:50 AM on February 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

Poor guy. I can only skim this as I'm at work and I know if I take my time and read it I'm going to weep and that would be very unprofessional. Matty, I couldn't even read your story after the first sentence and the picture of your beautiful cat.
posted by amicamentis at 7:30 AM on February 7, 2010

Print this out and mail a copy to the neighbors? Not to change where Henry lives, but so they know about Henry's life and his first love Mr. S.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:04 AM on February 7, 2010

This is causing some tearing up on Metatalk, by the way.
posted by Pronoiac at 11:13 AM on February 7, 2010

I was moved to tears, Wendy. I'm glad you brought a little sunlight to your friend in his last days.
posted by papafrita at 8:46 PM on February 8, 2010

I'm tearing up
posted by radioamy at 5:07 PM on February 9, 2010

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