Everyone is someone’s favorite, even if the only Someone is God.
But Mario…Mario was everyone’s favorite.
In some ways, Mario was vintage Tabby’s Place. He came to us from a crowded municipal shelter. In a delicate, dangerous dance, three things happened almost simultaneously:
- Mario made it onto that North Jersey shelter’s out-of-time list;
- The shelter scaled our waiting list;
- We called the North Jersey shelter and said “send us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.”
The reasons Mario landed on the unluckiest list were tired cliches: he was too old. Therefore, nobody would want him.
Nobody…except everybody who would meet him over the next three years.
Starting from his intake exam, Mario loved urgently and without regret. He didn’t regret having once been named Dreamsicle. He didn’t regret having made the unluckiest list. He didn’t regret whatever had happened in fourteen-odd years between birth on earth and rebirth at Tabby’s Place.
Fools that we are, we first placed him in a suite, as though he were a cat like any other. Mario promptly went on hunger strike, causing his owly eyes to grow larger in his head, his never-calm fur to freak in all frantic directions. Walk into the suite and he’d leap out of the nearest pipe or hidey-hole, conking koopas and mushrooms (by which I mean Adam and Sam) on his way to you. Once your eyes locked with his infinite gaze, he’d meow until his mouth ran out of sound, then just yell air at you until either you both expired or you loved him.
He certainly loved you.
Mario’s love for you and me and every human was such that he could not live in a suite. Suites were fine for most cats, but Mario’s princess was in another castle.
And so Mario moved to a place he would experience as a foretaste of heaven: the Lobby.
And the Community Room.
And the Lobby.
More than most other cats, Mario made much of our open-door policy. If kisses were lagging in the Lobby, he’d power up (preferably on ham baby food) and sprint into the Community Room, shooting fireflowers of affection in all directions.
Sometimes Mario came under fire himself. The Community Room is host to a hash of personalities, from placid to psychopath, and many staffers adopt the philosophy, “no blood + no screaming = let them work it out themselves.” That philosophy puddled into pesto, though, when it came to Mario. If Ella or Sally cast the stink-eye at Mario, even our toughest-love staffer would roar, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS! THATZA MARIO!” and scoop our five-pound favorite into her arms.
“Mario” may not have been his first name, but it was his best name, as proven by the reaction it inspired in human beings. I’d never betray the dignity of our captain, but a certain Tabby’s Place Founder & Executive Director — let’s be crazy and call him “Ronathan” — was incapable of not delighting in Mario’s name every time they met. Ronathan would encounter Mario and grinningly bellow, “EYYYYYY MAAAAH-DIO! Howwa bowwta pepperoni peeetza?”
But Ronathan wasn’t alone — and Maaaaahdio didn’t mind. Mario brought out the giddy goof in all beings. During staff meetings, Mario would purposefully plant his feathery form in the center of the table, blinking at us while we babbled “ITZA MEEEE, MAAAHDIO!” It never occurred to him to be irritated with us.
Mario loved so easily that irritation was impossible. As far as Mario was concerned, life and love and God had been generous to him, so the least he could do was be generous in all directions. He napped with cats — even feisty ones; he purred in arms — even angsty ones; he listened to our problems — even sad, strange ones. (Mario kept many secrets and judged none. That’s what you do when you’re everyone’s favorite.) He even let us talk to him like demented Nintendo characters. Good, bad and asinine, he’d lap it all up — the love, the kisses, the bad Italian accents — while purring placidly and grooming himself violently.
I did say “violently.” Mario was one of the gentlest lambs of a cat we’ve ever known, but he did do one activity with Spartan force: washing. Mario would lick and bite and tug his own fur so hard, it’s a wonder he didn’t give himself a creamsicle-colored comb-over. He always looked fragile, from his finger-in-the-socket fur to his toothless, tongue-out smile and his feathers-and-bones body. Yet he never seemed breakable; he was just himself. Our favorite. Our Mario.
So when Mario suddenly seemed small and pale and weak — three things he’d always been, objectively, but never been, in our eyes — we knew something was up. Rounds of deep diagnostics revealed nothing that would explain his decline. Denise and Dr. C and Dr. Fantastic did all that they could. Volunteers bolstered Mario with enough baby food to satisfy Donkey Kong himself.
It wasn’t enough.
Because it was time.
True to form, Mario knew his time. He knew life and love and God had been generous. He dared not ask or demand anything more; he was ready, regretless, radiant with all he’d received. His owly eyes did their best to reassure us in those last few days. Why do you cry, paesana? Don’t you know you’ll see me again?
We do. We will. And when we do, you know we’ll squeal through tears, “Itza yooooou, Maaaaahdio!”
Darling boy, thank you for being our favorite. Thank you for making each of us your favorite. Until we meet again, che Dio ti benedica, piccolo.