I never intended to be a Cat Lady.
I got my first cat in college–isn’t a pet on everyone’s first apartment checklist?–an ugly calico I named Temerity. Soon afterward, Timidity followed–a black longhair Persian mix, she lived to be eighteen. When Temerity died, Charlie followed. Charlie was gray and white, a misanthropic, fastidious cat who put thumbtacks in Greg’s shoes and lined dead crickets up neatly on our pillows. When we moved from our mobile home, Charlie was dismayed; when we began foster parenting, he moved under our bed and descended into madness. (Seriously.) This was in the early nineties, before mood-medicine-for-every-species marketing, and the vet eventually insisted the most humane thing to do was put Charlie down–so we did.
For a decade, ninety-three foster children made cats an afterthought–but a move back to my hometown proved a Catpalooza. Abby, whose first word(s) was “kitty cat,” and April, were both delighted, and since our family had been permanently altered by cancer, cats offered welcome solace. Mostly, we were a clearinghouse for kittens–people would drop them off, and eventually, other people would pick them up.
We ended up, finally, with:
- Sophie, a brain-damaged cat (when she was a tiny kitten, the Bassett hound had helpfully carried her–by her neck–to us)
- Loretta, whom we’d rescued from an azalea bush
- Luna, our outdoor cat that a stranger offered April (he then–true story–followed her home from the college–and, yes, the police became involved)
- Luna’s kitten Pumpkin (aka “Baby”), who became our most costly cat after Greg accidentally ran over her on Abby’s birthday
For years, these were our main cats–Sophie and Pumpkin lived inside; Loretta and Luna were outside, and, although we occasionally fostered kittens, we certainly weren’t Those Cat People.
Four years ago, our hometown officials decided it was time to criminalize feeding feral cats on others’ property–condemning the colonies behind Big Lots to slow starvation and essentially giving each resident of my neighborhood three feral cats. First to make the 1.4 mile journey was Ichabod, a solid black male; he was followed a few weeks later by Lemur, a white, ringtailed Schmoo-like seventeen-pound blob of a cat who was fascinated by nature–on sunny days, he hopped around our yard chasing butterflies. Even in drizzling rain, he sat and smelled flowers and watched bugs. (It sounds like hyperbole, but it is truth.)
The last to arrive was a grizzled fat-jowled gray lumberjack of a cat whom Abby named Whiskey–he looked like he took it neat. Unlike Lemur, who was determined to bring us peace and joy, and Ichabod, who at least understood that we were his meal-ticket, Whiskey regarded us with disdain. Not mere suspicion: outright disdain.
We had to feed him beneath the van–even for tuna, he refused to emerge. He stood deep in the dark of the van’s center, and I slid bowls of food behind the front tire, then scooted out of his line of sight. We did this for months. It takes over a year to earn an adult feral’s trust–to go from seeing their shiny eyes under a bush or shed or car to actually touching them, feeling their fur for that fleeting second. (And then they’re savvier–and incensed–so the next attempt takes another month.)
It took a year and a half to touch Whiskey. It was, as my grandmother would say, “a banner day.”
It was the purest of satisfactions.
Feral cat-keeping is bizarre. I don’t know if it’s a hobby–because it’s certainly not fun–but it does take time, money, and energy. For months, every time we walked into the garage, a creature (or three) fled. They had their own codes and quirks–Lemur, who was rejected by the others, initially had to be fed at the foot of the driveway. Luna, as the first cat and the only female, got to eat out of the “best” dish. Whiskey slept atop the Mercury’s hood; Luna slept on the van; Ichabod stopped by only to eat. Lemur liked Abby. Whiskey only trusted me–if anyone else tried to touch him, bap-bap-bap–he would hit them three times with his front paw.
Two years in, we could get near them all–and, need be, if our nerve held, scruff them.
Hard freeze warnings required courageous teamwork and precision maneuvering–because the ferals had to come in for the night. We would first shut the housecats in the master bathroom. Then, in the bitter cold we would fetch cats. After each one was caught, he was put in the carefully-prepared second bathroom, where three food bowls, water, and a litterbox offered respite. Like a contestant on the oddest of gameshows, one of us would shove the cat in through the crack in the door while the other tried to keep the rest from escaping. And how they yowled.
(As time passed, the cats reached a truce with us–if it was nineteen degrees or below, they would come in fairly quietly. If it was twenty or above, we would recognize that they were animals with fur.)
They were here when the sorrows overwhelmed, when the only thing that I could think to do to survive the day was, at its end, drag a quilt beneath the Japanese magnolia and lie and look at the trees and sky, They orbited around me, always just out of my reach and usually equidistant from one another.
One sunny afternoon, I looked up from my reading because all four cats had swiveled their heads in perfect synchronicity. Traipsing across the yard was the cat-food-loving opossum. (“Don’t mind if I do! You all keep enjoying the sun.“)
My own comic strip under the mimosa trees.
Whiskey was, according to Abby, a Viking cat. A warrior. A tomcat, he disappeared for weeks at a time, returning limping and war-torn. Once, his leg was injured so badly that we were able to get him into a carrier–he was too weak to fight. We took him to the vet, where he was regarded with astonishment by the staff. “This is a true Tom! Look at those jowls! It is a miracle he has lived this long.”
The best thing, of course, was to have him neutered while his leg was repaired. Even the vet seemed saddened at the loss of those magnificent “stud jowls,” which, along with his aggression, would disappear after the surgery.
We have owned more than twenty animals, and I have never seen an animal change like Whiskey did. He stayed close to home. He was more tolerant. And he fell in love–with Ichabod.
It seems absurdly written for effect, but Ick and Whiskey were the feline David and Jonathan. They walked abreast, shoulders touching, a conjoined beast. They lay, foreheads touching, on the warm concrete path beneath the crepe myrtles. They shared a dual feeder, heads bobbing in sync as they ate.
About two months ago, I opened the door and Whiskey walked in. Pretty as you please, like it was part of his regular routine–and it became so. He’d come in and wallow in the catnip with the indoor cats, then sit under the marble coffee table. Sometimes, he’d sneak off and eat the “good” Iams catfood from Loretta’s dish, but, really, all he wanted to do was sit and be with us.
It was the simplest delight.
On March 26, the postman delivered a package from China. Inside there were three cat collars–purple for Luna, pink for Whiskey, and black for Ichabod, all three embroidered with our name and phone number, making things official.
Luna was incensed.
Ichabod was indifferent.
But Whiskey was thrilled. He was positively strutting. Abby called to me from the yard, her voice childlike and satisfied, “Mom, he says, I’m a pet.”
Three weeks later, a neighbor stood at my door. Wasn’t my cat gray? Didn’t he have white paws?
She was sorry. So sorry. But we needed to come to the edge of her yard.
Abby walked ahead–oh, how that girl tries to protect me from the too much that is my life.
Mom, let me look.
Mom, it’s him. It’s Whiskey boy.
My neighbor says that after Whiskey was buried, Ichabod went to the spot where he had lain, that he sniffed the street where he’d been hit.
For ten days now, I have listened to Ichabod lament. He walks into the house, the most feral of all our cats, now, too, on the red rug, and screams for his friend.
He howls at the loss,
And I listen.