Saturday, January 23, 2010

Cats and their people

While the news has bled misery and tumult on a grand scale, the much more intimate woes afflicting a small cat and her beloved people have turned me introspective and a bit weepy this week.

They've also got me thinking about cats and their people.

On Wednesday, author Neil Gaiman tweeted that his blind cat, Zoe, was ill and at the vet's for an x-ray and endoscopy. By Thursday, the bad news returned that Zoe had an inoperable tumor.
Gaiman blogged about Zoe, as did photographer Kyle Cassady whose shots of Zoe reveal not only how beautiful she is, but what a sweet and gentle loving nature she has. Other members of Gaiman's extended family of artists, musicians, and magic-makers shared their memories of the cat in blogs and tweets. The much larger realm of Gaiman fans and followers (of which I am obviously one), expressed their condolences and spilled their grief as I am doing now.

"I'm wondering what it is about this small blind cat that inspires such behaviour," Gaiman writes. "I think it may be the love. Hers, once given, was yours, unconditionally and utterly."

I think there may be something to it, that notion about unconditional love in certain cats that transcend the role of pet or companion animal to become, well and truly, our familiars. As someone who has been lucky enough to have kept a few such cats (for keeping them is what we do; we never own them or master them), I marvel that some people never come to know such a cat at all. And I have been, at least once, lucky enough to have had the same cat (well, sort of the same cat) come to me twice.

In the late 1980s when I was teaching at a public university in Pennsylvania, I accepted a couple of cats from a student of mine whose landlord was averse to pets. One of the cats was a small, slender tortoise shell who bore much greater resemblance to a space alien than to a cat. She was eager and energetic and full of surprise. We called her Babette.

Her companion cat was a round and robust black shorthair with emerald eyes and the demeanor of a foreign potentate, the benevolent demi-goddess of some imagined island people who lived on milk and honey and prayed by imitating the sound of her low, gentle purr. She came to me with the unlikely name of Pumpkin, and almost immediatley communicated to me in that way cats do that her "deep and inscrutable singular Name" was Joss. Much better.

I wasn't lucky enough to keep Joss for very long, but the time I had with her was remarkable. She was the sort of cat you could have a conversation with, confess your troubles to, ask for advice. And she delivered. I swear, as will my then roommate, Jeff, that the cat could stare sense into us when we were spinning out of control. She had command. She had presence. She had gravitas.

Since she came to me as an adult, I had no way of knowing how long she would be in our lives. Sadly, it was only a couple of years before she quietly breathed her last on a soft, rag rug and we laid her to rest in the back yard behind the garage where cat bones have rested for many, many years.

I grieved her something awful, even with a handful of other cats around, including Babette, to nuzzle my chin and warm my lap.

Some 20 years later, moved to Seattle, I lost yet another great cat (Salieri, about whom much can be written). His companion cat, Stinky (who lives with me still, slowed a bit now at 19 years), keened the loss so terribly that I felt compelled to find him a new companion with all due haste.

I left work a bit early and stopped by the PAWS cat adoption center to see if they had a kitten who might make a good friend for Stinky. I checked out the dozen or so kittens and young adult cats they had on hand, but none of them seemed to want to come home with me. I was about to give up when I noticed a plump, lush black shorthair lounging on the chair behind the reception desk, acting for all the world like she was waiting for her administrative assistant to bring her a cup of coffee.

I asked Dawn, the PAWS adoption services lady, if I could walk behind the counter and say hello.

"Sure," she said. "She's a real sweetie. I'd actually be sad to see her go."

I walked around the desk and kneeled down to look into her dazzling emerald eyes. She licked my nose.

"I'll start the paperwork," Dawn said.

So, it wasn't just that she so readily and immediately accepted me as a bigger cat, a someone-to-be-groomed, that made it impossible for me to leave PAWS without her that day. It was a sense that we had already known each other for a good long time. She was truly my familiar.

And so Toots (whose name at the time was Hera) came home with me that day. She and Stinky took a whole 48 hours to get used to each other. By the end of week, they were curled up on eachother making what looked like a two-headed black cat. Here is photographic evidence of that phenomenon.

For nearly 8 years, Toots sat in my lap, slept on my head, and kept me most excellent company.

When Jeff met her, he, too, felt that sense of familiarity. We both felt lucky simply to have such a cat in our lives again.

When I started dating Damon, Toots let me know what she thought of him by climbing up behind him on the couch and licking his head. To his credit, he let her do it. I knew in that instant that I would surely love him for a good long time.

Sadly, Toots was diagnosed with kidney disease early in 2004. We fed her a special diet, hydrated her subcutaneously, and loved her as much as we possibly could for the next three years. On April 21, 2007, she breathed her last. I still mist up when I think about her.

Some cats are, indeed, like that.

Right now, Gaiman's blind cat Zoe is at the center of a widening circle of people all focused on the wonder of her love.

Right now, I'm grateful for every day that I wake up with Stinky on my head or behind my knees.

Right now, my friend Claire is sad and grateful for her cat, Spiff, who is nearing the end of his days but continues to climb onto her lap to be loved.

These cats are more than pets, more than friends, even. They get to us, they touch our softest, most human centers and remind us that love can be unconditional and healing and strong. And even though we don't get to share that love with them in this world forever, we never lose it really. We just hang on to it and pass it along.

These cats teach us that love can stay.

Friday, January 22, 2010

In other news: World Endures Longest January on Record

So, what started as a snarky little status update on Twitter/Facebook is swiftly becoming the battle cry that I hope will propel me through the remaining week of January 2010.
The month started off well enough. My love and I were on Kauai, enjoying balmy weather and white sand beaches. He proposed. I accepted. We vowed to bring the "aloha" back home with us.
And, to our credit, we have, despite the world's efforts to beat it out of us with every kind of bad news and sad news you can imagine.
I won't ramble on about the details. You can read the news for yourself and probably just take a quick informal poll of your family, friends, and followers to discover that they, too, have been having a terrifically crappy January.
Can there really still be 9 days left?