If you’d asked me a year ago whether I’d ever consider having a cat in my life, I would have told you that I come from dog people. Looking back, of course, those same dog people almost always had a cat around. When I was small, a Siamese named DC (Damn Cat) terrorized Magnum, the family’s mastiff. A few years later, there was a white Himalayan, Topaz, who hid in closets for most of his life, the only evidence of his existence the long white hair on all my favorite black sweaters. I was also once given a kitten who I christened Ivan the Terrible. He was, in fact, so terrible he was relegated to the barn for the rest of his life.
This past summer, Adam and I sort of acquired a cat. It would probably be more accurate to say that said cat acquired us, but at this point it is semantics. There wasn’t a cat and then there was.
We both did a lot of traveling last year, though not together. Adam spent most of his time on a project in Boston and I drove back and forth from Seattle to Montana every couple of weeks for my grandfather’s palliative chemo. I must have been returning to Washington one of the first weeks of July, peeling my fingers off the steering wheel as the sun set when I saw a black cat cross the yard. Though I didn’t think much of it that night, I was awakened the following morning by an aria of meows beneath my bedroom windows. I asked my sainted neighbors, who’d been looking after things for us all year, if they knew anything about the cat. “Yup,” they said. “Looks like it moved in.”
While we were gone, the stray dispatched of the moles who had terrorized the cul-de-sac. Whatever it was that had gone bump in the night in the shed outside of our bedroom was now silent. One night, on a rare occasion that we were both in town, we stopped at the store for a bottle of wine. We began to joke about buying Meow Mix since the cat seemed to be staying. Then we realized we weren’t really joking. After all, the cat did deserve a reward for pest control. Thus we assumed as much ownership as one can of a stray cat.
Ratsnacker the Brave is black with a grey undercoat. She’s diminutive and has a z-shaped kink in her tail. She walks with an odd shoulder lurch, not unlike John Wayne. She likes sunshine and beef flavored kitty treats and the sound of the vacuum cleaner. She does not like fresh salmon with dill sauce or rain or milk. She likes to have breakfast around 8:45. Sometimes we have pets and scratches on the ears and sometimes we do not. Her best friend Gordon is an orange, three-legged rescue who lives next door. Every afternoon they have a snack and take a walk. Then they both come home. Ratty has another nibble and then goes off to sleep in the backyard of the vacant house across the street.
I’ve spent a lot of time studying her habits. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why I study her habits. Adam, at one point baffled by my new arms-length obsession, asked me why I was so concerned with pleasing the cat. And the answer was obvious and pathetic and simple. “I can’t keep my grandfather alive,” I hiccuped. “But I can help that fucking cat.”
After my grandfather’s death, I’m left with only a handful of immediate family members. And while my partner’s family has certainly embraced me as one of them, it’s still difficult –even after 11 years– to foist oneself into dynamics you’re too distant to understand. My family is mine. They have to love me. And they’re so few. I’m terrified that they’ll all be taken away in one fell swoop. I’m terrified of being left alone.
I’ve spent the last several years trying to build that supplemental family that most of us end up creating, regardless of the amount of blood relatives we might be lucky enough to have. And in a town of imports, we’ve done well picking up strays like ourselves. Folks far away from their families, or who need families for other reasons besides distance. I’m lucky to have a group to feed every Thanksgiving, people to drink with, watch football with, write with, search out Chinese food with. I’m heartened by the bounty of friendship I have. I know life moves people onward and things may not always be this way. But I must have done something right in order to have the amazing family — real and engineered — that I have right now. And strangely, Ratty’s just another part of that oddball collection.
So yeah, I’m nuts. I bought Ratty a feral cat house, just in case she wants to get out of the wind. I feed her gourmet wet food every few days. I give her homeopathic dewormer when the moon is full. I bought her a self-warming pad to go on the top of the BBQ, which is her favorite sunbathing spot. Laugh all you want, but last year, I pulled inward. I wasn’t sure how to ask for help. My family was dealing with the same tragedy I was. I didn’t know whatI even needed from my friends. It was probably the loneliest I’ve been in a long time and completely self created.
But then there was this stupid cat. And something I could do that was good, useful, helpful. I wasn’t sure that I could love a cat until she was there to love. I was rewarded by her aloof but genuine gratitude. Every day, she’s there to remind me of the importance of the care and feeding of strays.
I don’t subscribe to the blather that the universe always brings you what you need. I sure as hell could’ve used the cure for cancer last summer, but I didn’t get that. Instead, I got other things. And that is something that I do believe: that you have to cherish whatever you’re brought instead.
Sometimes, just sometimes, it’s a cat.