The cat hated everybody. Everybody, that is, except me. And Sarah, of course–but she had owned Sarah for seventeen years, so that was to be expected. I only knew her for five months, and I didn’t really expect her to warm up to me. More than that, I never expected to warm up to her. So when we helped her to her final sleep on Monday, the last thing I expected was to feel what I felt and react how I did.
First of all, I am not a cat person. I had a cat once, and I despised it. Yes, my cat-loving friends will be shocked at that. Kitty was part Siamese and was mean. Worse than that, she caused me to lose sleep every night. If she was outside, she wanted in; if she was inside, she wanted out. Day in and day out. Why didn’t I just leave her in or out, you might ask? Well, I believe if you ask that, YOU are not a cat person. She would come to my bedside and claw at the blinds until I was awake. If I shooed her away, she’d wait till I lay back down and begin again. When she was outside, she would come to my bedroom window and claw on the screen, which is not a sound conducive to sleeping, especially as I lay there envisioning a trip to Home Depot to replace yet another screen. When I moved from Louisiana to Georgia, I gave the neighbors a bag of cat food and $20 to take care of the cat. I drove the U-Haul truck away as fast as I could so that Kitty couldn’t somehow attach herself and hang on for the cross-country trek. I was free of cats. Until Diana.
Sarah called her Hissing Ball of Fury because that’s what she turned into whenever anybody tried to touch her. Over the months, as I met Sarah’s friends, they all asked, “And how are you getting on with the Little Cat?” Only they don’t say “Cat.” They had learned the hard way. “Oh, she’ll like ME,” they had said, one by one. “I’m good with animals,” they had said, one by one. And one by one, they had approached Diana talking softly and reaching to pet her, only to have her turn into Miss Fury. Diana had been banned from veterinary practices in two states because she bit. I witnessed this myself when we took her to the vet three months ago. Two young techs had assured us, “Oh, she’ll be fine with us,” only to bolt from the room to fetch the doctor to do this first-year vet school procedure himself. “Diana bites” was written in bold red letters across the top of her chart. And so she did.
So what was my secret? I think it was that I let Diana be Diana. I let her come to me. When she sat with her back to us, which was her usual position until she got ready to be petted, I let her be. I only spoke to her when she looked at me, and never reached out to touch her. Then one day when she came to Sarah for her evening head-butts (Diana was a head-butter), she walked right into my hand. Then one morning I awoke with a cat sleeping on my head. On my head. She only hissed at me once. I had reached down to pet her as I walked by the couch where she was lying, foolishly thinking that we had bonded over the head-sleeping. “Don’t get to comfortable with me, old gal,” she seemed to imply in that hiss. “I come to YOU.” I only picked her up once. It was the day before she died. That is how I knew it was over.
The vet must have felt the same way when he picked her up on Monday morning and said, “This is the first time I’ve really gotten to examine her completely.” He gently felt her frail body and asked Sarah if she was sure of her decision. She was. We had set up what Sarah called “Kitty Hospice” at the bungalow over the weekend, administering IV fluids and concocting what looked like an awful mess but was evidently a cat delicacy Sarah called “duck soup.” Diana would take a little, then lie on a pile of Sarah’s clothes and her old teddy bear, Ted, until we took her outside to lie in the grass warmed by the sun. The fluids never pepped her up as Sarah had expected; she was that far gone. So we fed her duck soup and let her be outside as much as she wanted. She even hissed at a stray cat once. We had one brief second of hope, then watched as she turned away all but a bite of food. I am glad we had that weekend. As we watched Diana, I watched Sarah say goodbye to her friend of seventeen years.
I think things happen for a reason. Like finding an abandoned kitten two weeks ago–one that has pretty much taken over our lives by blessedly taking up our attention during the last week. I’ve heard the old saying that we don’t find pets–rather, pets find us. This one was put in our way at precisely the appropriate place and time. Just like Pastor Kim’s prayer in church on Sunday. As I sat there in the choir loft during the service, the words startled me out actually praying, hoping that it might in some way bring Diana’s human some comfort. Give us the courage and grace to live through the dying season, was the prayer. The grace to understand death, as well as life, even though the dying–the perpetual winter–dims a light in our souls.
As we sat outside with Diana Saturday, Sarah told me that she had chosen her name from Edith Hamilton’s famous book Mythology. It is appropriate–and somewhat ironic now–that her name had come from that book. In it, Hamilton quotes from Aeschylus’s Agamemnon:
Drop, drop—in our sleep, upon the heart
sorrow falls, memory’s pain,
and to us, though against our very will,
even in our own despite,
by the awful grace of God.
Aeschylus describes the process by which we come to the understanding for which the pastor prayed. Drop by drop upon the heart by the awful grace of God. How profoundly simple that it might come from the great blessing of being owned by a pet. But, if you are a cat person–like I am now–that is no surprise.
This morning we found an abandoned kitten outside the apartment. Well, actually, Duncan the Scottie “treed” it under the stairs and I dug it out from among spider webs and dead leaves. If I could pause writing now to show you a video of the pandemonium that ensued, that would be better than I could describe it. Since I can’t, I’ll do my best. I walk in with a screaming 3-day old kitten that looks more like a baby skunk or possum or rat. I will say that Duncan and I were both fairly proud of ourselves for the rescue–he was prancing while I was still covered in webs and leaves, grinning from ear to ear. Sarah, determined that she’s about to die from an oncoming cold, is sitting on the couch with her phone in her hand about to call in sick to work. She never did make that call; the immune system kicks in like a machine when there’s something bigger than us involved.
Within seven and a half minutes, Sarah was out the door on the way to Kroger, having given me instructions to keep the kitten warm at all costs and whatever I do–do NOT name it. Within eleven more minutes, she was back with two packages of bottle droppers, a feeding syringe, and cat milk. I had no idea one could buy cat milk at Kroger. How she knew still baffles me. Nevertheless, we were feeding, then “pooping” a kitten. For you who are uninitiated, you don’t even want to know about that one. I looked at Sarah. His name is Spike, I said.
Fast forward nine hours. Past the hot water bottle and the shoe box. Past packing up a diaper bag for a 4 ounce cat. Past a math department taking and a sorority adopting a kitten. Past the creation of its own Facebook page (which she checked until midnight, delighting at every “Friend Accept.”). Past my special trip to Petsmart to get a proper kitten bottle and newborn formula. Past the dog deciding that it was his baby and going into protect mode. Fast forward to choir practice (You didn’t see that coming, did you?).
This wasn’t our usual choir practice–that would have been too easy with a yelping kitten in a Chaps shoe box. This was for a benefit concert of fifteen choirs at a Catholic church out in the middle of nowhere–I reckon it was in some netherworld between Kennesaw and Marietta. That’s the best I could tell since she was doing the driving with the gps in one hand. Sarah has an interactive relationship with her gps, whom she has named Pilar. Pilar seems to me to put us mostly in the range of the destination, which lets Sarah yell contradictions and alternate routes back at her. Pilar, recall, is actually a phone. So I’m not actually sure where the church is located since I decided that the best plan was for the kitten to sleep through as much of the practice as possible–and the best chance of THAT would be if he had a full belly. Again, the video version of her driving and navigating with an obstinate Pilar while I am force feeding a kitten who, if he had NOT been in shock would surely be now–would surely be so much more vivid. You’ll just have to picture that. Anyway, we eventually got there, along with 100 other cars who were picking up their children from the parochial school. Once we explained to the (probably) Italian man directing traffic–IN (probably) ITALIAN–that we were actually there for the choir, he stopped yelling at us–not unlike Sarah had been engaging with Pilar–and we parked next to our deacon Lynn.
So as Lynn carried in armloads of our music, we loaded up with the diaper bag and the Chaps box with the hot water bottle and Spike. Looking back, I’m trying to imagine how we looked, a couple going in that big sanctuary, one of us with diaper bag in tow the other trying to hold a box to minimize jostling around the baby inside. Thing is, I’m pretty sure we looked like a couple to anybody who was looking, and not all the choirs there were from open and affirming churches. That’s ok, though, because ours was, and they were pretty much enchanted by Spike. With one minor exception–Lynn was not a fan of his name. I think you should name him Chaps, she said, clearly inspired by his carrying box. I don’t know if Sarah believes it’s bad luck to change a name like I do, or if she, like me, somehow wanted to honor the way our deacon had just honored something of us, but she decided–and I agreed–that Chaps would make a perfectly fine middle name–IF the first name had additional syllables (two monosyllabic names just don’t sound right).
So, that is how our deacon named our love child Chaps, and his name became Spikemandius Chaps TBDLastName, the Feline.