Always in my heart
It was around 6:20 p.m., the sky darkening as the season edged into San Francisco’s bitter-wind-and-fog winter. I still worked in an office at the time, and it was always a race to get home, throw on my gear and take Paris, my beloved Corgi, up to our local park for her evening walk.
We preferred walks at dusk. Less people, less dogs running amok, less hassle. As we reached a tree-filled part of the park bordering the duck pond, I leashed Paris because she liked few things better than to race down the slope to herd the resting ducks at the pond’s edge. Their startled protests and indignant flight to evade her pursuit delighted her. This particular evening, however, she didn’t tug at her harness in frustration that I was curtailing her fun. By a low wooden walk-way bridge spanning a rivulet from the upper reservoir into the pond, she paused. She went still, her ears — those big expressive ears I loved so much — at full alert. She whined at me.
It was getting very dark by now, and we had to return to the car. I pulled gently on her leash, “Come on, my Balu.” She refused to budge. Then she started pulling me toward a groove in the ground leading under the bridge, sniffing her way over this barely perceptible mouse path. There are raccoons and other wild critters in the park, so I started to tug her back when she suddenly yanked the leash from my hand. In a flash that left me breathless, she plunged under the bridge. I scrambled after her, fumbling in my jacket for the pocket flashlight I carried on our evening walks. Snapping it on and expecting to find a very pissed-off raccoon glaring at me, I saw Paris staring at . . . something. Small. Fluffy. Cowering.
I freaked out. I thought my dog had discovered a rat’s nest, but as I angled my flashlight, the beam caught two enormous, terrified amber eyes staring back at me, backed up against the far end of the bridge. An orange and white cat. Nursing a litter of tiny kittens. Paris gave me a satisfied, told-you-so look.
We hurried back home. My husband and I feed feral cats who live in our garden, so I filled two plastic dishes with wet food and kibble, and drove up to the park again. Using my flashlight, I crawled under the bridge, only to discover the cat and her kittens were gone. I left the food dishes, thinking raccoons would probably eat it. I never expected to see the cat again.
Several nights later, Paris again stopped at the bridge. I’d come prepared, ferrying cat food in the trunk of my car, having retrieved and refilled the plastic dishes every night. This time, as I edged under the bridge, the kittens — who’d grown twice their size in less than a week — came tumbling towards Paris in glee. They scrambled over her paws, purring and acting as they’d been reunited with a long-lost friend. Paris gazed at me in patient exasperation as a kitten clawed up her side: “Aren’t I being a good dog?”
The mother cat was pressed at the end of the bridge in obvious fear. I spoke gently to her, pushing the dishes into the space between us. The kittens went for the food at once; she just watched me with those wary eyes until I backed out with Paris. Then she crept to the food and started eating.
For the next six months or so, during Paris’s daily morning and evening walks, we fed the kittens and their mother, whom we named Mommy Cat. The kittens adored Paris, so trapping them wasn’t hard. Two of them were adopted by my next-door neighbor, where they live to this day. Mommy proved elusive; she never came out from under the bridge while we were there and thus evaded the traps I set for her kittens. Nothing enticed her out or got her close enough for me to seize her up in a towel. I knew she had to be spayed, and the SPCA Feral Cat Program assured me they’d do it if I managed to trap her. Instead, she got pregnant again, and I found myself with another litter to catch and find homes for. One kitten, a short-haired orange scoundrel with her amber eyes, escaped my attempts and grew up beside her; I named him Boy.
Because Boy had known us since birth, he never feared me or Paris. He knew the exact times when we took our walks and waited for us by the bridge. He eventually started to join us, stalking beside Paris on her leash as we circled the pond and the Asian ladies who came to feed the ducks pointed at us and laughed. Boy was tame with me, and I knew I was headed for a choice. In the two years since his birth, I’d had several confrontations with irresponsible dog owners who let their dogs loose in that area of the park, complacent as the dogs chased Mommy or Boy up a tree. It wasn’t safe, mainly because humans suck. What was I to do? Then Boy began waiting for me in the bushes by the road where I parked my car; visions of him being run over by a speeding jerk became my nightmare.
One evening as Paris and I sat by the bridge petting Boy, having left a dish under the bridge for Mommy as we always did, she came out. She blinked at me and sat nearby, her fluffy tail wrapped about her white-tipped paws. “Hello, Mommy Cat,” I said in surprise, even as I realized the towel and cat crate were in my car. Paris shot her an it’s-about-time glance; she went to my dog, rubbing against her. Boy yawned. I reached out slowly to touch her. Mommy accepted it. For a month, this was our routine, until the day I enveloped her in my arms, taking her with Boy to be fixed and vaccinated.
The Feral Cat Program told me they couldn’t be domesticated. I followed the advice and re-released them in the park, feeding them twice a day and asking friends to feed them for me when I went away on vacation. On a rainy autumn morning, Boy wasn’t waiting for us. Mommy came out to eat and be petted, but he vanished for three days. Anguished, I searched all over the park for him. Only then did I realize how much I’d come to love these cats. When Boy re-appeared, drenched to his skin, he crouched at my feet. He had a wound on his leg. A dog or some other animal had tried to catch him, the vet told me when I brought him in; he needed stitches, a shot of antibiotics, and confinement for three days. The stitches would dissolve on their own, but my decision was made. I brought him and Mommy home to live with us. After a week of hiding under the bed as if the world was about to implode, they ventured out. They adapted, content and finally safe indoors, cherished and adored. So much for not being domesticated. Paris wasn’t as pleased by these curious feline additions to our household, where she reigned supreme, and she made sure they knew it, restricting them to the spare bedroom and the dining room. Still, all in all, we worked it out.
I became a full-time novelist and retired from my office job. In late 2012, a year after I brought them home, Paris developed mega-esophagus; following a brutal struggle to save her, I had to let her go. My grief was so profound, I thought I’d never recover. Boy and Mommy saw me through it. With Paris gone, the house was their domain. They’ve been with us for seven years.
Last December, Mommy was urgently hospitalized with a sudden diabetic crisis; at the time, the vets advised us her outcome was very uncertain. She’s a survivor, I replied. Sure enough, she pulled through. For eight months, we kept her diabetes under perfect control. A recent tooth infection and emergency visit delivered the devastating news that she was in advanced stage IV kidney failure. I resisted the prognosis; to me, Mommy has a special piece of Paris, who first found her — something still living of my deeply mourned dog. More than that, she was our beloved companion.
Today, we lost her. She went very quickly and peacefully; to the very end, despite her broken body, she gave us her affection. Making the decision to grant her freedom from inevitable suffering as her kidneys shut down has not only shattered us, but taught me something I’ve learned before when my pets have ailed and passed, yet somehow I always forget in the subsequent years of loving a new companion: I don’t save them. They save me.
My sweet, beautiful Mommy Cat, you loved salmon, kisses, and belly rubs. Your nobility and courage in the face of adversity were greater than any person I’ve ever known. We miss you more than words can describe. Right now, I can’t breathe past my grief, but I know I will see you again one day, waiting for me by the bridge. Until then, run with Paris in fields of gold.
You are always in my heart.
Siempre en mi corazon.