Cats Who Have Owned Me
Because let’s be clear about these relationships
His name was Blue and Mom said he was a Russian Blue; that’s all I remember.
I barely remember Gypsy, our black cat who got hit in the road. What I do remember about Gypsy was Mom and Daddy sitting me down to have The Death Talk (something I have kind of never really recovered from). Gypsy had had a litter before meeting her maker out on the curve of Weeden Road and we kept the one black kitten, George.
George was the runt with one leg twisted from being squashed into the corner of the womb by his four litter-mates. He had seven toes on every foot and could open closed doors by turning the knob. Back then we lived outside of town and he was a ferocious hunter, dragging dying rabbits back to the house or toying with a frantic mouse until it gave up and died. And since George had claimed me as his human, I took responsibility for trying to save his kills. That got me bitten more than once by frightened rodents.
Whatever other issues that came between my mother and I later in life (and there were many), she will always get credit for gently lifting each next bloody rabbit from my arms without ever giving me grief for ruining yet another set of clothes. She’d put the traumatized rabbit in a box by the fridge and tell me the next day that it was all better and back out by the garden.
The summer I was nine our world upended and with about six weeks warning Daddy quit his job at Putnam’s Garage, they sold the house and we moved from rural western New York State to Ohio (the story behind that one is a frigging novel). In Ohio, we lived right in town and about two blocks from that town’s crazy cat lady. Where there are crazy cat ladies, it turns out, there are fed up neighbors putting out poison. Less than a month after we got settled into the new place, George turned up sick. Mom and Daddy guessed he’d eaten some of the poison put out for the cat lady’s cats.
Poor George died in a box in the bathroom. For two days he lay there, eyes glassy and uttering low confused yowls. The first day after he died I couldn’t stop crying. The second day I kept crying because suddenly Mom was being incredibly kind and gentle with me which I wasn’t used to and wanted more of.
There were more cats after that, but none claimed me until Puss.
Years later, living very close to the edge of complete catastrophe in Cleveland, I found myself coming to in the basement after a drunken house party with a tiny, gray tabby kitten curled up under my chin. The kids had been tossing that kitten around earlier so when I left it was under my coat. That was Puss.
Puss lived 22 years. So far, that’s the longest continuous relationship of my life. I was 21 when I stole her from that party and 42 when, sobbing, I took her to the all-night animal clinic here in New York City under the Queensboro Bridge because she’d stopped eating and drinking water. In between, our lives went through any number of strange turns. There was the junk yard German Shepherd next door on Tomkins Ave that just about tore her to pieces. She recuperated from that and still loved prowling around outdoors. Because I grew up with what we called indoor/outdoor cats it never occurred to me to keep her indoors. She also outlasted three partners.
When I was 36 and got my first apartment (yeah, late bloomer), Puss came into her own. Because it was a fourth floor walk up, she became an indoor cat and settled comfortably into being queen of her domain. The apartment had wide windowsills and a number of small crooks and crannies for her to tuck herself into. We lived together there for six peaceful years until I got this mad notion to move to New York City. I agonized over whether to drag my poor old cat with me. My former partner offered to take her, but I couldn’t leave her behind. She wouldn’t tolerate it. So off we went.
One day I walked into my room in the shared apartment where I lived in upper Manhattan and called her name. She was facing away from me on the bed and didn’t respond. That’s when I realized that she had gone deaf. It was only in that last year that there was any indication of her age. I stood weeping while the vet put her back into my arms with that catheter in her leg; I was sure that I had “killed my cat by bringing her to New York”. The kind young man pointed out that if I stayed in Cleveland she would still be 22 years old and likely to die soon anyway. Oh. Right.
I did not rush to submit myself to the sway of another cat. Instead I focused on what everyone had assured me was impossible: finding an apartment I could afford on my own in the city. It took 15 months, but I proved them all wrong. In 2002 I moved into my own rent-stabilized apartment in Harlem. And discovered I had mice. Many mice. Bold ones who would saunter out into the middle of the living room and look at me. Swarms of them congregating under the hood of my gas stove at night.
Time for that cat.
I’d go to Bide-a-Wee, a wonderful no-kill shelter and visit the kittens. They were a shell-shocked bunch, those little feral kittens usually separated too early from their mothers with crusted eyes, cowering and terrified. I was slowly recuperating from an autoimmune disorder that had really knocked me on my ass so I was not in any condition to be nursing tiny sick kittens.
Black cats know about me, I think. Alice, with her sleek black fur and giant golden eyes, was the first of the Bide-a-Wee kittens to respond to my finger twitching between the bars of her cage. She was feral and cautious, but seemed healthy and inquisitive enough for me to pony up the adoption fee and take her home.
The moment I let her out of the carrier, she vanished. For three days there was no cat in that apartment. I looked everywhere. Under everything, inside of everything, even outdoors. Zero little black cat. Alice had slipped through the looking glass. Food was untouched and nothing appeared in the litter box.
Three days later as I sat on the toilet I saw a small black blur zip across the living room. For another week the only time I saw Alice was when I was on the john. Over time Alice took on her responsibilities for me with quiet authority. But she’d vanish as soon as anyone she didn’t know appeared. We understood one another.
Then came JJ, my very expensive stray cat. She’s a cagey one, JJ is. She took me hostage at 5 o’clock on a Sunday morning when I was coming home from a party in Brooklyn with my then-partner, Ric. We were stumbling along towards home when a tiny gray and black tabby kitten shot out of the nearby trash pile and fell on my foot on her back, looking up at me. What am I going to do? Kick a kitten?
With Alice snug in the apartment, there was no way I was bringing a street kitten (no matter how adorable) in. So Ric went and got the cat carrier and we caught a cab back down to the 24-hour animal clinic (yes, the same one where I took Puss at the end of her life). $300 later we knew she didn’t have feline leukemia and that she was a she, but the un-gendered name stuck. JJ was not feral and was clearly happy to have humans to boss around. This girl was socialized.
And she was pregnant. And if Alice was not thrilled with the new roommate, she was really not having it with five kittens in her domain. Actually, Alice was incredibly patient with the little fiends.
And here is where I tell you how kittens are always superior to puppies and babies. Every one of those five kittens got put into the litter box once and not one of them ever missed using the box again. Not one. Not once.
Living with five kittens can be incredibly fun but we were happy to find good homes for the fiends and Miss JJ had herself another trip to the vet to be spayed. Cats, similar to humans, don’t make great pets when they have the option of sexual activity.
Two years ago, while I was lost in the freelance wilderness, Alice developed diabetes. The vet offered the value-pack of syringes and insulin and sharps disposal bottles all for a mere $160. I would be testing Alice’s blood and taking her in for analysis weekly until we stabilized her blood sugar at $80 a visit. This would buy my tired old black cat some time but those regular visits to the vet would ensure she wasn’t going to be having much in the way of quality of life. After talking it over with friends I decided to keep her as comfortable as I could until it was time to let her go. She let me know when that was.
Now JJ rules supreme. She has a new human under her sway; this one however doesn’t recognize her authority which makes living with the two of them a real opportunity for spiritual growth.
For most of my life I have submitted to the whims of some cat and I have to say there are worse whims to which one could submit. Way way worse.
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