Fishing for Light with Catmouse
I didn't think I’d have the cat that long. The first deal was that I’d watch the cat while her mom, my friend, was out of the country for a time. Then that plan changed and I adopted Catmouse since my friend would not be moving back to this state when she returned from Mexico.
So, it was both a welcoming and a reluctant start.
She’s a fairly persnickety cat. There was some story about a fire in the apartment when she was a kitten. There was the scary glove-with-long-fingers cat toy when she was a kitten. There were the stories of her former catmates, Misery and Bliss, one of whom she hated. There was another catmate, Sophie, who used to terrorize her mercilessly.
So, she came to live with me in an impoverished two bedroom on the west side of town, with a yard full of dirt and rocks, me and my big dog. My very big dog. Happily for Catmouse and Abby, the very big dog, Catmouse was used to very big dogs and Abby has always been very respectful of hissing cats with sharp pointy claws.
Catmouse kept to herself for most of the first year she lived with us. She wanted to be fed, to be let out into the yard at her whim, and to not have the dog come anywhere near her. She quickly understood that she was the solo cat in the house and she very quickly became the house matriarch. She attacked any animal — dog, cat or fox — that came near the house and whined constantly.
Her other mom came to visit after the Mexico trip. I noticed a very distinct change in Mouser (which is what I came to call her) — she clearly missed this woman. And she sulked for two weeks after that visit.
We muddled through at the small, sad house. I was depressed, seeing a therapist and on medication. I worked as a gardener — not my real field — and did not socialize much. I spent most of my time helping out in an online support forum for Flickr. I applied for a job there. Months passed. Every day I walked the dog, every night I played online. Catmouse would often come to sit as close as possible to my laptop. She was becoming my cat.
I brought home another cat one day. A story for another time, but Hawkeye was a tween cat, a manx with no tail and a tiger body full of energy. He wanted to play with Mouser and she was appalled that I’d brought it, the ebil other, home. They never fought, but she never warmed up to him, either. He and the dog got along famously, which suited us all just fine.
I got the job at Flickr after many months had passed. Movers came and packed and shipped the contents of the house to California. I packed the dog and cats into a minivan. I thought Mouser would be the whiny one on the journey, but it was Hawkeye that screamed for most of the trip. I felt so sad to leave Colorado but so happy to be going ‘home’ to the state I grew up in. Our best moment was at a canyon off of Highway 50 in Nevada — the loneliest highway — on a picnic stop. I put the dog on a long lead tied to a tree, popped open the rear of the van and placed the two cat carriers atop a bunch of boxes. We were in the shade, there was a cool breeze and I ate sandwiches out of a cooler. It’s my warmest memory of all of us because we spend an hour sort of stranded together peacefully.
After sleeping on a few couches, I found a flat in the Mission. While there was a shared yard, I made a decision to never let the cats out of the flat. We were on the third floor and I’d lost cats the last time I’d lived in San Francisco. The cats had window perches and I bought screens so that we could have fresh air.
But one day, Catmouse — who always rushed doors — got out. She not only got out, but somehow fell off the stairwell three stories onto the concrete sidewalk below. She hid for one or two days under the neighbors stairwell. I was a wreck looking for her, berating myself for moving us all away from a safe home. Honestly, I didn’t even know when it was that she escaped; one night I’d just realized that it had been a while since I’d seen the cat. I tore the flat apart looking for her. I walked the entire neighborhood twice before looking under that stairwell. When I did find her, she could not walk.
The vet confirmed that she’d torn the ligaments in both rear legs. She would never walk too well again, but he felt that she would be able to walk again at some point even without surgery. I couldn’t afford the surgery and the vet didn’t believe it would buy her all that much anyway. I hated myself for months after that; how could I have let that happen to my charge?
After a time, Yahoo! laid me off. I took my severance and went back home. The Mission was not what it was the last time I’d lived in The City, I had never been happy in that flat or at my job, the dog almost died of an accident after a hiking trip, life was not as good as it’d been in Colorado. So, we packed a giant rental truck and a friend helped me drive back across the icy Interstates of winter. The cats were squished in their carriers between our seats, the dog on the passenger’s lap — but we were going home.
I still live in the same two bedroom house that I moved into that winter. The yard is 7000 square feet. It’s a parkland for the pets. Catmouse learned to limp-walk and hop again, but not enough to ever tempt her to leave the yard. She instead settled into a comfortable routine: outside all day in the catmint, shrubs, and tall grass and inside all night on a pillow next to my head. She was not quite the queen of the roost anymore, but a retired lady. She was the ever present, ever watchful, ever steady presence in the house. While I was running around making a living here and there, building this or that in the yard… while Hawkeye explored the whole neighborhood, ate birds and mice, and made friends with two fawns that he still plays with now that they are grown and one has a rack of antlers… while Abby barked at all the bicyclists and chased squirrels and dug up giant rocks… Catmouse was just there. She was a pleasant surprise dosing in some puddle of sunshine. She chased and caught the big slow bumbling hummingbird moths. She liked the shade of the lilac bushes. She liked to follow me around going ‘Ah ett et et aha et et et ettt.” I found a small couch for the front porch just for her, which she did end up spending all her time on.
I did not see the decline. Or I did and I just had too much going on. But in July, I started to see that she’d lost quite a bit of weight. She had always been a rotund, overweight cat, so I ignored it. Maybe I just didn’t want to see it. I had come to rely on Catmouse as the steady presence in the house, my life, our little enclave. I kept telling myself that if I could just get back on my feet, maybe I’d get her that surgery afterall. I didn’t want to see the hair loss, the weight loss, the glossy look in her eyes as meaning that her time was due.
We’re not sure how old she is. Maybe 14. Maybe 15. Maybe older. Maybe not. But she’s not a healthy cat. She stopped eating at some point. She lost so much weight that she feels as fragile as glass when you pick her up. And the other night, she met me in the yard with her leg literally flapping this way and that — being dragged and flung out behind her. Her other leg cannot support weight either. She finds it hard to get comfortable. She seems lost and confused most days. It’s time.
Oddly, I feel more sad than I ever knew I would for this cat’s life. I wish I could have given her so much more. But then I know I gave her a tremendous lot. She had a remarkably mellow life with us, save for some moments of insanity. She had a safe warm bed and food every night.
Her other mom came over last night and hung out and said goodbye. There was yogurt for all. There was catnip for all. And we agreed to meet and take Mouser to the vet together today and to split her ashes together, too.
Thank you, you reluctant cat, for fishing for fallen light with us on this journey together. I hope that tonight, you’re free of all concern… and have more yogurt in your dreams than you ever thought possible.