I got my first cat, Tiger, when I was five, after three long years of waiting. Five was the age my mom said would be old enough to help.
Around this time I also started my search for the meaning of life because I had come to understand the meaning of mortality, a frightening concept. I tackled my fear head-on in the beginning by writing letters to God. I placed them in my window at night, before bed, to see if he would summon them up while I was sleeping, like the contraption in the drive-through at the bank that my mom put checks in. A pneumatic tube, it is called. I was always impressed that lollipops got sent back. It was a nice system. My empty windowsill in the morning was therefore a bit disappointing. It always feels good to receive replies.
I also paid attention in church. But we kept changing churches all through my childhood because of my dad’s own search for truth — and also because of the inconsistencies here and there at some of these institutions. Suffice it to say, faith was the thing that church offered, but faith is not tangible like a lollipop. I wanted something to hold.
When I got a little older I stopped by a fortune teller’s booth next to the hermit crabs on the boardwalk. I figured if someone could predict the future than that would confirm that there was some kind of plan in life or meaning, that there was some bigger force at work. She told me that I would have five kids one day, three boys and two girls. Since I was eleven at the time I had to wait nearly 24 years to realize that she was wrong. I gave birth to all boys.
Once I tried a Tarot Card reader to see how that worked. But when one of my scientific sons found out he scolded me, citing statistics on percentages and chances. It was sort of my fault for sending him to math camp, I guess. I got a little flustered and couldn’t think of a rebuttal being put on the spot like that. If I was better on my feet, I would have told him about the thing that happened in college with a cat that defied any explanation.
When I left for college Tiger was thirteen. My college was four hours from home, a very reputable and well-known place, and not a cat sanctuary if you get suspicious later on in the story. In fact, I never saw any pets or animals on this campus (this was before ‘companion animals’ came into vogue) except for squirrels collecting acorns for winter, which seemed to last for three seasons and my friend’s secret pet bunny which left droppings behind her futon.
One ordinary day, I went to class which happened to be on the second floor in a very old building, Seelye Hall. I sat in the first row by the window. This particular class had about twenty students. Some sat in the front row near me and others sat in the rows behind me. A few minutes after everyone got settled the professor came in and started talking to us as usual.
Not usual was the thing that happened next. My attention was diverted over to the door because a cat had entered. A random cat that no one knew. In fact, the professor actually asked us, all at once, “Is this your cat?”
The cat had no identification — no collar (or foam from its mouth). It did, however, look just like my cat from home — the same kind of stripes. It’s a popular look for a cat so this detail did not surprise me as much as the thing that happened next. This stranger cat waltzed right over to me and jumped on my lap. (I did not have cat treats in my pocket.)
And then, the cat fell asleep as the professor continued on.
At the end of class, three hours later, (I actually had two classes back to back in this room) the cat jumped off my lap and left just as casually as he had come. And I walked back to my dorm. I told my friends about the cat. Of course, everyone was surprised, because this was a college, not a zoo or a pet store. In fact, in all of my four years at Smith, this was the only cat that crossed my path.
The next day I called my mom but my dad answered the phone. This was unusual. It was after nine and he was supposed to be at work. At that moment I knew something must be wrong.
“It has been a long night,” my dad told me, his tired but resigned voice letting me know that there was more to tell.
“Oh?” I said.
“Tiger died this morning, right in my arms as I held him.”
I listened to him describe the details of the day before, how Tiger had seemed different. How he knew it was coming. I realized I knew it was coming too.
“There was a cat, here, just yesterday,” I said.
A messenger of sorts, I thought.
As I told him the story, repeating it again for confirmation that he had heard me correctly, the stinging from the loss of our long-loved pet started to subside. It was replaced with something else.
Gratitude that the randomness of life took a brief backseat. That my dad and I, forever seekers for meaning, experienced the profound peace that bubbles up when the world makes sense for one small moment in time.
Thank You Messenger Cat. So many years later, I still think about you. Especially when my windowsill looks empty.
You gave me something to hold.