So, I love My Cat.

At her recent wellness exam,  the veterinarian said my cat was “in good condition, for an 18-year-old cat.” “Good,” I thought. I had been worried. Then I remembered that the average 18-year-old cat was dead. Compared to dead I think my cat is excellent. She’s doing infinitely better than a dead cat half her age. The day I worry about, and I worry about it often, is the day when she is neither better than dead nor dead. On that day it will be up to me to do the most loving thing. I will make the appointment I most dread making and I will be with her as she has been there for me.

Why do I bring this up? Whether you’re having a nice day or a bad one, who wants to hear about a dying cat? I don’t, but this is about my cat. This isn’t about me having to do the most loving thing, this is about the love. 

She entered my life unexpectedly. I had been accepted to Accademia dell’Arte, a theatre school located south of Florence, Italy to study Commedia for a semester and I had to find someone to sublet my room while I was away. I didn’t have time to cast a large net. I found a subletter on Craigslist. The man I found, I’ll call him Justin Bieber, seemed odd but benign. My roommates seemed to like him when they met but when I returned they had a radically different take on him. He left without paying his last month’s rent or bills and he left his cat, “Kiana,” behind. Though Bieber quickly gave my roommates buyers remorse, his stunningly beautiful, hyper-intelligent polydactyl tabby was another story. This cat had enchanted all of my roommates and taken full advantage of her status as the sole feline in a large Mission Hill apartment, with 4 bedrooms and 5 laps to sit upon. She moved from one to another, holding court in the living room. With all of her options, being the person whose lap she chose during this or that episode of 24 or The Office felt like a sign from the Universe, as if the voice of God was saying, “YOU ARE LOVED. YOU ARE SPECIAL. GIVE ME TREATS.”

We started to call her “Kittyface.” It was our half-hearted, vainglorious attempt to keep from getting too attached. We thought that my strange subletter would come to claim her at any moment, but he didn’t and we didn’t make any attempts to convince him, because we had all witnessed how rough and disrespectful he was to her. She had a home among us and she ended up sleeping in my room. It had been her room and her bed for several months and it would remain so.  I understood that my claim to these had been called into question by adverse possession, imminent domain, and squatters’ rights. Why contest it?

I was immediately impressed by her will.  I slept in a loft bed with a steep ladder with vertical rungs that were difficult for humans to climb but she would wrap her forepaws over them and make her way up with little difficulty. I’m trying to remember how she got down and I can’t. It doesn’t seem possible, but I know she did. Once on the mattress, she would leap sideways onto my thigh and go to sleep. Then in the mornings, she would wake me up at sunrise to feed her. I was not willing, but she had a winning gambit. She coerced me by walking precariously on the spines of the books on my top shelf. She never knocked them down, but the threat got me out of bed every time. Within a few short weeks, her careful stewardship and patience had paid off. I was housebroken. 

The first time I thought I had lost Kittyface was perhaps two years into our relationship. One of my roommates left all the doors open while taking out the trash. During which, Kittyface wandered outside and onto the dangerous streets of Mission Hill. I hadn’t seen her for a while and searched the entire apartment. I knocked on every bedroom door and when I realized I had looked everywhere and that she was gone I was beside myself. It reminded me too much of when my only other cat, Mitzy, wandered off years before when I had left the door open. I saw her turn around and look at me, then she stepped out into the darkness and I never saw her again. Mitzy had been with me for about 19 years at the time. I was unable to call her back, but I stayed up and called out to her all night long.  

And now it had happened again. 

The next morning I called animal control and asked if they had found a cat like her in my neighborhood. They hadn’t but the person on the line said, “when it’s dark go outside with a flashlight. Find the nearest porch and call to her under the stairs.”

I waited impatiently for the sun to go down and I did what the receptionist had said. I did not think it would work. I was kidding myself. “If she hadn’t been found by Animal Control, she was probably hosed off the sidewalk by Sanitation,” I thought. But I had to try. When that failed I would move on to posters, rewards, and waiting for the pain to subside, and eventually I would learn to accept that would never see her again.  I was in hell, neither able to accept that she was gone nor expect that she would return.

When it was dark I dutifully went outside with a flashlight. Then I walked up to the nearest porch and whispered, “Kittyface.” It was like a prayer, the kind you offer up when you know it’s too late. It contained the death of hope in it. To my surprise, I received an answer, the most beautiful sound I had ever heard, a  tiny, timid mew.

It was unreal and improbable, an unexpected and undeserved miracle, a reprieve from execution, a magical end of a fairytale. That receptionist’s advice was fulfilled like a prophecy.  What had I done in my life to deserve such a thing?

I coaxed the feline out as hot tears ran down my face and she was there. At that moment there was no reason to play it cool, so there was no difference between me and a 9-year-old child finding their lost pet. I was whole again! And I don’t know when Kittyface and I became one another’s primary companion but we were by then. 

Soon after, I was offered a full scholarship to go back and study at Accademia dell’Arte, and I turned it down to take care of the cat who had once belonged to the subletter who occupied my room the last time I studied there. A number of people thought I was crazy. 

“She’s just a cat,” they would say.
“Yes,” I said, “but she’s family.”

I have always loved Kittyface’s will. Though she has always greeted me when I came home and often at the door, she comes when I call about 50 percent of the time. If I work too long at my desk she mews angrily at me, demanding attention and generally I come when she calls about 80 percent of the time.

The second time I came close to losing Kittyface was when I fell in love with a professed cat hater. 

My ex-wife didn’t tell me directly to get rid of Kittyface. It was a syllogistic ultimatum. “I hate cats,” she said, “and I could never live with one.” I didn’t know what to do. At this time Kittyface and I were both living in Italy. I was hard-pressed to think of anyone in the world who could be worthy of her. It didn’t seem fair to her to change owners again. I casually knew a count and I thought that if I had to give her up I would want her to live in a castle. Before I had to come up with a solution, my ex-wife came to visit me in Italy and she fell in love with Kittyface. “Were you actually considering giving her up?” she asked me, indignantly. “What’s wrong with you?” One of the things I loved most about my ex-wife was her devotion to Kittyface. 

Kittyface traveled with me patiently on transcontinental flights and cross-country moves, enduring 20 plus hours of travel without peeing in her carrier. Again, I didn’t know how she did it. It was another thing she did that seemed impossible. And it was even a little concerning because each time she landed it took her a minute to start drinking water again. 

When she was 8 years old I almost lost her to pancreatitis. I was terrified and there have been several other close calls over the years. She would throw up, stop drinking or eating and she would spend hours with the vet getting subcutaneous fluids pumped under her skin. The attacks still come and they are terrible. 

Pictured here is Kittyface after several trips to the Vet for her worst attack of Pancreatitis.

I saw her confused and uncomfortable. I’ve given her pills, powers, and solutions. She often tries to turn her head away but in all the time I’ve known her she’s never willfully scratched me and she only hissed at me once. And though she hasn’t always been perfectly obedient, she’s always been kind.

She was there when my marriage fell apart. When I moved from the bedroom to the couch she followed and attended me night after night when I trembled and wept like an open wound. I was sad and weak and I was all out of hope and she was the only one I didn’t feel embarrassed around. 

After my divorce, my cat and I started all over again in Port Townsend, WA. I was a real mess, but Kittyface was there. I was having a crisis of self-worth but she still greeted me when I got home and she let me know by her proximity and attention that I was the center of her universe. It may not look great on a resume, but being loved by a quadruped is esteem building and healing.  

“High Five! (Really a “High Six.”)

If your eyes haven’t started to roll yet, maybe this will push you over the edge. I have found my cat to be an earnest communicator. Her brain might be half the size of a tangerine but sometimes she is incredible at charades. Through operant conditioning or a mutual understanding, she and I have codified a handful of gestures to communicate to one another.  Some of them are almost too subtle to describe, but she would get on her hind legs and reach for me with her paws, bite me gently to show affection, and she had a special mew to communicate that her dish was empty. I thought maybe I could teach her a few tricks and she took right to it. She learned so fast, I can barely remember how I taught her. Based on verbal and physical cues she would high five, go up on her hind legs, do jazz hands, and move from one platform to another. She would do it all as a routine for me (and for treats.) And the performance went both ways, sometimes she would leap onto a chair and go into her routine to let me know she wanted treats or attention. She still gives me high fives to say hello when I get home. Now her high five means 100 variations of the same thing. “I missed you.” “More pets.” “More attention.” “One more treat.”

I don’t know her exact age. My subletter described her as a one-year-old cat when I met her, but she’s been with me for about 17 years. I’m writing this because I am grateful for all of the days we have spent together, all the places we’ve been, and the challenges we’ve been through, and because someday, a lot sooner than I would like, I will come home and she will not be waiting at the door for me. I want to make her remaining days comfortable and loving and I want to remember how great she has been to me and what an incredible difference she has made in my life. I am so grateful for the strange accidents that brought this wonderful little being into my life. 

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