Can you write about it?
Whenever I mention my cats, invariably the person I’m talking to asks: how many do you have? I’ve been told if you have to hold up fingers rather than announce out loud how many cats you own, you have too many. Even so, I’ll always hold my fingers straight up when asked, my thumb clearly crossing my palm so there’s no mistake. Four. Up until recently it didn’t really feel like we had too many.
Our alpha cat was born in a barn and full-grown weighs all of six pounds. She’s a clever cat, springy and swift. She arrived in our lives in early June, six years ago following the March death of Max, a beautiful black boy who found refuge in my mother’s garage from the flood water of 1993. I believe that cats appear energetically, filling a vacuum left by another’s departure. Keep your eyes and ears open, and your kitty will appear. So it was that I knew exactly what to do just a few days after Max’s companion Molly died of a broken heart at the end of the same summer (she was only five). I took the vet up on his invitation—we have kittens in the back when you’re ready—and we welcomed Leo to the family.
With considerable more thought and purpose, we adopted the kittens, Charcoal and Starling, four years later. They are now, of course, full-grown, but as with all young things, they seem somehow newer and fresher than Katy and Leo. The idea was that cats taken two at a time meant there wouldn’t be an odd-cat out. And with four laps in the house, everyone would have someone to snuggle.
And for a while it was the best of plans and all was well. Fifteen and Twelve were in kitty heaven. The kitties more or less sorted themselves out—Leo has always loved Fifteen the most. The females bonded with me but made the rounds, even enchanting my dog-person mother, Eighty-Nine. Charcoal was something of a floater and he bewildered us, bloating terribly for a while, but at last growing into a sleek large blue-grey cat with the smug look of a feline who has swallowed a delicious mouse.
As it turns out, not one of the four is an automatic lap cat, leaping up to curl on your thighs the moment you sit down. But any one of them might settle in close while we’re reading or working, and they provide plenty of entertainment.
During the darkest days of this past winter, Charcoal realized what neither Starling nor Leo knew: he was more than twice the size of alpha-girl Katy. And he began to stalk her. Katy took to sleeping high on Twelve’s dresser or hiding in my room with me, where she was the only cat allowed because she is smart enough to ask when she needs to go out. In spite of calming collars, liberal doses of herbal relaxing drops, and infusing the air with happy kitty pheromones, the stalking turned into chasing. As winter melted, the trouble between the two grew more and more tempestuous, such that one day I followed the flying fur into the laundry room and found Katy treed up the window screen, blood dripping from her chin where Charcoal’s claw had caught it, her urine streaking the window.
A bad situation became worse when Leo, who had always been a loving companion toward Katy, sleeping hip-to-hip especially when the temperatures dipped, joined the chase and took a chunk out of Katy’s ankle. Katy resorted to cowering in the laundry room, rarely venturing out, and crawling behind the washer to relieve herself.
Putting all of this down on paper makes me wonder how we let the situation go this far. When you’re a practicing writer, more than one person will ask, when things are dim, whether you’re writing about them. “I will,” I usually reply. However, I don’t keep a journal, and in truth writing this story now only makes me cringe. If someone sat at my desk at the studio and poured out such a horror to me, I’d gently say, “You can’t live like that. Can you find a new home for one of the kitties?”
But, of course, our own problems are never so easily resolved. In my family, we all love all four of these beasts. I am determined to involve my children in deciding the outcome, just as I did in the adoptions of Charcoal and Starling. Thus when Leo attacked Katy while the peeps were at camp, I did what I had been loathe to do: I bought a litter box and a purr pad and moved Katy into the laundry room in comfort, her door shut to the other cats. I took her to the vet to have her wound and stress levels evaluated. The vet was clear—keeping them separate was the only option besides getting rid of the principal aggressor. She also counseled making sure Katy had plenty of love and attention so she wouldn’t feel she was being punished and suggested after a while we try putting Charcoal away to see if Katy could reintroduce to the other two.
The peeps and I added one more piece—when they got home from camp, we built an outdoor kitty pen, a little larger than 7’ by 12’, out of chicken wire and fence posts and lots and lots of zipties. It has a roof to keep the cats from climbing out, stones lining the bottom so they won’t dig under, and a cat door installed through the aging screen in the sunroom we have always called “the East House.”
So far, the boys adore the pen, asking to go out first thing in the morning and staying there much of the day. Starling stands two feet out, two feet in, watching. One recent morning Katy had her first turn in the pen, co-existing mostly peacefully with Leo, although she made it clear she has not forgiven him and hissed if he got too close. After time with dirt under their paws and fresh air in their noses, everyone has been sleeping soundly at night.
As I ponder the options and watch the situation unfold, I recall reading once that pets teach us unconditional love—not just how to receive it, but how to give it. Unconditional love sometimes requires the hardest choices, as I have experienced over and over again when I’ve taken pets to the vet to be euthanized. I’m beginning to see that such incredibly hard lessons of love and loss may also include separation, and the anticipation of giving up a cat—although I intellectually admit it is the logical next step—brings up the hurt of lost friends, lost loves, lost places, lost talents and enthusiasms, lost times, lost opportunities. Perhaps experiencing separation from a pet—someone we’ve taken on to love, care for and protect—preps us for the separations we must face from other humans, breakups, empty nests, loss of friendship. Learning to live through such losses in our lives may well be another of the generosities that our pets give us, but it is one I am having a terrible time receiving.
I just now learned from the wilds of the Internet that today, August 8, is International Cat Day. The full moon shines on Sunday. This post goes out in honor of both—with my gratitude, as ever, for this forum in which I keep living the questions in poses & prose. Namaste, Rxo