I’m a great believer in pets for children. Unfortunately, my mother wasn’t, so I grew up without them. When my son Eric came along, I wanted to be sure he’d have them. We started with a dog, a cute little mutt who ate my patent-leather shoes and peed at will, since I was working and wasn’t around to house-break him. I wouldn’t have known how to. We found a more suitable home for him and decided to try cats.
Our first cat was a gray and white kitten I named Christopher after Christopher Smart, a mad poet who wrote my favorite cat poem, “Jubilate Agno.”
“For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.”
And that was Christopher, a tolerant self-possessed cat who housebroke himself and didn’t fight when a three-year-old clutched his tummy or tugged his tail.
He ruled our neighborhood without effort, but when we moved from Portland to Vancouver, he discovered challengers. His first response to threats was to climb. We had to rescue him once in a snowstorm from a lodgepole pine. His considered response was to bulk up and fight. He ate until he looked like a sumo wrestler, and then he fought. Dogs he could defeat with one slap of the paw, but cats were a tougher problem. One of them gave him a septic bite on the right hind leg, and the leg had to be amputated. The vet did a great job. Our tripod warrior looked as sleek and elegant as ever, as if all cats should be three-legged, but we caved in to fear and had him neutered. He punished us. He took up dramatic vomiting, thrusting his paw down his throat, as it were, and going whoop-whoop-whoop before the grand barf. One day when my sister was visiting us, I came home from work just as she threw the whooping cat out the front door. You might call that projectile vomiting. Christopher had been punishing her all day.
By that time we had moved again and acquired a sequence of lesser cats over whom Christopher ruled supreme. But the cats were lesser only in age and weight. Each was a distinct personality. Some stayed with us a few years, others much longer. At maximum we had five at once, but the grand total was double that. We were fortunate to have few tragic deaths. Cats just disappeared–perhaps killed by cars or coyotes, or adopted by other families, or attracted to catly solitude–and we mourned them for a while then found another cat to adopt. Fuzzy (gray and fuzzy) and So-so (black and beautiful) hung around for years. Fuzzy lived atop the refrigerator, from which he leapt onto the shoulders of the unwary, and he peed down holes, including the stove burners. I bought covers for the burners. So-so was more civilized.
Most of the cats seemed to regard us as their servants, but some felt obliged to bring us gifts. Groucho (black mustache) brought us mice or pieces of mice. Another brought an occasional garter snake. Ethel White was named for a cat in one of my mysteries–her litter mate was Ethelred, an orange cat. Ethel had a very soft mouth. She used to catch baby birds without killing them. She would bring them in through the cat-flap and set them free on the back porch. She sat there watching them with an air of complacence while the bird fluttered frantically in the curtains, and I shrieked and tried to herd the poor thing out the open back door. Perhaps the most generous cat was Tiger. He brought us a whole roast of beef from the neighbor’s garbage.
Tiger was not a large cat, but he had a large appetite and was apt to steal food from the dinnertable. The sight of a small striped cat running off with a whole baked potato in his mouth is one of my more vivid memories. As he grew older, Tiger developed other eccentricities that made him less than loveable. Perhaps he knew that. One winter day we built a fire on the living room hearth and sat around it with Tiger basking right next to the firescreen. He basked until he baked his tiny brain and began flopping around in convulsions. We gathered around him, murmuring sad soothing comments. “Oh, Tiger, poor Tiger, poor old fellow.” We were sure he was dying, and we made much of him. When he had us in the palm of his paw, he leapt to his feet and trotted off, fully recovered.
The deaths of cats, who don’t live nearly as long as people, are perhaps their greatest gift to us, teaching us how to mourn before we have to grieve for friends and family. We lost three-legged Christopher to an unleashed pit-bull. Christopher was a fighter, but he could not climb trees. The dog cornered him. My husband and son took him to the vet in a desperate attempt to save him, but he died on the way. Eric, who was then fifteen and had known Christopher most of his life, said his dying cat purred and snuggled against him. Christopher was my first cat. I think I still mourn him.
Maybe the kindest death was Schmirnoff’s. He was my husband’s cat from the get-go–a talker who loved to ride on Mick’s shoulders, a shoulder cat. He lived with us almost eighteen years. That last year we had a trip to Ireland scheduled. Schmirnoff was clearly failing, and Mick hated to leave him, but we did go, leaving the cats with a kindly house-sitter. Schmirny was there when we came back. He even got to ride Mick’s shoulders again. Then he died. He had waited for us.
People need pets. They are not human beings, not babies. I have five younger siblings, so I hung around babies a lot. They are charming, of course, but they’re a little apt to turn into people. Cats don’t. Cats are an alien species, and that is the best thing about loving them.