the printed thoughts of a woman on a journey towards awareness, truth, acceptance, clarity, and forgiveness...with some fun and fearlessness thrown in

Sunday, July 28, 2013

the accidental cat

Crossing the road and walking past just one house from my neighbor's house to mine, my sister, Laura, and I encountered a little, furry, grey kitten.  "If that kitty follows us to your house, you need to keep it."

I already had two cats.  I wasn't looking for another.  I responded with one of our usual responses--"whatever" or "I'm sure" and kept walking.  The kitten kept walking, too, following us across the yard and up to my front door.

"If this kitty comes into your house, you have to keep it," she said while she literally nudged the little fuzzball with her shoe towards the open door. He walked in.  My fate had been sealed.

That was over 17 years ago, and that little kitten never left, even though he was the only cat I really ever let outside for any length of time.  He loved to roll around on the concrete, covering his back and sides with dirt and dried leaves.  He would literally go out with the dogs and come back in when they were done.  It seemed that for whatever reason this cat had made a conscious decision to live with me.  Maybe he heard and understood Laura's imperative.  We had made a contract with each other, a commitment formed without words.  We were in this together.

From the beginning, Eli was different than any cat I'd ever met.  He seemed somehow mature and knowing.  I spoke to him like he was human.  On some level, he was.  When there were no words, we communicated telepathically.  I believe that it was our connection that saved his life during that first year.

I was doing laundry, transferring a load of items from the washer to the dryer when he somehow got into the dryer.  I didn't see him in there when I started it.  I walked away and started the shower.  I had just climbed in when I heard something and felt my stomach drop to the ground.  I ran to the dryer, opened the door and called for him.  I felt around with my hand.  I didn't see or hear anything right away.  Maybe he wasn't in there.  But, I somehow knew that he was.  My greatest fear had been realized!  Eli had been killed in the dryer!

Then, I heard a faint meow.  I frantically started pulling things out of the dryer until, finally, a visibly shaken Eli wobbled into my hands.  It was late on a weekend night, so I called my vet and requested a call back through the answering service.  When Dr. Dircksen called, he asked me to describe Eli's condition and told me what to look out for.  He agreed to call me every 15 minutes for a status update.  We spoke throughout the night until we were both satisfied that Eli would be ok.  Before we hung up the last time, he pointed out to me that in my initial description I had said that Eli was "extra fluffy" and we had a laugh over that and joked that he was now "April fresh."  He was no worse for the wear from his ride around the inside of the dryer, but years later, Mitchell joked that maybe we should run all of our cats through the dryer to make them come out as cool as Eli.

Whatever lesson he might have learned from this experience, though, certainly wasn't generalized to the dangers of climbing into other large, metal objects.  About 10 years passed without incident, but early one morning, Eli decided to climb into the open trunk of Mitchell's car while he packed for a business trip.  He went unnoticed and seemed unconcerned until Mitchell was over 30 minutes into his voyage.  Somewhere just outside of Andrews, NC, Mitchell heard the panicked and harried meows emanating from his trunk and pulled over.  I was surprised to see him return home, but I wasn't surprised to hear the reason.  Once again, I was just grateful that Eli's curiosity hadn't gotten the best of him and that he had found an effective way to communicate.

It was in that year that Eli's life really changed.  He had already moved with me from Indiana to Tennessee and then to North Carolina, but he had always had his brothers, BoBo and Otis, to keep him company.  Unfortunately, though, BoBo lost his fight to chronic kidney failure that year at the age of 16.  The younger duo missed their older brother, but then welcomed a new brother into their lives a few months later when Manny came to live with us.  Towards the end of the year, Otis got sick for the first time ever in his 12 years.  In January, he was very sick as we made our next move to Connecticut, and by March he had lost his life to intestinal cancer.

Eli suddenly went from the "baby" of the feline branch of our family to the patriarch.  And, he took his new role seriously.  When Manny pestered me to go outside on the deck with Eli, Eli gave me a knowing look and assured me that he would take his brother under his wing and would keep him safe.  I watched cautiously from the back door as Manny jumped down from the deck into the yard and headed toward the corner of the house.  Eli immediately fell in line, following him and then circling around in front of him and corralling him back into the backyard once that invisible line at the edge of the house had been breached.  I watched him do this time and time again until Manny had been trained to stay inside the area defined as safe by Eli.  Manny was allowed to hunt and play in the backyard, but he knew not to ever leave and he learned from Eli to come in when called.  Eli and Manny became good buddies, and they spend a lot of time together enjoying the sun from our deck.

Sadly, only a couple of years later, Manny succumbed to intestinal cancer, just as Otis had.  Eli was the only cat in the house for six months until we adopted Alla, a breathtakingly beautiful Birman cat.  She was just seven months old and brought a new energy and youthfulness into the home, and Eli loved playing with her.  Just seven months later, she withdrew from the family and lost weight.  A simple trip to the vet ended in a terminal sentence of FIP (feline infectious peritonitis).  Alla was gone within two weeks, and Eli was alone again.

I was devastated by Alla's loss and didn't want another cat, but Eli made it clear that he wanted company.  I was so afraid of losing another pet, but I knew that I would have to take that risk to make Eli happy.  Only one month later, I found myself agreeing to adopt a cat from the Savannah, GA shelter after receiving her picture from a local rescuer.  I met the transport van the next weekend, and Hazel joined our family in a seamless transition.  Eli was happy once again.

Maybe it was his own rescue that inspired him, but I always felt that Eli was my silent partner in fostering and adopting new animals.  He welcomed every cat that came to stay, whether for a short time or for good.  I never heard him hiss at a cat who was scared or confused and who hissed or swatted at him.  He also allowed every dog to paw him, mouth him, and nudge him with its muzzle.  He never showed fear, and he never reacted.  He showed the most spastic, cat-chasing pup that there was more reward in being calm than in running after a cat.  He showed the paranoid, possessive, and territorial dogs that there was no difference between the cat in your yard and the one walking by your yard and, therefore, no need to freak out.  He was brilliantly effective in a completely unassuming way.  He was steady, confident, and constant.  He was literally the coolest cat I'd ever known.

It's now been seven weeks since Eli let me know that after over 17 years he was ready to leave his little body behind.  He had lived for several years with an intense allergy that caused his intestines to thicken and lose their ability to absorb nutrients from his food.  He had been diagnosed through bloodwork after I took him to the vet saying that there was something wrong with his belly.  "He's meowing weird," I said.  "I think his stomach hurts."  The vet looked at me strangely, but then apologized when his values came back.  "How the hell did you know what was wrong?" he asked, and I explained that I just understood Eli. 

I understood Eli, and he understood me.  He was more than a cat.  He was my friend.  He had been my friend since he walked through my front door that night.  I miss my friend.  I miss him so incredibly much.
Alla & Eli