When I was a teenager, my aunt had a friend who could not say no to a cat. She took in old ones and young ones, exotic ones and feral ones. The cats clearly owned the house, sitting on the dining room table and the kitchen counters, preventing the humans from preparing meals in their own house; which explained all of the take-out menus. These were well fed cats, some over twenty pounds. But then there was Katie; she was the anomaly. Katie was a small, ill behaved, underfed specimen with no social skills, who lived under the bed in the guest room and was terrified of humans and animals alike.
My aunt’s friend was going away for a few days and, while she could leave out food and litter boxes for the sociable cats, and have a neighbor come in to check on them, Katie needed special care. So I was called into service.
Mom and I brought Katie home in a cat carrier and brought her to my bedroom and closed the door so that our dog, Dina, couldn’t come in. Dina was a forty-five pound black Lab mix and I’m pretty sure Katie was more of a danger to her than the other way around. Dina didn’t like the arrangement at all, because my room was her room. But I felt a responsibility to Katie, not to traumatize her any further. Who knew what her early life had been like to make her so frightened and angry?
I had a platform bed pushed into the corner of my room and immediately Katie found the L shaped tunnel it made against the wall, and scurried inside. I placed her litter box at one end and her food and water bowls at the other end. If I dared to reach my hand in, she’d hiss at me from the darkness. She came out to pee and eat and drink when I was sleeping or out of the room, and the rest of the time I just heard her, licking her paws, scratching the carpet, and mumbling to herself.
I made a point of taking Dina out for long walks to compensate for not letting her into my room. And on our walks, I tried to brainstorm ways to reach Katie. I pictured myself as a cat whisperer, solving all of her problems in the four days she would stay with me, and going on to become a Vet, or a therapist, or Mother Theresa. Dina just hoped the long walks would continue after the interloper left.
Katie was very hard to like. First of all, she was a cat, and I am allergic to cats. I don’t think I knew that before I agreed to cat sit, but maybe I did and I just felt too guilty to say no. My eyes water and I feel itchy all over, on my arms and lips and in my throat. I get nauseous and itchy just seeing cats on TV.
Maybe, given more time, Katie would have learned to trust me, but four days was not enough to make a dent. I was relieved when she left, and I felt guilty for that too.
A few years later, my aunt and I volunteered at the local animal shelter, and we were sent to the cat apartments to help socialize them. I saw it as a chance to make up for my failure with Katie. There were three or four cats in each apartment and they had beds and hammocks and scratching posts and climbing towers. But they weren’t sure about humans and my job was to go from group to group and sit with them for a while and let them get used to me.
I had learned more about neurotic animals by then, and I didn’t take it personally when the cats stayed back or stared at me for five minutes straight, waiting for me to impress them.
Then came kitten season and suddenly there were three or four litters in crates in the front room of the shelter, where visitors could see and adopt them right away. I was overwhelmed by all of them, and by the fact that, if not for some kind stranger, they would all have been left on the streets, to die, or to become like Katie.
I sat there, feeding the smallest kitten with a medicine dropper and I felt like I could barely breathe from grief, from responsibility, from anxiety that the problem was too big to ever be solved, especially by me, or by anything I could do.
The little kitten climbed up my sweater and the head of the volunteers told me she probably wouldn’t survive twenty four hours, despite my ministrations. I felt sick and itchy and ready to climb out of my skin and I wanted to believe it was just my allergies, as the kitten scratched my face, asking for my full attention.
All I could do was give her food and kisses, and hope.
Happy Mother’s day to all of the dog and cat (and piggy) mommies and all of the mommies of little humans, and especially to my own Mommy!