I didn’t know what to do with a dog. My family didn’t know what to do, either. We never had dogs for very long. We were a high-strung, neat freak sort of family (except for dad), so we had a lot of rules: no dog hair on things, no dogs on furniture, dogs only allowed in certain rooms at certain times. Dogs went outside when my mom got annoyed with them, which was often. My father insisted on breaking those rules; this was a theme in their relationship. Allergy season would show up in the spring and my body would go haywire. Despite the thick coating of pine pollen everywhere, the dog would be blamed and given away.
As an adult I’m absolutely mortified by the fact that we kept getting dogs, when it was clear that the problem was not with the dogs, but with us. I was a quiet, anxious kid whose lack of self-awareness made a poor fit for dog care, or for anything that wasn’t reading books and being depressed. In the long run, what that meant for me was that there were a lot of skills I never learned. I kept myself apart from other kids, so I was lacking the kinds of social abilities that most middle schoolers were good at (or were good enough at faking that I couldn’t tell). My ability to relate to other beings, human or otherwise, was bad at best. I stumbled through life that way for a long, long time. My relationships weren’t exactly shining examples of caring and compassion. The phrase “emotionally stunted” was occasionally used to describe me, almost exclusively by people who knew me best.
But then: cats.
Cats were never even talked about in my house; they might as well have not existed. Neither of my parents, either together or (mercifully) divorced, have ever owned a cat. By the time I was in my late twenties, my unchecked depression and anxiety required my bubble of personal space to be roughly the size of Atlanta in order to feel comfortable, so these strange beasts that didn’t go away when you told them to (like a dog would) and seemed to thrive on crossing those boundaries were absolutely terrifying to me. Cats loved me. I hated it. I hated it so much.
About a decade ago I found myself living in Chicago for the first time. I’d uprooted myself from my adopted hometown of Indianapolis for what, up to that point, had been a long-distance relationship. This relationship fell apart the moment I got there, having been built on a crumbling foundation of unfounded optimism and a very big misunderstanding about just how absolutely riddled with mental illness we both were. It was one of the worst times in my life, and while I wouldn’t dare speak for my ex-girlfriend, I feel like she’d probably say a very similar thing. Luckily, as a grad student living mere blocks from the University of Chicago, she was often gone and I was alone in the apartment. Well, not really alone; she had three cats that I got to know pretty well. And while I was mostly confused by them, I had a lot of time on my hands to observe them.
Their names were Harley, Simon, and Whitecat. My interactions with them were relatively minimal. I mostly kept my distance. Simon was the one I interacted with most. He would follow me around a lot, so I tripped over him pretty regularly. It was not great for me, anxiety-wise. Sometimes he’d beg at the back door to be let out onto the fire escape, so he could wander down to the apartment below, where an elderly woman named Shirley would see him at her back door, let him in, and feed him scraps. I sometimes spent time with Shirley, too, but it was clear that her allegiance was to my girlfriend and not me (which was understandable), and that she knew enough about our relationship to have an opinion about me. I kept my distance from her, too, and let Simon have his friend.
I spent a lot of time being the only human in that apartment. What I began to learn, slowly (the way I learn most things), is that I’d never learned how to communicate with animals, to understand them. They had distinct personalities, which was something I’d somehow never understood, never been taught. It was a huge blind spot for me. It’s one of the reasons why my work with SNKC means so much to me: I absolutely did every animal in my life a disservice up to that point; I was the “irresponsible” one. I was the one that “shouldn’t have a pet.”
But this was not my full cat awakening.
When the dam burst, the final arguments were had, terrible things were said, and I moved out of the apartment. I was confused, sad, and terribly lonely, still reeling from being so far from all my old friends, and having no one to lean on. I found a dicey and ultimately terrible short-term renting situation, and tried to move forward. Shortly thereafter I started a relationship with an amazing person who is somehow still around after 7 years. And she also had three cats.
Mario was a tuxedo cat with a little mustache. I’ve never met a sweeter cat; when he got mad he would go to his cardboard box and scratch it up, tail darting back and forth, rather than take it out on the other cats or one of us. He’d had diabetes, which had gone into remission, and early on in our relationship he developed renal failure. We gave him subcutaneous fluids every other day, and he never complained, never got mad, always sat sweetly. He was a smart guy; he knew the fluids were doing him good. In knowing Mario, I learned for the first time what it looks like when someone is kind and giving without words and without expectation. I also saw what tremendous respect and kindness it brought out in everyone who met him.
Lunchbox was a calico runt with permanent eyeliner and a voice like she’d been smoking cigarettes for forty years. Small, quick, and grumpy, she never met a vet she couldn’t manage to injure. She and I got into a lot of fights initially about who was allowed to be on the bed and when; as we got used to each other, it was less of a problem, because she made it very clear. I started to learn how to pick my battles, and what things were important. This had not always been my strong suit.
Otto was a not-quite-socialized orange tabby that had somehow come to think that hard bites and scratches were a sign of affection; it was a way of thinking that I absolutely identified with. Beth, my girlfriend, was the only one who could show him affection without getting bit. There are people who would say that about her relationship with me as well, I’m sure. I’ve been told I’m like a cat more times than I can count. I think people mean it in a variety of ways, good and bad. But spending time with Otto, I started to understand how my behavior seemed to other people, how my hot/cold rapid cycling could be a turn-off to other people (ya think?!). I learned how to be around him, how to anticipate his behavior, how to work with him. I was never out of danger of being bitten or scratched, and learning to live with and address that apprehension has made me a more resilient person.
As our lives merged, I started to think of those three little goobers as my own cats. Beth and I moved in together after a couple of years, and the transformation was complete: I had become a cat person. Not because I thought that cats were inherently better than dogs, but because I’d started to see their inner lives and found a kinship with them. Cats ended up being my entryway into compassion in a manner that I don’t think dogs could have. By understanding and exploring their inner lives, I ended up finding my own.
When Mario died suddenly from congestive heart failure, an undiagnosed complication from the renal failure, I cried in a way I hadn’t for even my own grandparents. Two weeks after, I came across his cardboard box in the living room and walked up to it, expecting him to be there; the fact that he wasn’t left me sobbing. I began to realize that I was changing in a very real way. My depression and anxiety had bound me for a very long time, kept me separated from other people. In my worst moments, I could barely speak. I was unable to express myself, and the guilt and shame that comes from having a big ol’ mental illness made me hide what I was going through. But I didn’t need to speak for the cats to understand me, and I certainly couldn’t hide what I was going through from them. They understood. And so I began to surround myself with human beings who understood me in the same way. I started understanding how to take care of myself. I began to grow.
In the years since then, I moved to KC with Beth. It’s her hometown; I now also consider it my own. Early on in our time here, Lunchbox developed a nerve sheath sarcoma at the base of her tail. We had her tail removed, and during recovery, when we put her in a makeshift crate to keep her movement down, she was so mean and ornery that the vet was like, “Just let her do what she wants.” That’s usually how things went with Lunchbox. Even though the surgeon got clean margins on the tumor, it came back stronger within a year. Maybe it was just mean and ornery like her; I don’t know. We had to put her down, the second cat within three years.
Otto developed what we thought was pancreatitis, but ended up being a giant mass inside his body. It was a long, slow decline for him, with us trying everything we could, but ultimately it got to the point where it wouldn’t have been fair to keep him alive. His life had become so different than what it had been.
Never again, we told ourselves. No more pets; no more cats. The amount of loss we’d endured in the span of just a few years made us incredibly weary. Especially Otto; he’d been the first cat Beth got when she moved out on her own. Her adulthood was now entering a second phase. Watching her mourn strengthened that resolve to not get another cat.
Sad ending, right?
Well, okay then: we got three more cats. Happy?
We got Tenar and Moody from the KC Cat Clinic. Tenar, then named Jackie, was found on the street with a severe infection in her right eye. They’d had to remove the eye, and she was a little skittish from her time on the streets, so she didn’t “sell herself” when people came to look at her.
Moody, then named Nico, was a barn cat, definitely inbred. He stumbled when he walked, so when he rubbed against your leg it was more like he was lunging at you sideways. And he had a meow that sounded kind of like a sheep had been hit with a shrinking ray. He’d gotten his head chomped by some kind of animal out by the barn, and the Cat Clinic had removed his left eye as a result. When one of his litter mates that they’d fixed up previously was attacked and killed at the barn while Moody was in recovery at the clinic, they decided that maybe this barn wasn’t the best place for a not-very-agile, not-very-bright cat, and kept him on there as a clinic cat.
Moody and Tenar, having one right eye and one left eye between them, pair-bonded. When we went to get one cat (“but seriously,” I told Beth, “just the one cat.”), we couldn’t bear to separate the two of them. We named Tenar after a character from one of our favorite book series, The Earthsea Cycle; Moody’s full name is Mad-Eye Moody, which is from the Harry Potter Books. They acclimated easily to life in our house. Tenar’s become a huge snuggler, which has been a pretty amazing development for such a wary cat. Watching her make the transformation from street cat to house cat has made me acutely aware of the life-changing effect basic kindness and security can have on a person (or cat).
Moody had what we’d taken to calling Jay Leno Jaw. We’d assumed that his jaw looked that way because of his genetics, but we thought it seemed to be growing. Then we were sure it was growing. Our friends at the Cat Clinic ran themselves ragged trying to figure out what it was: bacterial, fungal, some sort of tumor. Anything. But they couldn’t get any definitive results. They consulted with specialists around the country about what it could possibly be. Their frustration at not being able to figure it out was palpable. In the middle of all that confusion and sadness, knowing that they were doing everything they could was a great comfort.
Eventually the growth reached his jawline, and were we to keep him alive, we would most likely have to remove half his jaw. So we made the very difficult choice to put him down. He’d only been with us less than a year, and he was still so, so young. It’s been one of the most difficult deaths I’ve dealt with, because we barely got any time with him at all, and he was so kind and gentle. Two of our friends from the Cat Clinic came and put him down in our home, on our bed, where he was safe. He wasn’t afraid of them; I’m not the type of person to say that he’d made peace with it, but it certainly seemed like it. Maybe that’s just what I tell myself; I’m not sure.
They put him down and we all cried and talked about him and how much we loved him. That we had people who’d known him there to do the deed meant a great deal to us. I’d never lost anyone so soon after knowing them, and certainly not anyone who’d had the impact on my life that Moody did. I promised myself not to take the people/cats I loved for granted. Memories are fine, and good, but as time goes on, those things fade. The human brain literally changes our memories when we recall them, so our best option for appreciating those we care for is to live in the present, to be awake and aware. It’s something I still struggle with a great deal, but I have hope that I’ll get better at it.
After his death, they took the jaw and did some tests, and finally figured it out: bartonella. The theory was that whatever animal bit his head and took his eye also implanted the bacteria in his jaw. It grows very, very slowly, so it took months before we could see it taking hold, and even if we’d figured it out, there wouldn’t have been much we could do.
Oh, but that’s another sad ending!
That’s why I saved Squeaks for last.
My ability to love, to really love in a way that was healthy, had not really ever been very functional. I could love, yes, but that love was constantly knocked around by mental illness, strangled. My folks didn’t really model what a healthy relationship was. Actually, nobody modeled that for me, now that I think of it. So my love had been what I’d seen, what I’d had modeled for me: anxious, codependent, selfish, conditional. My time with cats had begun to change that. Not even my relationship with Beth had done that; we kept saying all these words to each other, words that could be misinterpreted, that had to be filtered through defenses, that carried too many anxieties to reach me. Human interaction is messy at best. Pets don’t really know how to be anyone else; they meet you where you are, and expect you to do the same, because what else would there be?
The day we found out that Lunchbox’s cancer had come back, Beth went to visit a photographer friend to buy a print we were giving as a wedding gift. When he asked Beth how she was doing, she told him what she’d found out. He comforted her and talked with her about it for a minute. Then he said:
“You wanna play with some kittens?”
There’s only one answer to that question, so moments later she was playing with kittens. A pregnant mama had broken into their basement and decided that this was a good place to have her litter. Among that litter was this little nugget:
She texted me this photo, and I knew. I knew right away. This was our cat. A week later, visiting my younger brother, she busted out that picture again to show him. I was… oh, drunk, I guess you could say. And I couldn’t stop gushing. I’d held my feelings back about the connection I felt to that little grayby (gray baby), but that night I wasn’t holding back. Beth could hear it in my voice. She texted her friend and asked if that little gray goober was still available.
When the kittens were weaned, we brought her home. I watched her play with a toy for a full hour. I couldn’t stop smiling. Something was happening to my heart.
“Oh, this one’s your cat,” Beth said. I didn’t understand what she meant. I figured it out, eventually.
She loves me. She loves me. I put off writing this part of this essay for weeks because it’s such a hard thing to explain that connection. I don’t want to be cheesy (or cheesier than I have been). I hope you know what I mean. I don’t think we’re psychically linked or anything like that. She’s slowly coming around to other people, but for a long time I was the only person she would let get close to her. But even that was fraught with problems at first. As she grew, she became a very quiet cat, thoughtful and shy, who couldn’t be tricked by laser pointers or other toys. She knows how the pointer works, and that there’s a hand somewhere controlling it. She knows how the cabinets work, as we learned when we woke up to a kitchen full of open cabinet doors. She meowed at us when we discovered it, and rubbed against our legs. She was proud of what she’d done. She’s playful, but on her own terms. And I had to learn those terms. I’ve been infinitely rewarded.
I could go on and on about this, and if you know me in real life, chances are you’ve heard me do exactly that. She’ll come sleep on top of me. She sits in my lap when I watch TV, read a book, or do some writing. She lets me rub her belly. I come find her when I’m feeling extra depressed, when I don’t know how I’m going to make it to the next day, and her purrs are a real sign that someone cares.
We’ve developed games together. They’ve all become classics in the house, like Grab the Finger, Butt Pats, Slide You Across the Floor, etc. Our favorite is Spaceship. It goes like this: she hops in a particular box, squeaks, then looks at me and makes friendly eyes. I reach down and shake the box a little, and she knows lift-off is coming. She hunkers down. I make the lift-off noise, and once she’s in the air she stands up tall to see everything she can. Once the thrusters engage, we fly around the house and look for adventures. And I hope we have adventures forever.
Cast of characters
Mario aka Mar-mar aka Mar-mar Superstar:
Otto aka Otto Teton aka Teet aka Otto Teton Deluxe Bucks aka The Peach:
Lunchbox aka Bots aka Beezer aka Beezer Gadoo:
Mad-Eye Moody aka Moody aka Stumbles:
Tenar aka Jackie aka Fat Seal aka Ten-heem aka Chubbsworth aka Huntress:
Squeaks aka Miss Squeaks aka Squeakers aka Baby Girl aka Weirdo Two-Eyes aka Baby Peel-outs aka Squonks: