The Stray Trust of a Small Friend

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When my friend Steve and I were dating back in the mid-nineties, we had a knack for finding strays — a coyote stuck in a storm drain, an injured seagull at the park, a mourning dove chick we nursed in a flowerpot hung from a branch. I suppose he and I were strays, too, in a way. He was just out of a long marriage, and I was finding my way in a new town with a new business.

When we bought our house in 1999, it was no surprise that it came with its own stray — a small black cat with bright yellow eyes we cursorily named Little Black Kitty.

He showed up randomly, back then, making his way across the front yard to his home under the neighbor’s garage. We’d bring food to him, but he’d hide in the bushes and wait for us to go inside before hungrily finishing his meal.

Our house was cat-full back then — C.J., Crystal and Emily were living with us at the time — but we soon considered Little Black Kitty part of our extended family, and watched out for him as much as we could. One winter, we made our way in ankle-deep snow with flashlights to push a warm fleece blanket into the crawlspace nextdoor, hoping it would ease the cold for him just enough.

In the spring, Little Black Kitty arrived, no worse for the winter-wear, on the picnic table in the back yard. It became habit then — and an unspoken promise — that when he showed up on the picnic table, he would get fed.

By the time Steve moved out in 2004, Little Black Kitty was a fairly regular visitor, though random. Sometimes only a day or two would pass, sometimes weeks…or months. I had no idea where he went in between visits. Did he still live under the neighbor’s house? Did someone else feed him? Take him in for the winters?

I longed to take him inside myself, to make him part of the family, but I needed to work on getting him to trust me, first. By then, we’d been meeting at the picnic table for five years, but I had yet to get close enough to even pet him!

I started staying outside when I fed him, standing at the door, then several feet away, gradually closer and closer as he’d allow. One day, when it seemed right, I brought a dish of food outside and crouched to the ground — waiting for him to come to me. “Come here,” I encourage softly, “come here.” He studied the situation from a few feet away, as I balanced myself and tried not to move. Then slowly, he came closer. And closer. Until there we were, inches from each other — his head bowed into the dish — trusting.

And so it went for a while — Little Black Kitty would show up at the picnic table, I would bring food, sit on the ground, and he would eat there in front of me. Until one afternoon, when he fell to the ground, arched his back, and rubbed himself against my feet. Kitty affection at its best, I was full of joy!

After that day, Little Black Kitty became more and more comfortable with my presence. He would show up at the picnic table, catch my eye and meet me at the back door to wait. He let me pet him, and eventually pick him up for small amounts of time, but he never stayed long. His schedule was still as random as it had been in the beginning — days or weeks or months in between visits. But those moments of trust continued, like old friends meeting up after time apart.

I hadn’t seen Little Black Kitty in almost a year when he showed up on the picnic table this summer, just weeks after Emily died. Perhaps he was finally ready to come inside, I thought. One evening, I sat on the back porch with the door wide open — “come in” I offered. Night after night for a week, I tried — “come in” — but he wasn’t ready.

He was ready to be a regular visitor, though, and began showing up every day for food and love. I took the opportunity of this new schedule to finally get Little Black Kitty to a vet — secretly hoping he was healthy enough to bring inside for the winter, for Lola…for me. Sadly, he carries the feline aids virus, so we’ve agreed to option B: daily feeding and a warm spot in the mudroom when the nights get too cold and weathery.

This past Monday was an especially bitter-cold night, and Little Black Kitty did not show up for food the next day. I couldn’t blame him, it was too cold for anyone to be outside. But when he didn’t show up on Wednesday or Thursday, I was sure I’d seen the last of him. His age, his illness, the cold — surely it had finally taken its toll.

I was in tears at the thought that I would not see my little friend anymore, that I’d been remiss in letting him know, one last time, how much I loved him and how grateful I was for his ongoing, beautiful example of trust.

And then there he was — yesterday! On the picnic table, waiting. I raced outside, scooped him up without hesitation and held on as tightly as he’d allow. And without hesitation, he started to purr and nuzzled into me — hello.

• • •

©2013, Jen Payne

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When You Know It’s Right

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It’s easy, sometimes, to question our decisions. To wonder if we’re heading in the best direction, making the right choices.

We look for signals or confirmation. A little fanfare. We want validation, maybe even a gold star — or an A+ written in red somewhere.

But atta-girls don’t always come loudly. Sometimes they arrive softly…in the form of a sweet little cat who jumps into your lap for the first time and lets you know you’re both right where you’re supposed to be.

©2013. Photo: Lola and Jen and a TV.

Read more about Lola here.

Lola Kisses

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Here name was Lola…and I first spotted her on the Pet Finder website. For days after, I heard Barry Manilow singing in my head and kinda knew then that Lola was coming home with me.

I didn’t get to meet Lola in person until last Saturday, when I spent well over an hour visiting with her and her friends at the Branford Compassion Club’s Feline Rescue and Adoption Center.

The Branford Compassion Club (BCC) is a local non-profit feline rescue organization that was founded in 1997. Their mission 
is to provide for the feeding, shelter and care of homeless, abandoned and feral cats; to educate the public about the importance of spay/neuter population control, responsible pet ownership and kindness to animals; and to establish an ongoing community network to achieve these goals.

There were over 75 cats at the Adoption Center, including a number of senior cats and kittens. Many roamed free in common areas and were quick to greet visitors. Others were isolated in smaller “quiet” rooms to get acclimated to the world and to humans.

Some, like Lola, did not have very good impressions of humans. She’d been found injured on the streets of New Haven in 2012, with a severe case of road rash from being thrown from a car.

Our first meeting was tentative — she walked by me, around me, and near me several times before giving me a soft, short nudge then retreating to her corner of the room.

I debated taking Ziggy, a cute gray striped kitten, home instead. There was Bill, the big old tiger cat, and Stanley, a dark grey shorthair with a white goatee. Cricket, an orange tabby, was as friendly as Boo Boo, the black and white kitty with the stubby tail. But still, I kept coming back to Lola.

When I told BCC volunteer Pat that I wanted Lola, she gave me a big hug.

Lola came home with me on Monday. While she spent most of that first day under the couch, I was delighted that she followed me upstairs at bedtime, and made herself comfortable at the foot of the bed until morning.

On Tuesday, she seemed a little braver, a little more comfortable in her new surroundings, venturing out from under the couch more and more throughout the day.

By Wednesday, she seemed accustomed to noises — the traffic outside, the air conditioners, the television voices. Her posture was more relaxed, and she made her first foray onto the screen porch for some afternoon breezes.

This morning, we woke up around 7, me beneath a pile of blankets and Lola curled easily into the crook of my knee. I called to her and blew a kiss and she came over and kissed right back.

Her name was Lola, and I think we’re going to be good friends.

Cat Lessons

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You don’t know, when you first meet each other, how this new relationship is going to unfold. You just know that your heart is open to it.

Emily and I met 17 years ago. I opened the local paper one day and saw a classified ad that read Kittens! Kittens! Kittens! Free! Free! Free! An hour later I was driving home next to a tiny gray and white creature with beautiful green eyes. Emily Kabuki — Emily after my favorite poet and Kabuki, because her first Mom and Dad thought her face looked like a Japanese theater mask. It was Emily K for short, then Em Shoo, and later sometimes just Em.

What I didn’t know that day was that Em was a one-person kitty. She loved to sit with me in my chair. She loved to curl up in the crook of my knee at night. She loved to be the center of attention.

She did not love to share. So when I adopted a cat named C.J, and then Crystal came to live with us, Em turned from a tiny lovable little thing, to a big, grouchy cat who wanted nothing to do with her sisters, or with me, quite frankly.

Em was the alpha kitty and never us forget it. She beat up on the other cats pretty often. She ate all their food and gained lots of weight. She didn’t like to be pet or touched too much. She was not the most fastidious of cats, and her litter box indiscretions were notorious.

There were times over the years when I’d thought I’d had enough. When I thought about finding her a new home and a new family. But who would take and love this fat, stinky, mean cat?

I would. And I did, because on that very first day I made a promise that I would take care of her and love her. I made a promise.

And because of that promise, I learned an awful lot about love and tolerance, about patience. About trust.

C.J. left our family in 2008. We said goodbye to Crystal in 2011. And then there were two — Emily and me.

In the fall of 2010, Em had surgery on a couple of small tumors near her ears. When she came home from the vet, I realized, almost immediately, that she could no longer hear.

Over the years, Em had developed a pretty impressive vocabulary of understanding that included Bluejay and Cardinal, Smartfood and bagel, brushin’ and outside. Knowing she could no longer hear them, I began to use hand signals for the most important: come here, come up, hungry? and it’s OK.

She started to understand, and so did I. No matter my indiscretion of bringing other cats into her house, she trusted me. And she knew I would take care of her.

The past two years with Em were like living with a totally different cat. She loved to be in the house by herself and quickly let go of her defenses. Her deafness brought a new layer of calm, since she was no longer startled by loud noises or the traffic outside.

Her days were measured by light and vibration, shadow and touch. She greeted me at the sound of footprints and meowed at shadows across her face. She knew morning by the flicker of the bathroom light, and night by a soft pat on her belly — come up.

She sat with me in my chair again. And slept curled in the crook of my knee often.

And that is how we spent our days, the two of us here in this house — because our hearts were finally open to it.

The Story of a Cat Named Crystal

Once upon a time, there was a cat named Crystal.

“Aw, c’mon Aunt Jen, you can do better than that!”

“OK, Crystal. Ahem…”

Once upon a time, there was an amazing pilot and synchronized swimmer named Crystal.

“Much better.”

“Can I continue?”

“Oh, by all means. Please. Continue.”

Once upon a time, there was an amazing pilot and synchronized swimmer named Crystal. She had lots of stories to tell, and often told them out loud for friends and family.

I first met Crystal in 1996, when she lived with her dad Steve and her sister Calico. She reminded me of both my fifth-grade best friend Becky and Mog the Forgetful Cat, written about by Judith Kerr.

“Remind them that the picture above is Mog and not me, please. I am much prettier.”

I used to read about Mog (pictured above) when I was a little girl, and remember well the adventures she would have—she flew like birds and got lost in the garden and scared off a burglar.

We never learned Crystal’s first story—how she came to be wandering around Steve’s condo complex with a tin can stuck on her head.

“It was not a shining moment, Aunt Jen.”

But there were many more stories in the time we got to spend with her.

Crystal and Calico were great sisters in their short time together. They played together, they slept curled up around each other, and even cleaned each other. When Calico was leaving us, an energy healer and psychic told us she wanted a toy. But when we brought home a round white puff ball with colorful ribbons, Calico wanted nothing to do with it. Crystal, on the other hand, loved it. Just last week, actually, she brought out “Wooly Booly” and tossed it around a bit.

“That was a gift from your sister Calico so you would not be lonely,” I always reminded her.

In 1999, Crystal’s family grew to include me and my two cats, Emily and C.J., when we all came to live here in this little house together.

“Truth be told, there was no love lost there.”

We hoped the three of them would get along, but we settled for “co-exist” and life moved on.

One winter night, Steve and I raced out of the house on a family emergency. When we arrived home several hours later, we noticed a strange creature moving excitedly around our legs in the dark. It was Crystal! She’d gotten out of the house when we left and had been outside in the snow for hours. In the morning, we could see her adventure spelled out in paw prints—out the kitchen door, up the front walk to peek in the front door, around the side of the house to the back yard, up on the picnic table to check it out, and back to the kitchen door, where she sat and waited for us to come home.

It was at this home that we first learned of Crystal’s piloting prowess—one night while she sat in a cardboard box and scanned the horizon for fighter pilots. She regaled us, then, of her adventures—the near misses and successful landings and other piloty kind of things.

She told stories to anyone who would listen—Steve and I while we watched TV at night. Friends and family who came to visit. Clients who stopped by the office. She’d bounce-walk in, excited for the audience, and start off…“Excuse me?” Then tell us lots of stories about lots of things. She always had something to say about everything.

She loved pet words especially, and somehow managed to weave them into every story:

“When I received my gold medal for synchronized swimming, I got to wear a PETticoat. Ha!”

“I CATegorically refuse to sit on the couch with that big cat Emily. Truth be told.”

She was brash and sarcastic and funny. She said things I would never dare to say out loud, and had an imagination that unfurled as far as the eye could see.

When Steve moved away in 2004, Crystal pleaded her case.

“But Da-aad, I wanna to stay here. You won’t have a screen porch. And who’s gonna take care of Aunt Jen?”

“I’ll tell ya what, YOU take Emily, and I’LL stay HERE.”

I think she was very excited to be able to stay with me, because she talked an awful lot those first few months after Steve moved. She talked to me in the morning while I woke up and made coffee; she talked to me at night as she wandered up the stairs and down, up the stairs and down. She sat on the back of my desk chair and swatted her tail in my face while she asked how things were going. She’d open the door from the screen porch and poke her head in:

“Hi Aunt Jen.”

“Hi Crystal.”

“Hi Aunt Jen.”

“Hi Crystal.”

It was a game we played. Often.

We were all worried when, in 2009, Crystal had her first episode. She moved in slow-motion across the floor, as if her legs weren’t communicating well with her brain. It passed quickly, but she looked up at me a little startled:

“Whatthefuckwasthat?”

Her doctor discovered a heart murmur, among other things, and in that moment we all realized Crystal was getting older. She was at least 14 at the time, which is about 80 years old for us humans. What it meant was thyroid medicine and heart medicine and extra bowls of water and kitty steps by the bed and regular visits to the vet.

“We’re on a waitansee,” Crystal would explain.

It’s that time in a pet’s life when you realize how blessed you have been. When you watch this little creature trust you, and look to you for help, and know that you’re going to “waitansee” right there with them.

And that’s what we did. We waited and watched over her with lots and lots of love.

On Thursday, Crystal was ready to take off for her next adventure. She took her time—sleeping late and slowly making her way to the screen porch for some pretty spring sunshine. Emily checked in on her a couple times. Steve came to visit. And we stayed with her until she was ready leave.

“Goodbye Aunt Jen.”

“Goodbye Crystal.”

• • •

Illustration from Mog the Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr.