There’s so much in life over which we have no control, and most of what we think we control is an illusion we allow ourselves to believe for the sake of some sanity and security. This is why I love being a human companion to animals. It is the one thing I can do in this world where I really think I make other lives better, to say nothing of my own. And because I’m good at it. Really, really good at it.
My first animal companion was a sweet tuxedo kitty I named Possum. Man, he was handsome. A big tom with a black face, tons of long white whiskers, and a wide white bib on his chest that funneled down to his belly in a tornado-like pattern. We met when I was 25 and at the lowest point in my life — a quarter-life crisis of epic proportions. After a year in the city, I had just rented my first apartment of my own. It was meager and barely furnished, and I earned so little that I was working three jobs to afford it. I had no idea where my career was going, much less what I wanted out of life. I was single. I was lonely. I was severely depressed. I was on Prozac. I was in therapy. In short, I was a mess. During my visit home for Thanksgiving, my mother took me out for a day downtown. It had been a lovely afternoon, and but I was exhausted as we drove home and looking forward to bed. She had lost our family cat of 16 years earlier in the year and was finally ready to adopt a new companion and was working hard to convince me to make a stop at the no-kill shelter down the street from her house on the way home so she could look for a pair of kittens. I knew that was a fool’s errand in November, but she seemed really eager, so I relented.
There he was curled up in the back of his cage — everything I didn’t want. He had markings like our recently-passed cat. He was male, and we had always been told that male cats were a pain in the ass (where did anyone get that idea?!). And he was a cat. I didn’t want a cat. I wasn’t ready for a cat. I could barely take care of myself. I couldn’t even keep a houseplant alive, and I was convinced that I was in no position to take care of another mammal. I felt like spun glass inside, and I just knew I couldn’t handle it. But there he was. Not even looking at me in a cage with a handwritten sign that said:
Please take me home
There’s nothing wrong with me, I’ve just been here too long
Something about that sign made me open the cage and pull him out. He was a big, heavy cat who immediately uncoiled his heft and folded into my chest. I held him close and the tension left his body as he melted against me and tucked his hard little head under my chest and let out a whimpering sigh into my throat. Lightning struck. Tears rolled down my cheeks, and in that moment I knew love at first sight was real, even though I hadn’t even gotten a good look at the object of my affection. I just felt suddenly inexplicable whole like I’d found a piece of me I wasn’t even aware I was missing.
“I’m taking him home,” I told my mother.
“What? Are you serious?”
“Yes. Deadly. He’s mine.”
“Honey, are you sure? You didn’t even want to come here.”
“I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life. This cat belongs with me. I’m taking him home.”
“You sure you don’t want to take a couple of days to think about it?”
“I’m sure. So, so sure. He’s coming with us tonight. There’s nothing to think about.”
When I took him up to the front desk, still curled up under my chin, the staff was agog.
“The doughnut cat? No one wants the doughnut cat,” the lady behind the counter told me, incredulously.
“The doughnut cat? What are you talking about? This is the cat I want.”
“Yeah, the doughnut cat.”
“Why do you keep calling him that?”
“What position was he in in his cage when you found him?”
“Well, curled up in a ball, actually. Kind of like a doughnut.”
“Exactly. He’s been in that position since he came here over a month ago. He never unfurls. He eats, but we never see him do it. We pull him out of the cage in that doughnut shape to clean in there, but he stays curled up and then we put him back in there the same way — like a doughnut. It’s why nobody’s considered him.”
“Yeah, well, I want him. I want the doughnut cat.”
My mom was the one to fill out the paperwork and officially adopt him, because I lived outside the area, but he was mine. The best nothing I ever spent. We took him home to my mother’s that night, where he spent the entire night under her guest bed. When I drove him to my house the next day, he dove under my bed and stayed there for three weeks. I called my mother crying. Saying it wasn’t going to work out. I was sure he hated me. I wasn’t going to be a good person for him. He was miserable. He would never love me. I was a failure. I was about to give up.
And then my brother got sick.
It was his first semester away at college — my alma mater — two hours south. He called me one night saying he was diagnosed with strep during his exam week. He was running a high fever and too ill to care for himself much less take his tests. He’d been to the doctor and needed to leave school. My place was closer than Mom’s, so I got in the car and drove down there that night. Found him shivering and near delirious in his dorm room bed, packed a bag, stuffed him in the car, bought him a Wendy’s frosty for his burning throat on the way out of town, and hauled ass up the Valley back to my place where I deposited him into my bed for the next week. Two days later, I came home from work to find him awake.
“Hey, you’re up,” I said.
“Yeah. And guess who came out from under the bed today.”
“Way. I laid here talking to him, and he came out from under to investigate. Didn’t stay long, but he came out.”
And so it went like that. He laid in my bed recovering for the next several days while I went to work, and while I was gone, he stayed there like a constant, reassuring presence talking sweet, patient, enticing words to the scared kitty under his mattress. Little by little, he earned Possum’s trust, until I came home at the end of the week to find him sitting up in bed stroking the cat curled up in his lap. As I walked into the bedroom, my brother put a finger to his lips to silence me and gave a devilish smile and a nod as he pointed to the little victory on the blanket before him. They both looked so content, and my heart just soared. It was a turning point.
Possum and I spent 12 wonderful years together. He was the chattiest boy. Constantly talking and answering me. Smart as a whip. A fearsome mouser. He took off into the swampy woods behind my mother’s house for a month during our first summer, and I thought for sure I’d lost him forever until my brother caught him and brought him back home to me. I drove down that very night to collect him, stripped out of my clothes, scooped his skinny, filthy little body up into my arms and got right into a bath with him. He laid on my chest and let me wash him, and then I wrapped us both up in a towel and crawled into bed with him still sleeping on my chest…and he hadn’t moved an inch when I woke the next morning. Both of us wrapped up together still slightly damp. Him sleeping the sleep of the righteous. He was my traveling buddy, driving up and down the East Coast together for years — long haul stretches that would take an entire night and day — and then eventually going across the country with me. He stayed in hotels. Rode in elevators. He was my familiar. A separate animal embodiment of my soul. Would do anything I asked of him as long as he was with me, and if something was stressful, he would just tuck his little face into the crook of my arm and do that little whimpering sigh of his. But he trusted me. Always always trusted me.
He trusted me when the busted vertebrae in his back — an injury he sustained as a kitten before I adopted him, possibly from someone kicking him — started to give and almost paralyzed him. He let me hold him as the neurologist MRI’d him so they didn’t have to sedate him. The vet recognized that being in my arms would calm him enough to let them do what they needed. He trusted me to care for him as he recovered from surgery with an eight-inch incision down his shaved back. He trusted me when we had to do the MRI again a year later to diagnose the cancer in his small intestine that I already knew was there just by touching his increasingly-bony little body. I didn’t need a doctor to tell me what Possum had already told me himself, but still. He trusted me as I popped steroids into him daily for two months to help give him a soft landing. And, most importantly, he trusted me as I laid on the end of my bed and held him in my arms as the vet shaved his front leg and inserted the catheter to deliver the drugs that would end his life. He was a hour from a painful death, at best. His eyesight had failed him earlier that afternoon while staring at my face. His eyes just suddenly dilated and he started searching and calling for me while still looking right at me. I knew he couldn’t see me anymore, but I knew he could hear me, and so I kept talking to him softly. Telling him I loved him until the very end. Thanking him for taking such good care of me. Thanking him for seeing me as far down the road as he could. Asking him to go ahead and wait for me. Asking him to send me a message when he got there to let me know he was ok.
And then, he was gone.
I’ve never cried harder in my life. I didn’t even cry like that when my father died. He left me six weeks before I lost my dad, and it’s almost like he made his exit when he did to prepare me for the bigger job to come. He was my buddy ’till the end. And I was devastated.
Even though my wonderful vet was kind enough to come to my house to euthanize him in the comfort of my bedroom, I insisted on being the one to drive his lifeless little body the thirty minutes back down to the vet’s office. I couldn’t let someone pack him up into a box and drive off with him like cargo. Not after all our days on the road. I owed him one last trip together, and so I bundled him up into his favorite car blanket and traveled with him one last time as the sun set. I stroked his little head and talked to him, glad that I’d kept my promise that he wouldn’t leave this world without me. Without knowing he was loved. That I would keep him safe and comfortable to the very end. That my face was the last thing he saw in this world. That he left with my voice in his ears. I’d stood my ground between him and disaster for a dozen years. I’d given him a good life. I’d done my job. I’d gotten it right. And still, it took the vet almost a half hour of sweet talk and comforting to get me to turn that limp little body over to him. I just couldn’t say goodbye. I drove home alone in the dark clutching the empty blanket and slept hugging it for weeks after before I packed it away in the closet forever.
The day after I lost Possum, I called into work in the afternoon and laid down to take a nap. I was just wasted and couldn’t deal with the world. Losing my friend…my Dad in the hospital…all of it was too much. I just needed to close my eyes and leave this world for a few hours. And so, I drifted off and had the most vivid dream about my cat. When I woke in my bed four hours later, it was dark outside, and my first thought, surprisingly, was immediately of another cat. A cat I’d seen at a local shelter and fallen in love with six months before but hadn’t adopted because he was FIV+, and everyone told me he’d be a health threat to Possum. After three weeks of internal struggle, I’d given up on the kitty and adopted my dog instead. I put the other cat out of my head and promptly forgot about him. And now, here I was with my cat gone and my dog sniffing around constantly for his friend and peeing in the house out of grief and a day later my mind was already on another animal. I immediately started the self-flagellation. I expected it to be months or years — or never — before I even thought about considering possibly adopting another cat. And yet…what kind of disloyal asshole does that? But lo and behold, I rolled over and pulled up the shelter’s website on my phone only to find that they still had the kitty in question listed as up for adoption. The next day I called about him and found that it wasn’t an error — he still needed a home. I continued to beat myself up about it the next night and went to a friend to talk about it.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “Didn’t you ask Possum to send you a message letting you know that he’d arrived safely? That he was looking out for you?”
“Yeah. I did.”
“Has it not occurred to you that this might be that message? That he knows what will heal you more than you do? That kitty needs a home, and Possum knows you have a good one to give.”
I went to see the cat the next day. He was just as sweet and adorable as I’d remembered — the warm, welcoming ambassador of his room. He greeted me at the door and curled up in my lap, rolling over for belly rubs from a stranger. I was instantly in love again. The woman at the shelter was thrilled that I’d come in.
“I can’t believe you’re looking at him,” she said. “He’s the most special cat, but he’s been here almost two years, and we were just saying yesterday that we’re about to give up on him getting a home. And here you are.”
“Yeah. Here I am.”
I filled out the adoption application. My brother flew out to spend the weekend with me, because he knew I was a grieving mess, and it was his turn to help me recover. He and I cleaned the house from top to bottom, and then he said, “Let’s go get your cat.”
We drove to the shelter and walked into the room where my kitty was housed. Brother set the crate down on the floor and opened the door. The cat walked right into the box, and brother closed the door behind him and walked him up to the front where I paid the adoption fee. The best $35 I ever spent. I still have the faded, barely legible receipt in my wallet as a souvenir.
I brought him home and opened the crate. Ten minutes later, he and Bumble, my dog, were best friends. I named him Kabuki and we spent the night laughing at him bouncing the house and exploring. Bumble never peed in the house again. That night, Kabuki curled up by my side and patiently comforted me as my heart started to heal, asking nothing of me in return. And so my home started to heal, too. And I petted and held him in the morning. I thanked him. I called him “Possum’s cat.” And I still do.
Ten months later, I adopted a second kitty, Humbug, while my brother and sister-in-law visited for the holidays. He was a sweet little guy dumped by his previous owners who came to the shelter as a “lost and found.” Lost, my ass. That cat totally knows how to find his way back to his people. He was lost like you lose a piece of trash you throw out of your car window in the interstate, and he has abandonment issues ten miles wide because of it. We brought him home on Christmas Eve. He and Kabuki hated each other and fought for 40 hours, and then gave in and became best friends or gay cat lifemates or something like that. You’d think they were litter mates. Both black cats, they are constantly joined at the hip during the day as they hang out in the house and maraud the neighborhood like a couple of thugs and then sleep in each other’s arms at night with their bodies wound around each other — when Kabuki isn’t sleeping in the bathtub with Bumble. I know. It’s weird. Don’t ask.
Long story short — my boys are a peaceable kingdom. All of them are seniors. All were adopted from shelters or rescues. Three animals nobody wanted. Three animals the world discarded like trash because they were too big, too sick, or too old despite the fact that all three of them are healthy and happy and hilarious and absolutely perfect. Three brothers from another mother. An unstoppable team. Unfazed by anything bad that happened to them before me. Abandonment, betrayal, starvation, even the shrapnel from a pellet gun one of them has embedded deep in his body — none of that soured them on this world or the people in it. Their sweet personalities belie none of their harsh prior realities. And for me, life with them is very different than the life I had with Possum. Different, but just as wonderful. They are loving and loyal and always by my side. I have a very unique bond with each of them, and they with each other. When one gets in trouble, the other two come running. They all sleep together on the giant dog bed in the living room — and sometimes I join them. I lay in the yard in the evening and eat my dinner and read for my classes with them curled up cuddling against me, and sometimes we nap out there in the sun like that where the whole world can see us. My little bodyguards, they sleep in my bed and next to it at night. They look at me with love and adoration, and the feeling is mutual. They hang out in the bathroom on the floor and toilet and in the sink while I shower in the morning. All three of them pile in the car for trips to the vet.
We take a walk in the neighborhood each evening (and sometimes during the day) — an army of animals following me around the block chatting to each other as we go, and nobody on a leash, and they all come when called. People look at me like I’m some kind of witch with a huge white dog and two chatty black cats with jangling bell collars in tow. An enchantress who charms pets. I am the crazy animal lady. The neighbors point and take pictures and talk to each other about me and my goofy menagerie. I hear about me from people who don’t know me or realize they’re telling a story about a nutcase to the actual nutcase in question. It’s ok, because they’re in awe really, and I can’t blame them. It’s pretty amazing. I didn’t train the boys to walk off-leash with me and together; it just happened. They decided to do it on their own, and now it’s routine. And I trust them to know what they’re doing and where they’re going. They all survived without me for most of their lives, so they’re capable. Those three animals are free to go and should totally take off, but they are with me — with each other — by choice. We are a home, because that’s how each of us wants it to be. If someone hangs back or wanders away during a stroll, the other three of us wait up or go looking for him, because nobody gets left behind. That’s how it is with me and my boys. That’s how it is with family.
Tonight, Bumble and Kabuki and I took our night walk just the three of us. Humbug was tired from romping outside all evening and chose to stay home. As we rounded the backside of the block, I noticed the shadows of a man and a dog coming toward us on the other side of the street. As I know Kabuki is terrified of dogs who aren’t Bumble and was likely to take off into the nearest bushes to take cover, I reached down and grabbed him from the sidewalk where he was winding around my legs and scooped him up into my arms. He got a look at the oncoming dog and started to struggle to get away, but I just held him close and kept walking.
“Shhhh,” I said, cradling and kissing him, my nose inhaling the soft, earthy scent of his furry head. “It’s ok, baby. I got you. No one’s going to hurt you. Relax. I got you, buddy.”
As we walked along with the dog at our side standing guard, he gave up his fight and went limp in my arms, leaning the weight of his body into my mine in a show of resignation and trust and let me carry him down the sidewalk in the cool, lilac-scented spring night. And then, he did the most amazing thing. He tucked his little face into the crook of my arm so he couldn’t see what scared him and let out a soft, whimpering sigh just like Possum used to. And I got the message.
This I could do. No matter what else the world throws at me, no matter how else I fail, my capability and capacity to love means I can hold a scared animal in my arms and instantly make him feel safe just by being me. I can’t fix what happened to them in the past before they were mine and I theirs. I can’t keep them with me forever. But I alone can chase away the threats and make it all ok during the time we have together. I alone can provide the home and sanctuary. It is the greatest privilege and responsibility and honor I could ask for and be granted. I do not take it lightly, and my companions don’t fail to thank me for it. My love makes things right for them, and being their friend makes things right for me as much as it does for them. And if that’s magic, I’ll gladly work it.