The Cat Who Came For Christmas

“Thou art the Great Cat, the avenger of the Gods, and the judge of words, and the president of the sovereign chiefs and the governor of the holy Circle; thou art indeed…the Great Cat.” – Inscription on the Royal Tombs at Thebes

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 It was Christmas time in England.  The great Wimbledon Common adjacent to our village was a rolling sea of frozen white after a hard frost.  I looked out the window and sighed.  After living abroad for two years, we could no longer avoid delivering on a promise made years earlier to our daughter, Brooke, that she would receive a kitten at the age of eight.

 Spring is lambing season and frankly, every other animal’s time of conception.  In the thick of a foggy, cold winter no animal in England gives birth, let alone moves until the dreary days of the winter solstice have passed.  Unphased by the odds of finding a furry companion for my daughter, I contacted every cattery, vet, animal shelter and pet shop within a 300 kilometer radius to no avail. The best I could turn up was a black ferret and of course, rabbits.  Miraculously, one store, Pets International Ltd. in southwest London, yielded a possible lead.  The owner was somewhat coy and wanted me to come in person.

 My visions of a massive pet-store filled with grinning kittens and puppies of every possible pedigree yielded to the hard reality of urban London as I passed Ladbroke’s off-track betting shops and abandoned buildings interrupted by the occasional Pig and Whistle pub.  I warily parked near the shop and entered the Twilight Zone.

 “Ahlooow, guv’nuh” the Cockney store owner bellowed.  He extended a filthy hand that he had wiped on his pants.  “Ron, git the white kit from the back, lad will ‘ya?” A hunched albino teenager with poor teeth shuffled into a maze of cages and sounds.  That was when the smell hit me like a wave of mustard gas.  It was like I had dived into a colossal dirty diaper that had been buried for weeks just beneath an inch of wood-shavings.  “ Yur a lucky one, you are, guv’nuh. Had a geezer in ‘ere yesterday that wanted to pay me two ‘undred quid for ‘er. “The boy brought out a filthy white kitten with watering eyes, a bloated stomach and a persistent sneeze. “ Oye,dah. I think she’s got the wurms.”  The owner shot a dirty look at the boy.

 “Well guv’nuh, that’ll be 180 quid ( pounds sterling )”.  “ 180 sterling ?  You have got to be kidding me ?  It’s just an ordinary house cat “ He sized me up and smiled a toothless grin and shook his head, feigning sympathy.  “ I seems to recall you sayin’ you wanted ‘er for yer li’l girl.  Like I said, a geezer was jus’ in ‘ere and was all set to pay”.  I asked him if he could wait a minute.  It’s hard to think when you are at the gunpoint of a modern day highwayman.  I called the vet and described the cat’s symptoms.  The vet was classically British and very non-committal, “well, mister Turpin.  I suppose you can wait until spring and find a nicer, healthier animal.  Or, you can rescue this poor creature.  She probably has ring worm, conjunctivitis and an assortment of other maladies. Nothing we probably cannot cure” ( I am sure you can….for another for a thousand pounds )

 This was not the way it was supposed to go.  This purchase was supposed to be a sort of Charles Dickens day at an animal Curiosity Shoppe owned by a Fezziwig character who had this amazing kitten with an IQ of an Oxford grad that smelled wonderful like warm chestnuts and Christmas.  We would drink hot rum and laugh about old times we’d never shared.  He was supposed to give me the cat for free with a promise that I tithe to the poor.  “Ok, I’ll take her …” I rolled my eyes.  I could have sworn the shop owner drooled.

 The drive home was a disaster.  The kitten yowled in her box and I took her out to comfort her in my lap – – bad mistake. Driving on left side of the road in London is chaotic and scary enough.  Try it with a scared kitten running up your neck.  The car lost control and I hit a trashcan, ending up on a curb.  I collected myself.  It was like a Farrelly Brothers movie as the cat flew at me in terror each time I set her down.  My car weaved wildly across Richmond Park and up the A3 to Wimbledon where I finally arrived home and honked for my wife as a signal.

 With the kids temporarily distracted, we ushered the kitten up to our bathroom and bathed her.  As dark, dirty water swirled down the tub, a fluffy snowflake with crystal blue eyes emerged, sneezed and then padded quietly over to the litter box and went to the “loo”.  She purred loudly as she curled in my wife’s lap.  “Oh, she’s so precious” she whispered.  I was nursing the scratches all over my neck and face.  Hopefully the local constable would not see me and assume I had accosted someone while jogging in the Common.

 After learning from the vet that the cat indeed had virtually every disease except Ebola, and lighter $ 400 for various medications, we returned home to hide the kitten in our bathroom.  For two long days, we dodged the children’s curious questions about our now, off limits bedroom.  Christmas Eve finally arrived.  The plan was to put the cat in a basket and have Brooke find the kitten that was left by Father Christmas.  The cat would not cooperate.  The cat was terrified of enclosed spaces and would fly at me with fur and claws and frantically tear around the house.  All night I tracked and captured the animal.  About 6 AM, in the dark dawn of a cold Christmas morning,  both cat and man were exhausted and I succeeded in corralling the animal long enough to place her in the basket.  Brooke came down the stairs and screamed with glee.  “ He brought her, he brought her…Father Christmas, how does he do it ?” Looking at those blue eyes, she said , “I think I will call her ‘Crystal’ ”. I sat exhausted, oddly feeling sorry for myself.  She’ll never know it was me.

 I understand now that perhaps anonymous giving is the most evolved form of stewardship.  I watched as Brooke whisked off her new best friend, while I unconsciously scratched the circular red rash on my neck.  The ringworm was already beginning to appear.

A Final Kiss for Miss Crystal

IMG_6671The doctor studied the malignant shadows on Crystal’s lungs as the weak arc of winter sun was being devoured by denuded trees. Amidst these winter solstice days, the world is trapped in permanent twilight.

Her breathing had been labored for the past few days and she had stopped eating.

“I really can’t tell if the fluid is from some type of heart failure or a mass in her chest.” He remarked absent-mindedly as he turned the X-Ray image sideways. “We probably need a EKG. She’s an old lady and well, these things happen. I suppose we can refer you to an oncologist but if it is a mass, you might do well to start thinking now about making arrangements.”

Arrangements?

“She could be in pain. There’s no way of knowing at this point until we drain the fluid and try to see what’s causing it. It’s not good though. For now, take her home and try to keep her comfortable.”

 Is there not a Sloan Kettering for cats?

It had been a long day and I was not emotionally prepared for a dinner discussion about palliative care, hospice or Dr Kevorkian. This was not just any cat. This was Crystal – – she-wolf of the pachysandra, eviscerator of all raptors and rodents and my literary muse. The vet seemed not to notice that his suggestion was asking our family to euthanize a section of our own hearts.

My wife looked as though she had been on the losing side of a Joe Louis fight. Her swollen eyes betrayed her maudlin day as she sat on the edge of a bed stroking the gaunt, aging lioness whose purr still thrummed like a 350hp engine.

It all hit me, the flood of memories: cats, dogs, fish, turtles, newts, snakes, hamsters, rats — all prematurely taken by automobiles, old age, ignorance, disease, other pets, and in one case, a cannibalistic sibling – a crime scene that still ranked in my mind with the Tate & LaBianca murders. There was never time for emotional preparation, we would return home from school only to be told of Frank, the alligator lizard’s untimely demise. We would mourn life’s cruel inequities. Each death would often be followed by a memorial worthy of a head of state. We would carefully prepare a shoebox coffin often with one of my mother’s expensive silk hand towels. On this particular day, we had gathered at the edge of a small dirt fissure near the back ivy yard fence. We gave everyone an opportunity to share stories about Jay, the kangaroo rat.

“He was a friend to every kid.” Someone said.

We used kite string to unevenly lower the cardboard shoebox into the dirt – the way my brother had seen Churchill slowly interned on television during his state funeral.

Yet, here I was, at 52, moved into adolescent depression by my cat’s terminal prognosis. In my slow shuffle across the sweeping steppe of middle age, I have come to accept that each life is indeed terminal but also understand, as Lincoln mused that “it is not the years of living but the living within the years” that counts. In time, a man may become the things he once ridiculed. As a young invincible, I routinely cast stones at death the way a child might throw rocks at headstones as I whistled passed a graveyard. I was convinced my broad mind and narrow waist would never change places.

This milestone was inevitable. Yet, I felt unprepared. Death, the thief, was once again scratching at my window wanting to steal my precious whiskered talisman into the night. In a life so jammed with preconditions and contingencies, I increasingly found delight in the simplest things – my favorite chair, my routine and the unconditional love I would receive from an ordinary white house cat.

In her youth, Miss Crystal expressed her unconditional love for us in macabre and graphic ways – often leaving what appeared to be a small lima bean or earth worm in a conspicuous location. Upon closer examination, the odd gifts were confirmed as the internal organs of some unfortunate rodent who could not even be identified by its dental records. Perhaps, the bequest was a spleen or a segment of intestine. She radiated feline conceit and like the Victorian mad man from east London, could perform complex surgery with a single talon. On the lethal day she arrived in a crate from JFK, rumors and raw fear began to circulate through the New Canaan rodent community of a new and terrifying Ripper, an alabaster Lizzy Borden that swept in like a silent avalanche capable of devouring rabbits and small dogs.

She was in fact, a Cinderella story of sorts – a rag to riches housecat rescued from near death in a grubby, ramshackle pet mill in southwest of London. She was a Father Christmas surprise for an eight-year-old girl who was homesick for friends after moving half way around the world to start a new life with her family.

“I’ll call her Crystal because she has such blue eyes.”

I had been chasing the kitten around the house for hours after she had escaped our bedroom late Christmas Eve. I could no longer disguise her existence as an increasingly suspicious and excited trio of children writhed in their early morning beds. As I smiled with satisfaction, I mindlessly scratched an itch on my arm which turned out to be ringworm, courtesy of our new family member. In time, we would endear ourselves to many families in SW19 as our cat became the local distributor for the loathsome skin disease.

Both cat and young girl eventually grew into women but they never stopped cuddling or consoling one across four thousand nights of adolescence. Nighttime would find them in deep conversation, a unilateral discussion about what to wear to school or perhaps who to invite to tea. She would visit me at night after the children had gone to bed, weaving between my legs like a pilot fish before leaping on to my desk and sitting on my paperwork, daring me to play by knocking every pen, pencil or moveable object off my desk. She would swat at my hand without bearing her claws, boxing and trying to lure me into a game of cat and crab.

She was like Wordsworth’s solitary cloud. Her purring reassured us, soothing our trauma in the months following 9-11. She padded her way through fifty-two seasons of life. She always seemed to sense when a gray cloud was crouching on one of our heads and would find us, coaxing us back into her world of gardens and butterflies.

Her foreign policy was fickle – a shrewd mixture of passive aggressive affection. It soon became apparent that she preferred women to men and children to adults. She would occasionally use her bodily functions as method of conveying her judgment of people, places and things. A male house sitter vowed never to return when a simple “present” was left right in the middle of his bed. It seemed to suggest that he spend the remaining evenings at his apartment.
Like most pets, she taught us responsibility, the risks and rewards of unconditional love, the vagaries of living with domesticated animals and the simplicity of sitting in a window watching as the world swirled all around you.

Time moved on and the English matron chose voluntary exile to the upstairs with the adoption of an Australian Shepherd pup. She loathed him and never forgave the Gods for upsetting her perfect only-child world. She lived with the girl, watching her grow into a woman – all the while weaving in between prom dresses, suitcases and increasingly long absences. In fits of loneliness, she turned to the inferior boys and on rare occasions would work her way down the stairs to yowl like an alley cat for attention. She resorted to exploring the house in the dead of night – an ancient Grace Pool exploring her former domain, ever wary of the jingling collar of her nemesis – the dog. She had gone from making history to being a relic of a waning age of innocence. Yet, she rested and waited for the girl to return – always appreciative of any affection and the attention that came when the upstairs would be once again crowded like a Pullman sleeping car.

I shift off of my stiff right shoulder. It’s now dark outside and the room is dimly lit. I sit on the floor, my arms stretched under bed where she rests in the dark – her sides scalping as she wrestles with lungs that cannot purge the fluid that keeps filling within them. The reassuring bustle of her purring rises each time I move my hand across her head and down her back. Her tail twitches with a slow rhythmic snap, a sign of happy fatigue. I scuttle my fingers across the floor emulating a crab. She half-heartedly swats at me and closes her eyes. The graying man and the snow-white grand dame now resting side by side. She moves closer and I touch my nose to hers, prompting her to lick her lips – a kiss goodbye. She falls into a fitful sleep and I descend down the stairs.

She’s still fighting the shadows so she might remain at our sides.  When she finally releases this life, she will be remembered like a singular snowflake.  Perhaps she will be reincarnated into a magnificent monarch butterfly or a tempestuous French actress.

One thing is for certain: Miss Crystal makes my weird little world a better place and leaves only love – and small rodent spleens — in her wake.