Saturday, May 30, 2009

Seeking Shelter

In the days after the death of my cat, Boo (Mr. Arthur Radley), I was unable to write. Truthfully, I was barely able to function. I knew for months that he was leaving, but when the time came…. Well, this missive is not meant to be sad.

A surprising result of Boo’s passing has been learning how close my friends really are. We seek shelter in times of grief. (Well, some of us seek shelter continuously….) And so I have distanced myself from those who cannot understand, and been comforted by those who have stopped in their day to share their own grief at the passing of a pet. Every person has a story, and as I believe that animals are people, too, I know that each one has a story. Here is Boo’s story….

On a rainy day in November of 1998, my classroom door swung open at lunchtime and Nicole, one of my yearbook students, came in. She was holding the heavy poncho she’d worn to school that day gently in her arms as if it were the Christ child. Her long blonde hair was dripping raindrops. There were tears on her face. Her blue eyes were huge and filled with anxiety.

“Ms. Murphy, I need your help….”
Who could resist?

Nicole was an ‘ag’ student, spending most of her time on the working farm we had on campus, training horses, grooming lambs. That morning, she’d heard a commotion. Some boys were throwing rocks at something. Turned out to be a kitten.

“They were trying to kill it!” she sobbed.

She had the kitten wrapped in her poncho. Her plea was that I allow her to keep the kitten in my room for the remainder of the school day, as she was sure her mother would let her add this one little cat to the menagerie of animals they had at home. She just needed to stow it somewhere until after school. I lifted a fold of the poncho and peered in. Two huge eyes stared glassily from an all black face.

“Hey Boo,” I said.

Nicole made him comfortable in a corner of the room, then dashed off to math class, returning in an hour for yearbook class, during which time she laid on her belly with her arms outstretched, holding up a corner of her poncho and telling the kitten all about what his new home would be like. The bell rang, she scooped him up, and ran off to meet her mom at the car, thanking me as she hurried away.

Fifteen minutes later she was back, sobbing uncontrollably. Mom said no.

“Do you want him?” she asked.

Again, who could resist? I had a black cat at home already—Calpurnia—and she would not be happy with this little upstart. But I honestly didn’t expect him to live. He was terribly thin, obviously in shock, and his fur was dull and lifeless. Well, he could die comfortably at my house. When I said, “Sure,” Nicole handed the bundle to me, poncho and all, and walked off into the rain. She was crying too hard to say good-by.

I drove home with the tiny kitten in my lap. He didn’t move or make a sound, convincing me all the more that he probably wouldn’t survive.

I fixed him up with a small litter box in the bathroom, and some food and water, but he wasn’t interested, just dove under the bed and stayed there. That night, just as I drifted off to sleep, I heard his timid scratchings in the litter, his tiny teeth chomping up the cat food. This pattern repeated over several days; I would come home and look under the bed, reaching my hand under to scratch him gently on the neck with my finger. He would stare at me with his huge eyes, unmoving. But later I would hear him sneak out….

As soon as I could, I took him to my vet. Dr. Olmstead made a fuss over him, telling him how “wonderful” he was—despite his sixth toe on each front foot, apparently due to inbreeding. “He’ll be fine!” she said cheerfully. And she was right.

The next day when I came home and repeated my routine of scratching his neck and telling him about my day, Boo began to purr. It was a huge, big kitty purr coming from a tiny body. He soon grew into his purr. Each night as I sat at the computer, writing, I would pick him up and settle him in my lap—until he was simply too big to fit in my lap any longer (though he never stopped trying for the rest of his life). It took weeks for him to show himself during the day, but when he finally did, he strolled out into the kitchen one morning as I was making tea and said, “Meow!” enthusiastically.
“Meow, Boo,” I said.
And “Meow!” he replied again. We would repeat this conversation every morning for the next eleven years.

Eventually, after he was neutered, I allowed him to go outside, to wander in our yard and the neighbor’s, which he loved. Much to my dismay, he was a fierce predator, killing birds far too frequently but also keeping any and all gophers out of the garden. He loved being outside at night, but would come in sometime around 1:00 or 2:00a.m. and insist on climbing onto my chest—especially if it had been raining. He would not stop rubbing his face on my face until I began to pet him. Then he would settle in with the Big Purr that could go on for hours.

It was a tough adjustment for Boo when I moved to the mountain. I thought he was getting elderly enough to slow down. But no. He was impatient in the months I made him stay in, but he kept himself busy ridding the cabin of mice. When I finally did let him outside—under supervision—the first thing he did was pounce on a chipmunk. He loved climbing up to the loft in the afternoon and sitting in the window seat (which I’d relinquished to him, covering it with his favorite cushy bed). Sometimes in the summer I’d go up, slide the window open and sit with him, reading or watching the birds outside.

I think I loved this cat so much because he really did fit the character of Boo Radley. He never lost his fear of humans—except for me and my son, who practiced saying “Meow” in the Boo way until he had it down perfect, and Boo would respond to him in kind. He was reclusive and nocturnal, but he was always a gentleman cat.

As I write this, my other cat, Sugie, sits in my lap, purring—just as Boo used to do. She has been a comfort to me in the weeks since his passing, and she tried, as best she could, to mother him during his illness, checking on him often, and kissing his head. She has been a bit clingy since Boo passed on, rarely leaving my side when I’m at home. But she’ll adjust… and so will I… and eventually there will be another cat, undoubtedly black, who needs a safe haven. Or perhaps I am the one in need. Either way, we will find each other.