To all the cat ladies and catmen—you know who you are—this essay goes out to you. As kitten season approaches once again, I am reminded of how a tiny mew can become a lifelong friend and companion.
I confess that I am a cat lady. I come from a long and illustrious line of cat ladies and catmen. From the wild horde of feral cats my grandmother fed in her backyard in Fort Worth, to the working cats of my grandfather’s farm in Jacksonville, cats have always been a part of my life.
We had short-haired cats and long-haired cats, tabbies, torties, calicos, inside cats and outside cats and inside-outside cats. We had cats with perfect lovely meows, and cats who quacked, squeaked, trilled, yowled, and beeped (yes… there is just no other way to describe the sound). I loved them all.
Most of our cats found us—we didn’t seek them out—and this is a common experience among cat folk. My brother, who is an accomplished catman, once surmised that the cats must smell the lingering biological effect of toxoplasmosis from miles away. It’s an interesting theory. Or maybe they can smell kindness.
Back in the early 2000s, a little kitten found me. Or rather, he found my AC unit.
It was a very hot summer evening and I’d been home from work for a couple of hours. I had just started reading Stephen King’s collection of short stories, Everything’s Eventual, and was working on a cup of coffee. Above the roar of road noise and the whirring AC, beyond the captivation of a new book and good coffee, and from inside the house, I heard a tiny mew.
This is another common experience among cat folk. Like a mother’s ear is trained to hear a crying infant at great distance, we hear cats. And we don’t much care how strange we seem at times: roaming neighbors’ yards in pajamas, barefooted, coffee in hand, with an ever-evolving series of puzzled expressions. Standing in the middle of the yard with our eyes closed. Suddenly bee-lining to the side of the house. Staring at the AC unit. Lying in the grass, spooning the AC unit.
But let it be known, we are just hunting a tiny mew. And yes, we do question our grip on reality when we hear a cat in the air conditioner. We know this is not normal.
The tiny mew turned out to be a little brown kitten, who had apparently been in such a rush to hide that he had gotten himself wedged under the AC, between two sections of a poor excuse for a pallet. Naturally the lack of a proper foundation for the AC had escaped my notice prior. It was the most casual of wooden frames, even less organized and less sturdy than a pallet. I could tell that this baby cat was as horrified as I was that this rickety semi-structure was meant to stabilize the AC, likely weighing hundreds of pounds. I was afraid I might bump the thing while reaching for the little cat, and it might collapse, marking the bitter end of him (and my arm, too).
But we cat folk possess more common sense than you might think. We’re smarter than we look, especially in times like this.
I fished around for something I could use for leverage, if needed. Something to encourage the kitten to crawl out. I came up with a derelict piece of wood, probably in worse shape than the flimsy pallet, but it was the best I could do. I inched the piece of wood up under the AC with my foot on one side, ready to scoop the kitten up on the other side, all the while baby-talking the little thing, who was having none of it. Of course in my infinite cat folk wisdom I had neglected to turn the AC off, so the little cat probably couldn’t hear me anyway. But as luck would have it, the AC switched off. In that moment, the tiny mew found his courage and allowed a cat lady to whisk him to safety.
Some time later as I bathed the tiny, filthy, wiggly, flea-infested thing, I discovered that he was not in fact a brown cat at all. He was orange and white. I named him Lucky. He was skinny and his color wasn’t great, but he didn’t seem to be injured. So I stashed him in my downstairs bathroom and went door-knocking.
I figured out where Lucky had come from, which turned out to be only three doors down from my house. I also discovered that I was in surprisingly close proximity to a volatile domestic situation. And I returned home shortly with a lady’s blessing, as well as Lucky’s brother and solitary littermate, a little grey and white polydactyl who I named Vincent. Two princes and heirs to the kingdom, who could all too easily have been abandoned on that busy road had my ear not been trained on a little mew.
I couldn’t have known at the time what this trifling pair of wild cats would mean in my life, and in the lives of those close to me. I couldn’t have known that they would see me through two cross-country moves, and through college, and through the birth of my children. One can never know how far-reaching a simple act of kindness or compassion can be. These things are very literally spiritual. They make their own course, through us and around us, and like water they know no barrier.
We have a tendency in our culture to notice and focus on immediate, tangible, measurable things, and we often lose sight of the long game. In the realm of animal rescue, the current name of the game is numbers: intakes, save rates, placement rates, per-animal expenditures. But the long game does not lend itself to these mortal methodologies. Because the value of a soul and the potential contained therein are immeasurable.
I kept Lucky and Vincent for the better part of two decades. But as we cat folk know, the little alien motorheads really keep us. They keep our attention in the present with their affection, spazziness, and deranged kitty antics. They keep us employed with their dependence on us for care and housing, and by the smell of their cat breath in our faces as they perch on our chests, meowing, on those mornings when we have not adequately responded to the alarm clock. They keep us company in good times and comfort us in hard times. They keep us real with their utter intolerance for pretense. They keep us quick and nimble with their ambush attacks and purring, squeaking figure eights around our feet. They encourage us to read, in their way, by sprawling on our books, and suggest we hurry up and finish our essays by lying in our laps until our legs fall asleep.
So if you hear that little mew, don’t hesitate. Take the journey. If you are one of us cat folk, you know it is but a question of when—you will hear it. If you are not yet a cat lady or catman, there is still time. The huddled masses await you in the care of your local shelter or rescue.
In loving memory of my boys, Lucky (aka Tucky, Tony, Fat Max, Wooly Bully) and Vincent (aka Tiny, Top Shelf, Top Hat, Winnence).