“That old alley cat makes me so mad,” my neighbor told me. “He steals my cat’s food all the time!” She was talking about this raggedy orange tabby I had seen around. He was huge, battle- scarred, with a loping run like a jungle cat, long skinny tall hanging low and to the side. He was a mess, no doubt, and his caterwauling would wake me up from time to time. But he never bothered my cat Jenny Lou and I liked his roguish self.
A few months after Jenny Lou died, this tabby limped onto my deck and lay exhausted, sleeping in the sun. I could see he’d fallen on hard times, and figured he was old and unable to hunt. So despite the protests of the squirrels, who chittered loud warnings, I put out some food for him. He ate it. I put out more. And in the usual way of things, before you knew it, he was there to wait for it. He seemed to perk up quite a bit. He didn’t run when I was outside and he started to come up for attention. He wanted to be petted! This was no feral cat; this cat had once had people. Soon he was trying to get inside. We did the vet visit and the vet said this huge tomcat was only 3 years old.
The bonding process was intense; I had never seen anything like it. The cat, now named “Jackson le chat,” insisted on being carried everywhere for many months. It was like he regressed to kittenhood and was starting his life as a cat all over. Except he wouldn’t play in front of me—-someone somewhere had really punished him for that.
Jack insisted on being loved, on giving and receiving love. He demanded to be with me, and talked all the time. He would sit on my lap and growl if anyone approached. He was slow to warm up to others, but once he did, he protected and comforted them as well. If I was sad or hurt, he licked and snuggled. He totally got that “companion animal” concept. He was so grateful for being adopted that he tried as hard as any animal could to be the best pet he knew how. He wasn’t picky about food or demanding about comforts. But once, early on, I left him at the vet’s when I went on a long trip and the vet said she was worried he would die of a broken heart. After that, he had a cat-sitter.
Jack taught me how to love a pet. He broke into my self-absorption and offered his love and attention and only asked that I receive it graciously. I have never known an animal who seemed so wise and intense and determined. People said he was more like a dog than a cat, but I just think he had a unique clarity about what matters.
Jack remained a solo adventurer and fighter in the outside world, and that sealed his fate, because one of those bad bites contained the blood disease he would die of, far too soon.
I had promised him I wouldn’t put him through extreme measures. Jack never gave me a chance to break my promise, because he never complained of illness and then declined so quickly I was caught by surprise.
Jack didn’t like having his picture taken, like someone who fears the camera could take his soul, but on his last day, he put up with my desperate clicking and flashing. He rallied that morning. He wanted the door open, and he spent a long time sitting close to the threshold, looking out into the light. I hoped he wouldn’t want to leave me, and I appreciate that he considered that threshold a long time. The light shining in was warm and gave him so much peace.
I showed my mother those photos, of Jack in the threshold, and she cried and said, “That gives me so much comfort, like maybe he knows something.”
Carol A. Stalcup, Ph.D. is a psychologist, spiritual director, writer and artist in Fort Worth, Texas, specializing in the integration of positive psychology with spirituality and creativity. Visit her website ArtNSoulWorks here.