When I saw the picture in my e-mail inbox, I was immediately struck by the pathos and love. Bubba, my brother and sister-in-law’s 10-year-old shih tzu–poodle mix, had suffered a bad day. After undergoing the removal of an eyelid growth and a tooth, he was finally home, where he was photographed reclining on the bed, his head nestled in the crook of my brother’s neck. He found solace there, a familiarity and trust that provided the utmost comfort. The caption read, “Glad to have my dad’s shoulder after surgery.”
It was then I realized how lonely I was without a pet. For the first time in my 60-plus years, there was no dog or cat to greet me at the door and warm my lap, no adoring creature to nurture and feed, no nonjudgmental soul to whom I could pour out my heart.
After I lost 20-year-old Scooter, my best feline friend, I must have forgotten the challenges of caring for an old, sick pet: the daily vomiting, bleeding sores, and droppers full of life-sustaining medicine. Only that can explain why, like a mother who has blocked out the travails of childbirth, I tried again, first with Sonny, a scrappy orange kitten who lasted only a weekend before I—exhausted—returned him to the vet’s office from whence I had rescued him. A few months later came Joy, a gorgeous six-week-old Maine Coon mix with long, velvety fur and clear green eyes, whom I couldn’t help but liberate from the shelter despite her description as a “barn kitten” and a stubborn case of lice. This time, I assured myself, I would not give up.
In the two years I kept her, I modified her moniker to Jojo and tried to tame her wild streak. She batted her splashing water bowl across the floor and pawed the air under the dining-room chandelier, planning an ascent. I could picture her swinging from the fixture, like Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in War of the Roses, and finally bringing the thing down, herself included. There must have been dog in her DNA, because she chewed through the lining of my Ugg boots, two good rugs, the edge of a wood table, and a lamp cord—clear down to the copper wire. She stood guard in a pot of artificial ferns like a soldier in a bunker awaiting the next grenade.
Like most troublemakers, she was downright amusing. She learned to fetch a foil ball, dropping her “prey” at my feet, and leap up the wall at nothing at all, getting closer to the ceiling with every try. The screened porch must have felt like home, as she greedily chased the birds and bugs outside. It was only a matter of time before she would bust through the screens, I feared, gone forever. You can take the cat out of the barn, but it’s not so easy to take the barn out of the cat.
And then things began to fall apart. My retirement led to frequent and lengthy trips, and a friend and fellow cat-lover, Angela, and I decided on joint custody, shuttling Jojo back and forth like the kid in a divorce. Every time she returned, she was worse, refusing to eat and spending long hours entrenched in the ferns. Cats adapt poorly to change, and, painfully, I decided she was better off at either one place or the other—for good. That is how she became Angela’s cat, where she kept watch atop the family’s refrigerator and slept, curled up and purring, in their beds.
My house was quiet, my new rugs in place, and I maintained partial ownership by buying Jojo’s food and toys and bankrolling her vet visits. Still, I missed my crazy girl, always thinking I would see her but never risking the trip, afraid I’d renege on the deal and take her back “home.” And then, after about six months, the worst happened. A slow-closing door was too much to resist, and off she ran, fast and furious, into the nearby woods.
Angela and I panicked equally, posting notices on pet-finder websites and canvassing the neighborhood. I drove around the unfamiliar streets, stopping walkers and bicyclists and inserting flyers in mailboxes. I even approached a backyard picnic to see if our Jojo might have been attracted to the happy noise of children’s play.
Every time the phone rang, my heart raced, hoping—no, praying—someone had turned her over to a shelter or vet, where her implanted microchip would lead to a made-for-TV reunion. This time, I vowed, I would keep her forever: The more trouble she might cause, the better.
But she never returned. Stupidly, I’d had her declawed, leaving her defenseless, but Angela and I cannot come to grips with the likely outcome. For us, there are no coyotes in the woods, no rough vines to entangle, no snowstorms to endure, no trees she cannot climb. We prefer to imagine that a kind family has found and adopted her.
With Jojo’s departure, I gave up the last cat I’d ever own; I know full well there won’t be another. This is the difficult part of aging: the never-agains that grow more frequent every year. I cannot lug a heavy pet carrier through airports or empty a 20-pound jug of litter into a box any more than I can ski, garden, or run a marathon.
The less we can do, however, the more we want to do it. To satisfy my cat craving, I have taken to visiting the Humane Society of Indianapolis, where I can love on the occupants with hopeless abandon and show my 6-year-old granddaughter how to stroke rather than scratch or rub a cat—from the tip of their soft, gentle heads to the ends of their feathery tails. I understand now why my elderly mother kept a pair of paintings of Scottie dogs, even though she could no longer care for pets of her own. Age can steal our patience and strength, but never what’s in our hearts. We settle for whatever we can manage.
MISSING: Black-and-brown long-haired cat, no collar, vicinity of 121st Street and West Road, Zionsville.
Illustration by Andrea Eberbach
This column appeared in the February 2014 issue.