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How I Came to Get What's Special About Cats
|Toonces, photo-bombing a picture of Phoebe|
Growing up, there was Fluffy and Chummer and Jody and Tigger, but they were my friends’ dogs. Amy had a big, long-haired cat, but she didn’t hang out with us like the dog did and had an air of mystery accordingly. At home, we were allowed only turtles, so I didn’t really get what it meant to have a pet.
A relatively short time after Pat and I got together, in the early ‘90s, her sweet bull terrier Meghan Jonquil died of an aneurysm. I’ll never forget how, inadvertently, I offended one of our fellow Or Chadash congregants by announcing both the death of his grandfather (z”l) and Pat’s dog from the bimah (pulpit) that Shabbat.
Suddenly, I’m reckoning with the death of a being who represents the closest I’ll come to directly parenting anyone. At a moment like this, I wish I’d left it at turtles – with them, I was more so their siblings, since my older sisters mothered them.
Toonces’ sister Phoebe is lying on the table next to me as I write this and I’m trying not to feel survivor’s guilt in her behalf. Why did Toonces get cancer, but not Phoebe? Why did Toonces get cancer at all? Why did my father (z”l)? Both of their lives were cut short – his at 56 and hers at nearly 13.
Toonces and Phoebe almost weren’t Toonces and Phoebe. For the first 16 years of our nearly 24-year relationship so far, I denied Pat a pet. I didn’t grow up with a cat or dog at home and so I didn’t get it. No, I said, they’ll just smell up the house and you won’t pay attention to me once we have a pet.
Finally, I relented because I felt guilty. I was working full-time and earning a Master’s part-time and felt bad at leaving Pat alone so often. OK, we can get a cat from P.A.W.S. (the local shelter at the time), I said dolefully. We went down there and agreed on adopting an older cat, since they’re usually less popular and because Pat said that in their wildness, a kitten would drive me crazy.
We looked at cage after cage and I felt terrible at having to choose a cat and then leave the rest behind. We returned a couple of times to a cage with two gray-brown, striped American tabbies. The P.A.W.S. rep came over and said cheerfully, “Would you like two? They’re sisters.”Oh, God, I’m a sister myself. We can’t separate sisters. The P.A.W.S. person told us that they had turned five in May. Pat & I agreed that each of us got to name one of them. I called one of them Phoebe and Pat called the other Muffin … but not for long.
Our first evening with them, Pat looked at the littler one and said, “You’re no Muffin. You’re a Toonces!” It might have been as Toonces was staring down at her from the ceiling beams of the laundry room. It turns out that Toonces was so scared of her new environment she remained on the ceiling for a week, except to use the litter box.
From then on, she maintained her Toonces-like reputation, routinely springing from a loose tile in our basement’s raised ceiling onto the back of Pat’s La-Z-Boy rocker, surprising Pat every time. A woman once said to me, “I prefer dogs. Cats won’t obey.” It was then and even prior that I realized I adored cats for the same reason; intermittent reinforcement is the most powerful sort.
Phoebe and Toonces – well, really, just Phoebe, as Toonces never really cottoned to me (nor Phoebe to Pat, interestingly) – have claimed affection from us utterly based on their whims. I have loved the serendipity of it all. For instance, Toonces would join Pat unpredictably while Pat was eating breakfast and would walk into Pat’s newspaper-reading arms, and lean into her chest. She’d come to rest, hanging her front paws over one of Pat’s bent elbows. Pat called it, “Table.” Toonces would jump up on the table and slink toward Pat, and Pat would look at her and ask rhetorically, “Table for Toonces?”
Toonces really didn’t care much for my touch, but her little face was so cute and her mischief mostly funny, and she charmed me. I did not do the same for Toonces apparently; yesterday morning, amidst her lethargy in her illness, I gave Toonces a series of pets and she did as she did so often when I petted her: Immediately following, she bathed the very patches I had touched – the cat equivalent of wiping one’s hands on one’s pants post-handshake, in front of the person whose hand you just shook. Even so, I was amused. “Pat, look at that. She’s ill, but she’s still got enough strength to wash me off of her fur.” Kindly enough, when we petted her for the last time this afternoon, she let me, period.
Earlier today, Pat & I recalled that prior to Toonces’ meal time, she would sit up against a wall with her arms across her belly and would look remarkably like a person as she waited for me to feed her sister and her. And in the mornings, if I didn’t wake up when she was hungry, she’d walk over to my night table and start tossing books off of it. And at dinner time, when Pat called, “Kitties!” Toonces would run three adorable circuits around Pat’s La-Z-Boy before entering the laundry room, where she was fed, nightly.
For cats, I’ve learned, everything they do is socially acceptable as far as they’re concerned, except they’re not – not concerned … except with each other: Little Toonces was an especially good sister. Any time she heard Phoebe cry out, she was by her side nearly instantly, even though typically, her loyalty-reward from Phoebe was being batted on her little head. Oy, Phoebe, who’re you going to bat around now, just Pat & me? We’ll take it.