It was October 2001, barely a month after the attack on the World Trade Center that changed the world, when I had the encounter that changed my world.
I came downstairs into the garage, on my way to work. My garage was fully enclosed, but there were several ways in which a small animal could get inside, not least of which was the pet-hole that the previous occupants had carved into the rear door. (There was also an interior door into the rest of the house, usually kept closed.) This particular morning I came down to discover a cat making itself at home on the bonnet of my car. This was not uncommon—there were several cats in the neighbourhood and they all seemed fond of my garage—but usually they would bolt as soon as I opened the door. This one simply stared at me. I shooed it off my car, and it bolted out the hole in the back door, launched itself to the top of the six-foot fence between my place and the neighbour's yard—and paused there just long enough to give me a look that said "you don't get rid of me that easily!" I went to work and thought no more of it.
The next day I came down into the garage again, to find the same cat sprawled comfortably across my bonnet. I shooed it away. Instead of running away, it jumped down, trotted fearlessly across the floor towards me, rubbed itself around my ankles and demanded loudly: MeeOOWWWWW! Feed me!
Only once you feed me!
"But I've got to go to work."
No, you have to FEED ME!
"But I haven't got anything for you..."
Go check your fridge. I'll wait!
So I ran upstairs to see if there was something I could feed a starving cat. All I had were a couple of pork chops that I'd planned for that night's dinner. I took them downstairs, cut one up into bite-sized chunks, and gave it to her. She wolfed the whole thing, and demanded the second; she devoured that in much the same way. Then she jumped up, front paws on my lap, and began nuzzling my beard, and drooling.
"Wow, you are hungry, aren't you?"
What else you got?
"That's it," I told her. "Gotta go to work now. I'll be back tonight."
I'll be here!
And she was. Why would she go anywhere? She'd found a sucker to feed her.
So, I fed her again, thereby sealing the deal. I spent the next few days doing the usual things: calling the RSPCA, speaking to my local vet (and getting her checked out—the cat, not the vet—for general healthiness), and trying to find any possible owner who might be missing her. Knowing her as I came to, I wouldn't be surprised if she'd had her previous owner, uh, disappeared... Either way, I never found anyone else to claim her, so after a month or so I made it official by taking her back to the vet for her first set of shots.
The vet's general feeling at the time was that she was about four years old. It would seem, though, that "about four" is the age they quote when they have absolutely no idea; in that adult stretch there's really no way of telling without cutting them open and counting the rings. Wait, did I get that right? Anyway, I found out it was a guess at best approximately nine years later when I took her in for her regularly scheduled shots, and the vet looked at her and said "is she about four?"
(At the time I decided, on the basis of that, that she was actually immortal and was going to live forever. Of course, she had to prove me wrong...)
However, I'm skipping ahead. Long before I went so far as to make our arrangement official, she was doing her best to prove that I could not live without her.
I decided fairly soon that, while I didn't feel up to looking after a dog—my life was pretty chaotic back then—I could probably handle looking after a cat. After all, cats are low maintenance and generally undemanding, aren't they?
Apparently she never got that memo.
I'd barely had her a week—I was still in the early stages of trying to decide whether I "had her" at all—when I arrived home to find her gone. Almost. Couldn't see her anywhere—but I could hear a distant, pitiful mew mew mew. I looked around everywhere; no sign of her. I went inside, searched everywhere; came back out again. Nothing. Finally, I looked up. And up, and up.
She was on my roof.
My house has two storeys, my roof is a long way from the ground! The first time I ever went up there was to retrieve the cat. I used Mum 'n Dad's extension ladder that they had left behind when they moved out—and with no better plan for getting her down, I took an old blanket up with me. The cat was a little agitated, so I sat with her a while—the roof is high, but has quite a shallow slope—talking and stroking, to soothe her. Then, I quickly bundled her up in the blanket, and dangled her over the edge with some vague idea of dropping her down onto the balcony beneath where I sat.
What happened next seems unlikely, but it's how I remember it. Clearly, she had other ideas about this whole rescue plan. Somehow she escaped from what I thought was a securely-clasped bundle, before I'd released the neck. She came out, headed the wrong way—straight out into open space. Realising her mistake, she turned around in mid air, bolted up my arm and across to the far corner of my roof. I believe they were the first scratches I got from her; they definitely weren't the last.
So I rang Mum, and asked her if I could borrow her cat's carry basket and a length of rope? While I was waiting for them to bring said implements around, I spent ten minutes or so chasing my highly agitated cat around my roof! (Well, I did a whole lot more coaxing than chasing, I suspect!) Finally I got her back in my lap, got her in the box, sealed the box, and lowered it down with the rope.
The next day I went out to the vet to buy a carry case for her.
The next week, I got home to find her on the roof again! That was the second time I went up on my roof...
(For those who are thinking "well, she got up there; she can get herself down"—something I heard from more than one person at the time—she really couldn't. After the first roof visit, I figured out that she must have got up there by climbing my Jacaranda tree—fairly obvious, really. It was a huge old thing, and one of the reasons I eventually had to get rid of it was because it hung over the roof. However, the nearest branch was a good couple of metres above the roof; she would climb up, the branch would bend neatly down to deposit her on the roof, and then whip away out of reach, stranding her there...)
Fortunately, twice was enough; she never ventured up onto the roof again.
However, it took me a little longer to learn some of my lessons surrounding how to interact with her. I had spent the last dozen years or so living with my parents' cat, Tiger, and so I thought I knew cat behaviour. Misty taught me how little I knew, and how different cats can be from each other. In personality she was more like a dog than a cat, and would even exhibit short periods of neediness that she never outgrew.
She liked to cling, and she liked to climb (even if it was just climbing me!) And, she was a drooler. She liked nothing more than snuggling up close to me—either in the crook of my arm, or on my chest—with her claws firmly gripping whatever carelessly exposed piece of skin she could find, drooling copious amounts of cat-spit into my hair or neck or beard. Quite often she would grip my neck, claws kneading either side of my windpipe, or probing for the jugular, and jam her head up tight under my chin. At least one of us was comfy, I suppose! And I always had to have a shirt or a towel, to stop the warm drool from trickling too far down my neck...
This was the main reason she was banned from my bedroom when I was trying to sleep. Tiger spent many nights on the foot of my bed, but Misty had to go for the choke-drool, which made sleep impossible. Of course, she'd often object to being locked out; late nights (waiting for her to go to sleep by herself) and early mornings (being woken by her meowing or scratching to be let in) became a regular occurrence.
She did love those drool-hugs, though. The whole time she was drooling, she was purring like a wood-chipper being fed a pine tree.
Sometimes, making herself comfy on my chest was not enough. As the photo at the top of this article shows, she also liked to climb higher, and occasionally I'd end up with her perched happily on my shoulders (or even attempting to balance on my head.) Whatever I was doing, she had to be close.
Then there was the flip-side of the coin. Her cosy times never lasted more than a few minutes (except for the evenings when she'd actually fall asleep on my chest, and stay there for an hour or two!) Once she jumped up, she would make it quite clear that she wanted nothing more to do with me—often going to great lengths to get as close as possible to me so I would not miss the fact that she was ignoring me! Every time I turned around she'd be right there, right behind me, with her back to me. At times like these, I never actually saw her move; she would just teleport closer every time I got more than a certain distance away!
Needless to say, she also loved to rub herself against my ankle, twining her body around my feet. If she could manage it just as I was about to take a step, all the better. The top of the stairs was ideal, although she never quite managed to tumble me down them... However, the first time she did it was late one night soon after she'd moved in. I was sitting in the dark, in front of my computer, playing AvP 2 (that's Aliens vs Predator, for those who aren't familiar with the title.) I was running around some dark base, and somewhere in the dark was the scuttling of an Alien face-hugger; it was trying to latch onto me and I was frantically trying to avoid it and get a bead on it and I was used to the house being empty and the cat rubbed against my leg! I nearly had a heart attack on the spot!
While she wasn't actively trying to murder me, she would lay other traps. She would lay on her back, legs spread in all directions as only a cat can manage, and invite me to stroke her belly. However, touching her belly—I was never entirely sure if there was a time countdown, or just a particular spot she didn't like touched (and knowing what I know now, that seems highly likely)—was like putting your hand in a wolf-trap. The legs would all spring shut, claws out, and her head would whip around to sink her fangs into my arm.
The first time that happened, it was quite alarming; I jerked my arm hastily out of her grasp, and ended up with a couple of long scratches down my forearm.
One could describe her as the biological equivalent of the gom jabbar/nerve induction box test. If you pulled back, you paid the price. Once I learned to hold my hand still when she triggered her trap, all I got was a warning-grip from the claws and a gentle knuckle-gnawing from the teeth, usually followed by her releasing me and bolting away, wide-eyed, so she could sit three feet away and fervently ignore me. Over time, she learned she didn't need to attack me, and I learned to approach her belly with caution...
A year passed, as years do. With the anniversary of her adoption approaching, I realised that I had to take her back to the vet—and that I needed to give her a name. Up until then, I had only ever called her "Cat" (or "the Cat", depending on the context!) A few times I alternated with "Puss"—and yes, once or twice I'd called her "Tiger" out of habit. But she had been nameless for that whole year. She didn't seem bothered by this state of affairs.
However, both realisations were triggered when I received a friendly reminder card from my vet, saying that "Stray Cat" was due to receive her annual vaccinations. Hmm. She didn't much seem to care what I called her, and I was happy with "Cat", but we needed a name for her Veterinary records, if nothing else. (Besides, I may be the kind of heartless monster who couldn't be bothered to name their cat, but I didn't want the vet to think that!) So, in need of a name, and not being good with names myself, I did the only sane thing: I asked my Mum!
Mum said "Misty", so Misty it is!
She hated the trip to the vet. In fact, it soon became clear that she really hated being in the car—at least when it was moving! She would cry pitifully for the entire short trip to the vet (and back!)
Of course, I went right back to calling her "Cat". Provided I kept her fed, and allowed her to drool in my beard, she didn't seem to mind what I called her. In fact, since she never responded to being called anyway, it barely mattered what I called her...
Oddly, while she never responded to being called, she would always come running to a click of the fingers.
The year she was named was 2002: the year Dad died, and the year I made my first attempt at writing a novel for NaNoWriMo (see My Writing History for all the gruesome details.) By that time, she was well and truly a part of my life; she even had a starring role in the first chapter of that first novel-attempt.
The years rolled on (as they do) and I grew older (as noted earlier, she apparently did not!) During that time she remained remarkably healthy, so while I may not always have been the most attentive of staff ("Dogs have owners. Cats have staff.") I was apparently doing something right. And when I wasn't doing okay, she let me know: at one point I was apparently not giving her enough attention, so she made it a point to quite deliberately jump up on my bed, and pee on me. Twice! (Because I didn't figure out the problem the first time!)
Apart from the occasional neglect, and the occasional pee-attack, things went pretty smoothly.
The biggest problem was the other cats in the neighbourhood. They could get into the house through all the same pathways Misty used—and any time I forgot to close the door between house and garage, I could almost count on having another furry visitor, usually slipping in to raid her food bowls or mark their territory. I tried to keep them out while allowing her her freedom, by replacing the cat-flap in the door with a more expensive one that was lockable one-way or both ways, so that she could at least go out while the other cats couldn't come in. Which sounded good in theory; in practice, she was apparently the only cat in the neighbourhood who flat-out refused to push her way through a cat flap!
The most memorable intrusion we had came on one of the rare nights that the cat actually slept in my room. Those nights became more frequent as she became older. Of course, she never gave up the need to wake up in the night and drool in my ear, or on my face, so such nights generally didn't allow me much sleep, but they kept her happy.
This particular night she was snuggled into my armpit; a few minutes of high-quality drooling onto my shirt had worn her out, and she was fast asleep. I was asleep too—no doubt exhausted from waiting for her to go to sleep! And the other cat wandered into the house through the door I'd forgotten to close; it probably went and finished off her fish first, and then it came wandering into the bedroom and ... well, I guess it did the feline equivalent of inflating a brown paper bag and popping it behind Misty's head. She yowled and scrambled, the other cat yowled and scarpered, and I awoke to a whole lot of yowling, and Misty, claws fully extended in her fright, standing on my face!
Many times I would arrive home from work to find her sitting in my driveway, waiting for me. I always figured that would be the death of her; I can't count the number of times she would run out into the street to meet me—straight under my tyres, and straight into the path of any other traffic coming past! Fortunately my street is not a busy one, and the couple of cars she actually did run in front of saw her, and stopped for her.
Speaking of being greeted by Misty: the photo here is one of the most recent photos of her (and of myself!) This was taken in August last year (2012) on my return from one of my first few runs (such as they are.) I staggered into the yard, dropped down on the front steps to try and find my key, and the cat appeared out of the undergrowth, trotted over, and climbed straight up onto my shoulders. It seemed like too good a photo-op to ignore.
By this time she had mellowed somewhat, but she would still complain bitterly about being placed in the car! A few times, however, she actually jumped up into the car to have a sniff around—and several nights she spent the night in the car (in the garage, its door propped open.) Anything that would allow me a good night's sleep was fine with me!
Finally her age began to show. She became a little unsteady on her feet at first, a little less able to perch confidently on the arm of the couch—or my shoulder. Those were dangerous times, because if she lost her balance while perched or climbing, she tended to dig her claws into whatever she was sliding down, and that whatever was usually me. There were times when it seemed that she was utterly, profoundly deaf—and other times when it seemed she could hear after all, in which case she must have honed the art of ignoring me to a fine perfection. There were even times when I worried she was losing her eyesight.
She started to yowl, randomly. She would wake up, find me not there, and run out into a central location to sound the alarm until I came running. At first I took her to the vet to get checked out, to be sure she wasn't in any pain, but ultimately I decided she was just going slowly senile in her old age, and panicking at being alone.
That visit to the vet did reveal high thyroid levels; not too high, but skirting the upper edge of "normal". Subsequent blood tests revealed it to be holding fairly steady at that high level. We attempted to put her on a renal diet, to help her kidney function, but after the first few meals she quickly refused to eat the renal food. I decided that it would be wrong of me to try to extend her lifespan by making her miserable and forcing her to eat food she didn't want; I reverted to her normal diet, with the occasional pouch of the renal diet to keep her going.
The yowling continued—and much like the crying of a baby, it could mean many things. "Pick me up!" or "Feed me!" or "I want to go out!" or "I want the toilet!" or "I'm awake, leave me alone!" or all, or none, of the above... That was our second (or third?) long, wet summer: day after day of pouring rain, making it very difficult for the cat to get out and do what she wanted to do. Which made it difficult for me to get too angry with her when she decided to start using my shower stall for her toilet. Sure, there were worse places she could have picked—but it was quite frustrating when she would be outside (dry day, yay!) and come bolting in, past her dirt box, to head for the shower! If I caught her at it, I would pick her up and put her out again, in the hopes that she'd get the message. Sometimes she did...
And then there was the time she decided, after a week of constant rain, that she really had to go out the front. I opened the door for her, and waited there as she darted out into the rain and squatted for a quick call of nature. When she finished, she bolted back in, practically leaped up the four steps into my front foyer, landed her wet paws on the tiled floor, skidded, bounced, and sailed down the four steps back down to the garage door, clearing the lot of them, skidded again on the tiled floor down their, and disappeared out into the garage. (Fortunately, once again, the door had been open!) Moments later she trotted back in and gave me a "what? Oh that? Yeah, I totally meant to do that!" look.
When the end came, it was quick.
It was a Sunday night, the week before Easter, 2013. Misty was lying just outside the back door, sleeping; I was on the couch watching a movie (which one? No idea; that memory is totally blank.) About half an hour into the movie, the rain hit; a sudden torrential blast that sounded more like a firehose than anything else. I jumped up to go and let her in, but she was already gone, bolted down somewhere to take refuge. I went to the front door to see if she'd gone there—she seemed entirely convinced that the front and back doors led to two different worlds—but there was no sign of her. I called to her, but since she was possibly deaf, who knows if she heard? I closed the front door (having left the back door open; only the screen was closed) and went back to my movie.
When it finished—and the rain had stopped—I went and opened both doors, called her a few times, and waited. A couple of minutes later she appeared, totally drenched, miserable and bedraggled. I wrapped her in a towel, dried her off as well as I could—as well as she would allow—and tried to warm her up and interest her in a rather soggy snuggle. After a minute or two she jumped up and lay on the floor.
A couple of hours later when I went to bed, she had barely moved. I figured she was sulking from getting soaked, so I picked her up and put her on the bed. She stayed on the end of the bed all night; she didn't wake me up even once, and she was still there when I went to work. This was rather unusual behaviour for her, and it left me feeling a little concerned. I thought she might have come down with something. I got home that evening to find that she'd thrown up on the bed and moved to the floor, but apart from that she didn't seem to have moved much at all. She just lay on her side, her breathing more laboured than seemed normal. I moved her into the kitchen, put her food and water beside her, and spent the rest of the evening up in the lounge room, watching movies and keeping an eye on her. The one time I picked her up to make a fuss of her she struggled free and staggered (alarmingly) back to the kitchen.
Tuesday morning she had barely moved, and didn't seem to have eaten anything. I went to work, called the vet, and arranged to take her in that afternoon. When I got home she had, again, barely moved, and by now I was quite worried. Not wanting to cram her into her carry case, I decided that I could put her in the laundry basket, that she would be more comfortable there. She may have been as weak as a newborn kitten, but she had enough strength to jump straight back out of that, thank you very much! It was heart-wrenching to watch her dragging herself away across the floor, her back legs almost useless. Finally I put her straight in the back of the car. She barely complained at all on the drive out to the vet, just a few weak moans to express her unhappiness. I waited out by the back of the car with her until they were ready for her, and then I carried her in.
The vet's preliminary examination revealed puzzling results, but nothing worth mentioning. She decided it would be best to keep Misty in overnight, on a drip to get fluids into her, and they would look at her first thing in the morning to do what they could. Expect a call at 8am.
The call came at 7:30. She had died during the night. Kidney failure, it turned out—and it seems to me that it must have been triggered by the shock of that sudden drenching, but what would I know? As it turned out, she had congenitally deformed kidneys; one huge, one tiny. Thinking about it now, I can't help but wonder if that huge, vulnerable kidney was behind her belly-protecting trap-attacks all those years ago... From somewhere inside my numb brain I arranged to have her cremated, and her ashes now rest in a kitten-shaped urn on a shelf in my living room.
I was a mess then, and I'm a mess now as I write these last few paragraphs. But in the weeks since her passing, I've adjusted to her absence. Adjusted to being able to sleep without interruption, to not having to rush home to feed her. To not seeing her waiting for me when I get home. Adjusted. Mostly...
On the morning I heard the news, I had an overwhelming urge to reboot my life, to get rid of every last item in my house and start again from scratch. The urge passed, but it did get me working on my newest effort to clean the place up a bit. That is now progressing nicely (albeit slowly, because hey, it's me!) I've bought new furniture, rearranged (and even replaced) existing furniture, and reduced a load of clutter.
Life goes on.
You might think, from reading this, that the cat—Misty—was nothing but an irritation, and wonder why I put up with her? Some days I wondered that myself. But ultimately, I took responsibility for her the first day I fed her. She entrusted herself to my care; how else could I repay that trust? And, sure, I'm a big softy (some have said doormat, but I don't talk to them any more) and I'm a sucker for ladies and small animals in distress.
Misty could be infuriating at times, and there were numerous occasions where she drove me to yell at her in frustration—usually some variant of "What do you want??!?!" But she was also my loyal companion, and yes, even my buddy. She was a huge part of my life.
Take care, Misty!