Saturday, July 11, 2009

Approaching Sheba

Here is Sheba sleeping trustfully on her chair beside my computer. When I noticed she liked this chair, I put down a folded hand towel for her. During her five-month stay in Cat Welfare, her territory consisted of a low sort of pillar made for a cat to stay under or on, on top of which was a piece of chenille - one of those things it was once fashionable to put on the lid of your toilet, just the right size for the pillar. So now she likes the territories around the house marked by her very own square of towel.

I have no idea what Sheba was like before she got to this sort of Ellis Island for poor homeless cats. I do know she stayed in what the volunteers call "the old ladies' room," a glass-walled room about 4 x 8 feet with a sign on the door, Staff Only! There were four or five other cats who stayed in there, each curled on its own spot - the cats who just didn't like other cats, or maybe just wanted to sleep peacefully. Sheba was premiere among them, genuinely afraid when a strange cat came in the door after me. I suspect that in all her months there she never willingly left that room to join the great central room where a hundred cats mill around, watching DVDs of birds, spatting, climbing up to sit on the cages and look out high windows. Those cats include some who will never leave this place, like the one who is erratic about his litterbox, as well as many young cats able to adapt to all this company.

Sheba had not adapted. She was only three, but the forced inactivity of the little room had plumped her out a bit - we didn't really know that until we got her home, because we had hardly been able to observe her standing or walking. The center of the room was filled by a tray with catfood and water on it. To the side, a litterbox, always kept clean. Whenever I came in the outside door and looked over, she was straining to look at me. She seemed to ask silently, Are you my woman? Are you going to take me home? When that happens, you might as well give up. You have been chosen.

Our beloved companion Sherlock died just about two months ago, having woven his way through our lives for thirteen years. I thought it would be many months, maybe years before I was "ready" for another cat. Certainly I'm not "over" losing him.

But it was just because I missed him so much that I went to Cat Welfare, initially just to pet cats, to be around them, and I found it made me feel better. I went back, Tom with me. We asked about foster cats. Well, they don't really do that, except sometimes when there are kittens that need socialized for a couple of weeks. We knew we are too unsteady on our feet to have kittens around.

We went back again. We started to consider various cats. But my attention kept being drawn to Sheba on her lonely pillar. She was a nervous cat. When I went in (closing the door behind me) she stood and strained toward me, eager to bump her head against my hand, but then frightened and withdrawing. Yet, that eagerness was there, that head bump and that silent question.

Years ago I read a children's book about death called Missing May. It tells how a parentless child is taken in by two kind elderly people who see that she is hungry in her foster home. They give her an abundance of food and love. It's a book everyone should read. It helped me understand real grief, as feeling people experience it. I had lost family members over the years, but in an alcoholic family, grief is avoided, as all pain is avoided. And the loss of difficult people is very complicated, different from the loss of an animal companion. Their love is so straightforward and authentic. And I certainly have felt real grief since Sherlock died, and still do. He was not, as I often told him, "just a cat."

We have had Sheba three weeks now, and she is settling in nicely. It's a pleasure to see her trustfully arranged on the chair beside me, sound asleep. She loves to be petted, it turns out, though she remains terrified of being picked up, and struggles so much she cannot be held.

Tom remarked the day our warranty expired, as he put it. Cat Welfare will take a cat back, and give you back your adoption fee, within a ten-day period. That fact had reassured us, uncertain as this thing seemed. Moreover, this place - and there are many, many such shelters trying to alleviate the suffering of at least a few animals - this place will take a cat back anytime, so none of the cats they have made a commitment to should ever have to end up as strays.

Our commitment to Sheba has deepened gradually. It has gone to another level now that we scheduled her for a vet visit Tuesday. She will have a baseline exam, and perhaps be told to lose a pound. She is still not used to not having food available all the time. We will discuss those front claws, which present a problem in a cat that won't hold still for trimming. She is still jumpy from an attempt a couple of days ago. It was a battle she won. Well, that's the kind of cat she is.

Life has taught me that you can't pick out a cat like you do a car. It just doesn't work to go to the animal shelter and announce, "I have to have a lap cat." Actually, that was one reason I brought Sherlock home all those years ago - the volunteers said he was a great lap cat. It turned out that once he got home and had the run of a two-story house, lots of plants to knock over and windows to guard, people to meet, he became uninterested in sitting in laps.

When you take a cat home, you don't know the back story, whether this cat flinches because someone hit her or it's just her temperament, things like that. And you certainly don't know what that cat is going to be like in this new environment and relationship. In that regard, it's a lot like getting married - be prepared to be surprised. If you look at it the right way, that's what makes life interesting.

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