It was the middle of December, just a year ago, and I was sitting in a well of depression the depth of which I had not known in decades. My werewolf-channeling dog Lucky—one in a life-long string of joyful and wonderful companions—had been felled by cancer earlier in the year, a three-month journey of shock, surgery, recovery, hope, and then the crushing finality of when “borrowed time” finally expired. My mother—ninety-nine and bedridden in a nursing home and the essence of “difficult” on her best days—had come through bouts of Covid and pneumonia with diminishing returns, and was at last in her death spiral. And my younger daughter and I had just put her elderly cat to sleep after discovering that her kidneys, long failing, had finally quit. Mookah, a dainty tabby with green eyes, had lived with me for the past several years, and given the terrible realities of the previous year, had been a constant and a comfort in uncertain times.
I spent the next couple of days in a zombie-like haze as I visited the nursing home and wept and waited for yet another loss to arrive. And then I realized that I was alone in my home literally for the first time in 47 years, and a tsunami of darkness suddenly hit me broadside and left me physically nauseous and weak in the knees. Did the time of year have something to do with it? Of course. The days leading up to the winter solstice and the holidays are always the shortest and most fraught with expectations and, sometimes, disappointments. Did all of the wrenching traumas in the preceding months weigh in? Of course they did. It had been an exhausting, depleting year of watching and waiting and dreading and bracing.
But until that dark moment of realization, I had experienced everything good and bad and even truly awful without being utterly alone. Over the years, there had been a husband, children, boyfriend, dogs, cats, horses, a rabbit, mice, tadpoles, even a chameleon for a brief spell. Whether two-legged or four-legged, with feet, paws, or hooves, there had always been others within reach for sharing. Sharing a laugh, sharing a touch, sharing a glance, sharing the warmth of a cozy fire or the radiance of a big open sky above.
And so the sudden emptiness and stillness echoing around me felt like a bottomless chasm. I asked my older daughter to spend the night to keep me company after a splendid outing to see "The Nutcracker" ballet. And when I woke the next morning, I canceled my plan to meet my younger son at the nursing home to visit my mother as she continued her journey into the next life, and instead started scrolling through the cat pages on the website of the local Humane Society.
Common sense would dictate more of a waiting period between losing a pet and gaining another one, just as the newly divorced are advised to not jump headlong into another relationship as soon as the ink is dry on the paperwork.
But I needed rescuing, that much I was sure of, and I knew that surely there was a cat nearby who needed rescuing as well.
A black and white “tuxedo” cat named Bootsie caught my eye, and seemed perfect. She was a little overweight (like me), and a bit older (like me), and Bootsie was the name of the dog my mother brought home with her from Germany after her stint working in the State Department in the aftermath of World War II. That Bootsie, gentle and soft to the touch, was the first dog I had known in my young life. It seemed fated.
So my daughter (who, unlike her younger sister, is not a cat person but also loves her mother dearly) and I made our way to the local shelter, introduced ourselves, and got ready to meet Bootsie in a visiting room. My daughter took the chair, while I sat on the floor to make the introduction less stressful.
As advertised, Bootsie was just lovely. Friendly, eager for affection, a little portly, and quite cuddly. For all of the earlier reasons, she would have been a perfect fit. But as the aide entered the room to retrieve her, I said, “you know, as long as I’m here I feel like I should at least meet another cat or two, just to say that I did.” I knew I wouldn’t be emotionally equipped to walk into two rooms full of cats in cages and pick one or two from that mass of sad and eager faces, so I asked her to pick for me and to bring back someone who would be mellow and a lap-sitter.
She took her time figuring out who to introduce next, but eventually, she came in with a another tuxedo cat, a large grey and white fellow the staff had named Turkey. He was a muscular chap, with a swagger to his walk and a quirky, tiny moustache that looked as though a tiny white butterfly had landed upside down under his nose. Turkey came without a back story, having been dropped off at the shelter as a stray around Thanksgiving (good name, hey?). He seemed young and strong, with a marvelously healthy coat as dense as penguin feathers, but with a respiratory infection that had him leaking green gunk from his eyes and his nose. He walked over to make my acquaintance, explored the contours of my ample lap, and then busied himself sniffing around the edges of the room. Shortly before the aide returned, though, he gravitated back to my lap, laid his head on my chest, looked up at me, and reached both paws toward my shoulders.
My daughter (the not-a-cat-person, remember?) grasped the significance of the moment. “Mom,” she said, “that cat just hugged you. I’m impressed!” And so was I. Suddenly Bootsie’s future with me did not seem quite as secure.
A third cat was proffered, a tiny coal black beauty that seemed as if she’d be right at home in a Fifth Avenue penthouse, dining on caviar and sporting a Tiffany diamond collar while looking over Central Park from her rarified aerie. She found me uninteresting in the extreme. I pushed all earlier thoughts of "fate" aside and decided to go with my heart rather than my head. I put in an application for Turkey, being utterly unable to resist that endearing hug.
It would be another week and a half before I could pick up my new companion, since he first needed to finish a course of antibiotics for the respiratory infection, and then get neutered. In the meantime, I continued with the seasonal Christmas duties that come with having children, grandchildren and good friends; visited my dying mother as she continued her downward slide; and made ready for a new arrival. With a plan in place and hope on the horizon, I regained my former equilibrium…or as much of it as could be reasonably expected with a parent dying in the wings during the darkest days of winter.
Thomas (I renamed him the moment I brought him home) finally moved in on December 28 and found my lap a safe resting place almost instantly. My old recliner became a comfortable refuge for us both. My mother passed just two days later. Two weeks of frenzied funeral preparation and family visits followed, after which I could finally turn to my new pet and properly start our new chapter of companionship.
The transition has not always been easy over the past year, and it certainly hasn’t been bloodless! Without a proper history from an earlier owner, no one knows how much time Thomas spent fending for himself on the street before he was brought to the shelter or what experiences and frights he might have endured. For months, his reflexes led to his immediate jump from sound sleep to “I must kill something” mode, with all claws and teeth instantly engaged, regardless of whether he had been smooshed face-first into the crook of my arm like it was a hiding place. If that sleep happened to be taking place in my lap, well… I went through a lot of bandages and first aid cream before I started to pick up on the warning signs of a twitching tail or the subtle flick of an ear. I swear, there are literal Panthers and Tigers and other wildcats out there with Instagram and TikTok accounts that I would feel safer casually approaching with less trepidation than Thomas on occasion.
And yet… with the passage of a year, there are signs of progress and relaxation for us both. Often, now, after being deep in slumber, stretched comfortably across my lap, Thomas will awaken and simply open his eyes without the immediate need to attack something. There are times he will even shut his eyes again and go back to sleep, trustingly proffering his soft, furry belly for some scritching. He decided early on that if I’m going to be in my bed, he’ll be there as well, sometimes curled up at the foot, at other times nestled snugly into the small of my back or behind my knees. If I leave the main part of the house to retreat to my little office space, he will follow to keep an eye on me like a dog guarding his flock.
Just who is more the “rescuer” here in our little family equation is open to interpretation. I’m pretty sure that anyone who has ever “rescued” an animal from a shelter or from the street knows that love and trust and reassurance flow both ways, and you can’t possibly put a price tag or a measurement on that. There are reasons going back to the dawn of time that we have seen and valued animals as our companions and protectors on a spiritual plane.
As for me, I don’t parse things much further than to simply feel a boundless gratitude that a stray kitty seized his moment to reach out with a hug, and I was open to taking the bait. Because from where I sit—in a well-worn recliner with Thomas spilling over the sides, whimpering softly as he sleeps—I’d say we’ve both been rescued, and that’s as marvelous as it gets.