A year ago in August, my son asked if he could park his eleven year old cat “Meatball” at my house for a couple of weeks while he sorted out some new living arrangements in his college town. I said “yes,” of course. If I look at a calendar, I can discern without eyestrain that that was quite a long while ago. Kids and pets, they are really never predictable.
This is not Meatball’s first “stay” here. Michael has been bringing him home for short vacations for several years now. This middle-aged feline, who my son picked out at a shelter largely because the cat stuck his tongue out at him, was the essence of Christmas for me on a day when the holiday itself involved driving 250 miles and visiting elderly relatives in two hospitals and a nursing home. He has, alternately, been amusing, infuriating, annoying and purely a pest. While the man in my life can be laconic to the point of muteness, this cat never shuts up. Colored black and white like a Holstein cow and with all claws intact, he has bullied my dog, wrestled my other cat leaving large tufts of fur on the carpet, and sprayed the dog’s favorite blanket in retaliation for my shooting him with a water pistol as he trekked across the kitchen table. And all this came AFTER the warnings that he likes to chew on electrical cords and “mark” piles of unattended dirty laundry.
Still, until now, Meatball has been a short-term guest whose psychological similarity to a stalker and garrulous vocalizing (he can chirp like a canary and trill like a pigeon) could be considered transitory adjustments.
However, as two weeks stretched into four, and one month became two and then three, somewhere along the line Meatball went from being just a houseguest to being one of the gang. The rest of the gang consists of Lucky, the border collie mix, and Smokey, the twenty-pound housecat who used to claim my lap in the evenings until Meatball jumped aboard and said “mine!” In “cat,” of course. Over time, the four of us have adjusted to co-existing within the contours of the house, with certain expectations governing morning treats, clean litter boxes, and playing nice. Indoors, I am the arbiter of good manners and affection.
In the great outdoors, though, things have taken a much more unexpected turn. I often take Lucky out for a walk around the property, which passes up and down hills, through woods and around a meadow. There are delightful smells and no end of wild animals to encounter and for Lucky to chase. For the record, he is fast…but not quite as fast as a full-grown deer. Not that he didn’t give it his all for nearly the length of a city block. No one day is exactly like the next as the seasons change, and forests turn green, then gold, then leafless grey with winter’s approach.
One day last fall, though, serendipity skipped to another level as I glanced behind me on the trail, and discovered that Meatball was trailing behind Lucky and me on one of our daily walks. I tried to keep a close eye on him—there are things in these woods, like coyotes (and possibly cougars), that might enjoy a tender house cat for dinner—but Meatball was going to travel at his own pace. Sometimes he kept a few feet behind me, but at other times, he would lag behind by a couple of hundred feet, only to race to catch up…and then start the cycle of straggling all over again. I’d never seen a cat gallop before. He looked, crazily, like a little piebald cow pony hustling home at the sound of the feed bucket. The sound that he makes on the grass as he comes up behind me at full speed and shoots past is a faint “thippity, thippity, thippity.” I felt like the Pied Piper.
“Walking the Meatball” has now become a daily routine for me when the weather cooperates. Technically, I’m walking both Lucky AND The Meatball, but really, dogs pretty much have a happy-go-lucky sameness about a walk in the woods. It’s the cat that’s the wild card here. Since I still worry about him running into something in the woods that might eat him, our excursions take on the “hurry up and wait” quality of walking with a curious toddler. Sometimes my waiting stretches are longer than others, and sometimes I end up backtracking half the usual journey just to make sure that he rejoins the caravan at some point.
And while I’ve been on these “catwalks,” there are a few life lessons that have occurred to me as I'm waiting...and waiting.
Things are not always as bad as they look. A while ago, Lucky flushed a turkey hen from the meadow, and the dog and the bird sped toward the edge of the woods like cannonballs crashing through the brush. Movement on the left caught my eye, and I turned to see tiny turkey chicks—backlit by the afternoon sun and still too small to fly—popping straight up out of the tall grass in the meadow, then fluttering down a few feet forward, away from the sound of drama. Meatball was nowhere to be seen, and I started back down the trail, thinking “I wonder if Meatball saw those chicks.” He was crouched off the path, with a “WHAT???” look on his face, and when I caught up with him I found that indeed, he had found one of those baby turkeys. It lay on the ground, its head mashed under its body by a pristine white paw, neck bent in what suspense novelists invariably describe characterize as “an unnatural angle” when they’re writing about a corpse. Still, ever the optimist, I gently peeled the cat’s paw from the fluffy little body…which then unfolded its neck, stood up and shook itself off, and hopped straight up like its siblings and glided toward some nearby trees. I picked up Meatball and said “you’re coming with me,” and carried him under protest for the next hundred yards. It’s never over until it’s over.
If you have to slow down…you might as well look around. To be honest, I’d valued getting some real exercise on these wooded hikes with Lucky. Let’s face it, the dog can run so much faster than me and covers about five times as much ground as I do in the same amount of time. Walking briskly was my goal, and he never slowed my progress. With Meatball in the mix, though, the equation changed from go-go-go to stop ‘n’ go…and then stop again. I ground my teeth at these interruptions at first, bemoaning the fact that my cardiovascular workout plans were going down the tubes. And then I finally just simply… surrendered. Instead of focusing on putting one foot in front of the other in efficient fashion, I focused on the bark patterns of the pine trees at one of my usual “wait for the Meatball” rest stops. I started to use a familiar tree at the end of a glade as a stretching point, doing leg lifts while Meatball picked his way along the trail, stopping to use a tree trunk or two as scratching posts. I brought my camera along and took pictures of wildflowers and leaves. I savored the smells of wild roses and bergamot and evergreens and green grass and melting snow, and located another couple of stands of wild asparagus near the trail. And considered myself thankful for the opportunity to stand there in the arms of nature and just soak it in.
He ain’t heavy, he’s The Meatball. Somewhere along the way in this new routine—I think it was when the snow was melted in patches in spring—I started to give Meatball a lift from time to time. This started when he was dragging his heels at the thought of crossing a stretch of snow or slush, and I didn’t feel like waiting around in the cold, fingers turning to ice and nose turning numb. So I portaged the cat across the cold, soupy stuff. And lo and behold, Meatball clearly understood, because he didn’t squirm to be set down until he could tell that there was going to be grass under his feet again. Well, the snow finally melted away, and I’m still portaging the cat from time to time. My usual motivation for sweeping him up in my arms, rhetorically asking him whether I should “sherpa the kitty?” is that I don’t feel like always taking every single golden opportunity to wait for him. And if I can make a hundred feet’s progress without worrying that he’s behind me getting eaten by a coyote, I’m happy. It’s a win-win proposition—I keep the game moving a little faster, the added ten pounds amounts to a little weight-training, and judging by Meatball’s purrs as he drapes himself across my shoulder, he’s getting something good out of it too.
Hearts expand to fit. When I said I’d let Meatball bunk with me for two weeks that turned into more than a year, I had absolutely no idea how much affection I would come to feel for this eccentric small-scale predator. I could not possibly have predicted how much laughter he would generate, or drama, or worry, or tenderness as the days and seasons and miles of walking in the woods have passed. There is no such thing as having a completely full heart. There is only a heart that has room for more. In the children’s classic “The Grinch That Stole Christmas,” there’s a scene where the Grinch feels his crippled heart grow three sizes bigger. I felt that happen to me several year ago when I called my son as I was heading out on my dire Christmas Day odyssey and told him that I’d changed my mind, that he could bring his problematic pet home for the holiday. I think it’s grown yet another size in this chapter, to make room for this middle-aged cat who talks all day long, makes me laugh, brings me live mice from the garage, and follows me through the woods. I know that if and when he ever leaves again with my son, there will be a hollow space left open, waiting for him to come back.