A Little Life, A Little Mystery

This isn’t a eulogy–not really–although it’s about a fur-friend who’s gone now. It’s ruminations and memories about a cat who shared her life with me and my husband for over 17 years.

I love cats but I was never a cat person. I always had more dogs than cats in my life, so it never occurred to me they might not be teachable. To me, cats were a bit like odd, special-needs dogs who simply required extra patience.

Folks at the pound thought the kitten was 7 weeks old, but when I brought her home, she didn’t know how to eat well. The vet guessed closer to 5 weeks. My husband was…not really afraid of cats but wary of them. All those claws as well as teeth. From the beginning, though, Phoebe was incredibly gentle with him. She’d walk across my lap–this is Mom, I pin-dance with joy, with gusto! On my husband’s lap, she sheathed her claws so tightly, she walked on her tiny back pads. Her vocalizing was loud, chatty, sometimes demanding with me, but with him, her purrs and trills were soft and flirty. She won his heart.

The Sit command dogs mastered in a couple of training sessions took Phoebe about 6 weeks of short sessions 2-3 times daily. By the time she was 10 months old, she was reliable with Sit, Off, Spit It Out, Upstairs, Downstairs, and Let’s Go (a version of Heel). Her socialization was as thorough as what I did for show puppies. She went for car rides, and everywhere I took her, I made sure people petted her. She had fun visits to the vet as well as appointments. Throughout the rest of her life, she never stressed, never blew fur from nervousness at the vet office; she was a polite, relaxed patient anyone could handle.

She expressed distaste for any bath at the top of her lungs but held still for the indignity. Teaching her to accept nail trims was like trying to train a ferociously thorny rose bush, but within a year, she enjoyed the procedure, even purring as I worked on her feet. To her, brushing was almost as good as a treat.

She had a feisty streak–what cat doesn’t? More than once, the older hounds sought (with much flinching) rescue from her wrapped around a leg or swinging from an ear. I worried that the younger dog, Miss B (67 pounds, from a bloodline with sharp temperaments), would hurt her until my husband discovered Phoebe chasing that dog up and down the basement stairs and slapping the long houndy snout when Miss B flopped down for a breather. I’m not done playing, dog!
She and Miss B also engaged in bizarre dead mouse soccer, batting & flipping the soggy body through the air to each other. Inventive games between fur-friends.

Phoebe’s first sight of a puppy litter shocked her (They’re Everywhere!), but by the time the puppies were tottering around the whelping box, Phoebe was playing with them. You’d think she would’ve been eaten for messing with the babies, but mama-dog seemed relieved to have a sitter. As the puppies grew, Phoebe taught them manners. She tolerated respectful nosing and slobbery kisses, but play too rough and her quick slap restored instant order. One of the male dogs we kept grew to 102 pounds of muscle; he wilted to the floor when he got out of line and the 11-pound kitty corrected him, holding his nose with the tips of her trimmed claws. Never scratching or puncturing–just holding.

The day she screamed, the dogs haired out at the raw terror in her voice. I bolted downstairs, certain I’d find her crushed under a fallen bookshelf or impaled on some tool in the shop. She stood in classic Halloween black cat arch, hair puffed to triple her size, pupils fully dilated. A wolf spider had fallen in her litterbox. It raced around the box’s perimeter in 8-legged panic. A canning jar capture and trip to the garden later, all was well with two mutually horrified creatures.

Other than arachnophobia, not much rocked her serenity. Oh, except for the time she decided to stroll out the back door. A dozen steps from the door, she looked up and instantly flattened to the sidewalk. The lack of ceiling overhead unnerved her. It didn’t stop her from joining the dogs lined up at the window for the daily neighborhood watch and adding feline commentary to theirs. I don’t like that guy on the bicycle! Me neither! Did you see that woman let her dog poop in our yard? Disgusting! Bad, bad! Oooo–look a rabbit!
I didn’t offer them binoculars.

Although a passionate mouser (with woods behind our backyard, there was a lot of incoming mice to be passionate about), Phoebe developed an odd relationship with a baby squirrel we rescued. By the time we realized Bart couldn’t be released, she’s struck up a friendship. Over the next 8 years, she sat on the stairs, sometimes for hours, and they stared at each other, engaged in long chatty burbles, trills, and chirps, and touched noses. After he quietly passed, she still paused on the same step to stare where his cage had been and trill for a few moments. The tone was questioning rather than chatty, and she continued doing this until her own last days.

Despite what animal experts tell us about feline behavior and intelligence, she didn’t forget Bart, nor did she forget the dogs she outlived. I’d seen many dogs weep tears of sorrow, worry, even joy, but she was the first cat I witnessed doing the same. We learned never to speak their names in her presence.

Seventeen years of relationships and interactions more complex than I thought possible for a housecat: intelligent, ornery, mannered, loving. How much was innate personality? How much was early training? A mystery I’ll never solve but one I treasure as I cherished her.

Hers was a little but full life, well-lived. Her final breath was a purr.

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3 thoughts on “A Little Life, A Little Mystery

  1. What a cat!
    Yes, cats can be trained, and I’m not surprised that you trained yours. What surprises me is that you succeeded with dog training methods. 🙂
    Arachnophobia? My cat loves spiders. They’re his favourite snack. Whenever he sees one crawling or dangling somewhere, he reaches out and… “Yumm! Tasty snack!” 🙂

    • Most cats I’ve known acted like spiders were the best toys ever. Never knew why my girl was so creeped out by them–she was never bitten. Guess they just moved too wrong for her liking. 🙂

      Three or four years into her adulthood, I had the opportunity to see the Friskies cat trainers do a demonstration at a local cat show. Pretty cool! I found out I wasn’t too far off-base even though my approach was dog-oriented. Positive reinforcement methods worked fine for Phoebe, just slower than with the dogs. 🙂

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