Every cat is unique. Sheeba was vain. Darling, elegant, dear – and vain. Some would accuse me of anthropomorphizing. They would be wrong. My black-haired, green-eyed beauty knew exactly how fetching she was when she batted her eyelashes (yes, cats can do this) and chirruped for treats in a ridiculously high octave.
After Sheeba passed away in my arms at the age of 20, I was sure it would be months, maybe years, before I could bring another cat into my life. Yet eight weeks later, I drove to Minnesota’s Golden Valley Humane Society one crisp Saturday morning, determined to adopt one. Home wasn’t home without a cat.
I walked past cage after cage of rescued or abandoned kitties: gray cats, calico cats, tuxedo cats. One captured my eye because of her golden coat and topaz gaze, a gaze that was shy but not fearful. I opened the cage door and carefully lifted her into my arms. She mewed in protest but made no attempt to scratch or bite. A staff volunteer hurried toward me.
“She was spayed just yesterday, ma’am. She really shouldn’t be picked up.”
“Oh dear, I’m so sorry! I had no idea. I’m so sorry, Kitty!”
I returned her to her cage as gently as I could and continued looking. Why, I don’t know. How could I not take home a cat sweet-natured enough to let a stranger handle her 24 hours after a major operation? Especially after I learned she was a two-year-old feral who had recently given birth to a litter of four kittens who had all been adopted?
Of course I took her home.
It was not a happy journey. The cardboard carrying case she was transported in sparked panic in Lilly (volunteers had named her Sunny, but I preferred Lilly). She mewed frantically and began biting through the box. Soon her golden head popped out of its side. She rode the rest of the way home stuck like that, no doubt wishing she had never left the shelter.
Lilly probably wished this more than once in the months that followed. It was the last fall that Ben and I lived together, and it was a miserable one. I could no longer ignore Ben’s drinking or the black moods that descended on him nightly. Lilly zigzagged in streaks throughout our apartment each evening as Ben bellowed and swore and mimicked me. She spent her days avoiding him and escaped into the hall whenever possible.
The low point came when I woke up one night around 1:30 a.m. to an eerie silence. Usually, I heard Ben muttering on the couch or at least low voices coming from the TV. But that night there was nothing. I walked into a living room full of shadows and saw the man I had loved and lived with for twenty-five years – the man who listened to all my insecurities and wrote me tender notes taped to the refrigerator in the morning – standing over a rack of CDs, swaying like a great tree in wind. I was terrified he was going to fall.
For the next 45 minutes, I struggled to keep Ben steady as I begged him to lie down, please, for God sake, just lie down! Ben refused, arms lunging about, his entire frame smashing into furniture. Shelves of books fell around us, a potted plant overturned, the flat screen TV teetered as he grabbed it for balance. Finally, despite shouting and threats from Ben, I called 911. By the time paramedics arrived, he had collapsed into the stereo cabinet and could not get up. There was a deep cut above his left eyebrow. He asked one of the paramedics in a slurry voice for a light.
My body shook as I walked out of Hennepin County Medical Center five hours later. It was January in Minneapolis, and I hadn’t thought to bring a coat or gloves when I rode in the ambulance with Ben to the ER. I didn’t know where I was in the city or what bus to take home. Thank God for my friend Marge. Marge didn’t ask any questions or make any excuses when I called her at 7:30 in the morning. She left a warm and comfortable home to battle rush hour traffic, pick me up at Hennepin County’s main entrance, and drive me back to my apartment on the other side of town. She wanted to buy me breakfast, but I felt too disoriented to eat.
The apartment was chaos. My eyes wandered over the wreckage, noting a CD Ben and I had listened to often when we were younger and happier. Strunz & Farah, Primal Magic. Latin music with mystery and wisdom woven into its hypnotic melodies. After calling in sick to work, I took the disk into the bedroom and played it on my portable CD player. I listened to every track. I knew it would hurt, but I had to do it. And for the first time in years, I cried.
I spent hours cleaning but could not mend the smashed tapes, the glass door that had broken off from the stereo cabinet, a hand-painted triptych I’d bought at an art fair that was in pieces. By the afternoon’s end, I was calm. Hennepin County was going to keep Ben for one more night, and I realized it felt good not to have him there. Ben had not worked in years. He was always home; I never had the apartment to myself. But now I did, and it occurred to me that Lilly had not been her wild, unruly self all day. Instead, she had observed me from a polite distance and was now stretched out on the carpet, purring quietly. I had told myself as I made coffee that morning with hands that still trembled that I had to move out. I didn’t believe I could do it until I saw Lilly, peaceful and content as I had not seen her since bringing her home.
Weeks later, Lilly and I moved into a small garden apartment where there was no shouting, no second-hand smoke, no overturned furniture. Lilly bloomed into the delightful goofball she was meant to be. Every morning after sleeping next to me on the pillow, she lies in wait for me to come out of the bedroom so she can mock-attack my ankles, swiping at them with a sheathed paw, then galloping away. She follows me faithfully from room to room, but if I remain somewhere for long, she stretches out on her back, legs spread wide, and watches my doings from upside down, eyes lolling as I move from desk to window to chair. Lilly thumps her tail hard on the floor when she approves of something (usually me!) and holds no grudges if I spray her because she is knowingly, naughtily snacking on my plants. But those few instances I lost my temper and yelled at her over a torn screen or broken dish, she hid in the closet. Each time, I sought her out and apologized. She forgave me immediately and was bored by my subsequent kisses and passionate assurances that I was sorry, truly sorry! Saints don’t forgive so divinely.
In a spiritual memoir I am currently reading, A Deeper Faith, Jeff Golliher describes an afternoon he descended into a temporary hell. Every unkind, selfish act and speech he had ever committed in his life suddenly resurrected itself with ferocious clarity into a tape that would not stop playing in his head. This was all the more stunning as it happened while he was walking contentedly under a magnificent canopy of live oaks.
Golliher emerged from this experience with genuine gratitude for the healing that ultimately took place under that grove of trees. “When I look back on that day,” he writes, “I always remember the trees. They taught me that the whole of creation participates in our healing. There’s no one to exclude because everyone and everything is involved.”
If it weren’t for one scrap of creation – a feral cat who ended up at a shelter – I might still be in a doomed relationship, mistakenly believing that because love still existed between Ben and me, I had to be loyal and stay with him. Lilly saved me from this. It’s because of Lilly, whose welfare mattered more to me than my own, that I have the clean, quiet home I always wanted, filled with books and plants and a few cherished objects.
Do I feel lonely sometimes? Yes, terribly. Ben understood me. No matter what bad times we weathered, I knew it was going to be all right as long as things between us were OK. I could face challenges with Ben I never could have taken on alone. I remember the morning we were getting ready to move from Manhattan, Kansas to Minneapolis, where I had been accepted into the University of Minnesota’s Creative Writing Program. I was dragging a beat-up chair to the dumpster. It was ninety degrees at 9:00 a.m. and instead of feeling excited about what lay ahead of me, I felt sick and scared. What am I doing, entering an MFA program at the age of forty-four? Why did I ever make this crazy decision? What am I going to do once I get out? Just then, Ben pulled into the parking lot driving the 22-foot Ryder truck we’d rented. Sporting a Ryder baseball cap, he wolf-whistled at me from the cab, grinning like he did not have a care in the world. I knew everything was going to be fine.
Alcohol stole that man from me. I am now living a new life chapter I never asked for, but luckily I have a full-time job, good friends, and responsibilities – including Lilly – that keep me from wallowing too long in misgivings and regrets. Lilly puts me first as no human, perhaps, ever will again. She makes me laugh and she comforts me. Every day, she participates in my healing.
About the Author: Francine Marie Tolf’s poetry and essays have appeared in numerous journals including Rattle, Water-Stone, Under the Sun, GHLL and Southern Humanities Review. She has published two poetry collections, Rain, Lilies, Luck (North Star Press of St. Cloud, 2010) and Prodigal (Pinyon Publishing, 2012), as well as a memoir and a number of chapbooks. She has received grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board; Barbara Deming / Money for Women; and the Elizabeth George Foundation. Francine lives and works in Minneapolis.