In 1995, I went to the Humane Society in San Diego to adopt a kitten. It was the summer before I started high school. My parents graciously tolerated what would become a kind of ever-growing menagerie; but the reason I began keeping birds at all (beginning with budgerigars and finches) was because cats tended to disappear in San Diego if let outside. My family had had two of them (a tabby named Dufus and a black-and-white named Patches) before I was ten years old who each left home one evening never to return. After that, since it seemed cruel at the time not to let a cat roam outside, we kept to animals that lived indoors, which for me meant birds.
At that age I was still entertaining ideas of being a veterinarian, and I vaguely remember this being related, though mostly one wants a cat because one wants a cat. And by then ideas had changed about indoor cat-keeping. So that summer there was a cat, though not the cat we planned.
Her name then was “Angel” and the dubious individuals who bestowed it had unceremoniously dumped her at the shelter because they were “moving to an apartment that doesn’t allow cats”. This tepid excuse still infuriates me. The likely truth is that she was an impulse kitten acquisition and had had the poor taste to cease being a kitten after about a year, and become boring.
She was so traumatized by being abandoned that upon arriving at the shelter — about two weeks before I saw her — she had stopped eating. She was a small cat already, and would remain so, but by that time she was emaciated, really skin and bones. I have a photograph still; cats should never have hollow cheeks. And so though I went looking for a kitten, I came home with a cat, quickly renamed something a bit more dignified and reflective of a more appropriate respect for her catness: Isis, queen of the gods, daughter of the earth and sky.
Though I think she appreciated the name change, at first she was far from convinced that her situation had genuinely improved: she hid under my bed for two days. Despite being plied with many kinds of canned food, kibble, and toys, she would not come out, and still ate almost not at all.
At last, she did emerge, and after she started eating, she wasn’t inclined to stop. For most of her life she was more round than cat-shaped. She proceeded to take over the house, ousting the family dog from her place at the foot of my bed at night and generally bossing everyone around. The computer chair in the main room was a particular favorite spot. If you so much as leaned forward to take something out of the printer she could be up and into the seat before you sat back down, which could be an adventure. I believe that, unless the humane society bathed her, she had a bath twice in her life: once to figure out if we could do it, and again to figure out if we could do it any better. Instead we discovered the capabilities of a fully operational furry tube with a 360′ rotating spine and twenty-four distinct and autonomous sharp edges.
Like most cats, she disliked having her nails trimmed. But she could be bribed. For a long time I restrained her while trimming her nails, but always gave her a treat afterward. Blood (mine) still sometimes resulted. But when I added giving her a treat before the trim as well as after, she was completely docile. Economy is everything.
When I was in high school my brother adopted a rabbit who mainly lived in the garage. I would sometimes let her out to run around the house, where she enjoyed running laps and kicking her feet up behind her. Isis was quarantined in my bedroom for such expeditions for obvious reasons. But during one outing, Shady, the rabbit, had ventured into the front room. She didn’t get into much trouble on her own, so I mainly listened for her while doing my teenage internet things on the computer. I think I was playing DragonRealms, and I was in combat.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Isis slinking around the corner of the hallway. I was fully engrossed in whatever monster I was battling at the time, and so at first all I registered was that Isis was in the hallway, which was a fairly normal thing. I remember a vague sense of oddness that she was slinking, because she didn’t usually slink, being that she owned the house. Just as she disappeared into the front room, the realization shot through me: THE CAT AND THE RABBIT ARE OUT TOGETHER.
In that exact instant, Isis came streaking back through the doors, around the corner, up the hallway, and back into my room. Shady was right behind her, galloping and snorting like an angry bull. She was average sized for a rabbit, but probably had about equal weight on Isis — and was having none of this slinky stalky business. Needless to say, I jumped up and saved the cat from the rabbit.
Rabbit-stalking was a considerable step up for Isis, and so she was duly chastened. Mostly she liked small birds. She would sit by the window staring wide-eyed at them for long minutes, finally making this soft and fairly disturbing ak-ak-ak-ak-ak-ak sound with her open mouth, unblinking. And she would harass my finches when she could, but would not so much as enter my room, even to eat, if a cockatiel was visiting. She loved feathered toys, and Cheetos.
After I left for college, she expanded her reign to include the rest of my family. In particular she became very good at training my dad to get out of bed. He usually fed her in the morning, and she discovered that she could move up the schedule on this minute by minute through a combination of sitting on his chest to whack him in the face at around 5am, and clawing the carpet. She wasn’t allowed to claw the carpet, you see, but she figured out that if you’re lying in bed there’s not a lot you can do to stop her. So she’d claw the carpet first about two feet from the bed until he got up to stop her, then move two feet back, and two feet back again — all the way down the hall until she was in front of her dish.
As she got older, she developed more eccentricities, as very old cats seem to do. When she turned seventeen she started meowing loudly from the upstairs loft in the family room, and late at night. She had never been a vocal cat, and when she did meow it tended to be this small, croaking thing — so this change was a big one. I don’t think it was ever determined what she was meowing at — although she had a bit of a history of perceiving things no one else did. When she was younger she would race around batting at invisible things on the carpet — “psychedelic spiders”, my stepmom called them.
When she was eighteen she developed a sudden interest in sneaking outside, almost as if she realized she hadn’t that much time left and should get out and see the world a bit. She’d escaped before, never for long and never beyond the backyard, but it was a rare thing before that year. And one night about a year ago she met some other creature while sneaking out that was part of the reason why outdoor cats have much shorter lifespans; whatever it was (a large cat?), it took a huge bite out of her side and sent her shrieking back into the house. She was already an old cat, and my family thought this might be it for her. But she was bandaged up and she healed cleanly — the photo above is from last June, when she was about three months’ healed. And she stopped sneaking out.
When we visited this weekend, I knew as soon as I saw her that she was packing up to go. She moved feebly and her eyes were distant; she’d shed much of her body weight finally, in the way that old cats do. My parents said she was having trouble keeping food down. I picked up a can of tuna (being no judge of canned tuna, I got the most expensive one they had) and coaxed her into drinking its water, something that had enticed her to eat when she’d been sick before. She seemed to keep that down, and the next day I heard her meows were a little stronger. But by the time we left on Monday she wasn’t moving from her cat bed, and seemed not to have the strength even to close her eyes.
For whatever reason, her sight had seemed to suddenly leave her. She’d been frail when I saw her on Thanksgiving, but alert, even playful. And she was so old that I’d been saying goodbye when I left for the last year or more, just in case. But this time it was real.
She couldn’t see me, but some part of her was still there. When I petted her in that small bed, her head lolling and eyes vacant, I was expecting nothing, but needing to thank her for so much that she had given me, given all of us — for her feistiness, her oddness, her bossiness… and she started to purr. Neither her head nor her eyes moved, but her chest rattled, softly at first, then louder. It seemed impossible.
It amazes me to think that I’ve known her for nearly two thirds of my life. She was nineteen when she departed at last. Over the years she has inspired many a gryphon quirk, and if someday you read of a gryphon patched in grey and white, you’ll know it’s me trying to give her another home again, in a world that might be fairer than ours for having her there.