I feel strange writing this cat story today. Yesterday, the news was full of horrible stories about how humans in Texas and Ohio killed lots of people. I don’t watch or read news, but those headlines were unavoidable. If you were alive in America on August 4, 2019 and had an Internet connection, you know what I’m talking about.
Human tragedy fills the air around us, choking us with anger and grief and helplessness. Maybe you’re like me and simply can’t bear to immerse yourself in these stories. It’s not that I don’t care; I just don’t know what to do with all of the emotion that comes up when I read about the details. I already walk around feeling nearly everything and everyone in my immediate vicinity. That’s already a lot. I discovered that allowing in the pain of the mothers, children, fathers, friends—everyone affected by these tragedies—who live far away often overwhelms me. It’s too much. I feel helpless to make a difference; unable to do anything about it. I feel these things when I look closely, feel them viscerally… vicariously. I don’t know what to do about any of it.
That’s why I feel strange telling you about my friend, a feral cat. He’s a cat. He didn’t have a name that I know of before I gave him one. Maybe it will make sense why I need to tell you about him as we go along. I’m not sure what I’m going to say yet. I don’t want this to trivialize the pain that so many are experiencing right now.
I met him when my kids and I moved into this neighborhood a few autumns ago. He was a scrawny shadow, prowling in distant corners of the driveway or behind juniper bushes. He seemed curious but wary.
When winter came, he nosed around the front door a couple of times and the bones poking through his tabby fur hurt my heart. I hate to see a creature suffer. Not that Jaxon S. Feral carried himself like a sufferer. Hungry and cold, yes. But he had this quality of aliveness that I loved. His eyes were bright with a sort of skeptical joie de vivre and I would watch him run lightly across the top crust of a snowbank to find a patch of sunlight where he’d sit and take in the comings and goings of the neighborhood like a skinny sphinx.
One day I put a handful of food out on the front porch and went back inside hoping that he’d get the psychic invitation that I sent through the cold morning air. Later, I left the house and it was gone. I couldn’t be sure but it felt like he got the message.
In the years since then he made it clear that he appreciated the food, sometimes running to hide behind the bush and wait for me when he heard my car coming home.
So we became friends that way. He never came inside and the rules were clear: don’t try to take me in or make me your property. Look and feed me if you like, but don’t touch. Well, almost. In the last few months he grew less cautious. He’d wait with eager little meows while I filled the grubby bowl that had become his. A few times he even rubbed the top of his head against the back of my hand, so long as I stayed very still and didn’t make any motions that could be interpreted as a grab.
Last week, before I took off for a getaway in Sun Valley, I decided to do something about what seemed like a case of intestinal worms. The pet store sold me a big container of diatomaceous earth—which made me feel like I was buying illegal things that could be made into nuclear bombs or something. Articles online assured me that this would do the trick. I mixed it with Salmon ‘n Chicken Shreds and set it out hoping that he’d eat it and maybe we could get him fattened up a little before winter arrived again. In the morning, the bowl was empty and licked clean.
“Progress… things are going well here,” I thought, and left for my mountain retreat feeling quite happy with myself.
Getting back home a few days later, I looked around to see if my friend was somewhere nearby. He wasn’t, but that didn’t surprise me. It’s summertime and he isn’t as urgent about breakfast when it’s warm outside.
Someone knocked on my door later that evening: the elderly neighbor lady from a few doors down.
“I know you’ve been feeding the outdoor cat. I hate to tell you this but he got run over yesterday. My grandson and I saw him standing over there and he had a hard time moving. We put him in a blanket and took him to the vet. He was quite gentle and seemed happy when we tried to comfort him. The vet said nothing could really be done, so they’d have to put him to sleep.”
I miss him today. He was never part of my inside family. I never owned him or tried to do more than feed him a little bit here and there, but still, he was part of my life.
And maybe that’s why I wanted to share this story with you. Maybe that’s why it means something against the much larger landscape of human sorrow that we’re dealing with.
Truth is, we need each other—even people we don’t know; even creatures that are insignificant to our survival. Life matters, even when it’s happening far away from where we live and the events don’t affect our personal situations in any particular way. Maybe that’s what the poet meant by writing:
No man is an island entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
So farewell, Jaxon S. Feral. I never knew you well, but you helped me. You helped me feel things. You helped me remember that kindness matters—that it makes my own life richer and better. I’ll not forget.