Sunday, January 17, 2016
Simon’s story, part 1
(Sorry I haven’t got the photos for this—we don’t have a scanner.)
We moved into an apartment in the Willamette Valley with our three black cats, Esmerelda, Velvet, and Gracie, in 2000. Soon after we arrived, a feral tabby with a white chin and paws showed up at the back patio door. There were plenty of feral cats around, but she was different. She would sit in the container garden on our back patio, watching us through the sliding glass door. We never saw her arrive; we would sense someone looking at us and she’d be there. We would go out and talk to her, but she would never let us touch her. No matter how long we sat still, no matter what treats we were holding, no matter how contentedly she sat just out of reach and gave us the slow blink of affection, no matter how consistently we fed her, she would not come within arm’s reach. We checked around: she was not anyone’s cat. She had been pregnant but had never been seen with kittens. Probably the raccoons got them, people said. One day, for no reason at all, I called her Tibbs, and the name stuck.
She showed up increasingly pregnant for awhile, disappeared for a couple of weeks, and came back thin and alone. We decided to work on taming her enough to get her trapped and neutered; we put out a cat carrier under a patio chair, leaving her food in it, but she would not go in when we were there and she would not rest there.
In the late summer of 2001, she was pregnant once more. She disappeared for some days in early September and came back without kittens again. We thought she had lost another litter.
One Monday morning in early October, I was heading out to work when I heard a strange rustling in the bushes by the sidewalk. I tiptoed over and looked down. Tibbs was there, nursing a kitten, a heavily striped tabby a few weeks old. She looked up at me.
I said, “Tibbs! Look at you being a good mama. What a beautiful kitten you have. Good kitty.”
I backed off slowly for a few feet and ran back into the apartment. I grabbed Matt, blurting, “Tibbs has the most beautiful kitten I’ve ever seen!” and dragged him out to look. Tibbs never moved. The kitten stopped nursing and blinked up at us. He slung a little white paw over his mother’s neck: MY mama. I saw that the nictitating membrane on his right eye had a little tear in it and didn’t pull down all the way.
I went off to work, a little late. We left some extra food out for the nursing mother.
The next morning, I looked out the sliding door and there she was, dropping the kitten on the doormat. I went to the door and opened it very slowly. Tibbs retreated behind the plant pots. The kitten did not. I picked him up. He mewed in surprise, but didn’t scratch. He snuggled against us. We held him and petted him, then put him back and closed the door softly. Tibbs collected him and went away.
She showed up at the same time every morning that week. She dropped him off, we picked him up, he squalled in alarm at being lifted through the air. I called him Simon Peter because he reminded me of Peter, insisting on walking on water and then panicking. He was still nursing, so we gave him back, hoping to take him in when he was weaned.
On Saturday, I picked tiny Simon up and realized his eyes were gunky, his nose was running, and he was breathing hard. Tibbs looked worse. We were startled at how quickly they had gone from being slightly unhealthy strays to being very sick. I put food in the carrier, and she walked into it, right in front of me. I put Simon in and closed the door. We called the vet and took her in. A friend went along.
Then everything went wrong. The Saturday substitute vet, whom we had told the cats were feral, opened the carrier and let Tibbs walk out into the room. When Tibbs saw all the people, she panicked. The vet said to let her be. Our friend grabbed Tibbs, who put several deep gashes in her hand (we ended up paying part of her medical bill for the subsequent infection). The cat tore around the room, screaming and smashing things, clearing shelves, tearing a diploma off the wall. Finally, a burly vet tech wearing leather gloves waded through the broken glass, cornered Tibbs, and scruffed her, tucking her into his elbow. She was panting, a horrible rasping sound. The tech carried her out and the vet followed.
I reached into the carrier. Simon was a wide-eyed handful of fur in the back corner. He was utterly alone and so very small. I pulled him out and held him against my heart, hoping the sound of a heartbeat would comfort him. He clung to me, silent and unmoving.
The vet said Tibbs had pneumonia and was too sick and wild to save. We agreed to euthanize her. I still feel like a traitor for that: she trusted us, and that was how it ended.
We said we wanted to try to save Simon. The vet examined him and took blood for FIV and FLV tests, warning us we might still have to put him down. I took him back and put him over my heart again. They gave us antibiotics. I held him as we paid the bill, as we lugged the empty carrier back to the car, as we drove to Bi-Mart for kitten milk replacer and eyedroppers, as we drove to church. I wore him like a brooch into the confessional. The priest raised an eyebrow and I said, “This is necessary. I’ll explain afterward.” When the priest had absolved me, he said, “Now may I hold the baby?” He got a few minutes to snuggle the kitten against his alb and stole: then I put Simon back on my heart, and he dug into my shirt with his miniscule (but oh so sharp) claws again.
We took the tiny scrap of fur home and kept him quarantined from the other cats, who were not thrilled about his arrival. We bottle-fed him. He washed me with his tongue. He started to play a little, then more. He decided I was his ape and Matt was his backup ape.
Late in October, I took him back for a recheck and the test results. No FIV, no FLV, just a kitten who was fully recovered from the infection that had killed his mother. The vet (not the sub) smiled when I leaned against the examining table and whispered, “Oh, thank God.”
“Yes, I’ve heard how much you love him,” she said. I picked him up and held him against my heart.