I AM PINNED to the wall, shackled by a death-bed
promise. I am morally bound and cannot escape my obligation to a friend of 40 years. I didn't believe she was going to die because I never believe people will die or move away or get divorced or mad at me, and I told her she wasn't going to die but, if she did, I would take her cat.
It isn't that I don't like animals. In my foolishness over animals, I yield to no one. I worry about turtles in polluted creeks and coyotes, unloved and poisoned by sheep ranchers. I help angleworms off hot pavements. I grieve for every squirrel squashed thin as a communion wafer on the street. I dream of ransoming every lobster now prisoner in the supermarket holding tank, of leading them all, claws waving, in an orderly line past the checker to freedom. I loved all my children's guinea pigs, buried them with honors beneath the hickory. I have never in my life even considered living without one dog.
But on cats, I am cold.
I look on cats as nice from a distance, unfriendly, superior, takers, not givers. It is not lost on me that dogs instinctively guard your property while cats enjoy ripping it to shreds. I lump cats with women who marry for money; they tolerate you because you provide. Come or go, it's all the same to them as long as the grub is regular and the litterbox properly tended.
But a promise is a promise, and who knows how much the dead know of what we do here below? Omar McNicol, a huge black Persian with amber eyes, now lives with me. I am determined to care for him, but my heart is locked in ice.
I particularly take offense that this new boarder seeks me out to rub my legs only when I am opening a can of Friskie's Liver and Eggs. Opening the can, I am loved and admired; otherwise engaged, I am nothing. From a safe distance Omar stares at me with a gaze that is flat and barely even curious. Our friendship's beginnings wither, and I do not care.
"You must love him," cries my daughter, who is both an animal lover and a cat lover. "How cruel you are. Pick him up. He's an orphan. Only see how beautiful he is."
Beauty? Ah, that's in my lovely black dog, who studies my every mood, reads my thoughts, mourns when I leave and celebrates my return with foolishly joyous capers. But, guilt ridden, I seek this cat out, searching for him in his lair behind The Wizard of Oz and Robin Hood in the children's bookcase. I reach for him and he shrinks back. He wants no more truck with me than I him. Less, perhaps, except at suppertime.
Every letter from my now-dead friend contained a sketch of Omar. I knew him well before we met. Three days before she died, my friend penned a poem to this beast: My cats ears
Open like two cups,
Open as tulips
Black sateen the petals
And ebony his purr to me.
Wee gorrilla snout,
Light my lonesome room!
When I read this touching declaration of love, I am ashamed, but I am also dumbfounded. It is like watching someone devour with gusto a dish of something for which you don't care. You want to reach out and warn them that they are deluded, but then, of course, love was never rational. It is carelessly bestowed on all sides every day. I do not wonder at my friend, but at myself. Why can't I love this black creature padding through my house?
"Oh, but when you finally get close to a cat, you have something," say my cat-owning friends. "It's not like a dog, slavering all over everybody."
Maybe the world is divided into cat lovers and dog lovers. If so, I am spoken for. Can a cat sit vigilant beside you on the front seat of your car while you make your round of errands? Can a cat stand bristling at a noise in the night, swearing deep throaty threats at possible intruders? Can a cat walk by your side on the canal?
An acquaintance who has a cat says that cat lovers approach the world, as do cats, in a more oblique fashion than those who cast their lot with dogs. She says cats are the genie of the house, often passing with house ownership instead of moving on with the people. I find this difficult to admire.
Cat people, I think, are simply people who can't or don't want to be tied down. Dogs are a committment for which you give up some freedom. "No, no, you cannot have a dog," I once told a friend who was considering a dog instead of a cat. "Your life is too unstable."
Be that as it may, there is no turning back for me. Daily now I am engaged in self-administered therapy to promote cat love. I remind myself that Omar's owner, who stood beside me on my wedding day, loved this cat. I loved my friend, therefore I will love this cat.
Perhaps in a year or so.