I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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One winter, years ago, a stray cat lived under my rear deck. He was long and skinny and had a tattered gray coat, a whip tail, a block head, and a set of elephant nuts that hung low off his hind end. He survived by eating scraps of leftover food my mother threw to the birds. The sight of him disgusted me. I would open the back door and try to frighten him away. “Fuck off!” I’d yell. But he stood his ground, gnawing on burnt toast. He never flinched at the sound of my voice and, just for spite, would turn away from me and let loose a three-foot arc of piss in my direction. I wanted to chase off the son of a bitch. My mother, however, had a different plan.
A registered nurse, she believed it was important for me to have companionship. She’d felt this way ever since I’d suffered a spinal-cord injury while in the Air Force and become a quadriplegic at the age of nineteen. It didn’t matter that I was now in my thirties and semi-independent. I lived alone, drove, worked, had an ample social life, and required assistance only in the morning and at night with personal tasks such as showering, dressing, and getting into and out of my wheelchair. I had plenty of physical deficits and could not do a lot of things, but I had adapted well — at least, that’s what I told myself. Although she never said it, my mother thought I needed emotional support, too. She was the reason I already had two cats, Marble and Princess, and a parrot, Tony, to keep me company.
“Have you been feeding that cat?” I asked my mother. We were staring out the kitchen window at the ratty stray struggling through a half foot of powdery snow to get to the pile of scraps in my yard.
“Then why are you standing here with a can of cat food in your hand?”
“Look at him,” she said. “The poor cat is hungry.” She paused. “He needs a home.”
As far back as I can remember, my mother has had a soft spot for strays. Many of our family pets were lured into my childhood home by her tactics. She would start by leaving an open can of food on the back steps and watching from a window to see if the stray appeared, which of course it would. After two weeks or so my mother would slowly open the door while the animal fed, then talk to it in a soothing tone and attempt to stroke its coat. Finally she would sit down beside the food and wait for the stray to come and eat next to her. After about a month my brothers and sister and I would be fawning over a new pet and having heated debates about a proper name.
But I didn’t want another pet right now, especially not a filthy tomcat.
I pounded on the door, hoping the stray would disappear.
“Stop that,” my mother said, grabbing my arm.
“I don’t want a stray like that coming around. Who knows what it could do to my cats.”
“Stop overreacting. Your cats are both fixed and have had all their shots.”
“I’m not overreacting. I’m being pragmatic.”
“Oh, pooh,” my mother said with a wave of her hand.
Marble, my short-haired calico, waltzed into the kitchen and began eating some dry food. I spun my wheelchair around and headed for the living room. Marble followed, jumped onto my lap, and started cleaning herself. I heard the back door creak open and then the sound of the top being ripped from a tin can. I ran my hand across Marble’s soft fur. She began to purr. I turned my hand so I could best feel the calming vibration.
In February my mother, having taken on a part-time role as my morning caregiver, had not yet tamed the stray despite leaving food in a ceramic bowl on the back steps daily. The stray would eat the food only after she had left for the morning. Once, I went to discard the food while she was gone, but she had strategically placed it far enough from my ramp that I could not get to it.
Occasionally crows would drift in and peck the bowl clean before the stray came out of hiding. I smiled at the sight of the black scavengers and was delighted to hear them fight over chunks of Friskies Chicken Paté.
My mother was determined, though, and continued to feed the cat over my repeated objections. Eventually I gave up arguing and simply prayed she would fail at this mission of kindness, and the stray would wander off for good.
Soon crocuses sprouted through melting snow, trees came alive with the songs of birds, and Marble and Princess began wanting to go outside. I knew I couldn’t keep those two locked up in the house much longer. To my dismay I had seen the tomcat frequently basking in the sun on the warm blacktop driveway. He no longer felt the need to hide. His gray coat had a glossy sheen — a sure sign that my mother’s efforts to nourish the interloper had been successful. Still, she had not been able to get close to him, and I held on to the hope that, once the snow had completely melted, he would go back to where he came from.
One morning in early April I was scrolling through my e-mail, checking for a message from Tina, a woman I had recently met online in a trivia chat room. Our personalities and senses of humor had clicked, and we’d exchanged addresses. As I scanned through the junk mail, I heard my mother talking to a neighbor outside. She had stuck around that morning to work in the flower beds. A skilled gardener, she planted a colorful mixture of annuals and perennials for me: tulips, daylilies, daisies, black-eyed Susans, bee balm, hollyhocks, poppies, morning glories, and bleeding hearts. The plants attracted butterflies and a zippy hummingbird. I enjoyed reading in the shade alongside her landscaping, which brightened the yard during the spring and summer months.
Finding no messages from Tina, I sighed and shut down the computer. I had recently told her about my disability. It was tough deciding when to tell someone I met online that I’m a quadriplegic. After a previous heartbreak, I’d sworn I would never get involved with anyone online again. When I’d logged into the chat room where I’d met Tina, I’d intended only to play a trivia game, not to develop a personal relationship.
In the kitchen I swallowed some medication — a cocktail of pills that mollified the muscle spasticity in my legs and inadvertently tamed my anxiety, too. Then I rolled outside in search of my mother and the neighbor. Marble and Princess followed me down the driveway. I had given in to their demands and released them from house arrest a few weeks earlier. I was still waiting to hear them clash with the stray and was pleased no such encounter had occurred. But it surely would happen, and when it did, I would have a legitimate reason for trapping and removing the intruder.
My mother was standing near the flower bed, leaning against a tall edger she’d retrieved from the shed. There was no neighbor in sight. Instead, circling her legs and affectionately rubbing up against her jeans was the gray cat.
“No! Absolutely not,” I said, startling the stray, who sought cover under a nearby bush.
“Stephen!” My mother got down on one knee to locate the stray. “Don’t scare him. He’s at a delicate stage in the process.” She patted the ground and called to him.
The cat crept toward my mother’s outstretched hand, hesitating and peering in my direction. The diet my mother was feeding him had helped the tom gain weight, and he looked healthy — too healthy. A nick in his left ear, most likely the result of a fight, was the only visible flaw on him.
“Not in the house,” I said. “You can feed him outside all you want, but please don’t bring him inside.” I held up my knotted hands, fingers folded into fists from years of immobility, placed them together, and pleaded. “Please,” I said.
My mother pretended to listen and then walked toward me while simultaneously calling Tom, as the stray was now known. “Here,” she said, “get a good look at him. He’s made remarkable progress.”
I turned my chair around to head back inside. The driveway’s incline made it difficult, however, and before I could put enough distance between us, Tom had come up alongside my rear wheel. I locked the chair’s brakes, crossed my arms, and glared at my mother, who adjusted her eyeglasses and smirked. She was exasperatingly persistent, and I knew she would not honor my request not to bring this creature inside. I slumped forward, defeated, elbows resting on my thighs. Tom cautiously strolled around my chair, sniffing the tires, and then swiftly slipped underneath and out the other side.
Over the next few weeks my many attempts to contact Tina proved futile. Meanwhile Tom comfortably ate with Marble and Princess in the kitchen.
Tina’s vanishing act stung, but it was only a fraction of the pain I’d felt a few years earlier following rejection by Rebecca — another woman I’d met online. That relationship had begun with a lengthy correspondence that gradually grew more personal and intimate. I was leery at first, but her positive attitude and acceptance of my disability made me believe a life with her was possible. I felt nineteen again. Rebecca came to New York for a visit, and she was everything I’d expected: bubbly and bright with a brilliant smile. We spent the weekend together and made love by candlelight. After she left, however, I sensed a change. Our contact diminished. I grew paranoid, insecure, and begged her not to give up on us. Against my family’s wishes, I boarded a flight alone to British Columbia to see her. Our time together there was pleasant, and we did things couples do, but it became apparent that the connection we’d once had was gone. Devastated, I cut my trip short and headed home. On the long flight back I thought about what Rebecca had said — how I would always be a special part of her life — and felt physically and emotionally helpless.
Now, with Tina, I was disappointed in myself for letting my guard down once again but pleased I had not been drawn in too deep.
Tom got along well with my other cats. Still, I would not let him stay in the house. Convinced he might harm Marble or Princess, I allowed him inside only to eat, then made sure he went back outdoors. This arrangement seemed to suit him just fine, even when it was raining.
One afternoon I decided to sit outside at the wooden picnic table on the edge of the driveway. It was an unusually warm and clear day for early spring, and the sun’s heat felt good against my face, neck, shoulders, and inner arms — the only areas of my body where normal sensation had not been vanquished by paralysis. I nodded off briefly before being roused by the howls and hisses of a cat fight. Tom had finally crossed the line, I thought. I scanned the yard: nothing. Suddenly two cats darted from behind the garage, one racing after the other.
“Hey! You son of a—”
I held my tongue as Tom pursued a cat I’d never seen before. He drove off the invader, chasing him through the split-rail fence, across a neighbor’s lawn, and up an embankment. Satisfied with the distance between them, Tom trotted triumphantly back to my yard — his territory now. Imitating Marble and Princess, he leaped onto the picnic table, then squatted at the opposite end and licked his wounds. It was the first time I had seen him at eye level. His mitten-like paws and golden eyes gave him the appearance of a small lion. He seemed to be waiting for me to acknowledge his accomplishment.
“It’s going to take more than that,” I said.
Spring became summer, and Tom’s skinny frame amassed a layer of muscle. He continued to defend the yard and never troubled Marble or Princess, the three of them often lounging together in the shade beneath the pine trees. Tom’s behavior impressed me enough that I allowed him daytime rights to the house. I even gave him a tour, showing him the various rooms as he walked beside me, inspecting everything along the way. I introduced him to Tony the parrot, who shuffled along his perch and cocked his head to get a better look at the outsider.
At some point I told my mother about Tom’s territorial behavior.
“He’s protecting his home,” she said.
“It’s not his home.”
“Oh, really?” She led me to the back door.
There, laid out neatly in the middle of the doormat, was a dead chipmunk.
“Do you know what that is?” she asked as she poured milk in my cereal.
I knew exactly what it was. Marble had deposited a small bird at my feet shortly after I’d decided to keep her. I hid a slight grin and replied that it was a dead chipmunk.
“It’s a present,” my mother said, “a token of his appreciation. He’s providing for his family.” She asked when I was going to adopt him.
I didn’t respond, and she didn’t press the matter. I think she knew I was close to relenting.
By fall the nights had acquired a noticeable chill, and Tom had transformed into a strong cat with a thick, clean coat. I informed my mother I was keeping him — with one qualification: she had to call him Thomas.
“Why ‘Thomas’?” she asked.
“Because that’s his name,” I said. “It sounds regal.”
The day Thomas was to be immunized and fixed, he climbed into the carrier without complaint. I’d never come across a stray so willing to give himself up. Even Marble and Princess disapproved of being confined, slashing anyone who attempted to jail them. I envied Thomas’s ability to trust.
On the table at the veterinarian’s office Thomas relished the attention, turning round and round as the vet examined him. I shook my head and smiled, then left him there to be neutered.
A few hours later I received a call from the practice. Thomas had tested positive for both feline AIDS and leukemia.
“I’m sorry,” the vet said. She explained that the viruses are contagious and can be transmitted to other cats through sharing food and fighting. “Has Thomas interacted with either of your cats?” she asked.
“No,” I lied, unwilling to risk losing Marble and Princess to the same fate.
“Well, I’m recommending Thomas be euthanized, and I need your permission.”
“Don’t do anything yet,” I said. “I need to see him first.”
Twenty minutes later I sat in the examination room as an assistant brought Thomas in and freed him from the carrier, then left.
Thomas sat up tall and proud. I kept my distance, staring at the white walls and listening to the incessant buzz of the fluorescent lights. I had not caused Thomas’s illness, yet I felt responsible for the fact that he was being put down. I tried to convince myself that the two of us had experienced something genuine during our brief relationship. Tears clouding my vision, I moved to the table and did what I had neglected to do all along: I ran my hand along Thomas’s long neck and back, smelled his fresh coat, and then lowered my head in submission. Thomas greeted me with an affectionate head butt, his furry cheek wiping away my tears.
Stephen A. Waite
Stephen A. Waite’s essay “The Stray” [February 2018] stayed with me long after I read it. Like Waite I began to care about the stray cat as the story progressed. His contributor’s note says this is his first published work. I hope he will keep writing.