Thursday, December 18, 2008

Cleo and Leo

So it seems people were quite taken with my recent story of the two kittens, two of many that have invaded my mother’s barn.

What has or will become of them? One friend practically begged to adopt them. She even promised I could visit them whenever I wanted.


I guess I did not make myself clear. Those babies are mine. I’m smitten. I don’t think I could part with them. I get like this. This is why I’m afraid to foster any animal.

That said, I have in the meantime been discussing possible names with my mother. I even got some input from friends…cat people all of them. Here are some ideas we came up with, some mine, some from others:

Cumulous and Nimbus or Stratus
Flora and Fauna
Antony and Cleopatra
Maximus and Persephone
Halle and Barry

My mother and I liked Halle for the tiny female but Barry just didn’t sit right for the male. And a name has to sit right or I’ll never us it.

Actually, I almost never use the name I pick anyway so you could ask, What’s the diff?

You see, my favorite cat (yes, I know you should not say that but it’s true), was originally named Muffin. I rarely called him that. I call him The Doots, a giant-pawed Maine Coon rescued a dozen years ago from a frigidly cold parking lot near a freeway on-ramp. Muffin was an attempt at a “normal” name, which sounded better than Ragamuffin, which is what he looked like at first. But that just seemed wrong, as it conjured images of a dirty little street cat urchin.

But Muffin was just too, too cute. And too common. One day I decided to call him Doots because it reflected the sounds he made when he “talked.” I learned that Maine Coons, which he surely is, like to talk. These are not long mmmeeeeoooooowwwwwwww’s. They are more like purr-meows that are short, staccato repetitive utterances, almost like cat barks. Often he’d do it just walking around as a person might be heard whistling strolling down a street: Doot doot-doot doot-doot doot!

I could have called it a “toot” but I heard it as “doot.” So I dubbed him “The Doots.” It took many years to officially change his name at the vet’s office for the record. They did not laugh. I’m sure they have heard stranger names. But The Doots is another story, one I’ll tell eventually.

Another cat, Mr. Kitty Man (genius, I know), is really “The Bird” or some derivation thereof (Derd, Nerd, Werd, Birdy) because as a youngster he sat looking out the window imitating the birds, practically chirping with them in unison.

But this is not unique. Most animal lovers know how personal a name is. It’s partly about reflecting how you feel about your pet, as well as how you feel saying the name.

While I loved the idea of the clouds (cumulous, nimbus) for the kittens, because they are varying shades of gray, those names weren’t rolling off the tongue so easily.

Then, just as I thought I could live with Cleo (which I first thought of as short for Cleopatra but didn’t like Antony or Cesar) and Leo (which could conjure up Leo the Lion, a big feline), my mother suddenly informed me that the bigger kitten, which she originally thought was a girl, and later decided was a boy, which is how I finally adjusted to thinking of him, was back again to being a girl.

This really upset my sense of him/her and of course the whole name thing. But within a day or so, she was back deciding he was a boy. So we are back to Leo.

Cleo and Leo just seem to fit. The names are short, kind of cute, and while it doesn’t feel natural just yet, that’ll come. Besides, it’s better than “kitty” and “kitty” as they have been known, and together as “The Kitties.”

Meanwhile, Cleo and Leo are growing nicely, sneezing less and getting stronger. Cleo, who is somewhat placid, as if she’s putting up with me when I hold and cuddle her, shows more enthusiasm leaping to the top of this scratching post as I tease her with a string — “The String” being the most excellent toy ever and at a cost of nothing. They also like to run and dive bomb each other. Leo, who is more of a love and cries as he seeks me out to sleep on my lap, has a stronger personality, more facial expressions. I swear.

So Cleo and Leo it is.

I think.

At least for the record.

NOTE: To clarify, Cleo and Leo are living at my mom's house, in a warm breezeway and get run-of-the-house time every evening. I see them several times a week. For now.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Remembering John

I was about nine. Maybe younger, maybe older. I can’t quite remember. But let’s say I was old enough to know better and young enough to be excused.

His name was John. John loved to skate at the rink where I was training as a competitive figure skater. It was a private club. Some thought it was a little snooty. I didn’t know about that. I did know something was wrong with John.

Wrong. Maybe that’s not a fair word. He was different.

John showed up regularly for the general skate sessions. I skated on those as well as the free skate sessions, which were exclusive to competitors. General skate was for a mish mash, skaters like me along with men and women my parents’ age. And there was John.

He seemed more like a child than the adult he was. He was awkward, off balance both physically and mentally. He was not bad looking but his hair was always greasy and his large glasses always slipping perilously low on his nose. He smelled like chicken soup every time he swooped past. He'd swing one leg back to do a spiral, not quite straight enough, not quite high enough, but it didn’t seem to bother him. Why did it bother us?

We all knew something was not right. Was he developmentally disabled? Was he in an accident? I don’t think I ever knew. But he was always friendly. He’d smile and sometimes try to talk to you.

I didn’t want to be mean but I kept my distance and averted his gaze. Like we all did. Maybe what he had would rub off. Maybe he’d say something we wouldn’t know how to respond to. Maybe we’d be trapped if we spoke back. The truth is, he scared us.

As I said, I was old enough to know he was different but young enough to be excused for being uncomfortable. I think back now and hope I was never mean to him, never ran away or laughed at him in front of his face.

Years later in college one of my girlfriends actually gasped in horror when a guy said something to her at a party. He’d been in an accident. His body and facial expressions were twisted like a surreal painting. His utterances were grunts.

I was taken aback, too, but mostly hated my friend in that moment for her selfish reaction. You see, the guy may have looked as if his brain was as warped as his body but it wasn’t. He saw the world — and her response — just as we did. Full on clarity. I’ve always been haunted by that. How would I feel to see someone look at me in horror?

Over the years, I have met and known many more people with disabilities — mental, emotional and physical. Yes, they can scare us. Usually, I think, we fear being like them more than being near them. What is it? Is it just a lack of understanding and education? We seem to have surmounted that hurtle when it comes to people with Down syndrome. Why can’t it be that way for everyone?

I was reminded of this again by a TV movie the other night about a man who had Tourette syndrome, which causes uncontrollable movements like ticks or sounds like grunts and even swearing. I’ve made jokes about this. But it’s wrong. Sure, sometimes it's okay to laugh or make fun as a way to cope. But not when it's mean, or breeds intolerance. That's as wrong as it would be to openly mock or laugh at a person with Down syndrome or autism.

I have watched people laugh at, yell at and veer away from those with mental illness. I know people with tremors so bad they’ve been mistaken for being drunk.

Maybe rather than trying to fix all these people as if they have the problem — because some cannot be fixed — we need to change our attitude about them.

Because I can think of nothing worse than being born with or suffering from something that makes you different than to be ostracized for it.

If we just adopt a new normal then no one is really different.

I’m glad I knew John. I doubt he had something that could be fixed. And I hope today, if he is still around, that he lives in a more understanding world. I know I’d take the time to talk to him.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

I Am Not A Crazy Cat Lady

Let’s just get one thing straight from the start, okay? I am not a crazy cat lady.

Besides, these are kittens I’m talking about. Homeless kittens. Just two out of a number of felines that have been occupying my mother’s barn in the past year or so. Where once were horses and llamas she now has a steady stream of cats, most of them short-hair grey-striped, some fully grown, some kittens, some so small and helpless they tug at your heart.

You see, my mother has been “invaded,” as she likes to say though not necessarily with a smile. It started with a friendly but cautious cat she called “Grey Boy” several years ago. My mother was coping with illness at the time and I saw how he softened her. How she, despite herself, despite not feeling well or even happy, beamed with compassion and joy and care when he came around. And concern when he didn’t.

My mother charmed Grey Boy enough to get him “fixed” but not before a fluffy female began hanging around, too. Soon there were young cats. They came, they went. There were always just a few.

This past year or so suddenly there were more. Too many. It was like a domino effect. Too many to tame. But she’s tried.

She feeds them and provides litter boxes along with cozy beds and toys amid a few bails of hay in what is a former garage with a concrete floor. Mahlie, our pony, is in one of two stalls attached at the back. The garage part has always been home to hay, horse gear and a tack and feed room. I like to think they all keep each other company.

Each night when my mother feeds Mahlie she fills dishes with cat food and water and does a random head count. Maybe eight cats of various sizes live there now. She’s caught some, mostly females, which she’s had spayed in hopes of controlling the population. But they stay just ahead of her.

Not all the kittens survive. Some have met cruel — but natural — fates. Owls, perhaps coyotes have taken some, she guesses. Older cats have disappeared leaving my mother to wonder: Were they hit by a car? Did they find another home? Were they attacked?

They are feral, but they know this is a place they can call home. Still, my mother tries to tame them in hopes of finding them real homes.

In the past couple of months, she captured six kittens — four striped and two fluffy grey ones — shortly after they were weaned. She put them in a large dog cage in the breezeway and posted notes around town.

People came and fell in love with them. One girl took two, and brought back friends. All found homes except one. He was rather shy and introverted, my mother said. She told the visitors she’d work with him and they could check back later.

Then she discovered more even younger kittens in the garage. She captured one, a female. Now the two are inseparable.

We have not named them but we’ve bonded. They come into my mother’s house each night for a couple hours — she’s hesitant to keep them out of concern for her lone elderly cat — to play and cuddle in her lap. I was sucked in the first time I saw them. Now I visit with them a few times a week.

Let me tell you, they are angels. At least to me. And, remember, I’m not a crazy cat lady. Just compassionate and caring and wanting them to enjoy the life they have. Like any of us.

With three grown cats already, I’m hesitant to adopt them. But I’d like to. Meanwhile, I am watching these two creatures grow and mature with about as much joy as if they were children. I worry when they sneeze and practically melt when they come to me to cuddle up or play.

People don’t always realize the gifts you get from animals. I was raised with a steady stream of them — cats, dogs and bigger “pets.” So I know.

I am amazed when I see these two cuddled up together as if they are they last living creatures on earth. They are not petty. They are not jealous. It’s as if they know how lucky they are and watch out for each other. There is a lesson in this.

I watch as they cling to each other as they drift off to sleep, the bigger one licking and cleaning the baby like a mother tending to her child. And my heart just lifts.

Seriously. Would you call that crazy?