This is Tiger Lilly.
She came into my life when she appeared on a coworker’s carport; she was so tiny that she fit, not just in my hands, but within the length of just the finger part of my hands. Not even as big as my palm.
I always feel the push-pull when I see a tiny animal: I really, really want to take it in; I really, really can’t take any more animals. At this point, I had three geriatric cats and my super-duper dog.
This was well before Jitterbug flew the coop.
I had three cats; I didn’t want to take another one in.
But she had a bobbed tail.
A couple of years before this, one of the supervisors at work had a pair of white bob-tails. I’m pretty sure I “squeed” (which I try, at all costs, to avoid) when I learned this. “I want one,” I told her. “I’m keeping them,” she told me.
So that was that.
But then I learned that she gave them to a kid with cancer.
I couldn’t be mad at her for giving them to a kid with cancer! But I was. Just a little bit. I’m not proud of it.
I made a rule: I would not get another cat unless it was a bob-tail.
There’s something about them. I like things that defy expectations and stereotypes. Things a little bit different.
So when a coworker came to me and said, “I heard you’ll take in cats,” I said, “No, no, no.” I was firm. I was steadfast. I was absolute.
But then I saw it: this tiny, skinny thing covered in shit. I didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl. It was tiny and helpless and dirty, and I’d like to think I was well on my way to remaining a bastion of resolve. There was another lady who loved cats; I could find it a home with her.
But then I put it on my chest, shit and all, and it started purring immediately. I ran my fingers from its tiny head down its bony spine to discover it had a tiny stump of a tail.
And whatever backbone I had, whatever decisions I had made logically were out so far out the window, they had already flown to South America for the winter. My decisions were probably drinking fruity drinks with umbrellas in them.
Whatever resolve I had mustered disintegrated like teeth on methotrexate.
And so it came home with me, and it so teen-niney, I had to check out a YouTube to see how to determine the sex.
There’s a joke here about the NSA or the cops checking my computer history, but I’m not quite capable of reaching it.
To say she was precocious doesn’t do her justice. I had put her in a dog pen to keep her safe from the dog in case my pup got too curious.
She had climbed it in about fifteen seconds flat. She was trapped, lying against the highwire that was the dog pen. Just like so:
And then she learned to climb the fence.
I didn’t know she could climb the fence until one night around midnight, I was getting ready for bed, and I performed my usual head count. She wasn’t anywhere to be found.
I checked every nook and cranny and finally went outside.
And then I heard her.
She was still very small, maybe three months old, and still had her “call mama” voice. I could hear her but I couldn’t see her. She was beyond the fence, and it wasn’t until I scanned the trees beyond the fence that her eyes caught the light and I found her.
She had managed, in all of her precociousness, to get stuck on not one but two pine trees, hung from a St. Andrew’s cross of her own making.
I couldn’t get to her. She couldn’t get down. All she could do was cry in that lost-baby voice.
It was several hours before she came down. I wished she had learned her lesson, but no.
I had seen her climb the fence. One of her favorite hiding places was at the top of the fence, under the overhanging tree branches in the shade. She can keep an eye on me from there. She can keep the dog in line from there, too.
On the day of my grandmother’s funeral, a cat was just beyond the other side of the fence sounding if it were dying.
I panicked, lying down as close to the fence as I could, attempting to peer through the hole of a dug-out place that the dog had dug. I couldn’t see her, and the cries escalated, sounding more desperate and more pained.
I called, literally cat-calling with nothing but a heightened cry for my trouble.
And I sort of lost it, right there in the grass in my pajamas with stars on them. And by “sort of,” I mean totally.
Between the feeling of knowing something’s in pain and not being able to do anything about it, the pain of losing my grandmother and the drama that would ensue following her death, and a thousand other camel straws, I lost it. Totally.
Trapped between knowing that if I could just get her to come a little closer, I could pull her through the fence, I could get her to safety. I could save her and knowing that the clock was ticking, and I, almost always, always late, was dangerously close to being late to my own grandmother’s funeral–I lost it. Totally.
Utterly convinced that my cat was dying, beyond my reach, and there was nothing I could do about it, I lost it. Totally. Wailing and flailing and crying with her, in the process of resigning myself to powerless, the stupid little bob-tail suddenly appeared right beside my shoulder. She sat. She cocked her head at me.
And then she purred.
The cat across the fence waited a few moments, then howled again.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve learned a lot about her, and, by extension, myself.
I need to accept her as she is.
She’s a feral cat. As much as I wished otherwise, she is wild. She comes home to eat and occasionally to spend time with the family, but she is most definitely a wanderer. Wishing she were an inside cat, a lap cat, won’t make it so. She’s spayed and vaccinated, and I can feed her and pet her when she allows it. But trapping her inside when she is so clearly a bohemian would be nothing short of imprisoning her. It would be cruel.
She will most likely die by another animal or a car or something of that sort, but I cannot become consumed with worry for her. I can (and have) had her spayed and vaccinated. I can feed her. And, when she lets me, I can pet her.
All I can do is love her. Exactly as she is.
Who she was yesterday isn’t who she is today.
This goes back to Lesson Number One: I need to accept her as she is.
When she was a baby, she was the sweetest little thing. She was very loving and very much reminded me of a cat I had as a child. But then she grew up and she became the undomesticated, unbent thing she is today. Wishing for the past doesn’t bring it back.
Still, I do miss these days.
But I can’t miss those days too much, or I entirely miss the days that are happening now. The past can be a great place to visit, but no place to make a home. It’s not just about the flag or when things were better or worse. It’s about making the most of now, not surrendering it to the nostalgia–or pain–of the past or the hope–or dread– of the future. It’s about accepting the way things are, right now, in order to continue them or change them.
She has been–and continues to be–a great teacher in the importance of being in the present.
And for that, I’m very, very grateful.