There was always something a little off about our cat Maggie. It was hard to say whether she ran headlong into walls because there was a problem with her brains, or whether there was a problem with her brains because she kept running headlong into walls. She lost her balance like other cats never did; she neglected her own grooming; she missed the litter box most of the time; she was a little bit stinky. She was terrified of strangers and she was so skittish — the smallest noise, and she’d bolt. And she’d sit purring contentedly while you petted her, and you’d think, Hey, Maggie’s turned normal — but then, when she’d been petted enough, she’d let you know by biting you. I don’t mean a friendly little nip — I mean she’d BITE you. Hard. Sometimes there was blood. I’m certain she wasn’t trying to be mean or aggressive; it was just another example of Maggie not knowing the socially correct way to do things. I think everyone in my family learned to suppress the scream of pain from Maggie’s “thank you, that’s enough now” bite (because if you screamed, of course, you’d scare her out of her skin).
She was definitely the kid the other kids picked on in the playground. Sugar was downright horrible to her, and even Jane, whom I’ve held up previously as the epitome of feline perfection, was mean on occasion, hissing and swatting at Maggie in a half-hearted way when she saw Sugar doing it. And the neighbor cats acted like Maggie didn’t exist. The thing is, Maggie was really big and really strong (witness the biting), and if she’d wanted to, she could have womped them all — but she didn’t know it, because she wasn’t very self-aware (despite all the time my Dad, a theologian by trade, spent trying to improve her mind with syllogisms).
Maggie died recently. She was an old cat, so it wasn’t unexpected. And she’d mellowed out in her old age, relaxed a little bit, which was nice to see.
A few years back I housesat for my parents while they were on a long vacation. It was me, Maggie, the vegetable garden, the fruit trees, the flower beds, the bird feeders, and the neighbor’s chickens. I went away on my own vacation during that time for 6 days; a neighbor put out food for Maggie. When I got back, I watered all the flowers; I chased the chickens away from the bird feeders; I changed the hummingbird food; I brought a basket down to the garden and picked zucchini and cauliflower. All this time, Maggie kept running around me, getting in my way, making a nuisance of herself, crying — and I tell you, that cat always had the saddest, most mournful meow you’ve ever heard. I couldn’t figure out what to do. I gave her new food. Then new water. New other kinds of food. I let her in. I let her out. And she just kept following me around, crying, crying, as if she were grieving for all the pain in the world. What else does a cat need? I asked myself in bewilderment, sitting down absently to pet her and tell her about my vacation.
I petted her for a long while, until she bit me, hard. As I rubbed my newly injured hand on my pants, it struck me that she was no longer crying. And finally I understood. She’d been all alone for 6 days, she’d been abandoned, and one of the few people in the world whom she wasn’t afraid of had returned, and even oddballs need love. Especially oddballs need love.
Maggie, these are the times when my hard little unbelieving heart sends up a prayer that maybe there might be a cat heaven. And you don’t have to be scared, because I promise, the other cats will never be mean to you there. They will behold your fuzzy, precious, and peculiar soul, and they will see who you are, and they will love you. Just like we all did.