The Milo Foundation had a store front on Solano Avenue in Berkeley and, on New Year’s Eve 2006, Jill and I wandered into it. A half dozen or so dogs wagged their tails, begged for attention, and asked adoringly to be taken home. A few cats, as pretty as little mewling flowers, paraded behind wire cages, ready to be taken home. Then there was Chance.
Chance expressed little interest in fawning over the people that came by his cage. His tail thumped angrily. He curled his lip in disgust. He had a raw spot on his lip where he had been rubbing the cage. And he took almost no interest in us when we stopped to look at him.
The volunteers at the Milo Foundation swore to us that he was a good cat and that he just needed a loving home. I have a mild allergy to cats, so we cautiously fostered him temporarily. That temporary fostering became the rest of his life.
Chance spent the first few days at our house sleeping. It caused Jill so much angst that she said, “I hope he’s not like this the whole time.” After two months in a cage at the Milo Foundation, listening to dogs barking day and night, and a few months at a shelter near Salinas, the home of John Steinbeck, Chance was simply burned out.
With a lot of love, we restoked his fire for life. I gave him a thorough rub down, a petting, no less than four times a day. I played string with him so much that he developed leaping manuevers we called “Kung-Fu Kitty”. He sought long naps in Jill’s lap and luxriated in the lavish attention.
Chance was a strange cat. He had no interest in chicken, fish, or any other kind of food that cats love. He felt disdain for expensive cat toys, preferring the simplest of strings. He hated treats and turned up his nose at catnip. If the food wasn’t dry and hard, he wasn’t interested. But he always said, “Thank you” when exiting out the back door. And he actually enjoyed it when other cats came into our backyard.
I can remember another cat recoiling from Chance when he bounced up in his usual friendly manner inviting the other cat to enjoy a sunny spot on the concrete. I could never exactly figure out where this unusual friendliness towards other cats came from. Perhaps, in finding his own little slice of heaven, he found joy in sharing it.
When Jill became pregnant with the boys, it gave Chance ample opportunity to nap with Jill. He would turn his head, look up at me, and say, “Sucker, I got it good.” Little did he know that, like many cats, his home was about to be invaded by screaming, grabbing, crawling creatures that would absorb the attention he once bathed in.
Jill and I turned our gaze to the little blobs in the bassinet. Chance looked at us, “What are those things? And can you shut them up?” To his horror, they not only continued to demand our attention, they absorbed nearly every minute of it. At 3:51 in the morning, he would dash in front me, the way cats dash in front of an on coming car, to try to get my attention. Sulked, he sulked when he didn’t get his demands. Second rate to the invaders.
While the boys were learning to crawl, then climb, then walk, we had to manage Chance. For his sake. He would put himself in harm’s way and the boys, then pre-verbal, would scream in infantile delight as they clutched his fur. Luckily, our house is easily divided by a single door. Half the house had an exit to the backyard, the other half filled up over time with talking rabbits, building blocks, trains, and cars.
Eventually, we coached the boys to call the cat to themselves. The kitty gets scared when you chase him. Sit on the ground, make a scratch motion with your hand, and call “kitty-kitty-kitty”. The boys learned to earn the cat’s trust and the cat learned to trust the boys.
Before the time change and before it got so dark, the boys and I walked home from their preschool only a few blocks away. A house near one corner has two cats. The boys chased them. Then I reminded them about the lesson in trust. They sat on the sidewalk, called out “kitty-kitty-kitty.” The cat came–close anyway, but still out of reach. The boys learned something essential in their relationship with Chance, something about trust.
Cats tend to bond with one person in a family more than another. And for some reason, Chance chose me. He lavished kisses on me. He curled up with me and expected to be pet often. He had no qualms about expressing his anger with me. He swiped at me when he was mad. He shit on our carpet when he was exceptionally pissed. But he also learned not to bite, not to dig into our soft flesh with piercing teeth. Somehow, we found a way to make him feel safe and loved, loved enough to demand our attention and loved enough to express his anger in his cat-like way.
Just before Thanksgiving, I knew something had gone terribly wrong with him. It wasn’t merely that I observed his behavior, and I did that, it was that I felt he was desparately ill. Jill, amid the flailing arms of twin boys demanding kleenex, tents, and cartoons, waved off the illness of the cat. As the second string quarterback in parental affairs and the primary care giver of the cat, I took Chance to the vet. Hyperthyroid. Or so it seemed.
I knew in my heart something else was wrong and that Chance was headed on a downward trajectory. Jill gathered advice and took measures to cure the cat. The cat rebelled against us. He shit on our clothes. Jill found more gentle measures to avoid provoking his anger and acted as the more tender of us two. While I could see a minor bump in his comfort level, I knew otherwise. He needed loving and final care, not a cure.
I took the cat to the vet a second time. “Do you think he has cancer?” I asked. Chance had none of the obvious outward signs. “Continue the treatment,” the vet said, but with greater sincerity.
Yesterday, Chance cried out to me. I went to him. I stayed the afternoon hovering over him. He didn’t purr. He barely grunted. He moved from place to place in our bedroom. He was looking for a place to die. I could tell. When he vomited what little water he had that day, I knew that the end was close.
When I took him to the vet, she confirmed what I already knew. Chance had cancer. He had little time left. Jill came home, then came to the vet with me. We told Chance we loved him. We wept. We kissed him. We let him go. That strange, friendly cat, who invited others into the bright sunny spot that was his.