by Terilynn Mitchell
The world went black on me – too quickly for me to digest. My eyes went blurry and my head hurt; my heart galloped across my chest. I hid under some shrubs waiting for the craziness to pass, but within a week everything I’d known faded into total darkness. I never trusted anyone, so when I lost my sight, the world transformed into the most dangerous place. I became completely vulnerable to attack. I could sometimes smell food, but couldn’t find it. I got hungry and thirsty. And I got lost.
Fear and dread crawled up my spine. The sun beat down on me as I crept along a sidewalk. I hadn’t eaten in too many days, feeling weak and hopeless. I finally sat down and leaned against a brick wall. I could hear cars rushing past me. My life was over, and I waited to die.
All my life I’d figured I was fit to handle anything. I had already come from disadvantage, but going blind at an elder age was just a cruel twist of fate. I’d always been a small cat. Being a nondescript, well-camouflaged, black and gold tabby worked for me as I preferred to stay hidden. My mama had gone wild after she was abandoned and had to fend for herself. Because of my petite stature, I learned to be tough because there are a lot of bullies in this world. It was the dance of survival for us feral cats.
The next thing I remember was that a car stopped and a man picked me up and took me home, where he gave me food and water. The rest is a dizzying blur of voices and cages, culminating in a long ride in a car. I noticed the smells changing, taking me far away from my home. I was trapped in a box, unable to do anything about it. The humans had plans for me that I couldn’t fathom, and I was well beyond fear. I ended up soiling myself in desperation, succumbing to the mercy of a chaotic sequence of events.
We traveled for hours. When we arrived at our destination, it smelled like nighttime, where the leaves opened up and breathed sighs of relief. The air felt cooler and damper than what I was accustomed to. After the hot sun of the desert, this was refreshing. Spring rain hung in the air, fresh and clean.
Someone pulled me out of my carrier and looked me over. She set right to work on me, with the confidence of one who had been handling cats like me for many years. She cut my nails. I didn’t like that. Cats have two defenses: our claws and our teeth. She was trying to render me defenseless, so I bit her, just to let her know I was still a force to reckon with. She persisted, holding me under a spray of warm water as she washed me clean of dirt, fleas and oil. I wasn’t sure whether to fight back or just let her drown me. I was finally wrapped in a warm towel and held a long time. That felt strangely comforting.
The following morning I was taken on another short ride. I was carried into a place that smelled like anxiety and disinfectant. Someone weighed me; I was barely three and a half pounds.
“She is old.” The doctor-human pried open my mouth and noticed I had few teeth left. “It might be more humane to put her down.” Hadn’t I already been down far enough?
The rescue human said, “No, let’s give her a chance.” That pleased me, as I maneuvered closer to her side of the exam table.
“She is just a whisper of a cat,” he replied.
And that is how I got my name. I am now called Whisper.
I was safe in my new world. I lived in a cage in a garage with all my necessities, and it sank in that I was alive and getting stronger. The human would come in at least twice a day to feed me and hold me. She wanted to “socialize” me by brushing and grooming me and offering fresh food. Since I was captive, I reluctantly went with the program since I might end up spending the rest of my life here. I had to make the best of it.
One day the human, named Barbara, brought in a new human to meet me. I hunkered down in my bed. They talked about me for awhile, with Barbara reaching in and carefully stroking me. Then Barbara picked me up and handed me to the new woman. I could feel this new person’s tentative hold of me.
“It would be nice if you fostered Whisper,” said Barbara. “You’re good with cantankerous old cats.”
The new woman laughed. Her hold of me relaxed as I felt her chuckle resonate throughout her body.
“Realize Whisper is probably a hospice case,” said Barbara.
“Hmmm. We’ll see,” New Woman said.
They were making some sort of deal. The new woman talked about medical stuff. Then, to my consternation, they set me into a soft carrier. Oh shit. Every time I went into a box my life changed. I didn’t want any more changes. I was taken outside and put into another car. I cowered down in fear again.
As we rode, I sensed subtle changes in the environment; it got quieter. We didn’t travel long before the car stopped and the human said “Welcome to your new home.” A soft breeze blew through many surrounding trees, creating that gentle whooshing sound. She took me into a house that smelled like other cats. “This will be your room, Whisper,” she said. She cautiously pulled me out of the carrier.
She set me on a big soft bed inside another large cage. “We’re starting a new life here, Whisper,” she said. She tapped on the dishes that held food and water so I would know where to find them. “I don’t know what I’m doing. This is crazy taking in a new cat.” I heard her rustle the litter box nearby. “Mom is in hospice, I’m never here and the last thing I need is another responsibility.” She sighed and stroked my head.
“I’ll do my best, Whisper. You rest now.”
What the heck? Why was I here if she didn’t want me? And did she always talk this much? This was a confusing new world. But she left with the cage door open. She told me she didn’t like confining cats. We should all be free. Overwhelmed, I slunk to the back of the enclosure, shrinking into an apprehensive crouch. Uncertain of my surroundings, I didn’t feel free.
I was still very afraid, and she tried hard to make me comfortable. She seemed to know how to accommodate a blind, frightened cat, yet I sensed she was on autopilot. I could feel she was anxious and seemed to have a lot on her mind, which didn’t help me any. I was a psychic sponge at this point, and I picked up on her state of mind. I worried about the other cats, but I could hear her shooing them away from me. If any of them came too close, I would scream and attack in their general direction. I’d already had a lifetime of bullies. I smelled four other cats, and fortunately they kept their distance. I sensed they were older, like me.
After two days of sleeping and gaining more strength, I did what I do best. I found a place to hide. I went under the futon in my room and hugged the wall in the back corner. The human put a bed there for me. Occasionally she would pick me up by the scruff of my neck and hold me. We were both still wary of each other, and we were both stubborn. I bit her a couple times when she moved too fast and spooked me. I could smell her fear of me. This wasn’t going well.
A week later she took me back to the vet. My heart raced at another car ride. I was getting used to my room and didn’t want to go anywhere else. I tended to soil myself each time they stuck me in their damn boxes. This time was no exception. The doctor did a test at my human’s insistence and discovered I had high blood pressure. This is why my world went dark, my retinas detaching from the internal combustion. The only thing I wanted was to go back to my safe haven.
The human complied with my pleas and we began the drive home. On the way I could tell she was angry, only her annoyance wasn’t directed at me. She was mad no one caught the hypertension earlier. My loss of vision might have been reversed. I appreciated that she cared about me and I started to become more curious about her.
She often left me to my own devices, which generally meant hiding, but she found me twice a day to give me wet food and to sneak pills into it. I had been given luxuries I’d never known. I never pooped in the car again.
After several months, I got inquisitive and began to creep out of hiding. By now I was on blood pressure medicine and could see some light and shadows. I explored and memorized my room and found a step that led up to the top of the futon I’d hidden under. Suddenly, I could achieve heights on my own, and I climbed up that step often. This new independence made me feel more like my old self. I slowly gained weight, going from three and a half pounds to seven pounds.
The human started leaving for longer periods of time in the summer, when the heat warmed my arthritic joints, and the flies buzzed lazily. She went through the motions of feeding us and cleaning up. But she was distracted, and sometimes angry on the phone. I could hear her advocating for her mother with someone on the other line who seemed to have bad intentions.
When I heard my human talk with her mother, again on the telephone, she had to repeat herself over and over again like she was trying to explain simple things to an uncomprehending child. This human had a long fuse, yet sometimes she got pretty frustrated. The air would hold her tension, and even anger. She stopped picking me up and holding me. Her energy was troubled, so I began to hide again, to revert back to my feral state.
One night she came home late and fed me. She pleaded with me, but I recoiled. My human was a bundle of pent-up feelings that came at me like a tornado. I tried to escape but she grabbed me by the scruff. I bit her. I sensed her desperation. She persisted and held me as I scratched and growled.
“Whisper, I’m so sorry,” she said over and over as she cradled me and rocked back and forth on her heels, shaking with sobs. I hissed and struggled to get away from the force within her that made her so distraught. “I will make it up to you, I promise,” she continued. “I’m so, so sorry.”
I never let up or relaxed. She was crazy. Humans are weird and unpredictable. She finally set me down, and I ran back to my corner under the futon. How dare she force me to accept her on her terms!
My human continued to leave early and come home late. Then one night she didn’t come home at all. A new human, a “sitter,” came in and fed us, cleaned our boxes and gave everyone their medications. The sitter returned the following morning and repeated her chores, then left us alone for the rest of the day.
That night felt like Indian Summer, the time in early fall where the weather was still warm, but you could smell the creeping decay of dying foliage. I heard the crackle of leaves under the feet of people passing outside the window of our apartment. I listened to the comings and goings from my safe place behind the futon.
Then I heard familiar footsteps. It was late, and there was no light to illuminate my room with my marginal eyes. My human had come home and I immediately sensed the difference in her. Her demeanor was lighter and oddly buoyant.
"Hi babies,” she said as she entered the front door. “We are all orphans now.”
She fed us and went through the nightly regime we all depended upon for stability. When she brought my food, she was apologetic. She placed the bowl under the futon for me and told me things would be different now. From the sincere sound of her voice, I decided to put her on probation.
My human was gone a lot over the next couple of months, bringing home boxes that smelled like dust and old people. The rains began to fall lightly, adding humidity to the air, a certain solace and solemnity after a hectic summer. I began to come out from under the futon and resumed my perch on top of it.
Then my human started doing something new. A doctor she saw regularly had heard all about me and he seemed to care about both of us. He suggested that she to come to my level. She would kneel next to the futon, close to my face, and talk to me while gently and carefully massaging my head and face. We were a little gun-shy of each other at first, but slowly the walls between us began to come down.
This continued, becoming our daily dance. I found myself liking it. I hid less, and occasionally I would feel my way outside of my room that I knew so well, and venture into the living room. I had been here for six months now, so it was time to acquaint myself with the rest of the house. If I got lost I would walk in circles. She would kneel down and guide me until I found my bearings, which I mastered over time. I gained confidence.
I gradually accustomed to the other cats in the house. Despite my hyper-vigilance, they seemed to accept me and step around me carefully. Blue was the oldest, at twenty years of age. She had strong boundaries and rarely hung out with the other cats. She had been born feral, like me. Blue let our human pet her on her terms alone – the rest of the time she sat in the cat tree, curious about the goings-on.
Twinkie was the second oldest and had bad kidneys. She was going deaf so she always talked too loudly. Twinkie came from a feral mama like mine, but I found it interesting that she trusted her caregiver and even slept with her. Midget was the only boy. He had diabetes, kidney disease and asthma. He held certain sweetness about him that I almost liked. But at eighteen pounds, he scared me by the immense amount of space he took up.
Winter was upon us when Blue died. She went on her own, which I thought was a nice way to exit for an independent cat. Mama knelt next to her chair, stroking and talking softly to Blue as she took her last breaths. I listened as Mama repeated how much she loved her. It suddenly struck me how much Mama loved all of us.
Oh, I just called my human “Mama,” didn’t I? We’d both come a long way in curbing our feral sides. As the rain fell, I could feel us both coming clean from old wounds and becoming calmer. Mama cried different tears now, not crazy ones. She would miss Blue terribly, having known her since she was a kitten. The house would feel emptier for awhile.
The next day, Mama made a phone call to Barbara. “I would like to officially adopt Whisper,” she said. I was no longer a foster. I had a forever home for the first time in my life. Fancy that, this wild little scrapper was now a house cat.
I noticed Mama was home more often. Was she hiding now? I sensed a new fear in her. She was afraid to go back out into the world, something I could well understand. I would hear her talk on the telephone about what she could do next. She seemed lost without her mother’s constant neediness to hold her down. I wondered how I could help her find her way again.
It was spring, when the light rains brought out all the clean smells of burgeoning nature. One evening I sat by the back door and decided what the heck – I’m going to explore! The ground felt damp beneath my feet. I wandered through a garden all the way to a tree and a bit further until I blindly bumped into a fence and started going in circles.
Mama appeared the way she always did when I need help. She walked next to me in her light colored slippers that I could barely make out with my dim eyes, and she talked me back into the house. She showed me the way to the patio, to the door and back into the kitchen. As the summer months emerged, enticing me with its warm, earthy scents, I enjoyed my garden forays.
Mama was delighted with my progress. “You are so brave!” she said.
After many months, Mama came out of hiding, too. She would be gone for long days and come back smelling like other creatures and hospitals. She had started working again doing the job she loved – caring for animals. I heard her laugh more, her uncertainty slipping away. Her voice took on a lighter timber that we all responded to – life was becoming fun in spite of our various infirmities. She had a veterinary doctor who supported her, just like she supported me. We all need advocates. I could hear her play with the other cats and her ambiance took on a livelier note.
Her renewed energy was contagious. By summer, I rarely spent time in my old room. I started to jump onto the chairs in the living room without steps to assist me, and to jump down on my own after Mama helped me gauge the distance a few times. I rarely bit Mama now, as she was more present and deliberate in her actions.
On the days she was home, Mama brought me extra food to whatever chair I sat on. I weaved in and out of her legs while she spooned out the food from cans into the bowls for each of us during the twice daily feeding frenzy. Mama laughed as I tangled myself up in her feet. I trusted her enough now to know she wouldn’t step on me, even by accident.
We still went to the vet every now and then to check my blood pressure. On one visit, they did an ultrasound of my belly while Mama held me on my back in a soft, V-shaped bed. I tolerated the procedure, but I bit her after they were done, just for good measure. It turned out I had cancer in my intestines and my kidneys were failing. I was starting to lose all the weight I had gained. I was slowing down.
Humans love to project their anxieties onto us animals. Cats and dogs tolerate illness better than people do. We take the good days in stride and curl up in our beds on bad days. Our simple, in-touch instincts have served us well over the centuries. We follow our inner wisdom, not interested in seeking answers to what is happening and why. We don’t dwell on such stuff. We live in the moment, which Mama understands, but many people could learn from hanging out with us. People tell Mama that they fear their baby is suffering; Mama wonders if it’s the human who is suffering from the unknowable future.
Mama began to infuse warm fluids into my back and give me medicine she called chemotherapy. Chemo tasted like chicken and the cortisone tasted like fish. I initially fought her when she gave me the liquids, but I soon noticed I began to feel better. I regained my strength and I wanted to eat more.
A couple months after they found my lymphoma, Midget got sick and spent two nights in the hospital. He was an old cat with too many problems. Mama brought him home from the hospital, catering to him and he rallied at first. But his body couldn’t sustain him – he died in Mama’s arms within a week. We all felt his absence and the house got very quiet. Mama seemed lost and sad. I decided she needed some comforting.
One night after Mama shared part of her dinner with me she stretched out in her recliner and fell asleep while watching TV. I could feel heat radiating down from where she lay. I climbed up into her lap and curled up, all snuggly and warm. When Mama awoke I was there, and she cried happy tears as she stroked me, eliciting a content purr from me. I had taught her a lot about getting beyond fear and loss. We had encouraged each other past panic and paralysis. Now I was showing her how to keep living in the small, precious moments we had left together. This became our new habit, falling asleep in the recliner together every night.
I could feel the cancer growing inside my belly. I became increasingly tired and didn’t feel much like eating. Autumn arrived with early rains, which carried a chill that sank deep into my ancient bones. I spent the bulk of my time curled up in front of the heater. I slowly began to revert back to a whisper. I felt sad that our time was getting cut short by the invading, mutating cells within me. Once again, I had fallen hostage to a process I had no control over. No longer alone in the wild, I found comfort in the fact that I would be cared for to the end.
Mama tried to remain cheerful, but I worried about her. She seemed to give to everyone but herself. She didn’t play enough. We took up a lot of her time. As the one-year anniversary of her mother’s death came and went quietly, I knew I couldn’t hold on much longer. Mama sensed this – we were being cheated out of our time together. I tried to stay alive for her sake.
On my last night, Mama cuddled me as I sprawled weakly across her lap. I was exhausted and starting to experience pain. When Mama kissed me good night, she said, “I love you, Whisper. It is okay to go.”
I purred and rubbed my cheeks against her face and quietly slipped away.
Terilynn is a registered veterinary nurse with 30 years experience in the field. She has been previously published in Imitation Fruit Literary Journal and in Chicken Soup for the Soul.