A Prince Among Pussies, a King Among Cats
According to several of the world’s great religions, and backed by abundant empirical data, life as we know it consists largely of pain and suffering, salted with moments of enlightened inspiration and temporary alleviation of the burdens we all carry.
Consequently, most of life’s most essential activities, from art to athletics, from drug addiction to religion, can be seen as coping mechanisms designed to create mental and emotional bulwarks against the cold hostility and random cruelties of daily life. Having recently lost a close daily companion of 15 years has me thinking on the role of pets in our human lives as reflected in the life and times of one particular pet, the inestimable Chiqui Feldman.
Sometimes it seems like there is a chasm between “pet people” and those who feel the proper place for animals is back on the farm or out in the woods, but not in our homes. Any position can be taken to extremes and we’ve all seen stories of people much more invested emotionally and financially in their pets than in their human progeny, to the point of tailored clothes and spa visits.
But this is the exception, surely. Without anthropomorphizing our pets, and perhaps only so, we can still be amazed at the qualities of companionship offered by a committed non-human consciousness. A long-term relationship between a human and genetically modified companion species is complex and life-changing expedience. The thousands of hours spent together, often otherwise alone, leads to shared life experiences, including those signature signposts we share: infancy, learning and childhood, parenthood, maturity and old age.
For the past 15 years, my life has been entwined with the life of an inspired orange tabby cat named Chiqui. Last night at around 7:30 he passed on to a better place, and in the retrospective mourning that followed his departure, I realized that with my kids grown up and living on their own, aside from my wonderful wife, I have spent more time with Chiqui than anyone else in the whole wide world. Clearly, in terms of contributions to the quality of my life, he comes in a clear second place, trailing Norma of course, but miles ahead of anyone else. Getting through thousands of hard nights and troublesome days, in sickness and under stress, in rich times and in poor, Chiqui improved my mood and lent me strength by his mere presence. He can never be forgotten or replaced. But before eulogizing him, lets take a look back to the beginning.
Chiqui was a University cat from the get go. I first heard his “meow” in an office of the old Boston University Center for English Language and Orientation Programs, when it was located upstairs from a Radio Shack on Commonwealth Avenue. I followed the sound and discovered a tiny ball of orange fur, so impossibly small it seemed doubtful it would survive more than a few hours without its mother or other serious support. Where had he come from?
Turned out that Assistant Director Carol Allen had found him wandering in the breakdown lane of Interstate 95 that morning while stuck in a multi-mile traffic tie-up on her commute fromher Northern Massachusetts home to the office. She said she literally opened her car door and scooped him off the pavement, and that it was a miracle he hadn’t already been squashed by an inattentive commuter.
We later hypothesized that his mother must have given birth in some nearby woods but that he had wandered off from the litter while Mom was stuck with her humans or otherwise delayed, and that Carol had done the right thing since without her intervention he was clearly doomed. I immediately offered to take him home. Carol said it seemed preordained and that was that.
We put him in an empty Hammermill cardboard box with an old brown sweater bunched up in the bottom. The poor little feller was obviously terrified, disoriented and in acute need of his mother, who he would unfortunately never see again. He was so small he fit easily in the palm of my hand, and he was obviously somewhere near the crucial age in which he could not survive without maternal care. Survive he did, although it was touch and go for 10 days or so, and he was left with a lifelong fear of abandonment and a stubborn streak of distrust and paranoia.
The situation at home was fluid. At that time, the status of soulmate Norma Yvonne was unofficial fiancée. We were seeing how she fit into a new culture, country and language, living in the Northeast US with a single dad and his two teenage sons. It was a tough adjustment at first, and Norma was struggling with multiple physical and emotional issues. Somehow, I thought having a pet cat would help.
Trouble was, Norma had never really liked animals in the house: she seemed firmly in the “animals are fine – where they belong, on the farm or in a zoo” camp. She seemed utterly unfamiliar with the minutiae of pet care and behavior. That first day, shortly after being shown how the baby kitten liked being scratched behind the ears, she almost dropped him as she ran back into the bedroom, panicked, to report “I think the cat’s broken! It’s making this really strange noise!” Chiqui was purring.
One of Chiqui’s greatest accomplishments, achieved on his first day of living with us, was starting the process of converting Norma into the Doctora Dolittle of Ecuador, helping animals in need from pigeons to penguins to opkapis. Animals in a dozen countries on three continents thank him.
Chiqui turned out to be a lover not a fighter; he showed neither interest nor aptitude for either fighting other cats or hunting other species. He was athletic enough to get into and out of our second floor Harvard Square apartment by climbing up and down the outside of the balcony, but the only time we’ve known him to get in a fight with a neighborhood bully he came home with a hole in his neck which required surgery and 3 weeks in one of those no-scratch megaphone collars. Despite the claims of the Animal Planet cable TV channel, which demonstrated in its World’s Deadliest Cats countdown that the deadliest feline of all, above the panther, lion and bengal tiger, was the common house cat, due to the staggering number of species they are know to hunt, Chiqui’s attitude towards hunting was akin to Muhammad Ali’s view of the Viet Cong - as in “What did they ever do to me?”
He was a gentle soul, but very English in his emotional reserve and his stiff upper whiskers. Rather than crass displays of emotion Chiqui showed his displeasure through aloof disdain. When we would return after abandoning him for varying lengths of time while off traveling, always with loving friends or foster parents, he would refuse to acknowledge our presence for several days, keeping his nose in the air as if we were beneath his notice. When we moved him from the refined grace of Harvard Square to the mean streets of Inman Square he burrowed into a packed suitcase in a back closet and wouldn’t come out for five full days. We thought he had died. He never warmed to that apartment and by the time the lease was up we all agreed with him and moved to Everett.
Although like his human partner he enjoyed relaxing with his herb of choice, catnip in this case, Chiqui was never much of one for games or toys. He was more of a serious reader: a reader of dust motes, bird calls, patterns of light as they moved across the floor. His speculations were not idle, for they allowed him to divine the optimal places to sit, the warmest corners for naps and the precise moment to move from window to chair to counter top. Always thinking, that Chiqui.
How I will miss the long afternoons reading in the sunlight together, the extended conversations about work, love and the great mystery of life, women. Most of all I will miss our visits to the Kit Kat Club. This ultra-exclusive, members-only club was located under the covers of our Queen-sized bed, meeting mostly during the long cold winter nights in New England. Membership was, of course, exclusively male; although we did take up several resolutions in later years to expand membership to include Chiqui’s putative sister Honey, they were never approved. Meetings usually consisted of reading of the minutes, ammendments to the bylaws, and endless elections for Club officials. Chiqui was usually elected President and I had to content myself with being vice-president, except for a brief period following 9/11 when I was elected President-by-default because Chiqui preferred to be Master of Arms.
Finally, a confession. During Chiqui’s last days, as I tried to ease his discomfort and contemplate life without him, and wondered why his impending departure was affecting me so strongly, I realized that during over 50 years as a pet person who almost always had a dog or cat as a member of our household, I had never lived with a single pet as long as the 15 years I spent with Chiqui, cradle to grave. I had always been moving, traveling, transitioning between continents. My pets were always eventually given away to family members, adopted by housemates, lost inadvertently or died prematurely in tragic accidents or cruel crimes. It was the first time I had to help a loved one die.
At its best, a pet can be so much more than a plaything or a mascot. They say we are born alone and die alone, but in between we can be kept company by comforting presences both human and non-human. Wise men and women have known since prehistoric times that humans can not only communicate with animal species, we have animal spirits inside us, coded into our DNA and our behavior through thousands of generations of interaction, cohabitation and making mutual cause with and against the vicissitudes of Fate. Getting in touch with one’s animal animus, finding your animal totem, is a window into another kind of consciousness. Like speaking a second language, it allows us to experience, understand and take advantage of completely different, in this case non-human points of view, or other ways of passing through life. The great secret of Pets is that although they require effort to maintain, that effort is always paid back in many multiples more.
I know Chiqui will always be a part of me, and that I must try to remember the lessons I learned from him over the years. While he was fading away, after he couldn’t stand up or move anymore, I would rub him and tell him stat soon he would be somewhere where he would be able to run and jump and climb like he could when he was young and free. I am not sure I really believe this, mostly because I am not sure what I really believe about the afterlife.
On the days when I believe in reincarnation, I see Chiqui being reincarnated as a human being. I even know what he will look like, because unlike any other pet I ever had, I would see him frequently in my dreams, especially when we were separated, sometimes as a cat, but sometimes as a human being. When he appears like that, he is a big, laughing, reddish-blond joker who teaches me not to take anything too seriously. Maybe, if Chiqui comes back as a human, I can come back as his pet next time. That wouldn’t be too shabby, tabby.
But on the days I believe in a beneficent Almighty and an allegorical afterlife, which, God save me is most of the time, I like to think of the belief, held by several sects and major world religions dating back at least to the ancient Egyptians, that upon passing into the great beyond we are met, not by Saint Peter and some pearly gates, not not the Archangel Gabriel and his celestial horn section, not by a personalized cadre of our previously departed nearest and dearest to help us across that final divide, but by an eager line of loving eyes and wagging tails, of every pet we’ve ever loved, and who loved us back, waiting patiently to paw and purr and playfully escort us into Paradise forever. I’ll see you on the other side, Chiqui.