Meeting Rachel for the first time
A pair of green eyes gazed at me through the bars. The grey tabby blinked, and I walked over to her cage and stuck in my fingers, offering friendship along with my scent. She leaned into my hand, and I gently scratched her under her chin.
“What’s her story?” I asked Janis, who was behind the desk at Bridgewater Veterinary Hospital.
Corinne and I were at the vet with one of our cats; it was time for the kitty’s annual checkup. Nearly every time we’re there (which, with four cats and three dogs is quite often), there’s at least one adoptable cat in the lobby from from St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center. Maybe someone who comes to the office will fall in love with a kitty and want to take her home.
“She’s the sweetest thing!” Janis said. “Everyone loves her. I would take her home if I didn’t have…” She paused, as if embarrassed. “…six cats already.”
“Rachel,” said the sign on the cage. The cat stretched her neck and closed her eyes in enjoyment as I continued scratching her chin.
“She is a mush,” said Janis. “Loves everyone. Great with dogs and cats.”
My voice carried a certain note that inspired my daughter to throw me a look like a hand grenade. Loosely translated, it meant “Don’t you dare adopt another animal. You know you have enough at home. I told you we’d call an intervention if you so much as thought about adopting someone else. I mean it. Don’t. Even.”
“Not for me,” I responded to Corinne’s silent tirade. “For Grandma.”
Cats had been a part of my mom’s life for decades
My mom’s birthday was the following weekend. I hadn’t bought a gift yet; she was at that stage in life where “I don’t need anything,” is a common — and truthful — refrain.
For decades, after the last of us kids flew the coop, my parents shared their home with a series of rescued cats: Pussywillow, Opuss, Millie. When Millie died, my mom didn’t look for another animal to take her place. “I’ve got enough with your father,” she said.
My mom didn’t want the responsibility of a pet
She was right. During the last years of his life, my dad required a bit of looking after. Hearing loss. Heart issues. Parkinson’s. A couple of bad falls. And a slow slide into increasing cognitive dysfunction.
After he died, I asked my mom if she’d consider getting another cat to keep her company in the big empty house she’d lived in for more than forty years. I live an hour and a half away, and am not able to visit as often as I’d like.
“No.” She was pretty clear. “I don’t want the responsibility.”
I respected that. She’d taken care of my dad for so long, she deserved a break. Some time where she could focus on herself. A time to grieve. To heal. To find her place.
My dad’s been gone almost two years now, and my mom has fashioned a good life. She goes to movies, plays, and lectures with a group of friends I refer to as “the merry widows.” She travels to Manhattan with Hadassah to see Broadway shows. She works out at the fitness center three times a week, where she’s become friends with some of the regulars. She volunteers with a literacy group, helping immigrants learn conversational English.
An empty house cries out for a pet
Yet when I talked to her on the phone, my mother seemed to have less and less to say. I heard about the movies, the shows, a few anecdotes about the people from the fitness center.
But on bad weather days — snow or even rain — she’d tell me she spent the entire day watching Turner Classic Movies. Not that staying home and binge watching old movies is a bad thing.”I feel trapped,” she’d say. Yet she wasn’t about to move into a senior living complex.
The slightest problem would cause my mom to unleash a stampede of Oys. “Oy, the faucet is leaking!” “Oy, we had six inches of snow last night.” “Oy, did you hear about [insert sick friend here]?”
If I asked her how she was doing, the invariable response would be, “As best as I can.” Usually followed by, “As your Aunt Ada used to say, ‘Getting old isn’t for sissies.'” I could hear the tone of loneliness in her voice.
When my mom visited us, Athena would snuggle into her lap and purr. My mother would smile, tell the cat she was a good kitty and say to me, “I’d take this one home.” She asked for pictures of her grand-dogs and grand-cats to show to her friends at the fitness center.
“Let’s get you a cat, Mom.”
I discussed the cat conundrum with my brother Mark — a vet who lives on the west coast. I had read scientific studies that showed the health benefits of living with a cat: lowered chances of heart attacks and stroke, reduced stress, anxiety and depression, even the bone strengthening power of purrs. Mark agreed that a cat companion would be great for our mother. I looked at it as a prescription, an antidepressant, an antidote for loneliness.
“I saw this adorable cat at an adoption event, Mom.”
And that’s where we were when I walked into our vet’s office and saw Rachel.
Making the decision
“She’s purring!” I looked at my daughter. “Even locked up in that cage.” Corinne reached through the bars and joined in the petting party, reluctantly agreeing that she was, indeed, a really friendly cat.
“I told you she was a sweetheart,” said Janis. “Oh, and it’s Clear the Shelter’s Day. Saint Hubert’s is participating. Adopt her today and she’s free.”
“Corinne, she’s on sale!” I said. “And Grandma’s birthday is next weekend.”
“I don’t know if it’s a good idea, Mom,” she said. “But you know Grandma better than me.”
After the vet was done examining our cat (perfect health!), a vet tech brought Rachel into the room so we could get to know her. The cat strolled around the floor, weaving among our legs, happy to meet two human strangers. She rubbed against Corinne. And me. Hopped up on the bench. Purred.
I asked a bunch of questions: How old is she? Is she healthy? Is she spayed? Why was she surrendered? Does she jump up on counters? Does she really get along with other cats and dogs? I wanted to make sure my mom was getting a cat without serious behavioral or health issues. One that wouldn’t knock over all her tchochkes. And one that, in case of emergency, I could bring into our family if needed. I knew that was important to my mom.
“Are you going to take her?” Janis asked as soon as we walked out of the room. I had told her I was thinking of adopting Rachel for my mother.
I looked at Corinne. Smart girl; she wasn’t going to be a part of this decision. It was mine to make, mine to own.
My mother had said no at least a dozen times over the past two years. Yet I had watched her with my cats, wanting to snuggle them, to hold them. I knew she still had litter boxes and a cat carrier; she never gave them away.
Do not try this at home
I do not believe in surprising people with pets. It is a terrible idea for so many reasons. This is a living, breathing, thinking, feeling soul that you’re dealing with. Not a toy or something that can be thrown away or given back when someone is bored with it or can’t take care of it. Or wasn’t ready. Or didn’t want it in the first place. I knew St. Huberts would take Rachel back; it’s in the adoption contract I signed. But no animal deserves that.
Adoption is for life.
My mother would not come with me to a shelter to adopt a cat. I also knew that a sweet creature like Rachel would bring some life back to that empty house. And I knew that my mom would never turn away an animal in need.
Rachel seemed like the perfect cat for my mother. Friendly. Low maintenance. Older and less likely to get into trouble.
I felt like the universe was offering me an opportunity. A cat with every quality I would have wanted for my mom. Available for free. A week before her birthday.
“Yes.” I told Janis. “We’ll take her.”
“I thought you would,” she said. “I have the paperwork ready for you to sign.”Tweet