Our cat, Emmaline, passed away recently. She went peacefully, in my arms. This, I am sure, was one of her favorite places to be.
In the beginning, I didn’t want cats. My wife liked them; she’d had several while growing up. I, meanwhile, grew up in a house with parents who disliked cats, in part due to my mom’s extreme allergies to them. More than once, we had to leave people’s homes early or not even attend at all, due to her allergies. Throughout my first 25 years, the animal companions in my life included dogs, cockatiels, parakeets, love birds, fish, fiddler crabs, lizards, mice, and even an ant farm…but no cats.
So I whined to Jennifer that I was allergic to cats, too. Being at my parents-in-laws’ house led to sneezing and a stuffed up nose, and I didn’t want that to happen in my own house.
I’m not even sure why I acquiesced. When my coworker told me her two cats had each given birth to a small litter of kittens (3 in one litter, 2 in another) only a day apart…I figured we might as well go take a look at them – a gift, I figured, for Jennifer’s efforts in helping me get through college. Jennifer immediately fell in love with the long haired, rambunctious kitten that was bigger than his litter mates and was, at the time, named Pudge. I admit, he was a handsome devil (we even gave him the middle name “Dickens”), but he looked like a big, walking allergen. I, instead, liked the short-haired plain-looking cat who was curled up on the seat of a riding lawnmower. I picked her up, flipped her onto her back, and pet her tummy. Then I set her down, but she walked up to my ankle, rubbed against my pant leg and purred. I picked her up again. “Are you my kitty?” I asked. I tried to persuade Jennifer toward this cat – named Baby Wonder on account of her having already survived a very severe eye infection – but it’s pretty much impossible to persuade Jennifer of anything. “Maybe we can get both,” I said, completely flummoxed that those words were coming out of my mouth.
Three weeks later, on September 29, 2002, my coworker brought Pudge and Baby Wonder over to our townhome. Pudge scampered right back out the door and I had to run after him. Baby Wonder just kind of sat there in the foyer until her half-brother scooted up the steps. She followed suit, and they spent most of the day hiding under the couch, until Pudge came out for a look around. That evening, Baby Wonder came and sat on my lap. “Jennifer,” I said, “there’s a kitty on me.” Jennifer offered to take the little allergen off me, but I said it was probably fine if she just sat there. I scratched her head carefully, with one finger.
And sat there she did. Every evening, watching movies, she sat on me, and her brother sat on Jennifer. In time, we renamed them Oliver and Emmaline and, in time, they grew into two large cats. Sometimes they sat on us, sometimes they sat on each other, sometimes they sat in front of the fireplace, sometimes they sat on each other in front of the fireplace, and sometimes they lounged on the floor, slowly inching their way across the carpet to track the sunlight across the room. Oliver was calm, unfazed, and moved around the house slowly. Emmaline was finnicky, intense, and more prone to meow in protest over being moved or handled. We gave Oliver a deep, dopey man’s voice, and we gave Emmaline the voice of a snippy middle-aged lady. Oliver, in short, was a Rastafarian, and Emmaline was a Born-Again Christian. We could never prove this, of course, but they seemed to have the requisite personalities.
We tried to be responsible pet owners. We had them fixed, microchipped, and vaccinated. We didn’t declaw them. Instead, a friend helped me construct a scratching post for them that included wood, cecil rope, and carpeting. When they were too big for that scratching post, we purchased one even taller than me, paying the cashier at the pet store extra money to deliver it to our home. Oliver always sat on the top of the post, and Emmaline sat on the next level down.
We made a point of fawning over them every time we came home, too. So often, I’ve heard people joke that cats don’t care about their owners, and I’ve seen stuff online that insinuates that cats – in opposition to dogs – couldn’t care less if you lived or died. But we greeted our cats enthusiastically, petting them, picking them up, even walking over to the scratching post and pretending to scratch with them. This encouraged them to greet us, and I loved coming home to two cats – and then some kids – eagerly awaiting me. This followed (with variying degrees) throughout their lives and, even as recently as last week, Emmaline met Owen and me at the door when we came home. In the midst of taking off our boots and jackets, I reminded Owen, “say hi to your kitty, she’s happy to see you!”
I remember holding Emmaline in my arms – she let me, and only me, lay her on her back while I rubber her belly and her neck. She absolutely wouldn’t let anyone else to this but, for some reason, she was fine with me doing it. She didn’t just tolerate it, she loved it; she began purring before I even began petting her.
When we moved from our townhome, I fretted that our cats would be upset with the change, but Jennifer assured me that they would like the bigger area and the large window in the living room. When, the next year, we brought Owen home from the hospital, the first thing we videotaped was the cats’ reaction to this new resident. I tried to pay attention to the cats every night after our new baby went to sleep, and I felt positively terrible when we realized we’d have to keep the cats’ food and water dishes in the basement lest a crawling boy find and eat their food. But, in time, the cats came to love Owen, too.
When Owen was 14-months old, we ventured to Rochester for our final attendance at a religious convention and, despite dealing with a cranky toddler, an anxious wife, and all my doubts and concerns about theology and friendships, the one thing that I felt completely terrible about that night we got back home was that I had accidentally locked Oliver in a room for those four days. It was the room we kept our four pet birds in, and so I closed the door to ensure the cats stayed out. Despite the fact that the only food in the room were living birds, Oliver never touched them. I think he was happy we never went to another convention after that. I remember holding both of them throughout the long nights when Jennifer and I talked endlessly about leaving our religion in favor of reality – the cats, I knew, would likely be the only two friends, among dozens, that wouldn’t abandon us once we annoucned we were following our consciences.
When we moved again, I again worried about the cats. In an apartment, we wouldn’t have room for them – I didn’t even know where to put the litter box (it ended up in the entryway closet, and I hated it there). Alas, the apartment afforded the cats an opportunity to be outside – we had a deck up there on the third story, and they both went out and laid in the sun.
When Oliver’s quality of life was no more, Jennifer took him in to the vet late one night. I stayed home – awake, in the living room – with a sleeping boy in the bedroom. Emmaline sat on my lap and we consoled each other. The next morning, we discovered Emmaline, for the first time, sleeping on Owen’s bed (a spot previously owned exclusively by Oliver). She soon started hanging out on the top rung of the scratching post, too.
When Jennifer was pregnant for the second time, Emmaline took a liking to Jennifer’s lap, wrapping her paws around the growing belly, and we joked that Emmaline was excited for the new “kittens” and that she was willing to help Jennifer find a nice warm place under the sink on some newspaper where she could deliver the litter.
We moved again, and this time our lone cat had the biggest house yet. Once Isla graduated to her own bed, Emmaline seemed to split her time between sleeping on Owen’s bed, and sleeping on Emmaline’s bed. We once again had a fireplace, and she loved it. Jennifer was pregnant once again, and Emmaline loved that, too. During the final minutes before Emmett’s birth, I ran downstairs, found my kitty slumbering on the top rung of the scratching post, and snapped her picture. That way, a few weeks later, I was able to tell Jennifer, this is what our cat was doing while you were birthing a baby.
Through all of this, we tried to keep the cats as part of our family. So many times I know pets get pushed aside when children come, but we worked to keep them as our companions. We included them in family pictures, and Owen and Isla consistently counted Emmaline as one of the girls in our family. While most of my coworkers have pictures hanging up at their desks of either their pets (if they are childless) or their kids, I have both.
Here’s the spot on my wall at work where a picture of my cats has been hanging for years.
When I submitted bios for essays I had published, I made sure to list Emmaline as a member of the family (my bio in the back of the current issue of The Saint Paul Almanac reads, in part, “James lives in St. Paul with his wife, children, and cat…”).
Emmett just started noticing Emmaline. He flapped his arms and stared at her intently whenever she walked through the room. “There’s the kitty!” we’d say, and he’d get even more excited.
The other night, Emmaline was too weak to climb down the scratching post. I carried her to her food dish, but she wasn’t interested. I carried her to her litter box, and she managed to go for the first time in 12 hours. The she cried at the stairwell, so I brought her upstairs and held her. She climbed out of my lap and hobbled to the fireplace. I grabbed a pillow and blanket and laid down beside her, reaching into her bed to pet her. Later, we took her picture alone, and one with Owen and Isla. Then she hobbled back downstairs, and I watched her carefully, fully expecting her to topple over.
We insisted the kids say goodnight to Emmaline before going to bed. “She’s probably not going to make it until the morning,” we told them. Owen insisted we have Emmett say goodnight to her, too, so when Emmett inevitably woke up hours after going to bed, we brought a sleepy, cranky baby downstairs to see Emmaline once more. I held Isla up to the top of the scratching post, and Jennifer encouraged her to say anything she felt important to say. “Kitties and hearts,” Isla said as she gently stroked Emmaline’s dehydrated, tired back. We all cried. Owen pet her, too. He said very little; he was too upset to speak. Then we went upstairs. Then Isla wanted to go downstairs one more time. So we did. We all cried again.
An hour later, after all three kids were alseep in bed, Jennifer and I wrapped up thin, arthritic Emmaline in her carrier, complete with two hot water bottles, a towel, and two blankets to keep her warm in the -20 degree night.
I held Emmaline (on her back, of course) in the comfort room at the vet for about 20 minutes. Then I called in the vet. We spoke for a few minutes, but then the vet realized she’d forgotten something, so she left the room. In that brief time, Emmaline and I made eye contact, and I said, “Are you my kitty? You’re my kitty, aren’t you? You’re a good girl. I love you.”
The vet returned and sat down next to me. I continued to hold Emmaline and, less than five minutes later, I was – for the first time since March 1, 1986 – a human without an animal companion.