When my friend Steve and I were dating back in the mid-nineties, we had a knack for finding strays — a coyote stuck in a storm drain, an injured seagull at the park, a mourning dove chick we nursed in a flowerpot hung from a branch. I suppose he and I were strays, too, in a way. He was just out of a long marriage, and I was finding my way in a new town with a new business.
When we bought our house in 1999, it was no surprise that it came with its own stray — a small black cat with bright yellow eyes we cursorily named Little Black Kitty.
He showed up randomly, back then, making his way across the front yard to his home under the neighbor’s garage. We’d bring food to him, but he’d hide in the bushes and wait for us to go inside before hungrily finishing his meal.
Our house was cat-full back then — C.J., Crystal and Emily were living with us at the time — but we soon considered Little Black Kitty part of our extended family, and watched out for him as much as we could. One winter, we made our way in ankle-deep snow with flashlights to push a warm fleece blanket into the crawlspace nextdoor, hoping it would ease the cold for him just enough.
In the spring, Little Black Kitty arrived, no worse for the winter-wear, on the picnic table in the back yard. It became habit then — and an unspoken promise — that when he showed up on the picnic table, he would get fed.
By the time Steve moved out in 2004, Little Black Kitty was a fairly regular visitor, though random. Sometimes only a day or two would pass, sometimes weeks…or months. I had no idea where he went in between visits. Did he still live under the neighbor’s house? Did someone else feed him? Take him in for the winters?
I longed to take him inside myself, to make him part of the family, but I needed to work on getting him to trust me, first. By then, we’d been meeting at the picnic table for five years, but I had yet to get close enough to even pet him!
I started staying outside when I fed him, standing at the door, then several feet away, gradually closer and closer as he’d allow. One day, when it seemed right, I brought a dish of food outside and crouched to the ground — waiting for him to come to me. “Come here,” I encourage softly, “come here.” He studied the situation from a few feet away, as I balanced myself and tried not to move. Then slowly, he came closer. And closer. Until there we were, inches from each other — his head bowed into the dish — trusting.
And so it went for a while — Little Black Kitty would show up at the picnic table, I would bring food, sit on the ground, and he would eat there in front of me. Until one afternoon, when he fell to the ground, arched his back, and rubbed himself against my feet. Kitty affection at its best, I was full of joy!
After that day, Little Black Kitty became more and more comfortable with my presence. He would show up at the picnic table, catch my eye and meet me at the back door to wait. He let me pet him, and eventually pick him up for small amounts of time, but he never stayed long. His schedule was still as random as it had been in the beginning — days or weeks or months in between visits. But those moments of trust continued, like old friends meeting up after time apart.
I hadn’t seen Little Black Kitty in almost a year when he showed up on the picnic table this summer, just weeks after Emily died. Perhaps he was finally ready to come inside, I thought. One evening, I sat on the back porch with the door wide open — “come in” I offered. Night after night for a week, I tried — “come in” — but he wasn’t ready.
He was ready to be a regular visitor, though, and began showing up every day for food and love. I took the opportunity of this new schedule to finally get Little Black Kitty to a vet — secretly hoping he was healthy enough to bring inside for the winter, for Lola…for me. Sadly, he carries the feline aids virus, so we’ve agreed to option B: daily feeding and a warm spot in the mudroom when the nights get too cold and weathery.
This past Monday was an especially bitter-cold night, and Little Black Kitty did not show up for food the next day. I couldn’t blame him, it was too cold for anyone to be outside. But when he didn’t show up on Wednesday or Thursday, I was sure I’d seen the last of him. His age, his illness, the cold — surely it had finally taken its toll.
I was in tears at the thought that I would not see my little friend anymore, that I’d been remiss in letting him know, one last time, how much I loved him and how grateful I was for his ongoing, beautiful example of trust.
And then there he was — yesterday! On the picnic table, waiting. I raced outside, scooped him up without hesitation and held on as tightly as he’d allow. And without hesitation, he started to purr and nuzzled into me — hello.
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©2013, Jen Payne