This is a story of forgiveness – forgiveness wrapped up in the wiry, gnarled fur of an old orange tabby cat named Obie. This is our story – mine and Obie’s – over the span of 20 years.
Obie was a gift from my above-mentioned college roommate, Stacy, who’d heard me – for years – go on about how much I loved tigers, and how someday I’d have an orange “tiger cat” of my own. One day during our senior year (1994), maybe she grew tired of my cat-want, because I came home to our off-campus apartment to find a tiny ball of orange stripes curled up on my bed.
A cat of tremendous affection from the start, Obie nestled to sleep in my hair each night (and later adopted the annoying trait of licking said hair). I could throw him over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes. He tolerated me trying to potty train him in a human toilet (he never took to it). He purred like a madman. When I moved to my first solo no-pets-allowed apartment, he willingly hopped in my laundry basket or duffel bag for rides to Pennsylvania to see Grandma and Grandpa (I lived in Ohio then). There were a few close calls when, like a meerkat, he popped his head out of the disguised cat transport vehicles before I reached my steel-gray Cavalier getaway car. Each time, though, I was able to set him free in the car, and he’d watch out the window as we headed across state lines.
But then… one night I came home to my apartment after work and saw orange paws feeling blindly under the door and out into the hallway. It wasn’t long after that I got the call: move out or rid my apartment of my buddy. Clearly Obie was reaching out to the neighbors while I wasn’t home, and someone ratted him out.
Enter “grandma-to-the-rescue.” She agreed to take my little boy (her “cat grandson”), and I would see him during the weekends when I could. We did this for a few years until I was, ironically, offered a job at the college in my Pennsylvania hometown. We were reunited after three years!
But then… when once-roomie Stacy needed a home for her giant white cat (whom I’d affectionately nicknamed Fatty Boy), I stepped in, excited to take in this friendly feline. What a mistake. I had no idea that cats required specific introductory rules (like getting them used to an article of clothing with the other cat’s scent on it first, then allowing them to smell one another under a closed door only, and then, finally, face-to-face introduction).
I did it all wrong. I rushed Fatty Boy upstairs in the carrier in search of the shower (he’d had an accident). Obie was at the top of the stairs waiting. He saw me. He smelled the other cat. Obie was – to be sure – pissed. Betrayed. Heartbroken.
His adoration for me disappeared in a flash. My once-loving, hair-sucking cat was now swatting, hissing and growling at me. I tried, heartbroken and forlorn, for months and months to find my place in his heart again (I even re-homed Fatty Boy). Until … I realized just how futile it was. Obie was downright violent, trying to bite my legs, arching his back at even the hint of my touch. Yet he’d let others pet him. He’d accepted my dad. He’d cozied up to the dog.
And then… I accepted a job in Arizona in 1998. I wanted to bring Obie with me. But how? He no longer tolerated me.
He hated me. I loved him.
I suffered tremendous guilt at my unknowing behavior years earlier. And my mother said, again, “Leave him here.”
So I did. And each year I’d come back home to visit, I’d hope for some reconciliation. 1999. 2000. 2001. 2004. 2005… Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
2006. Something. A stolen pat to the head without resistance.
2008. Something else. A few chin rubs and no ankle biting.
2010. Something more. Obie crawled into my lap; my eyes filled above him.
And 2013. This:
And then in August of this year – 2014 – when I went home, there was Obie, a smaller version of himself, if that were even possible, a shadow: matted fur, bony face, visible vertebrae, unstable gait. A weariness. I asked my mom if the humane thing might be to …
But she assured me he was fine. “He’s happy,” she said. “He gets around. He and the dog are buddies.” (Third chocolate lab by this time).
“At least,” I countered, “Let me get him some canned food. I’m sure he’s got rotten teeth or no teeth by now.”
And so, while I was home for three days, he ate like a king: cans of Fancy Feast at his disposal. He let me love him. He had a noticeable spring in his 20-year step. He had normal poop for the first time in years. He begged for food. He abandoned his sleeping post with my dad and his dog, Tank, and slept near me. Me. He picked me.
When I left for the second leg of my trip to South Carolina, this is where he remained: under the table, lying upon the fabric infused with my scent. This is also where I bent down, kissed him, and whispered, “I love you. It’s okay to let go.”
Two days after returning back to Arizona my mom called. “Your kitty isn’t doing so well. I think I need to take him in.”
She sent this email later: He was so frail, it was like picking up air. He laid on the seat, didn’t move. He was ready. Tank went and laid beside him on the floor before we left. The doctor that gave him the shot said, after, “He is gone now; he can run again in heaven.” They have a little chapel set up, it was quite nice really. Dad said he couldn’t go with me. I buried him between the pine trees in the back yard.
I can’t explain what this cat’s forgiveness has meant to me. His presence in my life and his actions are an illustration of what I already knew: that animals feel, love and understand. This little guy taught far more, though: he showed that betrayal can sometimes be overcome.
***It has taken me months to write this post because I just wasn’t sure I could. Yes, despite an extended estrangement, the bond – and my own guilt, I admit – ran deep. I can only hope his final acceptance indicated that the bond was, in the end, felt both ways.
For Readers, For Writers, Everyone: What is forgiveness to you? Have you ever had a special bond with an animal? Do you enjoy stories about forgiveness? Stories about animal-human bonds? Why is it sometimes so hard to forgive?