Today my cat Lucy — my first cat, my first love, the first creature who’s ever trusted and relied on me and me alone (even before I could manage the same) — turns five.
I know how loopy and laughable pet birthdays can sound, but is it more meaningless an occasion than a birthday party for a one-year-old human who’s just as oblivious? For me it’s a tradition that recalls fuzzy memories of sticking candles in cans of tuna fish for my sweet, grumpy Gumball. I’m thankful for every one of the eighteen August 25s she spent with us, and I’m glad I celebrated most of them.
And it means a more relevant kind of thanksgiving, a day that completes the life-brightening gift of another year of her company.
We don’t get enough time with them. My family’s animals have always been outliers, living far longer than statistics or vets would project, but it was never long enough for me. Tinker, a tortoiseshell beauty who was my mom’s Lucy (her arrival preceded mine by years), became my “favorite person” around the time I learned how to speak and stayed that way until a heartbreaking night I’d rather not recall, during her twentieth year.
My relationship with Lucy is similarly indescribable and its ending similarly unthinkable; we share bonds I’ll never find with another living being, human or animal. We have more in common than I ever thought I would with a cat… and not because I don’t relate to them as much as (or more than, in some cases) my own race, but because I never dreamed I’d have the honor of feline company throughout the most important transitions of my life. I met her when I was a stupid college ingrate, a fiend for self-sabotage who still had a lot of growing up to do. Her life has aligned itself perfectly so far with my own’s most rapid and important and successful series of changes. She has been there for everything, and then some.
She is the only animal who will ever share such wildly contrasting and hugely defining experiences with me, the only living being besides myself who lived amid the squalor of New College dorms and off-campus housing and the lasting comforts of both my childhood home and the first home I’ve ever made for myself — the first place I’ve ever lived alone with a partner.
She arrived in my life in the aftermath of the worst break-up I hope I’ll ever survive, and as she finished her final few months of kittenhood, she was the only constant in a summer that was somehow my most immobile and most transient yet. I broke my foot less than a week after finishing my last paper of the semester — ran downstairs wrong and snapped the fifth metatarsal clean in half — and she was warming my lap or splayed across my post-surgical boot through every agonizing
step crutch-hop of the healing process. Bouncing from dorm to flea-ridden dorm with her first owner must have hardened her, because she didn’t mind finding herself somewhere new every week. I got that room in that off-campus house because I planned to work all summer, but my doctor axed that plan and sent me home with my mom to heal. Back and forth across Florida we went, returning to the coast for follow-up appointments (because of course it happened on the beach too), and then turning around and heading back when we learned my body hadn’t proved itself capable of weathering anything but the sterile, tranquil haven of my parents’ “real” house.
She was the reason I grew up as quickly as I did, and for that I owe her almost everything. When I decided to stop trying to stay sane in an environment I’d rendered insane, I transferred to another school and moved into a condo owned by my boyfriend’s roommate — the same guy who introduced us and who’d lived in that filthy house with me and Lucy the summer before. But this wasn’t a rental, and his parents weren’t having the idea of a cat on that carpet, so she stayed with mine until I couldn’t take it anymore. She was the reason I didn’t settle for another year of life with a roommate… and it seemed my whole life had been a countdown to the day we finally brought her home — to our new home – Thanksgiving 2010. Her personality pulled a transforming act, and as soon as she was the Only Cat, as soon as she was ruling over three bedrooms and dozens of window ledges and screens and sleeping in the same bed with the same version of me every night, she became the sweetest purr machine I’ll ever love. Those middle-of-the-night moments on my lap, rolling around manically with eyes like saucers, were no longer a secret we shared when I returned home to visit her. They were just her now.
She’s put with a lot since then, from a kitten who latched onto her like glue (and still does two years later) to a rabbit who invades her litter box and greets her with nips and growls every single morning. Oh yeah, and there’s the small matter of the stray I brought inside just two days ago, a tuxedo like her who’s an adolescent like she was when we met. Nearing the end of the second month he chose to spend in our car port and yard (lapping up every bit of my attention and begging for more), I got home from work Tuesday night and scooped him up on my way inside. So you’re welcome, Lucy, because you have that to look forward to… yet you stay patient and loyal, saving your growls for anyone but me. The little stranger already introduced himself through screens, but I won’t be rushing into the rest on her birthday of all days.
Joel likes to joke about his first impressions of her, hiding on a screened-in porch from my mom’s new chihuahua, not bothering with anything resembling affection. Now she sleeps on his back almost every night, purring that loud lullaby of hers right into his ears and climbing onto me too if I manage to stay still for more than a second.
She is five today, and I’m celebrating this birthday all the more fervently for the fact that she doesn’t get as many of them as we do. When she reaches Tinker’s final age — that’s always a when, never an if – I’ll be forty, and there might even be a child in my life… a little girl with a favorite person called Lucy, who will fill her pliable young heart and mind with a burning love for animals that will never, ever stop growing.
I know mine hasn’t.