Monday, November 28, 2005



Several years ago, a co-worker of mine appointed herself the personal St. Francis to a horde of feral cats who lived in an alley in the town where we worked. Though she was frequently sullen and irascible with human beings, her kindness to her selected brood knew no limits.

Even if we didn't get out of work until one in the morning, or the weather dipped below zero, she faithfully collected scraps from the hotel, bags of chicken or prime rib, and headed to the grim alley way where her mangy cats lurked. It often involved costly taxi rides since she didn't own a car.

Though truthfully, I didn't like her much, I could never pass the woman by when I saw her standing alone outside the hotel, her ubiquitous smoke in one hand, a bag of garbage in the other, as she waited for her cab.

"If you call off your taxi, I'll give you a ride," I'd say reluctantly. When we got to the alley, I'd wait in the car as the cats gathered around her, caressing her with their hunger. While they ate, she would lean against a wall and watch them. All I could see was the tiny flame of her cigarette.

In the end, it was those tiny flames that got her. She was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Around the same time, the cats received a similarly bleak sentence. The local merchants had complained about their growing numbers, and had demanded the town exterminate them.

My co-worker, who could not save her own life, had found her mission. She would find homes for all her wild felines. She walked to town hall and petitioned for time. Then, begging rides to the offices of various veterinarians and animal protection groups, she hung posters and pleaded for help in her cause. She would not go away. It seemed like an impossible task to me--her frequent and increasingly begrudging chauffeur. There were more than forty cats, and they had been feral all their lives. The vets warned that they probably carried disease.

Several times she tried to cajole me into taking one of the kittens, but for once in my life, I was firm. I already had a house full of kids and three animals. Besides, my husband was adamantly against it.

Everytime I said no, she turned away from me angrily, lit a cigarette, and blew smoke and venom out my car window.

I responded in kind. I was wasting my time and gas driving her around on her crazy mission, and this was the thanks I got? And she knew I did not allow smoking in my car.

Ignoring me skillfully, she puffed her butt right down to the end, then tossed it out the window. By the time I dropped her off in her front of the dilapidated rooming house where she lived, we were both staring straight ahead in cold fury.

"You'll have to get yourself another--" I began, but never got a chance to finish before she was out of the car and walking toward her door. Watching her, I couldn't help noticing how thin and solitary she was or feeling ashamed of my anger.

In the end, after spending most of her savings to make sure that each animal got its shots and was spayed or neutered, the cats' advocate found homes for over thirty of them. Then, when she had nearly exhausted all her resources, a generous farmer from a nearby island agreed to take the last ten.

Why she went back to the alley the last time, I'm not sure. Maybe she missed the animals who had waited for her so avidly every day. It was clear that she was getting sicker, and she was alarmingly friendless and alone. In any case, she returned to find one stray who had been left behind.

The next day she called me. The landlady in the rooming house would not allow the animal inside. I had to take it; there was no one else.

"I can't have another cat," I repeated, already feeling annoyed. "How many times do I have to tell you that?"

"He's sitting under a bush outside my house when you're ready to pick him up," she said, and hung up on me.

I was incensed, and I wasn't taking that cat. How had I ever gotten involved with this woman? Why did I always get involved?

A few days later, I was heading to the grocery store with my fourteen-year-old daughter. I hadn't talked to my sick co-worker since she had hung up on me, and I was beginning to feel the familiar needles of guilt. Did she need food? Or more likely, the cigarettes that were both her killer and her last comfort?

Abruptly, I turned onto her street. My daughter remained in the car while I went upstairs. It took several minutes for the sick woman to answer the door, but finally she called out a raspy and impatient "come in then" from her bed. When I entered the room, I saw her impending death clearly for the first time. And what was worse, in her eyes was the dark acknowledgment that she saw it, too.

By the time I came down, my daughter was crouched beside the infamous bush, trying to coax the ugliest cat I'd ever seen to come out. He was emaciated, his fur was matted and dull. his feet huge; and in place of normal cat teeth, small fangs protruded.

"I'm not taking that cat?" I said weakly.

"I'm going to call him Jasper," my daughter said, glowing with new love. "He's so beautiful."

Beautiful? That thing? I thought. But later that night, my husband and I returned with a box and took the cat home.

Jasper. We've always had a cat or two around the house, but never have we had one more loving or gentle than the one we pulled out of the bush that night. And yes, he's beautiful, too.

Now he frequently keeps me company in the window when I write. I took this picture the other day as he nestled beside my Guatemalan Francis, but I didn't see the hand resting on top of his head until I put it up on my computer.


rdl said...

What a great pic.!

DTclarinet said...

What a great contrasting combo. the colors, the size, their respective habits toward birds! hilarious.

Patry Francis said...

garnet: Yeah, Jasper looks pretty predatory nestled under that bird loving hand, doesn't he?

Myfanwy Collins said...

Damnit! You've made me cry again, Patry. What a beautiful story.

Jean said...

He IS beautiful, and a lot like my cat, and oh shit you made me cry too!

Anonymous said...

And clearly he is an inspiration as well.

MB said...

And this is one of the things I love about you, Patry.

Anne Bauer said...

Now there's a great story. And the photo couldn't have been better.

robin andrea said...

Patry-- That is such fantastic storytelling. Jasper is a beauty, and he does look like he is leading a charmed life there.

I love the parallel story of your friend caring for the cats and you driving her on her rounds. Nice.

Patry Francis said...

Oh Myf, I love making your cry!

Jean: Aren't black cats gorgeous--not to mention a source of good fortune?

tom: Glad to see you here so I could trace yoou back to your blog. Thanks for the email.

moose: I'm beginning to think you ARE the bluebird. Thank you.

And Anna: visits from Verona are always appreciated! Thanks.

r.d.: I never really thought about the parallels, but I must say her service to the cats was much more open hearted than mine was to her.

Sharon Hurlbut said...

I firmly believe that cats have a way of finding the families they are meant to belong with, and clearly Jasper was destined to be part of yours. Beautiful story, beautiful cat.

SFP said...

Great story. And what a beautiful cat!

Joel said...

That reminds me: I need to hang a plaque of St. Dymphna somewhere near my computer.

Patry Francis said...

Sharon: I've been sharing your philosophy with everyone who has told me a cat story since reading my post.

anne bauer: thanks for visiting, and for your lovely comment.

b: I visited your blog and now I understand why you can't resist a good cat story! Since it's a comment free zone, let me tell you here: I left there smiling about a number of things I read, and I bet E.H. is smiling, too.

sfp: Another cat lover! I went and signed up for the Metaxu Cafe after visiting you today. Pretty cool idea.

joel: st. dymphna? Please enlighten.

Anonymous said...

I'm crying.

Dale said...

The Buddha turns up in the most unlikely guises :-)

This brought me to tears, too.

Mary Sheehan Winn said...

Wonderful story. I'm a cat person. In love with a cat. Crazy.
Beautiful Jasper. And lucky too.
I love reading your blog.

Anonymous said...

A Beautiful statue and what an amazing cat, I may have his twin in my house.

In the photo it looks as though the hand of the statue is stroking Jasper's head. Just one of my fanciful fancies.....

Patry Francis said...

Donna: tears are good.

Dale: I love your comment about the Buddha.

marewheee: thanks for visiting and reading my cat story. I've enjoyed reading your comments on R's blog, and also loved a chance to visit your paintings on line. They are truly wonderful.

Ainelivia: I noticed that, too!

Patry Francis said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

That's a great story. Waiting for more. »

Beryl Singleton Bissell said...

OH Patry. So that's the story behind Jasper! We once adopted an older cat and were told that she came with a companion, a cat who could have been Jasper's alter ego. This cat was truly feral and hid during the day, coming out only at night and leaving great clumps of his hair around as proof. I once caught him standing up behind a filing cabinet in our furnace room, he was that averse to humans (or fearful). We were not as patient as you were but returned him as incorrigible.

eudaemoniaforall said...

What a wonderful story. xoxo