On the Loyalty of Cats

by Rachel Creager Ireland

I always thought he was unusually photogenic, but now, no picture can touch his beauty.

What is loyalty? Our cat 23 crossed over today, and I saw him off. As he lay on the bathroom floor struggling for his last breaths, I thought about this question. He was with us for 16 years, from the time he was a little kitten and someone dropped him and four others off in a laundry basket at the club where Kevin was bartending. I carried two of them home from the bar in that laundry basket, and by the next day, as they explored the apartment, I found myself following them around and exclaiming incredulously, “I love you!” I had no idea where that had come from; some switch in my soul had flipped on, and I was in love with two kittens.

Though there were times when Kevin and I each lived alone with both cats, most of those years we were all four together. In the early years I played with them nearly every day; they seemed to crave that attention, even though they got lots of time to roam and hunt for grasshoppers outdoors. When it was just me and the cats, the tics were bad, so whenever they came inside, I was there to brush their thick coats and catch the tics before they latched on. In flea season, I flea-combed the cats daily.

When we moved to the motel, they were happy to have a bigger home, and a yard again, after the urban apartment years, when they weren’t allowed outside. But the idyll didn’t last long; a baby came, and I must confess that those motherly feelings in me transferred completely to the new human baby. The day we brought Rowan home from the hospital, I saw that, in eight years, we had utterly failed to socialize these feline creatures; they jumped on the dining table, they ripped out the window screens, they tracked litter out of the box on their luscious, thick, long fur. I will blame postpartum hormones one hundred percent when I say that every time I saw a cat, it was a reminder of our failure to bring them up properly, and if we couldn’t raise cats right, how could we possibly hope to raise a child? If they had run away and never come back, I felt in that period, I wouldn’t have minded. Fortunately Kevin took over their care, and they survived quite well.

Naturally, 23 wasn’t always thrilled with the baby. Before she was ambulatory, he easily ignored her. As she became more active, he patiently stayed out of the way. Right around her second birthday, he started training her. Whenever Rowan’s unsteady feet stepped too close, he gave her a swat. If she ran by him waving her arms, she got a swat. She was terrified of him for years. Toulouse, his brother, was first to let her befriend him. She learned to pet him gently, to brush him, to hold him so that he would feel secure. Maybe it was seeing her care for Toulouse that showed 23 that it was time to trust Rowan.

Age creeps up slowly. The baby is seven now, and her little sister is already five. Can it really have been sixteen years since these sublimely beautiful creatures came into our lives? I don’t want to talk about 23’s gradual decline, or his final illness, how everyone kept telling me, “Well, he’s very old,” while I doubted that it was time to give up on his healing, to refuse to hope that he might again be a vital, thriving cat.

But what about loyalty? Well, dogs are loyal. They’ll protect their humans from home invaders, they’ll follow commands. Cats are not known for either. What would 23 do for me? He’d be here. He’d come home for dinner, every day -well, almost every day- for sixteen years. He knew where his home was and though he sometimes roamed frighteningly far, he always returned. We went on vacations and left the cats for days at a time, but they never treated us so shabbily. They sat in our laps, they slept at our feet, they dozed in the sunny spot by the patio doors. The most submissive act 23 ever made toward me was to leave a moribund mouse next to my desk chair; for the most part, he behaved as if he believed himself to be above me in the hierarchy of our household. But who cares? He was faithful enough to be here, whether I acknowledged him or not. He was the finest of cats. As he passed, I told him how grateful I was that he had shared his life with us, had made our home his. We’ll miss him terribly, his exquisite beauty, and his loyalty.