It’s Friday night and I am sitting down to dinner. I want to relax, delve into an episode of Breaking Bad and savor my meal in peace. My beloved cat Jontue is gone. The salmon on my plate is safe. The soft tissue interior of my nose is not in danger of being ripped by her ferocious forepaw. My cheek won’t be swatted at either. And no one is staring at me with the intensity that could move a mountain.
I miss that someone.
That “fur person” as May Sarton said.
I first spotted Jontue in a pet store, a small kitty in a huge enclosure all by her lonesome, crying out for my attention as I shopped for cat food. I already had four at home. But this one’s eyes were pleading take me; I need love. Those eyes also said, I can love you too.
Of course you can, little cat.
A strange looking thing, Jontue was six months old and resembled a prehistoric creature with her brindled coat, fangs, and wiry tail. Exotic or not, no one wanted her. I understood this all too well. So I paid an extraordinary amount of money for the pure breed Cornish Rex because she needed a home, someone to take care of her.
She entered my life when I was particularly vulnerable and lonely; she captured my heart and I like to think I captured hers. Over the years, I’d come to know Jontue so well. She was a cat driven by instinct and visibly affected by subtle shifts of energy. She was small and silky-haired and stuck close to me at all times. She was also needy and affable. She liked to hold my head in a firm grip with her paws and lick the tip of my nose.
Jontue was my last live connection to the desert, another planet called Tucson, the barren landscape where I lived a few difficult years in my early thirties in personal chaos. She was the fifth cat I adopted during those years when I was living by my lonesome and she was like all others in this one way: they were all abandoned and unwanted.
That is, until I came along and laid claim. I adored all five of my cats. Jontue held an especially beloved place in my heart.
She was my protector, my nurse and deeply in tune with how I was feeling. When I’d cry myself silly or stare off into space feeling blue, she’d whack my cheek as if I was in a diabetic stupor. Mama, snap out of it. Caring for her and the other cats gave me the reason to drag myself out of bed at times when I was overcome with illness and depression, those heavy burdens of being human. When these feelings took over Jontue knew and she came and offered all she could: her soft coat to pet, her warm body and a purr, her kind eyes holding mine for a moment before looking away.
I’ve met many irresponsible people in my life but never an irresponsible cat.
—Rita Mae Brown, author of Pawing Through the Past: A Mrs. Murphy Mystery
Jontue even made living in Tucson at times fun. She got frisky when she had a productive #2 and frolicked out of the litter box and across the kitchen tile floor like a filly with a belly full of bedsprings. A supreme hunter, she dismantled geckos in the apartment, danced about with flesh-colored scorpions, and swatted down flying insects with incredible precision (inside the apartment). Outside, she could leap six-foot fences in a single bound. Nimble, she was!
The Rex Cat Association of the UK says this about Jontue’s breed (my comments are in parentheses):
Cornish Rex cats make excellent pets (if you don’t mind being treated like prey). Aristocratic in appearance (hmmm, not this one), they are charming (huh?), acutely intelligent (vibrational), very affectionate (suck you dry of the sentiment) and gentle (uh-uh) whilst full of mischief (yes), never seeming to grow old (she was the last of the fivesome). Their long toes are a distinctive feature which enables them to use their paws like little hands (“I slap my mama in the face”). The breed is adaptable to new environments (she yowled the entire 2.300-mile drive from Tucson to Boston), elegant (?), agile (incredibly so) and active, demanding constant companionship and closeness (as in Velcro). In some cases, they crave closeness so much that when their owner is out at work all day their Cornish Rex will go visit with a neighbor! (Segue: The Doberman story.)
Jontue once scaled the six-foot stockade fence and landed on all fours in my neighbor’s Doberman pen. In the early evenings when the desert cooled off, I had a habit of letting my cats out into my “yard,” an eighteen-foot square dirt floor absent of vegetation and enclosed by a fence. The cats would roam about, sniffing, digging, grooming and sprawling themselves on the warm earth without any concern for what lay beyond the fence. Watching them relaxed me; I wanted to learn their carefree nature.
Why that night?
I’ll never know. In the blink of an eye, Jontue was over the fence. The first otherworldly wail shot the remaining four cats through the screen and into the house. My adrenaline soared and I froze. Fence. Dobermans. Cat. Screeching.
What could I do?
I cupped my hands over my ears and darted into the house. Leaning up against the closed door, my heart pounded. My flesh churned out perspiration. I was in a sort of paralyzed shock.
Then the mama bear stepped in and I moved!
Back into the yard. I was a grizzly and began tearing down the fence one picket at a time. Crashing through it with the fiercest mothering instincts I would save my young or be shredded by the hounds of hell while trying.
That’s my cat, Dobes!
The crazed attack dogs were in full view. I was in their territory now and I didn’t see Jontue. There was no flesh dangling from their teeth—I took note of this—but their focus had turned to me, canines barred, hackles raised. I was about to be torn to pieces.
But where’s the cat?
The enclosure was barren with the exception of a cinder block here and there, and a sizable pile of 2x4s, sticks and brush off to my right.
How could that flimsy form of refuge protect her?
I didn’t spend too much time on the question. I fell to my knees before the brush pile. The dogs were going to eat me rear-end first!
Out of my periphery, I saw a woman approaching, running, arms flailing. Her mouth moved, I heard nothing; it had no effect on my mission. I was feeling recklessly enthusiastic and plunged my hands into a desert den that would make even Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin hesitate (and we all know what happened to him). Colors and textures panned before my eyes; I was chucking sticks and 2x4s over my shoulder. The woman was dodging the debris, unsteadily pulling back the frothing beasts while fragments of my terrycloth dress caught in their teeth.
Jontue was there, I had unearthed her. She was balled up, disoriented and trembling; her coat slick with dog saliva. She did not look, as the Rex Cat Association would describe, “charming” or “elegant.”
I grabbed the cat, secured her to my chest and turned my back on the beasts and my neighbor, and swiftly attempted to retreat through the makeshift opening in the fence. I couldn’t make traction. I’d take a giant step forward then snap back to the fence like an elastic band.
“Wait, wait, I’ll help you!” my neighbor said, but now just as crazed as the dogs, I bulldozed forward and my dress ripped even more. A long and twisting fragment of white terrycloth remained caught up on the nail, an ironic white flag signaling—a little late—for peace. Jontue’s claws dug deeper into my chest, I was bloodied yet free.
Dumping Jontue inside, I collapsed flat on the kitchen floor and gazed at the geckos scurrying across the ceiling; waiting for my respiration and heart rate to fall back into normal range. The other spooked cats tiptoed around and came in close; Jontue eventually perched on my thigh. She had fared much better than me—she didn’t have a scratch on her. She was safe. I would do it all again; I would have done just about anything for this cat.
Many years have passed since then. I left the desert and eventually lost Jontue’s sisters to renal failure, ketosis, and lymphoma. Not one of them lived past thirteen years. But Jontue did, she moved residences a total of ten times with me in a span of eighteen years.
Her life, dictated by mine, changed dramatically and often—fluctuations in places, people, animals and my emotions. Four months into last move, Jontue’s health deteriorated in a matter of days. She wasn’t well; at times she suffered from blindness and would curl up in her heated bed and stare into the space in front of her. I could read her eyes, her body; I could hear her thoughts—I feel terrible, I don’t understand what’s wrong, the pain won’t go away.
The day after Thanksgiving, I made her pain go away.
Jontue. She was my last live connection to the desert, to that painful time of soul searching. But the pain made me a writer and I soothed this sorrow by bringing home cats. One after another and particularly the ones nobody wanted. And those felines repaid me—by making me laugh, making me play, giving me the strength to tear down a stockade fence when I thought I was broken and weak.
These unwanted animals are the best ones to love, they become the dearest companions because animals know when you have saved them. Our pets remember. In return they nurture us, protect us, see our truths, and they love us.
What more is there possibly to ask?
Albert Schweizer said, “There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.”
I agree with him.
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Dear Jontue: It took me so long to write this little memorial for you, weeks and weeks, and I needed to distance myself from home, miles and miles. I couldn’t bring myself to write it where we shared an abode, where your bed has been taken over by the bunnies, knew it would force me to mourn your passing. I pretend that a big piece of my life as I know it, isn’t gone, that the vibe of the house is still in check. That you’ll still be there when I return home, come squawking on your tippy toes to greet me, wrap around my leg and rub your butt on my shin. The last few moments of your life haunt me—you did not struggle, lay right down quietly and slipped away. In the end, it turns out, you were oh so “elegant.” Thank you for coming into my life when I needed you most, trying the various people and places on for size right alongside of me, and being my true companion for all these years.
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Lisa has been publishing essays for five years on the writing life, sex and relationships, and her love for horses, dogs and cowboy country. One of her essays appeared in the IPPY-award-winning anthology Unmasked: Women Write About Sex and Intimacy After Fifty, published in 2017. She lives near Boston, where she rides horses and commutes by bike to her job writing and editing technology blogs for Dell Technologies. She is currently pitching her memoir Calamity Becomes Her to literary agents and is at work on two sequels. You can contact her at lisa dot demasi at gmail dot com.