On loving a hard-to-love cat

I adopted Haley when I was a senior in college. It was fall 1991, right around the first time I heard Nirvana.

Haley asks, "What's it to you?"

Haley asks, "What's it to you?"

She proved to be an odd cat almost immediately. When I got home from working at the college newspaper late at night, I tried to get her to come to bed with me. She would have none of it, instead crying in my bedroom doorway for me to come to her. She didn’t really like to play with me, except a game of poking my finger with her paw under the bathroom door, which she’d do endlessly.

I got my own apartment part way through senior year, the first time I ever lived alone. That was part of what prompted me to adopt Haley, since it felt lonely coming home to a completely empty apartment. In retrospect, bringing a kitten into my solo pad was probably part of what made her scared of everyone who isn’t me.

Not that she’s especially nice to me all the time. She hisses about as often as some cats meow. She apparently has never heard the expression “lap cat” as she’ll have none of that nonsense. She does come to see me when I come home from work, but then typically she wanders away quickly or gets irritated if I’ve dared to pet her too long.

I didn’t know much about kittens when I got her. We’d always had pets so it didn’t seem tough to look at some kittens and choose one who seemed friendly.

Apparently this is not a skill I have. Also, when they told me the kittens were old enough to be adopted out, I trusted them — and later when I saw pictures of six-week-old kittens, too young to leave their mother yet, it seemed to me that’s pretty much what Haley looked like when she came to live with me.

Haley's cat carrier awaits yet another move, this one from Ann Arbor to Manhattan.

Haley's cat carrier awaits yet another move, this one from Ann Arbor to Manhattan.

But that was then. Now Haley has been with me for 18 years, living with me in Mount Pleasant, Alpena, Novi, Milford, Ann Arbor (three places there) and now New York (our second apartment here). She’s been my roommate since before I was of legal drinking age, in every stage of my adult life.

Haley has been about the truest test of unconditional love I can imagine. She’s a pretty foul-tempered cat, not especially affectionate, and she’s tested us with things like getting into what John called “excrement wars” with our other cat in Ann Arbor. Our big fat Siamese, Guy, pooped on the floor under John’s drawing table to mark his territory, while Haley peed in various places, including on our comforter. Repeatedly.

Yet, yes, I do love the crabby old lady. Unlike a dog who might lick the face of any stranger who walks by, Haley makes you earn your way into her heart — as John eventually did after about five years of working on her.

Haley and I hang out on the couch, and she wants to know "What's it to you?"

Haley and I hang out on the couch, and she wants to know "What's it to you?"

When our new vet told me on Thursday that she had symptoms of heart failure and I might need to be prepared to “end it” on Friday, it took my breath away.

I know Haley is an old cat. Average life expectancy is about 15 years so she’s pretty much already on borrowed time.

Still, she’s been in surprisingly good shape so I’ve been able to delude myself into thinking she might be around for years more. Now it seems like it might be months, or weeks, or less.

I know plenty about mourning loss. I’ve been to the funerals of my mom, my mom’s dad, my stepmother, my stepmother’s dad, my high school boyfriend’s best friend, my freshman roommate’s crush … I could go on, but you get the point.

Haley the crabby kitty

Haley the crabby kitty

I’m trying to bring some of what I’ve learned about grief to preparing for the day when I won’t get to hear my four-legged companion growling for no good reason.

Many times I’ve wished Haley was a nicer cat. Usually when she’s bitten me or hissed at me, or when a vet has had to use oven mitts to examine her. But I am grateful to have shared my life with this nasty little cat who’s helped teach me about love and commitment. I didn’t adopt her with the condition that she had to adore me. She’s my responsibility for better, for worse.

Til death do us part.

Have you had a pet who changed your life? One who helped you learn a life lesson or become a better person?

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Categories: home and family, Uncategorized

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5 replies

  1. Mz. Nina Bean is my first pet. I got her for my 30th birthday. She’s totally changed the way I look at life, love, and loss. We’ve had her for 2 years; I hope she’s able to live a full life like Haley. I am sure that in her own way, Haley would be proud of this post. Thanks for sharing:).

  2. Touching post. Reminds me of our first dog, Pepper 1 who had to be put down after a botched operation. Cried my little heart out. Safe journeys, Haley.

  3. My best friend growing up was my dog Ralph. He was a stray who found us, showing up in our garage one night soaking wet and starving, just a week after our other dog had died. The timing was uncanny. In our neighborhood (a tiny suburb) you never even SAW a stray dog, let alone had one wander into your garage. We fed him and he adopted us.

    He showed me what unconditional love was, not necessarily because I loved HIM unconditionally, but because he loved ME. He was devoted, and I didn’t realize until years later, as a cynical adult, how rare that was. I miss him so much. I’m lucky I had so many years together, through thick & thin. He was my pal from age 7 to 25.

    When I went off to college more than one neighbor later told me they thought Ralph was going to die of a broken heart. Out of habit, he’d wait at the end of the driveway every day at 3:30, hoping I’d round that corner at the end of our block, but I never did. When I finally came home for Thanksgiving freshman year, he about had a heart attack of joy. I sometimes wish I’d never left him for college, but that’s what we do, isn’t it? We ditch our roots, our family, and our best friends and go off to “make something of ourselves.”

    Eventually, Ralph sort of became my mom’s dog. She road her bike and went to the beach and whatnot, so I’m sure he had a pretty good time. I will miss that dog till the day I die.

  4. We had a dog named Fred who came to live with us shortly after my former wife and I got married. When my wife and I separated, it was Fred who was there for me as I went through one of the toughest periods of my life. Toward the end, he had back troubles. When the kids were there on the weekends, he would play with them, let them climb all over him without complaint.
    I had to put him down as I was preparing to move from Traverse City back to Metro Detroit. It was a tough day, saying goodbye to my friend, who had helped get through my divorce.

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  1. Day 22: Finding gratitude in grief « Newvine Growing — exploring evolution, revolution and living life intentionally

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