Cat tale: Wolf

People telling you about their pet cats and dogs can bore one more efficiently than even those who haul out photos of their grandchildren, worn from months of friction in back pocket wallets. Singular tales do exist, however. John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley leaps to mind, and of course Jack London made his name with a tale about a dog, though certainly not his pet dog. More recently I choked up when I read Gwen Cooper’s Homer’s Odyssey very accurately subtitled A Fearless Feline Tale, Or How I Learned About Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat.

With this in mind, I viewed a recent comment on this blog with trepidation. It can be summed up as “more cat photos!” and my initial reaction somewhat remains: this space isn’t for memes, political screaming, or cute cat photos. But there was one singular cat…and so the author succumbs…

This is a story about Wolf the Cat, as different from most cats as her name: companion, roommate, best friend, zen master, and a being who made the most of a physical challenge for most of her life.

At the beginning of 1978, having pried a degree from the dons at the University of Washington and snagged a newspaper reporter/editor/photographer job in the foothills of the North Cascades, I began to live in responsible society. Two months in, I adopted a gorgeous white cat with blue eyes. Natasha’s pelt could have been marketed in a high fashion boutique. She demonstrated an independent nature, spending large amounts of time outside. (Times were different then; most cats went outdoors.)

Natasha at rest. Sometime in 1978, probably April-June. Monroe, WA.

Natasha, or Tasha as I came to call her, only sets our stage for the true star, her daughter Wolf. After a few months of frequent sorties to who-knows-where, Tasha began to show the swelling belly of pregnancy. Six months after she arrived to live with me, she littered. She obviously had consorted with a similar solidly-colored cat, but black. Three of the five kittens were white like their mother, with one black smudge on the tops of their heads in varying amounts: one had just a few hairs, one had a small fingertip’s worth, and one had more of an adult’s thumbprint. The most purely white one was delivered three months later to a friend in Walla Walla, who called her Powder…because, well, The 70s. Of the final two, one was all black, striking, and mischievous. I called him Shiva the Destroyer based on his habits, and gave him to my brother about a half year later. Shiva promptly revealed he was a she, littered on the middle of my brother’s matrimonial bed, and Shiva soon found herself and her litter at the local animal shelter.

And then there was this nondescript gray tabby, a commoner among the gorgeous and highly born. Because this kitten had a fuzzy overcoat of lighter gray and looked a little jowly, it reminded me of a wolf, so I called her Wolfrydda, a completely made-up attempt at Norski-ness. It was Wolf on the vet records and in my mouth–so what indeed was her name? Wolf showed a precociousness that captivated me. She always wanted to be with me, climbing up the side of my couch to get to me even though she could barely walk.

Wolf and her siblings deeply annoyed Tasha, whose maternal instincts were minimal. When Tasha had weaned her progeny, they didn’t leave–so Tasha did. I saw Natasha every four or five days until I found her weeks later, dead on the side of our country road.

Wolf and Shiva, Fall of 1978. Monroe, WA.

Wolf proved every bit as companionable as she first indicated. By the time she died almost 20 years later, we had been through a lot together. She had advised me, entertained me, put up with me, and shown me through her quiet approach to life how I probably should have lived myself. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Wolf calmly accepted life as it came at her, much like the zen masters I read about later. If a chest of drawers had one left open, she slept there. Or the waterbed was good, and being covered up seemed even better:

Always aware, always calm. Wolf the Zen Master. January 1980, Monroe, WA.

At one year she gave birth to a litter of four anemic kittens who all died. Wolf spent the week crying in the bathroom where I had put the kittens in a box directly under the ceiling heat lamp. By February 1980 she had littered again, four again, a black one, two gray tabbies, and an odd beige one with caramel-colored tabby markings. The two tabbies stayed, but one, Noko Marie, died. I suspected the vet who had spayed her. (Hold that thought; we’ll return to it momentarily.) The other tabby grew into a big lug and into his name: Frank N. Stein.

About six months later Wolf disappeared for three days. I spent mornings, lunchtimes, and after work hours standing on my apartment’s little patio, whistling the special Wolf whistle, and scouring the large rocks a few feet beyond the edge of that patio which prevented erosion on the steep slope lying below. On the third day I saw her, hopping oddly from rock to rock as she laboriously climbed the hill with what turned out to be a broken right rear leg. She had gone across the road at the bottom of the hill, perhaps to get to the creek on the other side. Her luck ran better than her mother’s, and with a cast on her leg a few hours later, I headed back to work. That night I couldn’t find her until I looked on the top of the refrigerator. Somehow, with a newly applied cast on one of her jumping legs, Wolf had climbed onto the seat of a kitchen chair, then to its back, balanced herself there and leapt to the counter (three to four feet). Once on the counter she had dragged herself past the sink to where the refrigerator rose and again had leapt with only the one leg to get to the top of the fridge.

Two weeks later I took her to the vet to check on the leg. He unwrapped the cast, examined her, and rewrapped the garish pink stretch tape over the casting material. In a couple of more weeks I noticed the tip of the cast was wet. Back to the vet we went. The vet discovered a gangrenous leg and admitted he had likely wrapped the cast too loosely in a mistaken effort to give her a little more comfort. The cast had turned and cut off the blood supply to the leg. The leg would have to be amputated or Wolf would need to be put down. It didn’t seem to be much of a decision. Wolf was barely over two years old, and had demonstrated over the past four to five weeks she could get around quite well dragging her right leg behind her. I figured it would be easier for her at that point not to have the leg versus the cast. The vet said he felt badly about it and wouldn’t charge for the amputation! Back then I was naïve; I would not be as nice today. Since he wasn’t getting any money for the operation, he said he was going to do it after hours and did I want to watch and/or assist? I said “sure” and found myself that evening holding up a furless leg that looked remarkably like a chicken leg/thigh you buy at the grocer’s while the vet used a large pair of side-cutters to snap through the bone.

Wolf educated me over the next year with what was possible. We moved across the state only two months later, and Wolf discovered a new favorite spot in a tree beside the driveway. This tree grew as one trunk to approximately five feet and then shot many branches straight up from there. It thus formed a natural nest. One night I came home from work and found her there, staring at me eye to eye, five to six feet up. I figured at that point she could ramble around outdoors without too much fear. She had taken to sticking close to home after the accident, and she always spent the night indoors. Smart cat. I wish I had listened to her more.

In mid-1981, six months after our move, I met a woman allergic to cats. She gave herself shots which seemed to work a bit, but extended time around my two cats (Frank was still in the picture), and she would start suffering. Wolf neither hated nor liked her–tolerated would be more accurate. Within two months this woman helped me decide to quit being a reporter/editor, go back to college, earn a teaching degree, and join her in the teaching ranks. I found a cheap apartment in Spokane, WA, but it didn’t allow pets. Pressed for time, I convinced my parents (who also lived in Spokane, just ten minutes from the apartment) to take in Wolf for a year. They had never had cats in their adult lives, and they had a dog, something Wolf hadn’t encountered before. Despite this, they agreed, and a few weeks later–after living in my car for a day while I attended classes–Wolf went to her new, temporary home. To get away from the dog she learned within the first hour to jump with that one rear leg to a small basement window four or five feet above the tallest furniture. The dog was lazy, and after his initial curiosity, he let her be. (Frank is another tale for another time, when I feel like confessing a poor decision.)

Enduring my parents and their dog. Sometime between Sept 1981 and August 1982. Spokane, WA.

After ten months I earned a degree in English Education, August 1982, grabbed Wolf, and moved in with my woman friend now living in a small lake cabin with a small dog. We married in 1983, moved to a small city in the mountains of Washington, and over eight years we welcomed four more cats into our house. In 1990 we moved to a new, bigger house, dropping Dolly with a friend. Three days after the move, Cooper disappeared. Suddenly we weren’t a 5-cat family, but only a 3-cat one. My wife laid down a new rule: cats in the basement at night. The rule lasted until she moved out ten months later, taking the dog and Petunia with her.

Four years and counting. Livin’ the lake life. Late 1982. Diamond Lake, WA

Wolf, Calvin, and I spent a year rattling around the 4000 square foot house. I met a different woman which gave me the pretext I needed to upend my life. The cats and I moved to a Philadelphia suburb.

Nearing 14 years: supervising the mover (me). June 1992. Colville, WA.

Wolf spent her time, per usual, under the seat of the Ryder rental truck I had procured for the move. Calvin ate tranquilizers and sat in a cat carrier the whole time we were in the truck. Occasionally Wolf would perform recon, hopping across the dash and then spending just enough time on top of Calvin’s carrier to annoy him, before she retreated to her under-seat abode. In Philly I intended “to become a freelance writer”. Such was not to be. I did, however, let my fling die away and in 1994 met a lovely woman who to this day keeps sticking around for no good reason I can fathom. Wolf liked her. Calvin spent most of his time outdoors and didn’t care.

Shortly after our marriage in 1995, we lost Calvin in the middle of an overnight December snowstorm when he insisted he needed to go outside exploring. (Another sin on my cat balance sheet.) My focus on the missing Calvin prevented me from noticing Wolf’s increasing lethargy. A Friday trip to the vet didn’t net much of a diagnosis; on Monday morning she couldn’t hold her head up while sitting on my wife’s lap. A second trip to the vet (and a diagnosis from a more competent vet) revealed a bad failure of her kidneys. They were flushed with large infusions of saline water twice that week, and Wolf The Miracle Cat bounced back as good as ever.

Eventually I convinced my new wife to move back to Spokane. Wolf joined us on a pillow on the middle console. We moved into a rented house complete with swimming pool. By this time, nearing her 19th birthday, she spent most of her time at the new house on top of a stack of deconstructed cardboard boxes from our move. The sun shone there most of the day.

In May 1998 we moved her one last time to a house we bought there. Wolf had been complaining of something for a week or so before the move. She worsened just a week or two after the move, and we learned her kidneys were failing again. A few tries at jump-starting them with fluids failed, and we decided to stop the pain in mid-June, just a couple months short of her 20th birthday.

Along the way I appreciated this cat more and more. She benefited by being my first real feline companion–Natasha had disappeared far too quickly and been too standoffish to claim that role. She liked rock and roll: playing one of my favorite albums, The Who Live At Leeds, at full volume not only didn’t disturb her, it caused her to climb up in my lap and enjoy the tunes! She enjoyed sleeping right on top of me (or my bed partner), which made me thankful for her light weight. She had a two-toned purr, with a high-pitched note above the customary low, growly one. When purringly happy she would drool, just one drop which would sit at the tip of her muzzle. She exhibited calm, patience, and live-in-the-moment wisdom. (I once watched her sit at the corner of the house waiting for a couple sparrows to work their way down the side of house toward her. She knew this was the only way a three-legged cat could hunt them. She missed anyway.) After losing her leg at the age of two, we moved five times from 1981-1990. I moved her five more times from 1992 until her death almost exactly six years later. She took it in stride, so much so that I’ve been shocked since then to have a cat stress out over moving. Throughout it all I never felt I was in charge; I felt I had a roommate who just happened to keep moving with me.

If I had listened to this cat, I would not have married when I did in 1983. I would have become far less upset about life’s tribulations. I would have accepted the bad with the good, and learned to not grasp either. To this date, almost 25 years since Wolf died, no other cat has quite captured her spot in my heart. I doubt that one will. I’m nearing 69. The years run together now. First time events, like meeting such a cat, become less and less prevalent. No matter how much I try, I can’t quite connect with my cats like I did this one. Maybe the right one just hasn’t appeared. Maybe they just don’t come but once in a life.

This profile seems abysmally truncated to me, long as it must have seemed to the reader. I covered a decade in one paragraph! (1982-1992) I had thought, “hey, from time to time I’ll tell tales of the others, but I’m not sure how I could. Everything would seem downhill after Wolf.