Last year I lost my cat Gattino. He was very young, at seven months barely an adolescent. He is probably dead but I don’t know for certain. For two weeks after he disappeared people claimed to have seen him; I trusted two of the claims because Gattino was blind in one eye, and both people told me that when they’d caught him in their headlights, only one eye shone back. One guy, who said he saw my cat trying to scavenge from a garbage can, said that he’d ‘looked really thin, like the runt of the litter’. The pathetic words struck my heart. But I heard something besides the words, something in the coarse, vibrant tone of the man’s voice that immediately made another emotional picture of the cat: back arched, face afraid but excited, brimming and ready before he jumped and ran, tail defiant, tensile and crooked. Afraid but ready; startled by a large male, that’s how he would’ve been. Even if he was weak with hunger. He had guts, this cat.
Gattino disappeared two and a half months after we moved. Our new house is on the outskirts of a college campus near a wildlife preserve. There are wooded areas in all directions, and many homes with decrepit outbuildings sit heavily, darkly low behind trees, in thick foliage. I spent hours at a time wandering around calling Gattino. I put food out. I put a trap out. I put hundreds of flyers up, I walked around knocking on doors, asking people if I could look in their shed or under their porch. I contacted all the vets in the area. Every few days, someone would call and say they had seen a cat in a parking lot or behind their dorm. I would go and sometimes glimpse a grizzled adult melting away into the woods, or behind a building or under a parked car.
After two weeks there were no more sightings. I caught three feral cats in my trap and let them go. It began to snow. Still searching, I would sometimes see little cat tracks in the snow; near dumpsters full of garbage, I also saw prints made by bobcats or coyotes. When the temperature went below freezing, there was icy rain. I kept looking. A year later I still had not stopped.
Six months after Gattino disappeared my husband and I were sitting in a restaurant having dinner with some people he had recently met, including an intellectual writer we both admired. The writer had considered buying the house we were living in and he wanted to know how we liked it. I said it was nice but it had been partly spoiled for me by the loss of our cat. I told him the story and he said, ‘Oh, that was your trauma, was it?’
I said yes. Yes, it was a trauma.
You could say he was unkind. You could say I was silly. You could say he was priggish. You could say I was weak.
A few weeks earlier, I had an email exchange with my sister Martha on the subject of trauma, or rather tragedy. Our other sister, Jane, had just decided not to euthanize her dying cat because she thought her little girls could not bear it; she didn’t think she could bear it. Jane lives in chronic pain so great that sometimes she cannot move normally. She is under great financial stress and is often responsible for the care of her mother-in-law as well as the orphaned children of her sister-in-law who died of cancer. But it was her cat’s approaching death that made her cry so that her children were frightened. ‘This is awful,’ said Martha. ‘It is not helping that cat to keep him alive, it’s just prolonging his suffering. It’s selfish.’
Martha is in a lot of pain too, most of it related to diabetes and fibromyalgia. Her feet hurt so badly she can’t walk longer than five minutes. She just lost her job and is applying for disability which, because it’s become almost impossible to get, she may not get, and which, if she does get, will not be enough to live on, and we will have to help her. We already have to help her because her COBRA payments are so high that her unemployment isn’t enough to cover them. This is painful for her too; she doesn’t want to be the one everybody has to help. And so she tries to help us. She has had cats for years, and so knows a lot about them; she wanted to help Jane by giving her advice, and she sent me several emails wondering about the best way to do it. Finally she forwarded me the message she had sent to Jane, in which she urged her to put the cat down. When she didn’t hear from Jane, she emailed me some more, agonizing over whether or not Jane was angry at her, and wondering what decision Jane would make regarding the cat. She said, ‘I’m afraid this is going to turn into an avoidable tragedy.’
Impatient by then, I told her that she should trust Jane to make the right decision. I said, this is sad, not tragic. Tragedy is thousands of people dying slowly of war and disease, injury and malnutrition. It’s Hurricane Katrina, it’s the war in Iraq, it’s the earthquake in China. It’s not one creature dying of old age.
After I sent the email, I looked up the word ‘tragic’. According to Webster’s College Dictionary, I was wrong; their second definition of the word is ‘extremely mournful, melancholy or pathetic’. I emailed Martha and admitted I’d been wrong, at least technically. I added that I still thought she was being hysterical. She didn’t answer me. Maybe she was right not to.
I found Gattino in Italy. I was in Tuscany at a place called Santa Maddalena run by a woman named Beatrice von Rezzori who, in honor of her deceased husband, a writer, has made her estate into a small retreat for writers. When Beatrice learned that I love cats, she told me that down the road from her two old women were feeding a yard full of semi-wild cats, including a litter of kittens who were very sick and going blind. Maybe, she said, I could help them out. No, I said, I wasn’t in Italy to do that, and anyway, having done it before, I know it isn’t an easy thing to trap and tame a feral kitten.
The next week one of her assistants, who was driving me into the village, asked if I wanted to see some kittens. Sure, I said, not making the connection. We stopped by an old farmhouse. A gnarled woman sitting in a wheelchair covered with towels and a thin blanket greeted the assistant without looking at me. Scrawny cats with long legs and narrow ferret hips stalked or lay about in the buggy, overgrown yard. Two kittens, their eyes gummed up with yellow fluid and flies swarming around their asses, were obviously sick but still lively – when I bent to touch them, they ran away. But a third kitten, smaller and bonier than the other two, tottered up to me mewing weakly, his eyes almost glued shut. He was a tabby, soft gray with strong black stripes. He had a long jaw and a big nose shaped like an eraser you’d stick on the end of a pencil. His big-nosed head was goblin-ish on his emaciated pot-bellied body, his long legs almost grotesque. His asshole seemed disproportionately big on his starved rear. Dazedly, he let me stroke his bony back – tentatively, he lifted his pitiful tail. I asked the assistant if she would help me take the kittens to a veterinarian and she agreed; this had no doubt been the idea all along.
The healthier kittens scampered away as we approached and hid in a collapsing barn; we were only able to collect the tabby. When we put him in the carrier, he forced open his eyes with a mighty effort, took a good look at us, hissed, tried to arch his back and fell over. But he let the vets handle him. When they tipped him forward and lifted his tail to check his sex, he had a delicate, nearly human look of puzzled dignity in his one half-good eye, while his blunt muzzle expressed stoic animality. It was a comical and touching face.
They kept him for three days. When I came to pick him up, they told me he would need weeks of care, involving eye ointment, ear drops and nose drops. The Baroness suggested I bring him home to America. No, I said, not possible. My husband was coming to meet me in a month and we were going to travel for two weeks; we couldn’t take him with us. I would care for him and by the time I left, he should be well enough to go back to the yard with a fighting chance.
So I called him ‘Chance’. I liked Chance as I like all kittens; he liked me as a food dispenser. He looked at me neutrally, as if I were one more creature in the world, albeit a useful one. I had to worm him, de-flea him and wash encrusted shit off his tail. He squirmed when I put the medicine in his eyes and ears, but he never tried to scratch me – I think because he wasn’t absolutely certain of how I might react if he did. He tolerated my petting him, but seemed to find it a novel sensation rather than a pleasure.
Then one day he looked at me differently. I don’t know exactly when it happened – I may not have noticed the first time. But he began to raise his head when I came into the room, to look at me intently. I can’t say for certain what the look meant; I don’t know how animals think or feel. But it seemed that he was looking at me with love. He followed me around my apartment. He sat in my lap when I worked at my desk. He came into my bed and slept with me; he lulled himself to sleep by gnawing softly on my fingers. When I petted him, his body would rise into my hand. If my face were close to him, he would reach out with his paw and stroke my cheek.
Sometimes, I would walk on the dusty roads surrounding Santa Maddalena and think about my father, talking to him in my mind. My father had landed in Italy during the Second World War; he was part of the Anzio invasion. After the war he returned as a visitor with my mother, to Naples and to Rome. There is a picture of him standing against an ancient wall wearing a suit and a beret; he looks elegant, formidable and at the same time tentative, nearly shy. On my walks I carried a large, beautiful marble that had belonged to my father; sometimes I took it out of my pocket and held it up in the sun as if it might function as a conduit for his soul. My father died a slow painful death of cancer, refusing treatment of any kind for as long as he was able to make himself understood, gasping, ‘No doctors, no doctors.’ My mother had left him years before; my sisters and I tended to him, but inadequately, and too late – he had been sick for months, unable to eat for at least weeks before we became aware of his condition. During those weeks I thought of calling him; if I had I would’ve known immediately that he was dying. But I didn’t call. He was difficult, and none of us called him often.
My husband did not like the name Chance and I wasn’t sure I did either; he suggested McFate, and so I tried it out. McFate grew stronger, grew a certain one-eyed rakishness, an engaged forward quality to his ears and the attitude of his neck that was gallant in his fragile body. He put on weight, and his long legs and tail became soigné, not grotesque. He had strong necklace markings on his throat; when he rolled on his back for me to pet him, his belly was beige and spotted like an ocelot. In a confident mood, he was like a little gangster in a zoot suit. Pensive, he was still delicate; his heart seemed closer to the surface than normal, and when I held him against me, it beat very fast and light. McFate was too big and heartless a name for such a small fleet-hearted creature. ‘Mio Gattino,’ I whispered, in a language I don’t speak to a creature who didn’t understand words. ‘Mio dolce piccolo gatto.’
One night when he was lying on his back in my lap, purring, I saw something flash across the floor; it was a small, sky-blue marble rolling out from under the dresser and across the floor. It stopped in the middle of the floor. It was beautiful, bright, and something not visible to me had set it in motion. It seemed a magical and forgiving omen, like the presence of this loving little cat. I put it on the windowsill next to my father’s marble.
I spoke to my husband about taking Gattino home with us. I said I had fallen in love with the cat, and that I was afraid that by exposing him to human love I had awakened in him a need that was unnatural, that if I left him he would suffer from the lack of human attention that he never would have known had I not appeared in his yard. My husband said, ‘Oh no, Mary . . .’ but in a bemused tone.
I would understand if he’d said it in a harsher tone. Many people would consider my feelings neurotic, a projection onto an animal of my own need. Many people would consider it almost offensive for me to lavish such love on an animal when I have by some standards failed to love my fellow beings: for example, orphaned children who suffer every day, not one of whom I have adopted. But I have loved people; I have loved children. And it seems that what happened between me and the children I chose to love was a version of what I was afraid would happen to the kitten. Human love is grossly flawed, and even when it isn’t, people routinely misunderstand it, reject it, use it or manipulate it. It is hard to protect a person you love from pain because people often choose pain; I am a person who often chooses pain. An animal will never choose pain; an animal can receive love far more easily than even a very young human. And so I thought it should be possible to shelter a kitten with love.
I made arrangements with the vet to get me a cat passport; Gattino endured the injection of an identifying microchip into his slim shoulder. Beatrice said she could not keep him in her house, and so I made arrangements for the vet to board him for the two weeks Peter and I traveled.
Peter arrived; Gattino looked at him and hid under the dresser. Peter crouched down and talked to him softly. Then he and I lay on the bed and held each other. In a flash, Gattino grasped the situation: the male had come. He was friendly. We could all be together now. He came onto the bed, sat on Peter’s chest and purred thunderously. He stayed on Peter’s chest all night.
We took him to the veterinarian the next day. Their kennel was not the quiet, cat-only quarters one finds at upscale American animal hospitals. It was a common area that smelled of disinfectant and fear. The vet put Gattino in a cage near that of a huge enraged dog that barked and growled, lunging against the door of its kennel. Gattino looked at me and began to cry. I cried too. The dog raged. There was a little bed in Gattino’s cage and he hid behind it, then defiantly lifted his head to face the gigantic growling; that is when I first saw that terrified but ready expression, that willingness to meet whatever was coming, regardless of its size or its ferocity.
When we left the vet I was crying absurdly hard. But I was not crying exclusively about the kitten, any more than my sister Jane was crying exclusively about euthanizing her old cat. At the time I didn’t realize it, but I was, among other things, crying about the children I once thought of as mine.
Caesar and his sister Natalia are now twelve and sixteen respectively. When we met them they were six and ten. We met him first. We met him through the Fresh Air Fund, an organization that brings poor urban children (nearly all of whom are black or Hispanic) up by bus to stay with country families (nearly all of whom are white). The Fresh Air Fund is an organization with an aura of uplift and hope about it, but its project is a difficult one that frankly reeks of pain. In addition to Caesar, we also hosted another little boy, a seven-year-old named Ezekial. Imagine that you are six or seven years old and that you are taken to a huge city bus terminal, herded onto buses with dozens of other kids, all of you with big name tags hung around your neck, driven for three hours to a completely foreign place, and presented to total strangers with whom you are going to live for two weeks. Add that these total strangers, even if they are not rich, have materially more than you could ever dream of, that they are much bigger than you and, since you are staying in their house, you are supposed to obey them. Add that they are white as sheets. Realize that even very young children ‘of color’ have often learned that white people are essentially the enemy. Wonder: who in God’s name thought this was a good idea?
We were aware of the race-class thing. But we thought we could override it. Because we wanted to love these children. I fantasized about serving them meals, reading to them at night, tucking them in. Peter fantasized about sports on the lawn, riding bikes together. You could say we were idealistic. You could say we were stupid. I don’t know what we were.
We were actually only supposed to have one, and that one was Ezekial. We got Caesar because the FAF called from the bus as it was on its way up, full of kids, and told us that his host family had pulled out at the last minute due to a death in the family, so could we take him? We said yes because we were worried about how we were going to entertain a single child with no available playmates; I made the FAF representative promise that if it didn’t work out, she would find a backup plan. Of course it didn’t work out. Of course there was no backup plan. The kids hated each other, or, more precisely, Ezekial hated Caesar. Caesar was younger and more vulnerable in every way; less confident, less verbal, possessed of no athletic skills. Ezekial was lithe, with muscular limbs and an ungiving facial symmetry that sometimes made his naturally expressive face cold and mask-like. Caesar was big and plump, with deep eyes and soft features that were so generous they seemed nearly smudged at the edges. Ezekial was a clever bully, merciless in his teasing, and Caesar could only respond by ineptly blustering, ‘Ima fuck you up!’
‘Look,’ I said, ‘you guys don’t have to like each other, but you have to get along. Deep down, don’t you want to get along?’
‘No!’ they screamed.
‘He’s ugly!’ added Ezekial.
‘Oh dry up Ezekial,’ I said,‘we’re all ugly, okay?’
‘Yeah,’ said Caesar, liking this idea very much. ‘We’re all ugly!’
‘No,’ said Ezekial, his voice dripping with malice, ‘you’re ugly.’
‘Try again,’ I said. ‘Can you get along?’
‘Okay,’ said Caesar. ‘I’ll get along with you Ezekial.’ And you could hear his gentle, generous nature in his voice. You could hear it, actually, even when he said, ‘Ima fuck you up!’ Gentleness sometimes expresses itself with the violence of pain or fear and so looks like aggression. Sometimes cruelty has a very charming smile.
‘No,’ said Ezekial, smiling. ‘I hate you.’
Caesar dropped his eyes.
We were in Florence for a week. It was beautiful, but crowded and hot, and I was too full of sadness and confusion to enjoy myself. Nearly every day I pestered the vet, calling to see how Gattino was. ‘He’s fine,’ they said. ‘The dog isn’t there any more. Your cat is playing.’ I wasn’t assuaged. I had nightmares; I had a nightmare that I had put my kitten into a burning oven, and then watched him hopelessly try to protect himself by curling into a ball; I cried to see it, but could not undo my action.
Peter preferred the clever, athletic Ezekial and Caesar knew it. I much preferred Caesar, but we had made our original commitment to Ezekial and to his mother, whom we had spoken with on the phone. So I called the FAF representative and asked her if she could find another host family for Caesar. ‘Oh great,’ she snapped. But she did come up with a place. It sounded good: a single woman, a former schoolteacher, experienced host of a boy she described as responsible and kind, not a bully. ‘But don’t tell him he’s going anywhere else,’ she said. ‘I’ll just pick him up and tell him he’s going to a pizza party. You can bring his stuff over later.’
I said, ‘Okay,’ but the idea didn’t sit right with me. So I took Caesar out to a park to tell him. Or rather I tried. I said, ‘You don’t like Ezekial do you?’ and he said, ‘No, I hate him.’ I asked if he would like to go stay at a house with another boy who would be nice to him, where they would have a pool and – ‘No,’ he said. ‘I want to stay with you and Peter.’ I couldn’t believe it – I did not realize how attached he had become. But he was adamant. We had the conversation three times, and none of those times did I have the courage to tell him he had no choice. I pushed him on the swing set and he cried, ‘Mary! Mary! Mary!’ And then I took him home and told Peter I had not been able to do it.
Peter told Ezekial to go into the other room and we sat Caesar down and told him he was leaving. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Send the other boy away.’
Ezekial came into the room.
‘Send him away!’ cried Caesar.
‘Ha ha,’ said Ezekial, ‘you go away!’
The FAF woman arrived. I told her what was happening. She said, ‘Why don’t you just let me handle this.’ And she did. She said, ‘Okay Caesar, it’s like this. You were supposed to go stay with another family but then somebody in that family died and you couldn’t go there.’
‘Somebody died?’ asked Caesar.
‘Yes, and Peter and Mary were kind enough to let you come stay with them for a little while and now it’s time to –’
‘I want to stay here!’ Caesar screamed and clung to the mattress.
‘Caesar,’ said the FAF woman. ‘I talked to your mother. She wants you to go.’
Caesar lifted his face and looked at her for a searching moment. ‘Lady,’ he said calmly, ‘you a liar.’ And she was. I’m sure of it. Caesar’s mother was almost impossible to get on the phone and she spoke no English.
This is probably why the FAF woman screamed, actually screamed, ‘How dare you call me a liar! Don’t you ever call an adult a liar!’
Caesar sobbed and crawled across the bed and clutched at the corner of the mattress; I crawled after him and tried to hold him. He cried, ‘You a liar too, Mary!’ and I fell back in shame.
The FAF lady then made a noble and transparently insincere offer: ‘Caesar,’ she said, ‘if you want, you can come stay with me and my family. We have a big farm and dogs and –’
He screamed, ‘I would never stay with you, lady! You’re gross! Your whole family is gross!’
I smiled with pure admiration for the child.
The woman cried, ‘Oh, I’m gross, am I!’ And he was taken down the stairs screaming, ‘They always send me away!’
Then Ezekial did something extraordinary. He threw his body across the stairs, grabbing the banister with both hands to block the exit. He began to whisper at Caesar, and I leaned in close, thinking, if he is saying something to comfort, I am going to stop this thing cold. But even as his body plainly said please don’t do this, his mouth spitefully whispered, ‘Ha ha! You go away! Ha ha!’
I stepped back and said to Caesar, ‘This is not your fault!’ He cried, ‘Then send the other boy away!’ Peter pried Ezekial off the banister and Caesar was carried out. I walked outside and watched as Peter put the sobbing little boy into the woman’s giant SUV. Behind me Ezekial was dancing behind the screen door, incoherently taunting me as he sobbed too, breathless with rage and remorse.
If gentleness can be brutish, cruelty can sometimes be so closely wound in with sensitivity and gentleness that it is hard to know which is what. Animals are not capable of this. That is why it is so much easier to love an animal. Ezekial loved animals; he was never cruel with them. Every time he entered the house, he greeted each of our cats with a special touch. Even the shy one, Tina, liked him and let him touch her. Caesar, on the other hand, was rough and disrespectful – and yet he wanted the cats to like him. One of the things he and Ezekial fought about was which of them Peter’s cat Bitey liked more.
On the third day in Florence I called Martha – the sister I later scolded for being hysterical about a cat – and asked for help. She said she would communicate psychically with Gattino. She said I needed to do it too. He needs reassurance,’ she said. ‘You need to tell him every day that you’re coming back.’
I know how foolish this sounds. I know how foolish it is. But I needed to reach for something with a loving touch. I needed to reach even if nothing was physically there within my grasp. I needed to reach even if I touched darkness and sorrow. And so I did it. I asked Peter to do it too. We would go to churches and kneel on pews and pray for Gattino. We were not alone; the pews were always full of people, old, young, rich and poor, of every nationality, all of them reaching, even if nothing was physically there. ‘Please comfort him, please help him,’ I asked. ‘He’s just a little thing.’ Because that was what touched me: not the big idea of tragedy, but the smallness and tenderness of this bright, lively creature. From Santa Annunziata, Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella, we sent messages to and for our cat.