Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Christmas Tail

It was late on a bitterly cold December night. One of those windy 12 degree New England evenings, the kind we come to know and love by midwinter, but aren’t really ready for when they arrive early. My wife and I had braved the cold to try and wrap up our Christmas shopping. We were both cold and tired on the ride home, but happy none the less, as it seemed we had finished off our pre Christmas checklist and could now coast into the holidays.

I pulled into our driveway, shut the car off, and as I looked down at the ignition to remove the key, I heard and felt a thump, accompanied by both a surprised yelp from my wife, and a plaintive yowl from outside the car. I immediately looked up and saw a pair of great big luminous yellow eyes staring back at me.

We both just sat there for a minute, stunned. There was an animal standing on the hood of the car and staring in the windshield at us. What the heck was it, and why was it so bold? It looked like a raccoon at first, but as our eyes adjusted, we realized it was a good sized cat. A good sized cat that appeared to have just fallen out of the sky…

It cried again and put its paw up on the windshield. It obviously wanted our attention.

I carefully got out of the car, and moved up to the hood. Our new friend responded by coming right over to me and trying to get inside my coat. I usually don’t snuggle on a first date, but this cat was insistent. My wife came around to join me, and the cat moved back and forth between us, prodding us with its head and meowing loudly.

The cat was impressive looking. It was a longhaired brown tabby with a large ruff, similar to our Maine Coon, but under that beautiful coat I could feel that it had no meat on its bones, and the poor thing felt cold. It didn’t take us long to figure out what was needed. My wife stayed with the cat while I went in and got a little kibble and a bowl of water, which the cat dove into with gusto. When it was finished eating, it sat by our door and watched us as we lugged in our packages and started closing up for the night.

Now it was decision time. The cat was obviously sick and emaciated, and it was hella-cold out. The right thing to do was to bring it in, but you have to be careful with sickly strays when you have other pets. We decided to set up a bed and a box in the basement, and call around to all the local Vets and Animal Control in the morning. Hey, maybe we could make someone’s Christmas by reuniting them with their lost pet.

I went back outside and the cat was still there, sitting right by the front door. It came up and rubbed against me, then followed me around to the back of the house. When I opened the back door that leads into our basement, the cat followed me right in with no hesitation. At first it preferred my lap and the inside of my coat to its new bed, so I sat with it tucked against me as my wife filled the box and the bowls. Gradually it ventured to the food and litter box, then curled up on the warm blankets and conked out.

The next morning we took some digital pictures and emailed them to all the Vets offices in a 20 mile radius. We also printed up flyers which we put on every bulletin board and light pole we could find. My wife was tireless in the effort. For the cat’s sake, as well as in the interest of our own pet’s health; we brought it in to our Vet for a complete workup. They were great. Even though they were busy and the holidays were rapidly approaching, they squeezed us in and checked her out. Yes, it was a girl, and after they shaved off some of her matted undercoat, they found that she had been spayed. Blood tests showed that she had been living off of her fat reserves and had a pretty bad urinary tract infection. The Vet felt that between the infection and the malnutrition, she had probably been on her last legs when she gave herself up to us. A full course of antibiotics and lots of TLC were prescribed.

On the plus side, she had tested negative for feLV and FIV, and didn’t appear to have any fleas or ticks, so we’d be able to integrate her into the household a little more without fear. She also appeared to be about a year old, and in otherwise good condition. A well cared for housecat that had fallen on tough times.

Checking out, I was stumped when they asked for a name to go on the cat’s file. When I said “Hopefully, we won’t be keeping her for long”, they just laughed. They know us all to well. My wife suggested that we call her Noelle, seeing as it was Christmas and all, and I quickly agreed. We took her home and set her back up in her basement nest, but this time we left the door open so that she could come up if she liked. The next few days she stayed put in the basement, mostly sleeping. She would get up for her food, and readily allowed me to pill her twice a day, but that was it. This was one sick and exhausted cat.

Our big old Maine Coon, Ted, came down to investigate once or twice during those first few days, but he kept his distance, and he didn’t appear all too happy about this new development. He kept going to the basement stairs and looking back at us, as if to say “Don’t you guys realize that there’s a stranger down there?” No sir, he didn’t like it one bit.

As she started to feel better, Noelle began to investigate her new surroundings. Her first move was to the laundry room, where we’d find her either sleeping on top of the dryer, or nestled in a basket of clothes. When one of our other cats would come down, she’d hop up into the rafters above the washer and dryer. I think her little adventure in the wild had heightened her survival instincts, and she wasn’t taking any chances. It was priceless to watch, they’d tip toe around, checking her bed out, even going into the laundry room, and all the while she was watching them silently from her lofty perch. Ted reminded me of John Belushi in the scene from Animal House, where he’s sneaking across the campus at night. All exaggerated moves that wouldn’t fool a blind man.

Right after Christmas, she started venturing upstairs, and that’s when the real fun began. We like to refer to those times as the “Stair Wars” period. One of the established “guests” always seemed to be stationed by the stairs, like little cat sentries. Not a problem for Miss Noelle, she’s one tough chick who knows how to get what she wants. Her ultimate weapon is a rising howl that seems to strike fear in the hearts of the others. She’d creep slowly up until she was face to face with one of them, and then just stare them down for a while. The minute they’d flinch, she’d let out that blood curdling howl and bolt right for them. They would always panic and turn tail, not even Teddy the Lion Hearted could withstand her fury.

It didn’t take her long to stake out her territory, and of all places it was under the Christmas tree. She loves sleeping on the tree skirt, especially when the tree lights are on, and she has no end of fun climbing up into the lower branches and reaching through to bat at the ornaments. Very fitting behavior for a Christmas cat, I’d say.

Meanwhile, my wife and I would freeze every time the phone rang that holiday season. We’d passed the point of no return, so to speak. As well intentioned as we were, we were really starting to get attached to Noelle. The thought of giving her up was a real downer.

It turned out that we were worrying for no reason. As we approach another Christmas, Noelle, the cat that magically dropped out of the sky and into our lives, is still with us. No one ever claimed her, much to our relief, and we actually have a theory about where she may have come from. About two or three weeks before we found her, there was an estate sale around the corner from us. Someone had passed and the relatives were in from out of town to settle things up. At one point there were people lined up down the street for a chance to get in, everyone loves a bargain. We think she may have been part of the household and gotten out during all the hubbub, only to be forgotten. We’ll never know for sure, we’re just glad she found us.

Of course, Noelle has taken up residence under the tree again this Christmas. She loves to lay there amongst all the presents and stare at the lights. I think it’s a comforting thing for her, the symbol of a new warm and loving home. There’s still a little tension between her and Ted, but things have mellowed a bit. We lost our two oldest cats this year. Zoë was 16, and little Phoebe was 15. Phoebe left us just a few weeks ago, and the dynamic in the house has changed dramatically since then. Little Peep was Ted’s running mate. She was the Yin to his Yang, and they were certainly an odd couple; Ted, the big 18 lb Coon, and Phoebe, the little 5 lb Peep. He’s been kind of lost without her, and it’s awful hard for him to guard against “Noelle encroachment” all by himself. I think he’s just resigned himself to being pestered. Get used to it Ted, women can be very bossy.

So, that’s my little Christmas tail, and now it’s time for me to wrap this up and get wrapping. I leave you with this; if fate puts you in a position to help someone out this holiday season, whether it’s a fellow human or a stray animal, take a chance. You won’t regret it.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

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