It was a very wet September day in Buffalo, and I was on my way home from a full day of classes and lab work at the university there where I was a graduate student. I remember that it was raining, not so much because that was unusual, but because most days in September are pretty moist in Buffalo, a city not really known for its boundless blue skies. I was walking the two blocks from my newly parked car to my tiny apartment that was perched high enough above a hair salon that the fumes did not bother me too much.
A grubby orange kitten was sitting patiently on the corner of Ashland and Breckinridge, watching as I slowly made my way towards Elmwood ave and home. As I approached, he fixed his eyes onto mine, stretched, and strode purposefully out into the center of the sidewalk, where he stretched out full length on the wet concrete, barring my way.
I halted in front of this furry barrier. Truly, I could have stepped over him but something made me stop. He was more than a little dirty, his ginger stripes rendered almost monochrome by the wet and mud of the street. He had an ill-fitting flea collar draped loosely around his thin neck. He looked up at me from the ground and voiced a pathetic meow. Unable to resist his clear request for some attention, I scratched him under his chin, and he promptly rolled over onto his back and grasped my wrist with both his front paws.
Emboldened by his insistently friendly reception, I gently scooped him up into my arms and held him close. His featherlight body rumbled the rhythm of his purr, which seemed somehow too big for his scrawny little body and he burrowed his face into my hand as if to draw out every last ounce of affection I could give him. Giving him one last regretful pat, I set him back onto the sidewalk.
Instead of running away, as I would have expected, he sat down at my feet and with his gaze fixed upon me began to meow piteously until I picked him up again. He nuzzled my face, and resumed his enormous purr.
I told him I had to go home.
I put him down, and he cried.
I picked him up, and told him I already had a cat, and did not need another.
I put him down, and he lay on the sidewalk and began to shiver.
I knew I was being played, but somehow I could not walk away. I picked him up again, stuck him into my jacket pocket and picking up my bags, resumed my walk.
He purred all the way home.
The nearly 17 years that that grubby little kitten, who later acquired the name Sport, shared my life were shaped by that first encounter. He chose me on that long ago day, and it was always to me that he had his first allegiance. He loved the rest of the family, of course, but he slept with me every night, and did not like to let me stray far from his sight.
I always thought that he chose me because he wanted me to take care of him, but when I was struck with cancer, I learned that he viewed his responsibilities otherwise.
When I was so sick that I could not even take care of myself, much less him, the other two cats or the children, he did not act put out or neglected. Instead, he guarded me, and nursed me as best he could. He would on the couch and purr for me for hours on end. He knew when I was particularly weak, and at those times he would creep up and gently stick his nose into my nostril to smell my breath to make sure I was ok. I am not exactly sure what his criterion for “ok” was, but the exercise satisfied him somehow. When I would come home groggy and bandaged from this or that surgery he would first scold me for being so careless as to let “that doctor” do this to me, and then he would take station nearby to keep watch and make sure nobody else would hurt me.
The years went on, and even though I still looked at him and saw the kitten that once was, I knew he was getting old, and his time would soon be done. He became thin and bony, too weak to jump on counters or keep up with the fast pace of life in our home. He still slept with me, and always had a purr and a snuggle for me. The day he cried when I touched him, I knew it was time.
His life came full circle with me and a vet standing with him. I held him in my arms, as I did on that first day. He looked at me as I thanked him for his years of friendship, and as we stood there, the vet pressed the plunger and the light fled from his eyes.
The kids of course, were all for going to the shelter to get another cat, but for me it was not so easy. For me, he was not yet gone. I would see him still out of the corner of my eye, sipping at the water bowl or begging for shreds of cheese when I was cooking. Unless I took care to look closely, he was still curled on the foot of the bed, tail tucked snugly around his nose, green eyes watching.
I am not sure what I was waiting to happen…a bolt from the blue, a kitten on the doorstep..but as long as Sport’s phantom eyes watched me from the foot of my bed, I knew I had to wait.
When Owen’s gymnastics coach circulated a picture of a pure black kitten with golden eyes and ears like radar dishes, I still resisted, but I somehow, somewhat guiltily, felt like my resistance was now more out of habit. Amiel told me that the kitten was insanely cute, and, well, INSANE. He wanted to keep the little guy, but turned out that he was terribly allergic.
My family went into revolt…they wanted to take in this kitten. I looked at the foot of my bed, saw that it was empty, and bit my lip.
Then I made the call.
He arrived in an oversized travel case. Amiel, the gym coach, held the case close, and only rreluctantly turned his little friend over into my care. The little black kitten was pressed against the door to the case, wide golden eyes taking in the faces of the children who had gathered from all around the gym for this exchange.
I leaned close to look at him, and he met my eyes with a steady golden gaze. Without looking away, he proudly drew himself up, and sat proud and erect in the exact center of the crate.
He had been waiting for me.
I took him home.