Runaway Parade



October 1, 2013

My mom always talked about how much she couldn’t stand our cat, how after Shadow died it would be the end of pet ownership for her. “I never want to be responsible for another living thing,” she said. Still, she signed every birthday and holiday card, “Love Mom and Shadow” accompanied by her best stick-figure cat rendering. Whenever I called my mom to ask how she was, her first response was always, “It’s me and Shadow against the world” and at some point she’d put Shadow on the phone to say hello.

“Gee Mom, it sounds like you love Shadow,” I’d say.

“I don’t love it when she wakes me up at 5:00 in the morning for breakfast when I don’t have to go to work. I wish I could teach her to open her own can of cat food and empty her own litter box. I also don’t love when she scratches the furniture. I want to throw her through the closed window so she can get all cut up by the glass.”

Shadow was the second cat entrusted into my mother’s care, though the first that became her sole responsibility. She and my father bought Trepid, a gray tabby cat, about a year before I was born as a way to practice taking care of a live creature. Trepid remained a beloved family member until the Friday night we came home during my Bat Mitzvah weekend to find her stretched out stiff, dead on the kitchen floor. She’d had a tumor for months so it wasn’t a total shock, but I was still appalled that God would pick the weekend I became an adult Jewish woman for her to die.

A year later, I was lying on the couch, sick with the stomach flu, when my dad brought Shadow home. She was a small black kitten in a hot pink collar with a splash of white across her chest. Shadow emitted tiny squeaks as my dad carried her into the living room and placed her on the couch by my arm. She climbed onto my stomach, perched there with her legs tucked under her body like a hen, and purred. I loved the feeling of Shadow’s body against mine and from then on, I was always attempting to pick her up and hold her. She responded by scratching me and wriggling out of my grasp. But as soon as I lay down, she jumped up to snuggle against my armpit or sleep on my stomach. Affection had to be on her terms.

My mom and dad both took care of Shadow, but she was really my dad’s cat. He named her. After Trepid died, my mom wasn’t eager to get another pet. She already had three children to take care of, but my dad insisted. He also insisted that Shadow not be declawed in spite of my mom’s requests; she may have been an indoor cat, but what if she got out and had to defend herself?

The truth is my dad would have preferred a dog but cats were lower maintenance. Animals soothed him. He’d begged for a dog as a kid and after he got one discovered he was allergic but was willing to pay the price to play with his beagle, Sheba.

Shadow had a talent for discovering new hiding places. We’d find her in the laundry basket, in various cabinets, on a chair pushed under the dining room table, in every closet, under every bed. Shadow regularly attacked her reflection in the mirror, never quite able to grasp that she was staring at herself. In the midst of sunbathing by the backyard window, she’d growl at the stray cats in our yard and fight them through the glass. She coughed up an impressive amount of hairballs and developed the most tangled fur of any cat we’d ever seen. After a visit to the veterinarian, we were informed her teeth were in a state of decay and that we would need to brush them. We were given a special cat toothpaste and toothbrush and took turns chasing her around the house to catch her and hold her, while someone else lifted her upper lip and tried to brush her teeth. Often it was a three-person job. She did not appreciate the importance of dental hygiene.

Three years after Shadow entered our family, my dad died of lung cancer. Then one by one my mom’s three kids moved out of her four-bedroom house. And then it really was just Mom and Shadow against the world.

On visits home to San Diego from New York, it was clear to me that my mom and the cat had evolved a special bond, though my mom would never admit it. Shadow ate canned wet cat food in the morning (Turkey & Giblets, Succulent Salmon) but she only ate half of what my mom put out. Then around mid-morning she would go to her bowl, look at the food, find my mom and rub her body against her legs, meowing nonstop. “Stop crying,” my mom said as she picked up the bowl, and scooped the wet food into a mound with a spoon, softly patting it before returning it to the floor where Shadow greedily indulged. “She’s so spoiled,” said my mom, “She likes her food refreshed.”

When my mom made plans to go out of town, she complained about having to arrange for and pay a cat-sitter to take care of Shadow. After the car was all loaded up, the last thing my mom did before leaving the house was make sure she knew where Shadow was and then turn the radio to the Jazz station on low volume. “Shadow likes jazz,” she explained.

Shadow usually slept in my mom’s bed at night, sometimes at her side, sometimes at her feet, always close to her body. When my mom knocked into Shadow from rolling over or extending her legs, Shadow scratched her.
“It’s like sleeping with a wild animal,” my mom said. Still, she could never go to sleep until she knew where Shadow was.

When my mom returned from work at the end of the day, she knew where Shadow would be—right by the door, meowing her welcome.

After a few years of Mom and Shadow against the world, Shadow developed an intestinal blockage. She wasn’t able to digest food properly and stopped being able to eat. She became weak and couldn’t make it to the litter box to relieve herself. She shrunk from twelve pounds to two-and-a-half.

My mom did everything she could to make Shadow feel better. She covered the floor with comforters for Shadow to lie on since she was too weak to jump up onto the bed, and also to protect the floor from Shadow’s urine. She put all different kinds of human food out in bowls spread over the kitchen floor in an effort to get Shadow to eat anything: tuna, chicken, lunch meat. Nothing worked. She bought expensive medication from the vet, but she couldn’t get Shadow to ingest it. She sounded devastated on the phone. “Shadow is so small,” she said, “Really, she’s all… bone.” She said the vet had mentioned a surgical procedure that could remove the blockage, but it didn’t have a great chance of curing her altogether at this point, and it was quite expensive.

My mom is not someone who cries regularly, especially over actual life events, at least not to me. Her public tears are usually triggered by commentaries on life events in the form of musicals or movies of musicals. She must have cried after my dad died, but I don’t remember ever seeing it.

She was in tearful hysterics on the phone when she called me after Shadow had been put to sleep. “I held her in my arms when they gave her the shot that stopped her heart,” she said. “It was so hard.”

Once Shadow had passed, the vet asked if my mom wanted paw prints as a memorial. She said yes, so he pressed Shadow’s lifeless paws into wet clay. It’s the same thing my preschool teacher did with my hands so, as I grew, my parents could remember how small I used to be.

When the paw prints were ready, my mom put them in a small drawstring bag that she placed on a shelf in the kitchen. She asked me to write a poem memorializing Shadow, which she framed on the wall of family photos, draping Shadow’s collar over the top right corner.

Excerpt from An Ode To Shadow:

For fourteen years she's been part of the family.
Mom signed her names on cards,
Coaxed her to greet us over the phone,
Took excellent care of her all these years.
We love you, Shadow
And always will.

When my siblings and I visited soon after, we asked if she wanted us to get her another pet.

“Don’t you dare,” she said. “I never want to go through that again.”

The paw prints are still in that bag, still on that shelf. Whenever I come home, I ask when she’ll display them. “One day,” she says, “I’m not ready yet.”

Then I press her to admit that she loved Shadow, to which she still responds, “I didn’t love her litter box. I didn’t love how she wrecked the furniture.”

Maybe, one day, she’ll be ready.

blog comments powered by Disqus