At first we thought it was only a bird chirping. I started the car and pulled away from the curb. The sound followed us down the street, insistently. Cheep! Cheep! Cheep! My wife and I looked this way and that, but saw no bird. It followed us four blocks through our neighborhood.
“Stop the car!” my wife said suddenly. She still saw nothing, but it had dawned on her that the voice wasn’t following the car—it was trapped inside it.
We got out and peered underneath. Something small dropped from the engine to the street, and out into the morning sunshine walked a tiny kitten, small enough to sit in your hand (which she promptly did). Her coat was glossy black without a single white hair, her head was too small for her ears, and her eyes were big and curious and the color of old pennies. A white flea collar marked her as somebody’s kitten, and from that detail we guessed her story: She had wandered off, lost her way home, and found shelter for the night as best she could.
After we took her back to our apartment and fed her, we asked around the neighborhood and put up signs. No one knew anything, and no one called. A few days later we took her to the vet for a checkup. The vet smiled when we told the story.
“She’s not really ours,” we said.
“I think you have a cat,” the vet replied.
So we did. We named her Boo.
That all happened seventeen years ago this summer, and I’m not going to try your patience with the usual cat stories about how she learned to open the hall closet door and climb the boxes and coats to the top shelf, or the time we brought home a boxer dog and Boo stood hissing in the doorway, refusing to give ground to an animal five times her size. I won’t describe the particular way she would knead our bellies before settling in to sleep, or her style of head-butting, or the delicate way she lapped water only from the edge of the water dish, or the ritual of the daily fights she picked with a much larger (and fortunately more easygoing) cat who joined our household a few years later, and how she never won any of these tussles but nevertheless asserted dominance over the other pets. If you have cats, you already know all this, or something like it. And by now you probably know where this is going.
When you greet that tiny kitten in the palm of your hand, and when you go out and buy cat food and litter and toys, one of the things you accept is that your life and the cat’s life are proceeding on different scales of time. To welcome the kitten who bats at shadows on the wall is also to welcome, sooner than you expect, the hunched, arthritic cat with brittle skin, whose declining health eventually forces you to make a decision that involves a loss you would rather postpone. It’s all part of the deal.
And in a pet’s brief scale of time we see something that looks a lot like the not-quite-so-brief trajectory of our own lives.
What would we say to our pets if they could think and talk like we do? What story would we tell them about life and its beginning and ending? And would it be so different from the stories we tell each other?
I would say something like this:
One day when you are still young you will go out wandering. This is a natural thing to do. You will have adventures and face danger and lose your way home. No matter how much you want to go back, you never can. This will be the first great loss of your life.
But in time you will find someone who loves you, and you will make a life with them.
Your days will be spent in a tiny portion of the world, and you can see only so far from its windows. Still, you will learn many things and discover new worlds. You will find that even a small box is worth exploring.
You will meet many people and animals. Some of them will come into your life and stay, and some will go away and not return. It’s hard to tell in advance which is which, and no one guesses right all the time.
You will appreciate the value of food and comfort, and spend hours savoring both. Be grateful. There are many creatures in the world unable or unwilling to feel the value of the present moment.
Though you are small, you will often try to act bigger than you are. Sometimes the other pets will indulge you. Sometimes they won’t.
You will never forget what you learned from your mother and litter mates, that there is nothing in the world better than lying next to someone you trust, feeling the rise and fall of their breath, the steady thump of their heartbeat.
You will learn the wisdom of the Spanish proverb, “How beautiful it is to do nothing, and then rest afterward.”
You will chase the light, but never catch it. Even when you have it between your paws, somehow it always gets away. But you’ll find that the game is more about the chasing than the catching.
You will be mistaken about the vet, who is not trying to harm you, but your confusion is understandable. So is the fear, to tell the truth. You are correct in your suspicion that one day you will go to the vet and not come back.
But on that day, which I hope is many long days from now, the people you love will be there with you. Know that when the end comes, they will cradle you in their arms and the last thing you will feel is the gentle stroke of fingertips on fur.
That’s the story I would tell to the kitten in the palm of my hand, though I doubt she would believe much of it. Some things are learned only by experience, and most of that comes when you aren’t looking for it. You get in your car one morning and think you know who you’re traveling with, but it turns out—wonderfully—that you don’t.