Subscribe to get tough, fair journalism seven days a week.
Subscribe today

The lessons from nine lives

Moments of Lucidity

I’ve always been a dog person, which is why I held out for three years. Zippy was nothing if not persistent.

He was my neighbor Tammy Shepherd’s beloved Siamese with frosty eyes that held wisdom in their depths. I don’t remember the day we met. I was too busy with a new career, a new baby, a new house. Zippy arrived with the rest of it.

When the Shepherds adopted a quartet of labradors, Zippy decided the grass was greener on our side of the fence. No water was set out. No food was offered. But he’d sit at our sliding backdoor and wait for someone to come out and acknowledge his efforts. We often did, and in return Zippy showed boundless patience as our toddler, Ameya, explored her backyard and the wonders it held, himself included.

On a damp and cold Thanksgiving, he got a can of tuna and a threshold was crossed. A few weeks later, Tammy called asking after Chloe, her daughter, who was playing at our house. I promised that the two girls were fine, but before I could escape she asked the question I’d been dreading, “Eric, are you guys feeding Zippy?”

I hesitated and sputtered through an answer that was more of a plea for forgiveness.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I just wanted to make sure he was eating somewhere.”

Backpedaling was an impossibility. Soon there were water dishes, food bowls, a dog carrier five sizes too big that would keep Zippy sheltered from the rain and Ameya picked a pillowy pink bed to put inside it.

We never claimed ownership, we just cared for him and loved him as though he’d been ours all along. He became a two-family cat, but I didn’t know how important that would become.

Three years later, Tammy passed away far too young. Our neighborhood mourned and I made a silent promise to her that Zippy would be loved more than ever. Instead of sleeping outside on cold nights, he was let into the garage where we would find him, or not, when we woke up or arrived home from work.

When Tammy’s children visited, Zippy was a frequent topic of conversation: who owned him, what constituted ownership, and lots of love and attention. I hoped Tammy heard all of it and smiled at the connection two families shared over the cat she brought into our lives.

There were quieter moments, too. I don’t know when I started going outside specifically to visit Zippy, but he was a good listener and didn’t go around telling others our business. I respected that and tried to do the same for him.

Things took a downturn earlier this year. Zippy lost too much weight too quickly for it to be simple preparation for the summer months, a diabetes diagnosis followed. He moved slower, his hips hitched at odd angles and his medium-length brown and black fur lost much of its sheen. Solutions were sought out, but it had been clear for a while that his 11 years were catching up with him.

I picked him up two weeks ago as I left to take part in an intense study session that’s part of my pursuit of a master’s degree. I nuzzled his face to mine, kissed him and told him, “Be here when I get back.”

In the year I’ve been studying with the same group of writers, I’ve pushed myself to develop friendships with the people I met when I entered the program and the ones that have followed in my footsteps. I’ve tried to be part of the connective tissue that binds the writers of our tribe. Zippy taught me the importance of those types of people.

The call came while I was gone. Zippy wasn’t here when I got back. His ashes will be returned to us soon. They’ll be spread on the property line where a feline became more than his species or a breed, where a friend discovered two homes were better than one, where a dog person learned more than he ever believed possible from a cat.

Eric A. Howald is Associate Editor of the Keizertimes.