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Cameo: A Little Life

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“Candy” and her kittens, 1997.

It was not exactly love at first sight. I adopted Cameo because no one else would. She had been adopted twice from Centre County PAWS, the animal rescue organization where I volunteered, and then she’d been “returned” because she scratched people. When any of us took her out of her cage, she would get all excited—would purr and roll around on the floor, bright-eyed, or would run around attacking every toy in sight, ecstatic. When playtime was over, however, and we’d go to put her back in her cage, she would cling, hiss, and claw us viciously. Who could blame her? She had come into the shelter a teenage mother—a tiny little thing with seven kittens. She had been in the cage for nearly nine months with those doggone kittens, waiting while all of them grew up and went off to homes. You could see the accusation of injustice in her eyes.

Candy out of her cage, 1998.

The look of accusation, 1998.

I had also discovered that one volunteer—a local optometrist who later admitted that he wasn’t really a cat person and that he’d volunteered only in order to meet women—had been man-handling her by putting on thick leather gloves, holding her down, and roughly trimming her toenails. Of all the cats I’ve ever had, she was the only one whose claws I could never trim at home. One vet had to sedate her in order to do it. This gradually got a little better, but she was a sensitive soul with a long memory.

After I’d lost my old cat, Stella, I knew the time had come for young cat blood in my house, and I picked out two gangly teenage kittens—their shelter names were Boots and Snowy, and they would become Jupiter Boots and Maya Lin. I knew, though, that I would take Candy, too, because otherwise she was destined to live in one of the outdoor colonies that one of our volunteers kept, but where life was not comfy. I also knew that she’d have to have a new name. Candy—an awful name under any circumstances—certainly didn’t suit her, though it would return in the nickname Candy Cane Tail because the end of her tail was almost always bent. She never relaxed enough for it to straighten, not until the very end. Hyper-vigilance was one of her prime characteristics.

Candy Cane Tail.

It’s an odd thing to adopt a cat you don’t particularly want. And it changed my view of what relationships with animals are about, at least a little bit. It became not about my love for her, but about her love for me.

Cammie loved me. There is no doubt in my mind of that. She was my cat, a one-woman cat who, as Bruce always says, was a Sartrean. She believed that hell is other cats. What she thought of most humans wasn’t much nicer. But she loved me. Sometimes she had a funny way of showing it, but she loved me.

The day that I took her and Jupiter and Maya home from PAWS, Cammie followed me around like a puppy. (One of her nicknames was Puppy Cat.) She would not let me out of her sight. While Jupiter and Maya hid under the bureau in my study, huddled together for animal warmth in their strange, new setting, Cammie sat at my feet, followed me when I moved from room to room, and purred her head off. I had never known of a cat to purr while in motion, but she did it. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she purred, her little body shaking with the effort. She somehow knew that I would never take her back to the shelter, no matter how many times she unleashed her claws across my arm or leg.

And I never would. At one point, however, I did consider having her de-clawed even though I am anti-de-clawing on principle. By the time I moved to Florida from Pennsylvania, I had five cats and was down-sizing. In the new rental house, the cats had less space and fewer windowsills and hiding places. The proximity and lack of privacy stressed her out, and Cammie took to slashing me across the leg whenever I would walk by her. She would curl up on my lap only to turn suddenly and sink her claws into my arm. I was constantly bloodied. I located an animal behaviorist at the University of Florida, who came down for a visit. She never saw Cameo, though she took pictures of the other four and we talked about what to do with my little monster-under-the-bed. De-clawing, she said, would probably only turn Cameo into a biter.

So, instead, I learned to pay attention to very small clues. If Cammie’s tail or ears twitched, I quit petting her or backed away. The behaviorist explained that Cammie’s problem was primarily petting aggression—a not uncommon phenomenon where cats get overly excited by the petting that they crave. She told me that the best approach was probably just to make sure to watch even the subtlest communications and always make sure that Cammie had her way. And so I watched and Cammie prevailed. Eventually, we regained our trust of each other and she ceased to shred my arms.

She remained the most opinionated creature I’ve ever known—and contrary. Bruce eventually took to “imitating” her. Whenever I would lean down and ask her a question—“Are you a good girl?” he would say in his Cammie voice, “No.” “Will you swallow your pill?” “No.” “Will you eat your supper?” “No.” “Who’s my baby?” “No.”

Bruce imitating Cammie’s no:

And she was never averse to a fight. If she was in the bedroom and two of the other cats started to hiss and swat in the living room, she would come running to join in. Whack, whack, whack. Smacking things was one of her greatest pleasures. Every night at dinnertime, she would whack first Maya and, after Maya was gone, Kollwitz. She loved to buffet the flaps of open boxes, and she loved to wallop repeatedly at the windows and sliding glass doors. She just knew that she could dig through them to the other side. We noted that she had a bit of OCD.

Whacking Maya, 1999.

She was, however, the softest cat I’ve ever touched. For years, of course, I was not allowed to touch that downy belly—even though one of her cute habits was to roll around on the bed or the sofa in greeting, as if she meant for me to give her a belly scratch. That was not what she meant, she made plain with her teeth and claws, but eventually I developed a sneaky way of experiencing her softness. She loved to be picked up and perched on my shoulder, where she would latch on as tightly as any koala bear, claws sunk through my clothes. In this position, I could get by with massaging her soft parts and rubbing her chin, as well as pulling her ears back as I stroked her silky head. When she had something to hold on to, she loved being petted.

The dangerous, tempting belly, 2001.

She also loved to play. Though she was well over a year old when I took her home, she played like a kitten. She played with such vehemence that her eyes would dilate and she would run up and down the living room until she panted. Later I would learn that she had a heart murmur that probably contributed to her high heart and breathing rates, but all I knew for years was that the other cats would have to wait until she lay off to the side panting, still watching the feathers-on-a-string as though it were the most fascinating object in the world. Even into her old age, she had the habit of sitting on top of toys to claim them. One of her last holidays, she decided during the decorating of the tree that the Christmas lights belonged to her. She grasped the tube on which they were coiled, and she got that possessive look in her eyes. “Can I have those?” I asked. “No,” she answered. Bruce said she was a bit like the seagulls in Finding Nemo. “Mine,” was another of her favorite messages.

Playing with vehemence, 2006.

These Christmas lights are mine, 2010.

She not only took possession of more cat beds, she also accumulated nicknames like no other pet I’ve ever had. When I’d adopted her, I’d found it difficult to replace “Candy” with another name, partly because she already knew and responded to the sounds. At the time, I had a hard time coming up with something similar-sounding that suited her. Cameo fit the bill because of her beautiful dilute orange tabby color. But perhaps I’d already gotten into the habit of tossing around possibilities. Or perhaps it was just that the many nicknames indicated something about the complexities of her personality. Cammie was the most obvious, but another early one, in response to her playing passions, was Kamikaze Cat—she threw herself off pieces of furniture and around the room after a toy with complete abandon and disregard for her own safety. Similarly, Camyl-amyl-nitrite referred to the chemical name for poppers, famous for increasing heart rate on the club scene. But we also played with the other C words we know—by the time Bruce came around I more frequently called her Campbell (one of my family names) or Camel (my favorite nickname because when mad, she could flatten her ears, open her mouth, growling, and spit as vociferously as any angry camel). Bruce added many more—Camelot-Cam-a-little, Camrose (for the town where he used to live), Cam-shaft, and Cama-Lama-Ding-Dong. I was fond of calling her Cream Puff and Pumpkin.

She also came to be known around here as the Kramer of cats, after the Seinfeld character, for her habit of bursting through doors, especially the bathroom door every time anyone went in to use the facilities. If a door was closed, she would just bonk her head on it repeatedly, waiting for a crack she could widen. She could push a door so hard it would bang against the far wall. Her enthusiasm and kookiness were hard to contain. The explosive “k” and “p” sounds were our favorites for her.

But she also inspired me to call her “a little baggage,” a word with a meaning seldom used and that seemed just right for her—a pert, playful young woman or girl, but often used disparagingly or offensively with implications of prostitution or bad reputation. She was a cat that begged for teasing, and we teased her with our terms. “Are you my little baggage?” I would ask. “No,” she would say.

My little baggage, 2009.

Camel ailed the last four or so years of her life. She took beta blockers for her heart murmur, but she had also developed arthritis in her hips that made it difficult for her to pass her poo comfortably. At the end, we found out that she had also probably been suffering from inflammatory bowel disease (not to be mistaken for the much less serious irritable bowel syndrome), a condition that sometimes responds to treatment and sometimes doesn’t. We nursed her through one terrible crisis, and we had a couple of very good weeks after that, but she had her good days and her bad days, with the bad days increasingly common. The way that I knew it was time to say good-bye was that I could no longer comfort her. I picked her up in her distress and, instead of clinging to me as she usually did, she just whimpered and pulled away. The pain had gotten to be too much.

Because Cammie was so difficult, and because our relationship emerged more from what she felt than what I felt, I think that she helped me prepare for the emotional life of marriage. She didn’t teach me how to be in love, or how to be swept up in my own needs or feelings for another person, but how to compromise, how to share space with another separate creature, how to think about someone else’s needs beyond the obvious. She was not always an apparently pleasant cat to have around—but I will say that over the years I grew to love her a great deal. I knew it already, but she taught me concretely that love doesn’t have to be a Hallmark card, and it’s certainly not a one-way street.

If I asked her if she agreed, I’m sure she’d say, “No.” But then she would curl up on my tummy and say, “Mine.”

“Mine,” 2012.

Cammie always had to have the most space, 2005.

Watching over everything, 2007.

In the study, Puppy Cat keeps me company, 2009.

“Are you coming in off the porch?” “No.”

Sitting under the teddy-bear angel Christmas ornament. Next she will take it off the tree and kick it.

Watching birds on the computer, or TV for cats, 2011.

My all-time favorite picture of her.

6 responses »

  1. Susan Fallows

    Lisa, this is a lovely portrait, in both words and photos, of Cammie. From my limited experience with female orange tabbies I have gotten the impression that they can be, shall we say, complicated. She was truly an individual, and I can see how much you will miss her.

    • Thanks, Susan, and I know you understand. My family had another female orange tabby when I was growing up. She was named O.J. (after orange juice and after, alas, O.J. Simpson when he was still a hero). And she, too, was complicated, so I will have to agree that my experience with female orange tabbies is like yours. Anyway, Kollwitz and Jupiter are doing their best to keep the house from feeling empty. But we do miss her kooky self.

  2. My condolences, again. And this entry was what I was talking about in our interview.

  3. Terry Curtis

    Dear Lisa – Thank you for sharing this lovely tribute. The more I “work with” cats, the more I come to accept who and what they are. I strive to have the environment change around them more than I strive to change their behavior. They have taught me humility and I am in constant awe in their presence. I think that Cameo knew exactly how lucky she was to have found you – a human who allowed her to be exactly who she was… Do take care and cherish the memories she left with you. Dr. Terry

  4. All cats deserve to be loved the way you loved her.

  5. Pingback: The Paperwork of Loss « Joyous Crybaby

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