Twenty years ago, two classmates of mine had a joint birthday party where they gave out kittens. Our family had two cats already, one was an orange tabby named Miso that my mom had in college. The other was my sister’s, a tiny calico shorthair named Milo. Our cats were indoor/outdoor cats, allowed to come and go as they pleased, and we fed them on a regular schedule: a quarter cup of cat food each, twice a day.
Generally speaking, it’s a bad idea to give out baby cats as party favors. It foists new responsibilities on the recipient that they may or not be prepared for, on a much larger timeframe than any ten-year-old at a birthday party can comprehend. There were pets in my family before I was born, so I understood the implicit feeding and litter-box cleaning, checking to make sure no one was left outside overnight, and the eventual vet visits. I wanted a cat for my own, and my parents saw no problem with that. How could we know she was going to be with us for twenty more years? How could a ten-year-old earnestly engage in a twenty-year commitment?
She was such a tiny kitten. I know all kittens are tiny, but compared to the cat she would become, it’s astonishing to remember just how small she started out. She would fit in one hand, even though I was only a fifth-grader, a tiny tufty tawny black and white tuxedo cat with a tail almost as long as her body. I was going to name her “Socks” after the First Cat at the time, just to piss off my Republican-leaning elementary school teacher, but instead I called her “NiteLite,” for the way her white chest seemed to glow against the rest of her black fur at night.
Since she was my cat, I was tasked with training her to use the litter box. Since she was so small, I poured kitty litter into an empty tissue box with the top and two sides cut off. My parents were very clear in their direction: if she peed or pooped on the floor, I was to hiss at her, spank her, and take her to her litter box. I was to repeat this process until she no longer needed to be reminded.
I hated spanking her. When she piddled, I would scoop her up and cup my hand to slap her bottom, hissing with each strike. When I put her down in her litter box, she would tuck her tail between her legs and shiver at me, squeaking at me in fear. I would want to comfort her, but I understood that this training was necessary. If she didn’t learn to use the litter box, she would have to become an outdoor cat. Fortunately, she was a fast learner, and I was grateful.
After an hour or two, when I was certain she wouldn’t get confused, I would find her again and pick her up. NiteLite was a good hugger, right from the beginning. She would brace her hind legs in my hand and reach up with her cotton ball paws to grip my shoulder, smelling my face with her tiny black nose. I wanted her to ride on my shoulder like I’ve seen other cats do, but she was never interested in that.
Once she was litter trained, she began to present new challenges. NiteLite was a playful cat, we used to play with dancing dangling cat toys on strings and little plush stuffed animals. I would bat them across the floor and she would chase after them, wrapping them in a death embrace with her arms while she kicked at them with her hind claws and bit them ferociously. At night, she found endless entertainment in my toes while I tried to sleep.
We were living in Virginia at the time, in a large colonial house without air conditioning. It was almost too much cover for me to sleep with a sheet on, and that meant that the only thing between my feet and the needle-sharp pinpricks of her teeth was a thin layer of 200-count cotton. NiteLite would climb up the foot of my bed and attack my sleeping feet, waking me up dozens of times in the night to play her own version of footsie.
I loved that cat, and I loved playing with her, but I had school in the morning and needed to sleep. After a few nights trying to get her to play nice and respect my sleep schedule, I decided I had to close my door and let her sleep someplace else. Undeterred, she simply wandered into my parents’ room and started clawing at their feet instead. She got away with it for one night, and then their door was shut to her too.
NiteLite was a very vocal cat, right from the beginning. She had a beautiful, inquisitive voice, and would answer whenever you spoke to her. When I kicked her out and my parents and sister closed their doors, she prowled the halls all night yowling her discontent at the situation. Her cries were disruptive enough that I eventually opened my door to her again and she eventually learned to let me sleep in peace.
She grew larger and more expressive, her tail curling at the tip to indicate curiosity, contentment, or distaste. Her purr was loud and constant. When I picked her up, she could reach my shoulders all on her own and dug her hind feet into my hip to hold on while I walked around the house. Her claws were long and curved like a velociraptor’s and we played games of speed and dexterity. If I won, I got to scratch her quickly behind the ears, and when she won, I felt the pain of my slowness in thin bright lines across the backs of my hands.
We grew apart when I went off to boarding school and then to college, but my sister took her in and she got to move more than most house cats do, living in four states. I got to see her during summer vacations and winter holidays. She always had bright eyes, recognizing me instantly, and hopped into my lap while she still could.
In later years, she developed arthritis and could no longer climb the stairs to the second story of my parents’ house, but still enjoyed being held, like a child, on hips or in arms. Cats age like people do, getting slower and more methodical with their actions over time, conserving energy, minimizing risk. She was rarely ill, if ever, and loved feeding time more than any other.
I got to see her for what I thought was the last time when I visited my parents during the holidays in 2015. She was hunched and creaky, with bony shoulders and hips poking out beneath her fur. I knew she wasn’t long for this world, so on Christmas Day I picked her up, scratched her behind the ears, and tried to tell her what she meant to me, how she had taught me about responsibility and joy, and reminded her that she had a much more comfortable life than many other cats. The fur on her back was stiff and matted where she couldn’t reach to lick it anymore. I cried with her and said goodbye. I loved that cat.
And then she lived another year! I went back to Alabama this past December to make peace with my grandfather before his passing, and she was still alive and fairly cogent. Sometimes she would look at me with the misty eyes of elderly forgetfulness, but other times she would stare at me as bright and as sharp as ever. I had to be careful picking her up, her joints were causing her more pain by the day, but she still dug her claws into my shoulder and purred with loving ferocity.
All life must end in death, and NiteLite’s was no different. I wish she could be spared, but to wish she never died would be to wish she was never alive, and I think her life was worth living, however small and insignificant it may have been. She lived an extraordinarily long time for a cat, was happier and more comfortable than most, and died in the peaceful arms of my mother.
Today is NiteLite’s deathday, and I love her as much in death.