November 1st, 2014

The way of the cat

You never know what new lesson life has in store or who will come along to teach it. Just when I thought I had missed the pleasures and challenges of pet ownership, our daughter asked us to watch her cat Mushu for six weeks until she came back to bring him home with her to Colorado.

I know that most adults own pets because I have seen the stickers on the rear windows of cars, advertising the typical American family complete with parents, kids, a dog or a cat, and sometimes both. Because I fall short in the pet department, I was glad for the opportunity to see what I’ve been missing and happy to host our furry visitor.

It’s not like Mushu and I were strangers. He is, after all, our grand cat and we would see him whenever we visited our daughter before her recent move out west. On those visits, he more or less ignored us but now, while he was a guest in our home, we would have nothing but six weeks of quality time in which to become better acquainted.

Mushu is the quintessential Halloween cat. He is somewhere between 12 and 14 years-old, with long, black, shaggy fur turning gray on his lower flanks and belly. His yellow eyes shine like gemstones and, in the dark, are all you can see of him. He is a quiet creature, meowing rarely and then so softly that he is barely audible.

Mushu settled into his new digs with little fuss. He was so busy exploring the house that he hardly bothered to say goodbye to our daughter when she drove off to prepare their new home 2,000 miles away. The next time they would travel together, he would be her carry-on luggage, tucked safely under her seat hurtling through the atmosphere at 400 miles per hour almost six miles above the earth. That might as well have been a lifetime away for all there was to see and do until then.

We started with the essentials that our daughter had left for him – his water bowl, food and litter box. We quickly added what we thought we would need based on her description of Mushu’s developmental history and some of his quirky behaviors – two plastic painters’ tarps to cover our best carpets and a triangular box providing an inclined surface of corrugated cardboard for scratching. One week into the visit with holes already scratched through one of the tarps, panic would drive us to add a bottle of an enzyme-based carpet cleaner and an extra box to hold a special kind of litter formulated to attract cats to exactly the right place to use it. We rolled up the best carpet and lugged it up the stairs to the safety of a spare bedroom and closed the door.

Cat sitting was clearly turning out to be more of a challenge than we expected. Plastic floor coverings, a barricaded bedroom door to safeguard sleep and the need for constant vigilance to avoid tripping over our visitor changed the routine and rhythm of our lives. Despite all of this, Mushu was a delight. For all that I have heard about the indifference of cats to their human companions, Mushu seemed to like nothing more than simply to be in our company. I wrote my last column with him curled up on the desk next to the computer. He would have preferred being on the computer but you have to draw the line somewhere.

It wasn’t long before we had settled into a new routine. When we got out of bed in the morning, Mushu was waiting for us in the hall. He zigzagged down the stairs in front of us as we made our way to the kitchen where he learned to expect a taste of cream covering the bottom of his dish. He was always within easy reach for a light caress as we got ready to leave for work and came running from wherever he happened to be when we got home. Though his food was always available in his dish, he ate dinner when we did and later joined us in the family room to watch TV. Mushu knew how to balance time alone and with others. He claimed his favorite chair where he would watch us or just curl up and snooze and, from time to time, he would join us on the couch for some family time. At his advanced age, he wasn’t much for energetic play, but he did teach me a feline version of arm wrestling, grabbing my wrist with both of his paws to pin my hand down.  I recalled what I had read about how time spent with pets lowers blood pressure and I felt mine beginning to fall.

Our daughter told us how she had once spent a day at home following Mushu’s routine, resting, eating and playing when he did, and how it was one of the most relaxing days she ever had. She called her experiment “the way of the cat” and now I was learning some of the benefits of feline philosophy. You can never get enough rest. Sometimes the most important thing you can do is nothing and nothing is even sweeter in the silent presence of someone you trust.

There is actually very little we need to be content in life – food, a safe comfortable home with lots of places to snooze, and a few other creatures around to make life interesting. I am happy to report that Mushu made it safely to Colorado where he is giving seminars in stress management in the foothills of the Rockies. As for me, I am still here trying to master the way of the cat.

Alan Bodnar is a psychologist at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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