The Cat Who Ate Like a Lion

Lessons of love and ac­cep­tance from the fur­ri­est mem­ber of the fam­ily

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Patti Son­ntag

Lessons of ac­cep­tance from an un­likely source

Heidi’s size al­ways pro­vokes a gasp from vis­i­tors as she lum­bers into my par­ents’ kitchen, a gen­tle enor­mity look­ing up at us. She has no self-con­scious­ness about her weight. There is sim­ply the ques­tion of whether the food cup­board will be opened, which she asks with an in­quir­ing look. She does not of­ten meow. Most hu­mans re­act the same way: first with a yelp of sur­prise, then some at­tempt to de­scribe her — she’s a rac­coon, a seal strug­gling on the shore — fol­lowed by a long, hearty laugh. I have seen Heidi many times since she came into our fam­ily around 2008, and on my trips home to Bri­tish Columbia there is al­ways that mo­ment of re­dis­cov­ery: this is the house cat who eats like a lion. Heidi is the last of a long line of cats and dogs my par­ents adopted from the lo­cal SPCA af­ter they re­tired. What­ever losses these an­i­mals had en­dured in the past, they all won the pet lot­tery with my par­ents, who treated them like the grand­chil­dren they don’t have. The dogs went on daily, leash­less hikes in the moun­tains, were fed hu­man-grade food, and were never left bored and alone. None of these pets were ever fat. But Heidi was dif­fer­ent from the first. My mother says the ter­ri­fied kit­ten was near star­va­tion when she was found in a barn nearby. Re­leased from her car­rier, she hid, only grad­u­ally to emerge from un­der the bed over a few months — thus the name Hide-ey, Heidi, which my mom sang to her with af­fec­tion. And she be­gan to eat. Ini­tial cel­e­bra­tion over Heidi’s weight gain soon switched to a reg­i­men of trips to the vet and diet food. My par­ents were some­what em­bar­rassed by her girth and the lack of care it seemed to sig­nal. My mother was em­pa­thetic with Heidi’s snack re­quests at first. Or­phaned in Ire­land as a child in the ’40s, my mom of­ten told of the sin­gle egg she had been al­lot­ted on Sun­days; an orange was the grand­est of all Christ­mas presents. My fa­ther per­haps un­der­stood as well, hav­ing been a teenager in north­ern Saskatchewan dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion. In some ways, Heidi re­flected my fam­ily’s re­la­tion­ship with hunger, even if the rest of us were slim. Heidi al­ways ap­peared to be as healthy and ac­tive as a cat her size could be, pa­trolling the fenced back­yard sev­eral times a day (though she stopped to rest ev­ery few dozen me­tres). My par­ents thought she’d found a se­cret stash of food. I won­dered if she was just ge­net­i­cally dif­fer­ent. This past sum­mer, when de­men­tia sud­denly ended my par­ents’ abil­ity to live in­de­pen­dently, our lives changed al­most overnight. One night, I was up late and faced a long, lonely stretch of work — pack­ing bags for my par­ents (who were even­tu­ally moved into a long-term fa­cil­ity, to “com­plex care”) and my suit­case for the plane back east, and ready­ing the house for their ab­sence. Heidi was too big to fol­low me from room to room. She chose a cen­tral lo­ca­tion and lolled there on her side, watch­ing me. I was afraid for her — we didn’t yet know whether we could find her a good home, and a long flight didn’t seem wise — and stopped to pet her of­ten. Her purr had the rum­ble of an on­com­ing freight train. Dur­ing one such ses­sion, maybe 2 a.m., I was coo­ing, “You big rug, you sweetie kitty,” rub­bing that large ex­panse of her tummy. Tears came at the sud­den change in all our lives, at what­ever was to come. To my sur­prise, she reached out to bat at the pearl I usu­ally wear around my neck. It was the gen­tlest of in­quiries, and she was ask­ing to play. I took it off, and for a few min­utes, she ex­plored its re­la­tion­ship with grav­ity and how it tasted. All her life, Heidi had been shy of pet­ting and cud­dling; peo­ple were cau­tious with her. But this mo­ment re­minded me that she en­joyed af­fec­tion just as much as any other cat. She was soon adopted by an el­derly cou­ple — the kind­est peo­ple I know. But a few weeks later, we found out that she had in­ex­pli­ca­bly died. Along­side grief, a sense of fail­ure. I wish I could tell her, I wish she had known: Heidi, you are­beloved.

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