What my cat taught me about breaking all the rules of love

When I was a kid I liked the rules, and I liked staying on the right side of them. I was a good kid. It probably has something to do with being an only child, or being good at my schoolwork and liking the praise of my teachers. Maybe it’s because I’m an introvert, or just my particular personality. I liked the rules, and I liked them because they told me I was good.

There weren’t that many rules when I was growing up. It’s not like I lived in a strict disciplinarian household. And many of the rules were unspoken, as well, or implied. Say please and thank you. Say thank-you-for-having-me if you’ve been to someone’s house. If a friend offers you a lift home take it, because they may not offer again. Comb your hair. Don’t ask for anything. Don’t dog-ear the pages of books, or fold their covers over onto themselves like you would a magazine. Be good. Don’t be a nuisance. Wait your turn. Offer the last biscuit to everyone else before you take it yourself. Don’t ever presume you’re welcome, but wait to be invited.

Do some of these rules sound familiar? There are some that I’ve thrown out in my adult life; recognised them as unnecessary, silly, or just plain wrong. I haven’t combed my hair in years – don’t own a hairbrush. I dog-ear books with alarming regularity, although I’d never bend their covers right back like a magazine. Sometimes I eat the last biscuit, even when I’m with other adults (as opposed to being the one adult around a bunch of kids, where I’d be lucky to get any biscuit at all!). I’ve noticed the silliness of kids who have been taught that it’s rude to ask (“Oh it’s such a pity I didn’t bring my drink bottle/lunch box/jumper/note pad to your place today”), and kids who miss out at birthday parties because they’re hanging back away from the food table or the piñata loot collection, waiting for their turn. Some rules are okay to break. Some rules are hard and fast. There’s wisdom in knowing the difference.

I thought I knew which rules were which, until Maggie came along.

Maggie and the goldfish

Maggie and the goldfish

It was Summer 2010. January, maybe even December when we first met her. We’d been catless for over a year (my first time ever living without a cat). The kids were small, my baby just toddling, and one of them yells out “Mummy! There’s a cat in our yard!” so we all went out to see. Sure enough, a fluffy black and white thing was calmly eating our grass, and allowed us to get close enough to go and pat her. The girls next door were over, and there was a big kerfuffle as the older kids raced inside to find a saucer of milk for her, and the ensuing spill, and by the time we got it outside again she was gone, and we all went back to what we were doing.

I don’t know how long after that we saw her again, maybe a week. “There’s that cat!” someone would call, and we’d all traipse to the back door to look. We presumed she lived over the back fence, or maybe in one of the units off to the side.

By February though, when the summer heat beat relentlessly on us, she was at our place more often than not. She’d lie outstretched in the sun on our deck, barely blinking as we wandered past with baskets of washing or hula hoops and balls. She’d be lying there, contentedly still, as we called the kids in for dinner finally, as the heat stretched into dusk and the curtains were closed for the night.

I think it was March when she first came inside. The days were generally hot enough for us to leave the back door open for the breeze, and in she’d wander until we picked her up and threw her out again. She didn’t learn though. Never learned that these were the rules, and that maybe she wasn’t welcome. Soon after, because it was still so warm, someone would leave the back door open again and in she’d come. Soon it wasn’t just the kitchen, we’d be turfing her off the couch in the lounge room, or a child would come out with a bemused expression, “That CAT’s under my bed!” We christened her Maggie, because she was black and white like a Magpie, and because we needed to call her something.

By June, when the back door was shut always against the cold, and the deck was more ice than sunshine, we didn’t have the heart to turf her off the couch when we found her there – which was nearly always. She’d miaow at the back door in the mornings, as if to say “you locked me out!” which of course we had. There was no food for her at our place, and no litter tray. She was healthy and well-fed though. She obviously had a home and an owner, although none of our neighbours knew who that owner was, and nobody ever called when we left fliers about her in their letterboxes.

One weekend in June we went away for a holiday. The kids were devastated. “But what about Maggie?” What if she goes away? What will we do without this cat that isn’t ours? What DOES one do? We left a can of tuna with our next door neighbour, and asked her to put it on the deck for us if she saw Maggie around. We briefed the kids to expect that we may not see Maggie for a while when we got home again, that she’d probably realised we were gone, and she’d go back to her original owner for a while. Every night though the kids prayed that Maggie would be there when we got back.

We didn’t get home until late, well past the time it first got dark, but the first thing we saw when we pulled into our driveway was a black and white cat standing on the woodpile, with the loudest MIAOW I’d ever heard. Maggie had missed us. I realised then just how much I’d missed her, too.

It was a few weeks after that a friend pointed out how skinny she was getting, and it suddenly occurred to me that she was spending so much time at our house that she may not have been going home at all, or if she had then her owner had given up on feeding a cat that they never saw. That afternoon we went to the supermarket and bought her a bowl and a litter tray and a dozen tins of cat food, and, as simply as that, she became ours.

Nobody ever taught Maggie to wait her turn, or to say thank-you-for-having-me. Nobody ever explained to her that it was rude to simply turn up uninvited and expect that you’d be wanted. Nobody ever told her that she couldn’t just show up and expect people to like her. She never listened to the rule that you needed to wait until you were asked, or thought to check first to see if she was wanted. She presumed she would be, and because of it she made us want her. Because she moved in she made us love her, not the other way around.

This is the biggest gift my cat has taught me: that the times that I’ve moved into people’s lives and made myself at home and just expected that I’d be their friend are okay too. That’s it’s better to presume you are loved and wanted and to act accordingly than it is to not, to have to wait to be asked.

If Maggie had waited to be asked we’d never have had a cat.

Magie on the pillow

Maggie on the pillow. This is her near-permanent home. 

I’m glad she didn’t wait. I’m glad we gave up hoisting her back out the door.

I’m glad that she’s taught me that it’s okay to expect to be loved.

I’m not glad that she’s missing though.

Just as quickly as she slipped into our lives she’s also slipped out. I think she got spooked by the builders. It’s been a stressful time for all of us, including Maggie. I haven’t seen her since last Thursday. Praying like crazy she comes home, and soon; that we’ll have one of those “our cat when missing for three whole weeks, oh don’t you wish they could talk” endings. I’m still, even now, peering into the early-morning grey out the window and hoping to see her little eyes glowing, waiting to be let in.

Because she’s our cat, and, simply because she broke all those stupid rules and moved in uninvited, we love her.

Maggie the cat

Raising cats and compost

A few years ago my next door neighbour’s cat died. Her name was Lucy, and she was a short-haired calico. The cat, that is, not my next-door neighbour.

My daughter was four. She was sad, because our cat had died barely a year before, and this time my daughter had a new arsenal of knowledge under her belt: she insisted that I go round to my next door neighbour’s house and pray for the revival of the cat.

Ummm…

Because God can do anything, Mummy. Don’t you believe that?

Well, yes, I do believe that. And yes, I believe that the power of God can raise people – and even cats – from the dead, and that if we have that power living in us then yes, we too can see cats raised from the dead. We’re big on faith, our family.

But…ummm…

Now I’m not ashamed of my faith. Hell, we had our family photo plastered across a double-page spread of the paper as a representation of a Christian Family In An Age of Declining Faith! But still, going to visit my non-Christian next-door-neighbour in post-Christian Australia to tell him God’s going to raise his cat from the dead…ummmm…

Some things just need to stay dead. And that’s OKAY.

I’m remembering this today, because there’s something else that died a few years ago – eighteen years ago to be exact – and by now it’d be pretty darn smelly if it were to get up and start wandering round the grass again, and that’s exactly what it’s threatening to do. It’s a dream I used to have. Something I loved. Something I used to believe in. Something that died, and I grieved, and allowed new dreams to grow from the compost of what used to be.

Except now the new dream is wilting, its last bright petals shriveled and dancing to the dirt, to be swallowed by the compost, and suddenly I see that the compost that birthed it is stirring to life again, and is wanting to walk. This has happened before, with something else. It hurt. A lot. Some things need to stay dead.

But when I look back at that time, with the Something Else, the dead thing that walked, no matter how much it hurt at the time, I’m a better person, a happier person, because of it. Yes, it was smelly. And pretty ugly at first, but it grew into something beautiful. It grew into me.

I’m sad for the wilting dream, and, smelly though it may be, I’m just a bit excited about the walking compost in my heart. I’m glad there’s a time for resurrection.

My next-door-neighbor moved out a few years ago, and all that’s left of him is a memory, and a scrawled note on the bottom of the fence that I can see from the kitchen window. It says “Lucy Girl”, and it marks the place where the little calico cat is buried. There’s a beagle in the garden now, and much mud and compost. I’m hoping that the beagle doesn’t turn into a digger – things could get interesting (and smelly). But a pertinent reminder: even now, in God’s universe, it’s never too late.