The Cat with Magic Ears

It was the middle of July in 2016. I had just walked in the door from work. Renee was 11 months out from her heart transplant, and I was running a day shelter I had founded. It had been a particularly bad day. I had a lot of them that year. I was getting something to drink in the kitchen when she called me into her studio.

“I want you to hear me out before you say no,” she said.

Over the winter, our orange tabby Tony had caught a blood clot in his legs, and we had to take him to the vet in the middle of the night and have him put down. Tony had been Renee’s cat – they even shared the same heart disease, called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which is very common in cats and very rare in humans. In the days after her coming home from transplant, Tony had laid in the bed next to Renee as if he knew she needed more comfort than normal. His loss had been felt very keenly.

So she had been crawling the pages of the local no-kill shelter, looking at orange tabbies. It was just window shopping – we knew we lived in a small house, and the two cats we had were already pushing our limits.

She showed me a picture of the most bedraggled orange cat ever. He had deformed ears and terror in his eyes, and his hair was thin. He looked like a stuffed cat that had lost half his stuffing. She told me his name was Pepe, and he had been at the no-kill shelter for more than a year. Because he was ancient and ugly, nobody wanted him. He also had a healthy dose of anti-social behavior.

I reminded her that we had said we were a two-cat house, and we already had two cats. Since he had been there a year, she asked me if we didn’t adopt him, who would? I think he might be a lost cause, I said. That has never scared you off before, she said.

I asked what the fees were. She told me that she had already reached out to the shelter, and since Pepe had been so hard to rehome, they would waive all the fees if we came up that Friday.

So that Friday, we went to pick up Pepe, the cat with the magic ears.

If anything, he looked worse in person. He was so skinny, and his fur was patchy. He and several other cats had been dropped off at the shelter the year before. At some point, Pepe had a horrible ear infection that ate away at his ears and damaged his hearing. He had been covered in fleas when they left him at the shelter. He was afraid of people – the shelter folks believed he had been beaten in his past.

He lived in a giant walk-in cage with other cats but was cowered under some boxes, hiding. He looked virtually catatonic. He didn’t want to be held or petted or played with. He came out of the boxes long enough to eat the snacks we gave him, and then he went back into hiding.

The shelter tried to be realistic with us.

“He has been horribly abused. He doesn’t like to cuddle, and he isn’t really affectionate. But he is special and needs a home where people will love him.”

So we signed the papers and agreed to take care of him for the rest of his life. Our first clue to how hard this was going to be was fighting to put him in the cat carrier and his screaming once we shut the door. We had to wrap the carrier in a towel to calm him down, and while most families have pictures of the adoptive parents holding their new kitty, we have one of us holding a towel-covered pet carrier with dazed looks on our faces.

We gave Pepe his own room at the house, with a closed door so he could be comfortable before we introduced him to the other cats. He promptly found every hiding place in that room and spent much time just staring into space. If you tried to pet him, he would attack your hand and then go hide again.

It went like that for about four months. But in the mornings, we would find his toys scattered, and his food had been eaten, so apparently, he was having a ball when we weren’t looking.

Eventually, things changed. He began to come out of the room, began to play with the other cats, and even would sit on the couch with us. He was our very introverted kitty – he wanted to be near us, but not actually touch us. As introverts ourselves, we understood this.

He was still very shy when we loaded all the cats into cat carriers two years later and moved 12 hours away. But I swear Pepe in Mississippi was a whole new cat. He was no longer the tentative, shy cat. He was full of confidence in our new home. Instead of hiding in the corners, he would lay in the sun on the rug in the middle of the floor. Our vet suggested that moving had put all the cats on an equal footing n the new house. Literally, the pecking order had changed.

In any event, for the next year, Pepe thrived. He gained weight, his coat filled out, and he would even climb in your lap and purr. The cat they warned might never love us back was affectionate and loving. It was the best year.

Things started to go downhill in the fourth year he was with us. His personality was still the same, but he wasn’t eating. The vet told us he had a horrible infection in his teeth and gums, and because of his FIV, he didn’t have the resources to fight it off. They gave him antibiotics and hoped for the best.

He recovered – for about six weeks. Then we had to go back for another round of shots. Each round, he had lost more weight, become more lethargic, and ate less and less. In the summer of 2020, it became obvious we were fighting a losing battle.

We had a foster son living with us at the time. He identified heavily with Pepe, and while the other cats would run and hide from him, Pepe tolerated his hugs. The night before Pepe died, we all sat with Pepe on the floor of the living room, and we petted him and told him we loved him; and that night, when I tucked the boy in bed, we talked about how when you love something or someone, you have responsibilities as a result. We had promised to take care of Pepe, and helping him die well was part of that.

I told the boy that you have to do the right thing for those you love, even when that is not something you want to do.

The next day a neighbor watched the boy while we went to the vet for Pepe’s last visit. He was purring in our arms when he got the shot. At that point, he was skin and bones, less than half his body weight when we had gotten him.

That was 23 months ago. A few months after Pepe died, the Boy went back to his family. Pepe is buried in the backyard, under a headstone Renee and the Boy made together.

I think about Pepe a lot. This cat that they told us would never have the tools to love us ended up loving us after all and taught us a lot about love along the way. He taught a hardened, traumatized boy in the foster system how to love, and he purred in our arms as we watched him die.

Shortly after we got him, when he was having such a hard time adjusting, we decided that if all he gets is to spend his remaining years in a loving home filled with kitty treats and toys and with people committed to loving him even when he doesn’t have the resources to love us back, that is a lot more than he would have had in the first place, and a lot more than any of us deserve. But for a few years, we got a lot more than that, and so did he.

In progress

I hate to share in-progress pictures. Partly that’s because many of my projects are done in budget-sized increments, and how do I decide when I’m really “done”? But I also recognize that sharing progress pictures makes things seem more doable. And I tend to think most things are doable. Or at least, more things than most people think are.

So here is what’s been occupying my time after work for the last few weeks. It’s a picture of the back of our house, as seen from the new birdfeeder I installed in the backyard (more about that in a sec). The deck I built in 2020 with The Boy, but the stairs by the chimney and the short walkway I just added last week.

The reason for adding them was that below the chimney, I am putting in a water feature – a shallow pond (from 4-16 inches deep) for the wildlife and birds, with a small bubble fountain in it to make the birds happy. There are wetland plants that will go there as well, and to the right of the chimney, out of the shot, will be a small sitting area, where the red chairs that are currently on the deck will go, so I can sit in the shade of the afternoon and watch the fountain.

Ok, so that’s out of the way – let’s see what is blooming this week:

I love common yarrow. It’s evergreen (here, anyway – your mileage may vary), the pollinators love it, and the ferny texture fills in well. Every garden I have will have some yarrow in it.

And coneflowers! A native (well, this yellow variety is a nativar – don’t @ me, people), also beloved by pollinators, and nearly bulletproof. I just loved the juxtaposition of the yellow with the purple verbena – also a native plant, also bulletproof and beloved by pollinators.

The magnolia is still blooming, proof that God loves me and wants me to be happy.

This is the native “species” purple coneflower – lovely as can be. Surprisingly hard to find in nurseries, as people live the colored nativars. But I like this one best.

This is elderberry. Also native, it’s an aggressive bush here. I understand people pay for elderberry plants, but there’s no need. If you cut a branch off around the size of a pencil and then stick it in the ground, it will root. It fills in quickly and spreads, so it’s ideal in a place where you need quick screening. But the birds love the cover AND the berries, and the butterflies love the flowers. A great wildlife plant.

I wanted a bird feeder out in the yard, away from the house. The feeder by the house – really just a saucer on the deck rail – you can see it on the far left of the deck in the back of the house picture – is really only drawing Cardinals and Thrashers. I figured a feeder further from the house might draw more.

And it’s working – here are some Chickadees and a Tufted Titmouse that came to visit.

So Thursday evening I builta quick and dirty platform feeder: It’s just a 10-foot piece of ¾ inch EMT conduit driven in the ground as a post, then I drilled a 15/16 hole in a 2×2 for the crosspiece. It’s held in place by a 10d nail that goes through both the crosspiece and the 2×2, so it makes it easy to remove if needed. The platform feeder itself is just some 1×2 from which I made an overlapping double frame that sandwiches a piece of 2×4 fencing for support and a piece of window screen for drainage. On the right, you see the Blink camera. I hung the hanging feeder under it to balance out the weight, else it tends to lean a bit. Were I to do this over, I would use a piece of 1-inch EMT instead of the 3/4.

The squirrel baffle is just a piece of 4-inch PVC that is 2 feet long. I put the top of it six feet off the ground, and then drilled a hole through both it and the EMT and ran a piece of coathanger wire through it to hold it in place. Thus far, no squirrels have attempted it. We will see how it works.

Antique Roses and Native Plants

It’s been a long day, and I’m beat. But the yard is really starting to wake up, so here is what’s in bloom this week.

Since the overwhelming goal of my gardening efforts is to make a happy habitat for all the animals that live here (including those of us with two legs), I have some plants that serve no purpose other than they are, to my eye, beautiful.

Like my antique roses. These are ancient, hardy roses that grow neglected in cemeteries and along fence rows, that nobody waters or prunes, and are all well adapted to grow and bloom with zero care. Zero care is sort of a specialty of mine.

Like this Mutabilis rose. It goes back to before 1894, blooms from spring to fall, and has beautiful flowers that start pale pink (like this one), and then get darker and darker until they turn crimson. I just planted this one a few weeks ago, and this is the first bloom.

Then there is Peggy Martin, the so-called Katrina rose. They call it that because a woman who had a huge rose garden had to evacuate because of Katrina, and her yard was underwater for two weeks. When the water went down, the only thing still alive was her Peggy Martin rose. If it won’t die with being underwater for two weeks, I am unlikely to kill it.

It’s a vigorous climbing rose, so I planted it at the corner of the vegetable garden, so it can run along the fence. I planted it over the winter, and it is blooming galore. The blooms fade fairly quickly in the hot sun, but more just come along.

Also, I planted it before I finished the fence, because of lumber prices. But now it’s starting to grow, and I have to hurry up and finish the fence to have something to trellis it on.

This rose isn’t an antique but is extremely special. When The Boy lived with us in 2020, he loved the color orange. We were in Kroger, back before the pandemic, and he saw a “miniature” rose with orange blooms in a pot in the floral department. He wanted it so bad. We bought it and planted it in one of the flower beds.

The whole time he lived with us, he watched it like a hawk, with near-daily reports to us on the blooms that appeared. When we planted it, I didn’t have high hopes of its survival. Such plants are usually pretty tender, sold to folks who manage to kill them pretty quickly. But he liked it, and it was less than $10, so why not risk it? Well, it survived the two winters since and is now in full bloom and I miss that kid something fierce right now.

Because of reasons, I didn’t put in a spring vegetable garden this year (lumber prices, for me to finish the raised beds, mainly). It’s not a huge deal – we can plant tomatoes here as late as the end of August and still get a crop. But anyway, the sage in my herb garden is blooming.

I love coneflowers. These are all varieties of purple echinacea or Purple Coneflower. Yes, one of them is white. It’s a variety bred for that trait. Coneflowers are native here, which means the pollinators love them and they are near bulletproof, but there are some native plant types that will lecture you about planting native plants that are bred to purpose (so-called nativars), like my white Purple Coneflowers. But we won’t invite those people over, anyway.

Not quite open yet, but it’s coming!
A white Purple Coneflower.
The pure species, with some tickseed in bloom behind it, and a slew of rudbeckia seedlings.

I need to do a whole post on our chickens. But here is our coop – my Mom says it’s the nicest chicken coop she has ever seen, but to be fair, she doesn’t get out much.

Last fall, a new neighbor moved in next door and cut down all the trees in his front yard. (I have opinions about this, but that’s another post). As a result, the whole north half of my front yard is now in full sun, so I put in blackberries and blueberries, among other things.

Ms. June is an 89-year-old lady who lives up the street, and who has an amazing shade garden in her backyard. She gave me these Indian Pinks, which are just showing out. I don’t have a good picture of it, but I also got a Japanese maple from here, which the Indian pinks are planted under. In 4-5 years, that’s gonna be nice.

The Things That Stay

On our kitchen island is a giant cutting board, some 18 by 30 inches and nearly two inches thick. It was a stress purchase early in the pandemic. I had wanted one for years, and I finally found one for $50 at a restaurant supply house.

At the time, we had a 7-year-old boy living with us, one of six foster children who lived with us over a two-year period. The Boy lived with us for almost 10 months, leaving to be reunited with his family just 2 days before my Dad’s death from COVID. We hadn’t expected The Boy to leave when he did, but the foster system is cruel and capricious, not to mention utterly pragmatic, at times, and the feelings of foster parents are often a distant consideration, when they are considered at all.

The Boy and I cooked dinner together every night, and he had a special knife we bought for him to use to chop vegetables. He was a little fella, so he stood on a chair, and together, we prepped and cooked. And one day, when he was alone, he took a Sharpie and made a small mark on the cutting board. I have no idea why – I doubt he knew, honestly. It was a small carat looking mark, easy to miss if you didn’t know it was there. Sometimes, mischievous boys just want to mark something up. A sort of way of them knowing they exist, and to make sure you know it, too.

The Boy left his marks everywhere. There were whiffle balls in the flower beds, and he was always leaving his baseball glove in the yard, and his bicycle would get left out, and his dirty clothes would somehow often end up under his bed instead of in the hamper.

And even though he has been gone now for 15 months, evidence of his having been here still shows up sometimes. The last time I cut the grass, I found a rubber ball hiding under a shrub, where he had lost it. Since October of 2020, his baseball glove has sat at the base of the hackberry tree in the backyard. When he had to leave abruptly, he couldn’t find it – I found it there a few days after he was gone, and I haven’t had the heart yet to move it.

We miss him a lot, even now. His name comes up every few days – Remember when we ate there with The Boy? Remember when The Boy planted that flower? Remember when The Boy said such and so? Like marks on our brain, the stories – most of which I can’t tell you here – remain in our head and in our heart.

The other day, I was preparing supper, standing at the big cutting board. The combination of cooking for fewer people, the ennui of pandemic meals and the general depression I entered into at the end of 2020 all combined to make me cook less than I had done when he lived with us, but still, I found myself cutting potatoes up for supper, to coat in oil and creole seasoning and then roast in the oven until done.

And while I was cutting them, I moved the pile of peelings just a bit and saw the small caret mark, made mischievously with a Sharpie, sitting there, greatly faded after all this time but still there, still present, still a real reminder of the love that had been there.

One day I will have to sand down the board, which will erase the mark – it’s just part of the maintenance of such a thing. And one day I will pick up the last whiffle ball, and one day I will finally pick up the faded, decrepit baseball glove that still sits under the hackberry tree waiting for him to come back and pick it up. And when those things happen, the only marks of his existence left behind will be in our head and in our hearts.

And those will be the marks that last.