There are two things my kids, aged ten, eight and six, are obsessed with - pets and babies. They always get excited when they see their friends' younger sisters or brothers. And go berserk when they are around someone else's pet. Be it a cuddly puppy, twittering parakeets or clueless hamsters. These are things we do not have at home so they feel kind of deprived.
Our townhouse is not a good place to raise pets. There is not enough room for them to run around. There isn't even a patch of soil they could roll and get dirty on. I also fear that my kids would catch some disease from them. Like asthma from their fur. I know babies are a different matter entirely, and the only things contagious about them are their smiles and giggles, but then you can't just tell a baby - sit, roll, play dead!
But with three rambunctious grade-schoolers, no way was I going to have another baby. A pet seems more attractive by the minute. Though well-meaning friends tell me that raising dogs or cats is as costly as raising another child. But not to be deterred, I was sure it was only a matter of finding the right one. Is a pet that could take care of itself too much to ask?
About two years ago, a grey and white pusakal (pusang kalye) started coming into our garage. I didn't want to teach my children heartlessness by driving the poor thing away, but I did tell them not to pet it or feed it so as to discourage it from coming. Of course, my kids, ever pining for a pet, pusang gala or otherwise did just the opposite. They fed him bits and pieces of bread when no one was looking. My youngest daughter took to emptying her lunchbox on the garage floor for him. And pretty soon, not quite surprisingly, the stray cat has taken residence in our garage. Every night, without fail, it would come and stay. Always, he would leave in the morning to do what it is that stray cats do.
We named him Mao, no not after the great Chinese leader, but after those plaintive cries that he made. He didn’t meee-ooow. He just went “maa-aw, maa-aw.”
One day, he stopped coming. The days turned into a week, and still, no cat. The KiDS started missing him. They took to waiting by the gate and calling for him, hopeful that he would come. My husband and I believed he found a more hospitable garage - where the homeowners actually fed him real food.
I was working late one night when I heard him "maw-ing" in the garage. I went down and started scolding him, "O saan ka galing. Akala namin namatay ka na." He started maw-ing nonstop in answer, as if telling me a story. Then he limped towards me. And I was horrified to see him dragging his hind leg at a very awkward angle. His right leg dangled limply and uselessly behind him.
My husband theorized that he must have been run over by a tricycle and that he stayed in some ditch to heal before finally finding the way to our house. I was touched that out of the many houses in the village he chose to find haven in ours. With his broken leg, he couldn't go out and fend for himself anymore. He is fair game in the world of strays.
If I couldn’t drive him away before, the more I couldn’t turn him away now. So we took care of him and fed him. He hardly ever leaves the house now, except to relieve himself. (That’s the advantage of adopting a stray. He’s already potty-trained. The great big outside is his toilet.) When he hears our van arriving, he would drag himself from the street into our garage. He doesn’t run, he sorts of glides across the floor. The KiDS love him, imperfect though he is. He's provided enough distraction the kids have stopped asking for babies, thank God.
I do believe that cats communicate to their humans and to their fellow cats. Mao must have let out the feline equivalent of a village cry because pretty soon, other stray cats started spending time in our garage, rushing away only when they hear us coming. As we park our car in the garage, we would see gray cats, white cats, calicos, cats of all colors, leaping out of the way, squeezing their scraggly bodies under the gate. Maybe they are his barkada and they visit him. He certainly doesn’t seem to mind sharing his food with them. Maybe he's left word on the street, "Come, this is a happy place to live in. A good family to live with. Welcome, y'all."
Yes, indeed. I'd like to think that.
Late last year, there was one female cat who stayed with Mao more than the others. The KiDS took to calling him Barra. That’s my family name without the “I”, as Mao is my DH’s family name without the “I”. Sometimes, my KiDS are so smart they amaze even me. She got pregnant (Mao had to endure endless ribbing for his “prowess” because of that), but when she gave birth, none of her kittens survived. We looked for where she gave birth but couldn’t find it. It was raining nonstop then so we were worried about them. Eventually Barra brought home one kitten, but it has been so exposed to the elements it soon died.
Last week, Mao didn’t come home for a long time. My yaya reported that she saw blood outside in the street and we were worried something had happened to Mao. When he finally resurfaced, his face was swollen like something or someone hit him in the head. I took him to the vet and I was told that with his injuries (his mandible was broken and necrosis has set in), he was extremely dehydrated, and his age (the vet estimated him to be three years old), there was only a slim chance of survival even if we insisted on a surgery.
I had to make the difficult decision of putting him to sleep. The doctor said it was painless, but until the last minute, I saw Mao trying to escape from our grasp. He was a survivor to the last moment. I stayed with him the whole time as I didn’t want him to feel abandoned as he was in the early stages of his life.
Breaking the news to my KiDS was even more difficult, and soon all of us were crying. We all mourned Mao, even if he didn’t have pedigree, or even if he wasn’t the type of pet my KiDS could freely cuddle and hug. He was family.
In his collection of short stories, “Smoke and Mirrors”, Neil Gaiman writes of a stray cat which was adopted by a family. Each morning, his new human would find him badly wounded and he wondered what the cat has been up to, to sustain such injuries. One time, the injuries were so bad that the adoptive family didn’t let him out of the house until his wounds healed. During the time that he was locked in the basement, the owners of the house experienced setbacks. When the cat was let loose again, the family’s streak of bad luck ended, But still, each morning, they would find the cat wounded. So the owner decided to spy on his cat to find out what was going on. It tuned out that the cat was protecting the family against a recurring evil. Each night, evil would come visiting and each night, the cat would fight her, ending up wounded and battle-scarred. Each night the cat would lay his life on the line for his adoptive family. That left the his new human in a dilemma – should he keep the cat safe, or should he keep himself and his family safe?
I know that our cat is not that cat. He doesn’t battle lady (bad) luck from coming in our house. But he has surely brought compassion and happiness into our home. May his soul or spirit find peace in the great beyond.