Last January, I was coming out of a long mental health crisis/slow recovery related to health anxiety, intense isolation, and on-going postpartum/maternal depression. I was finally ready to get back out into the world. I resolved to be more social, make and maintain friendships, and write a book in 2020.
You can guess how my plans turned out. Stuck at home all year. Limited contact outside of immediate family. Full-time family presence and eventually homeschooling my 3 kids put writing on the back burner. That these are the worst of our complaints in a year that brought so much loss and struggle to others puts all of this into perspective, of course.
Something happened on January 7th that I had no idea at the time would be so significant for the year to come.
A cat turned up on our driveway.
She was stunningly pretty and friendly. We fed her, and nearly every day afterward, she came by to see us. We named her Cece.
Before the pandemic, my son went to school and my 4-year-old twins attended morning preschool, during which I wrote and spent time with Cece. Sometimes I sat outside petting her for a full half-hour while I had my coffee. It was calming. And I felt special because she kept coming back to hang out with me.
But I’m allergic to cats. I’ve always thought I could never have one. After petting Cece, I washed my hands thoroughly. I was careful about not touching my face. (Good practice for COVID, I suppose.)
I bought cat treats and food for her and settled into the idea that she was kind of ours, but I expected our relationship to remain as it was. We’d feed her and see her when she came by, but she couldn’t live with us because of my allergies and our old, fearful dog.
Plus, she was so friendly with us, we assumed she had someone else taking care of her as well. We never thought she could be 100% ours because of this.
The pandemic hit, and we locked down. During that initial transition, I spent a lot of time outside on our driveway. It was so lovely to have this little visitor. She was my only in-person friend. I felt very lucky to have her.
At one point, I suggested to my husband, Josh, that we take her to the vet for a checkup and maybe even get her spayed, but since we didn’t know if she belonged to someone, we felt it wouldn’t be right to potentially spay someone else’s cat.
Then, in April, she started to look… chunky.
It didn’t take long before we felt pretty confident that she was pregnant, though we didn’t know how far along she was. I recalled seeing her running around with a local tomcat in late February and assumed she’d been in heat then.
For my birthday, I bought a fancy outdoor cat house, thinking she could have shelter there and maybe have her kittens there. My husband started to see my mind working. Now that she was pregnant, I was THISCLOSE to fully claiming her as our pet.
Then, I happened to see our neighbors from two doors down while Cece was out. They were calling her Mocha. I asked the mom, Katrina, if she was their cat. My heart dropped into my stomach.
Cece/Mocha, I learned, had turned up in their garage right after Hurricane Imelda in the fall. They’d started feeding her and even tried to keep her in their house, but she kept getting into trouble and fighting with the cat they already had, so they settled on having her as an outside cat.
I was initially devastated. If Cece was really theirs, then I was kind of a cat abductor? I admitted we’d also been feeding her and had fallen in love with her but we didn’t want to take their cat.
Katrina agreed that she’s beautiful and a special cat, and she very graciously said she was thrilled we were also caring for Cece, that she had two great families looking out for her. We also gushed about the potential kittens on the horizon and agreed wherever she had them, we’d let the other know.
She also confirmed that she’d seen Cece with the tomcat in a compromising position. She and her kids call him Big Poppa or BP. Big Poppa also has a son who hangs around that they call KJ — “Kitty, Jr,” because he looks their own cat, Kitty.
Weeks dragged by. I’d been wrong about when Cece conceived by about two weeks, so we were ready and waiting forever.
We had a maternity photo shoot.
Cece got bigger and bigger. She stayed around our house almost exclusively. She slept a lot. I started offering her bedding, boxes, a nest in our garage, the door of which we left open for her.
She explored lots of places and seemed to like the garage. I hoped she’d have her kittens with us, but I also still didn’t imagine having her or them in our house. I sort of thought they’d just chill in the garage, and then we’d adopt out the kittens the neighbors (and I) didn’t plan to keep. I mean, in retrospect, I truly had no idea what having a litter of kittens would be like.
And yes, I was ready to keep a kitten or two or three after successfully petting and being around Cece for several months and having only minor allergy problems.
I paid for a tarot reading from my friend Mariah at Harvest Moon (she’s wonderful!) specifically about how best to support this pregnant cat. She’s extremely independent, and I was worried about her feeling trapped anywhere. I wanted her to feel safe but with freedom to do what she needed to do. We settled on letting her have constant access to our garage.
Around the time I expected her to have her kittens — I could feel them kicking, and she was HUGE — we needed to replaced our fence. I pushed the project back a few days, thinking she was definitely going to go into labor at any moment and not wanting to scare her off. It would be loud and a mess, and we’d have strange men around.
She didn’t have her kittens before the fence guys came, and sure enough, Cece vanished that first day.
The next morning, she returned, though. She seemed… different. I let her into our laundry room, which was the furthest she’d ever come into our house. I had a box and blankets in there for her like the one in the garage.
Suddenly, it was happening. Yowling, rubbing, sticking her butt in the air. She kept looking at me like she was panicked and expected me to DO SOMETHING.
I’d left the laundry room door open because I didn’t want her to feel trapped, and she ran out and straight into the garage. I decided to go in and close the door so I’d know where she was having them and if they were all okay. The fence guys showed up minutes later.
I planned to keep my distance and observe quietly so I didn’t disturb her, but when I first peeked into the box she’d chosen (not the one I’d set up), she head butted me and rubbed against my hand and seemed to want me to pet her. I got a towel under her and continued petting her. I told her she was doing great like any respectable cat doula would.
The box she picked was from our generator. On the side, it said Predator Generator, which I thought was a delightful coincidence.
Over the next couple hours, she successfully birthed five kittens — three gray/brown tabbies, an orange tabby, and a little tuxedo.
I made sure they were all okay before I let the kids come in briefly and quietly to see them. Then I told the neighbors, and they came.
At some point at the start of all this, when I asked my husband if he was cool with having Cece and her kittens in our care, he said, “I don’t care what you do as long it doesn’t affect my life.” 😂
For the next two weeks, I spent most of my time sewing masks (because pandemic) and taking breaks to be with the cats. We had to get a litter box, as we’d never had Cece inside before. She was very at ease with me around, but the limited visits made her nervous. She would jump out of the box for pets but wasn’t thrilled with others paying attention to the kittens.
I didn’t touch the kittens at all during this time, worried that it would upset her. After the initial first few days, I could tell she was getting restless in the garage, but we kept the door closed so she wouldn’t take the kittens out and expose them to danger.
One day, she moved all the kittens behind an old mattress and box spring. I figured if she needed a little more control, that was fine. A couple days later, she moved them INTO the box spring. Still, I thought, fine. Whatever she needs.
As a mom myself, I was probably projecting how I felt postpartum. I wanted no visitors, no one else touching my babies, so I got it. I wanted her to feel supported, not traumatized.
Then, at two weeks, I walked into the garage to feed Cece and found her and only one kitten in the box spring. The others, we soon realized, were up in the rafters in a box on its side, the opening inches from a pretty big fall.
We had to intervene at that point. So, following a very harrowing rescue mission, during which she grabbed the last kitten and took it up into the rafters as we were taking the others down, we relocated all of them and her to our laundry room.
Things settled down again for a bit after that move. I cleared out the closet and hung a sheet over the opening and put a box and towels with a draped blanket in there. She kept the kittens on a blanket in the middle of the room for a few days before moving them into it.
The neighbors came (with masks) for another visit, and Katrina and I talked about how lovely it was to finally know each other after living two houses apart for several years. I learned she was a nurse but taking a break between contracts until the fall. Later, she would take a contract in Florida working with COVID patients for three months, and I’ve thought of her often, hoping she was okay. Getting to see her briefly on Christmas Eve, on a short holiday before she goes back for a few more weeks, was a wonderful relief!
She also pitched in toward food, litter, and eventually surgery to spay Cece. We took care of that appointment and also got the kittens checked up and vaccinated when they were old enough.
I decided just for fun to name the kittens after Jane Austen characters. The boys were Bingley, Fitz, and Tilney. The girls were Emma and Dashwood.
Fitz was kind of weird-looking. We called him skunkbat, gerbil, ratcat, gremlin. His namesake, Fitzwilliam Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, was perhaps a hopeful choice on my part. (His ears remain big, but I think he turned out rather handsome.)
After a while, Cece got restless in the laundry room, and we ended up letting her and the kittens hang out in the main living area of our house. This meant constantly obstructing entry points to the bedrooms and playroom because Cece and our dog, Rory, absolutely did not get along.
After we spayed Cece, we had to also separate her from the kittens at the vet’s insistence so her incision could heal. We had three separate pet zones in our house. It was… not ideal.
After a week, Cece discovered where her babies were, and we couldn’t stand to keep them apart anymore. She rubbed her nose raw trying to get under the door. Even though her milk was mostly dried up, she went right back to nursing them, and it was so clearly the right call to let her be with them. Luckily, all she and they wanted to do was nurse and snuggle, and she healed from her surgery without any issues. (We also were totally unable to get her to wear a cone or donut. Like I said, she’s totally independent, and although she’s only ever been sweet with me, I can tell when something stresses her out. We didn’t push it, and she seemed to know she needed to rest.)
At about 8/9 weeks, the neighbors picked their kitten. They loved the name Emma and kept it. Before she left, we held a graduation ceremony.
I wanted Dashwood and Fitz most, and the kids wanted Tilney. We compromised and ended up with Fitz and Tilney and changed Tilney’s name to Ash. I still semi-regret not keeping Dash because I bonded with her early on, but our boys are great in their own ways. Fitzy is playful and mischievous and loves a good belly rub. Ash is the baby-est big cat and loves to snooze all day.
My brother and his friend took Bingley and Dash and renamed them Celes and Achilles. They sometimes have play dates. The only time I went in public for the whole pandemic at that point was into the gas station restroom to pee after driving halfway to Dallas to transfer the kittens to them.
We settled in with Fitz and Ash. Cece was cleared by the vet to do normal activities, and between her unrest in the house, her absolute mess of hormones, her growing aversion to nursing and being unable to get away from the kittens, and her run-ins with the dog, we let her go back outside.
She was so much happier. She started with short escapes of a half-hour, and over the course of a few months, transitioned back to being outside a bit more than half the time. She visits her other family a lot, and they are happy to see her again. Before Katrina left for her latest contract, she would text me pictures of Cece napping in their garden and Emma climbing their curtains.
Over time, all three cats and the dog have settled into a tolerable co-existence. Cece’s hormones have leveled out, and she’s so much more chill and comfortable. She and Rory can stand right next to each other and not freak out. Fitzy pushes it a bit trying to investigate this large creature that is Off Limits. Mostly, he scares her away, but they recently booped noses. It was a watershed moment.
Cece has always been an independent cat with a sweet but fierce personality. I have always sensed her boundaries and tried to respect and honor them. It’s been lovely to see her settle into her own place in our home and family. Sometimes, when she is fully relaxed and vulnerable in our home, I feel so moved by the trust she has place in us.
And even though I do still have allergies, I seem to have outgrown the most severe reactions or I’ve adjusted to having cats around. Turns out, we could have cats all this time! 😂
I constantly recall Josh telling me I could do whatever with the cats as long as they didn’t affect his life. They have absolutely affected his life, from talking me down when I was anxious about EVERYTHING to physically climbing up after the kittens in the rafters to buying cat supplies and feeding and changing litter. I’m grateful that he has tolerated and, dare I say, sometimes enjoyed them. I don’t know that he LOVES having two to three cats. But he rolls with it. And mischievous little Fitzy sure loves him. Again, Josh would probably prefer that he DIDN’T. But who could really be mad when such a cute cat chooses you?
Which brings me back to Cece, the most beautiful cat I’ve ever known, my best friend during the pandemic, the bridge to a wonderful friendship with my neighbor, my imperfect but perfect-for-me soul cat.
She chose me, and in doing so, she helped me keep some of my resolutions during a year that would have made them impossible. I did make new friends. I did get out of the house more. I stretched my ability to be grounded and present. She brought such joy into our lives with her kittens when all else felt scary and dark, an experience that engaged our family (and more than a few friends via the internet) in wonder and awe and so much cuteness.
I continue to feel absolutely special and lucky to be one of Cece’s people. This year would not have been anywhere near the same without her. There was so much else that happened this year, to me and to others, and I could probably never find all the words to write about that. But this was one beautiful, life-changing thing that made it feel like the universe was looking out for me this year, and I didn’t want this time of reflection to go by without expressing my gratitude for that.
This is so amazing. I have cried so many times today because of wonderful stories like this. Happy New Year, Melanie! Looking forward to many more stories of your family.
Melanie Sweeney says
Thank you so much! I hope we all get many joyful stories in 2021!