June 9th, 2012, while sitting on the steps outside my back door, having what many folks would call a pity party over the loss of my wife Annie, two years previously, I discovered a little treasure in the rough.

When you’re alone, grieving, lonely, it’s rather easy to get lost in the outside darkness. Tears are flowing, questions, those ever present nagging questions are filtering in and out of your consciousness, with no resolution in sight.

When seemingly all hope was lost, I got a sign that perhaps everything was going to be okay. In the distant and dark shadows of my back yard, behind the rows of English Boxwood Hedges, Annie had planted years earlier, there came a faint cry. “Meow,” “Meow.”

I couldn’t see anything, so I stood up and turned on the security lighting. In the distance I could see what looked like two little bright sparkling eyes. Again I heard it’s little cries, “Meow,” “Meow.” Instinctively I did what seemed to come so natural, as if I’d been doing it all my life. But I hadn’t.

Here kitty, kitty. Come-on kitty, come-on. Kitty, kitty, come-on. And just as fast as the kitty appeared, it disappeared, most likely in the thick foliage that surrounds the yard. My anticipation of what was to come, was dashed away in the darkness. I sat back down, and once again fell into my misery.

When the tears are flowing, let them flow. That’s healing.

About twenty minutes later, I was sitting with my arms across my raised knees, and my head laying on my arms, while my mind wandered in the darkness. Unexpectedly, I heard the little cry again, “Meow.” This time it was only a few feet to my right, in the darkness. The cat had walked about one-hundred feet across the yard, in front of me hidden in the foliage, for I guess, a surprise visit. Just maybe, the cat was wandering in the darkness too.

I sensed that this was going to be a special encounter, but no amount of reasoning at the time could have prepared me for what was to come, and the comfort of knowing I had a friend. Yes, I had many friends, and they all wanted to help me get better, but they couldn’t help me. I think I needed a little cat, raw, wild, and full of spunky spirit.

Honestly, I couldn’t believe my luck, as at that moment in time, I desperately needed a friend. And I didn’t care if it had four legs. I tried many times to communicate with it, to no avail. And while doing so, the cat appeared to be cautiously busy setting the boundaries, and I knew I had to give it space.

I got up and walked to the kitchen, thinking it was hungry. Wasn’t sure what to do, as I had no cat food. So I put a small portion of smoked turkey in a small bowl, with a bit of cheese and sat in on the step. As I backed away, the cat came over, took a sniff, and looked up at me like, “is that all you got.” It “kinda” was.

Over a period of time, maybe 30 minutes or so, it stayed and I talked to it. It was becoming apparent that this was no normal cat, as it was very shy, kept good eye contact, and seemed to react to every movement I made. It was ready to bolt, but at the same time, curious enough to stay.  Eventually it walked away into the night, leaving me wondering if I’d see it again.

But, for that moment in time, it got my mind going in a different direction. I was now looking forward to tomorrow night, living on hope, that I could entice the cat to be my friend with some fancy cat treats.

Once again, the cat used stealth to sneak up to the bowl, took a sniff, then backed away. Why? That was supposedly the best food on the market. I was confused, but still felt very fortunate at the prospect of having a little friend. It gave me something to look forward too, and presented some challenges that at times, pulled me out of the darkness, with short bursts of amazement and wonder.

Always remember, to a griever, darkness can be present twenty-four hours a day, but over time it can start to ebb and flow, a good indication that some healing it taking place.

The second night when the cat came around, I managed to get a picture of it. The picture was posted on my facebook page, with a short story about the cat. It was immediately identified as a feral cat by some of my friends, and I quickly got the idea that I, indeed was not dealing with an ordinary house cat.

But, rather than let my, not knowing what to do thoughts drive me crazy, I went to the internet and researched feral cats. The first cat I saw looked exactly like the cat in my yard, same color and black stripe down it’s back.

My thinking was, that if I could understand the nature of the cat it would make a big difference. It didn’t! I was learning that no two cat have the same traits, and that feral cats are in a league of their own. My idea of having a pet cat was so far from reality, looking back, it makes me laugh. The cat dictated, and all I could do was give it space. No touching.

“Alley Cat Allies” gives this definition of a feral cat: “A feral cat is a cat who has either never had any contact with humans or her contact with humans has diminished over time. She is fearful of people and survives on her own outdoors. A feral cat is not likely to ever become a lap cat or enjoy living indoors.”

By understanding the cat, I was led to a much cheaper market brand of cat food, “Meow Mix.”  The cat loved it, and it had the necessary nutritional content. That was the first thing I got right thus far. But I was learning.

When you think about how the cat lived, why would it eat fancy cat food. It was living off the land and eating in, whatever form the food took on. It probably ate mostly field mice, small birds, and literally garbage.

My facebook friends were telling me to take it to the vet, get its shots, and have it fixed. I tried, but unless you’ve been around a feral cat, you couldn’t know that their impossible to catch if they don’t want to be caught. They will bit and scratch you if you try to pick one up that does not want to be held. I couldn’t get more than five feet in front of her, before she backed away. I don’t think she was afraid, but being born in the wild, where danger can lurk around every corner, she spooked very easily, and being touched or held was not in her comfort zone. The cat seemed to be locked into the fight or flight response mode, to any perceived threat.

Within a few days of meeting the cat, I wanted to give it a name, but couldn’t tell is it was a girl or a boy. So I did the only thing I could do.  Remembering the old Crocodile Dundee movie, and that special scene, I named the cat Sheila…Just in case it was a girl.

Sheila, I assumed was a girl cat as she was very complicated. Tom cats would come around and Sheila would literally go nuts on them. Not physically fight them, she’d scream so loud, they’d run away. She was little, but they didn’t stand a chance. After all, the world she survived in was full of darkness, and as I learned a few months later, she’d attack Rocky the Raccoon if it got in her bowl of food. In fact, one night in the early morning hours I heard her screaming. I ran to the back door to see her sitting on one side of her bowl and Rocky the Raccoon on the other. She was screaming and slapping the heck out of Rocky, but apparently he didn’t care. Sheila was lucky that night, as Rocky could have hurt her bad if he’d wanted to. But I guess, recognizing she was young, couldn’t be bothered. Peter the Opossum didn’t have a chance as she was way too quick for him. Now, if Polly the skunk wanted her food, not even I could stop that.

When I said that Sheila was probably a girl as she was complicated, here’s what I meant. My wife Annie would tell me to pop over to Kohl’s and grab a pair of new pants for a gathering of some sort. A few minute later  she’d say, hang on a minute, let me get cleaned up and I’ll come with you…I need a new Bra. If I was lucky, she’d be showered, dressed, had her hair done and make up on within an hour. But things had just got complicated. She needed a new bra, but also, apparently, needed new tights, skirt, shirt, purse, make-up, shoes and the list goes on and on. I simply wanted a pair of pants. I’d have been in and out in a few minutes. A few hours later we’d make it home, and I’d be too emotionally drained to cut my grass. Now that, is complicated. (Annie died over 5 years ago, and if I could spend the rest of my life shopping with her, in a soft voice, “I would love to.”)

As of June 9th of this year, Sheila has been with me, 4 years. She is still a very strange cat, but now depends on me for her food. Other than that, she is in control of her own destiny. She sleeps in the garage some nights, in boxes, on old pieces of furniture, or where ever. I bought her a nice cat bed a few years ago, but it’s in the garage just collecting dust. She don’t like it. Same with her garage litter box. She’ll use it only in emergencies, and sometimes she will leave me a little gift in the garage beside the litter box, even though it is clean. She likes doing her business outside, I guess where she can get down and dirty.

Sheila and I are very close, and look out for each other. I can’t say I love the cat, because it’s impossible to love a feral cat. They won’t let you. But, I do love the way she does her own thing, and doesn’t worry about much, just herself. As long as I open the door for her, which runs at an angle through the dining room to the inside garage door, and have her food ready and sitting on the inside garage step when she wants it, our lives remains in balance. I can pick her up for about 10 seconds, then she starts squirming and wants down. When I’m sitting in my chair watching television or working on the computer, she’ll jump up in my lap, and is gone just as quickly. She doesn’t know how to love, but, I think she tries. She’s so bold outside, but when in the house for a few minutes, she’s afraid of her own shadow. I guess she feels out of her element. One more thing, she doesn’t purr. Probably because she won’t hang around long enough for one to love on her. But, that is just a guess.

Sheila has been a real blessing to me in many ways. In the night, sometimes I’ll hear her screaming, knowing she has encountered a critter, I go running out back, and pick up my prepositioned shovel, and slap it on the concrete a few times while yelling, “get out of here.” It sounds crazy, but as I can’t see her in the darkness and don’t know what she’s up against, I scare everything off, including her. The night goes silent, and once again I know she’s safe.

Sometimes during the day, one minute I’ll see a squirrel sitting on a limb barking at her, and the next minute she’s racing up the tree after the squirrel. It’s second nature to her. She can go as high as she wants, and when she comes down, she’s like a big cat from Africa, watching her is majestic. Absolutely no fear of heights. I spend a lot of time in awe, watching the cat play.

When she is on one side of the yard, and something gets her attention on the other side, she runs across the yard in leaps and bounds, and when she gets to the Boxwoods, their about 3 feet tall, she simply leaps over them in full stride.

She plays outside all the time. But will not play with me. You know, dragging the string across the floor, or waving things in front of her face, it all just seems to annoy her. She simply ignores, and moves away. Outside, she’s so fast that if mosquito’s or flies are bothering her, she can catch them. Occasionally a field mouse will wonder onto her turf. Before the mouse even knows what’s going on, she’s got it. Here’s what’s weird. She will no longer kill the field mouse. She just plays with it until she gets bored. Keeps letting it go and then catching it again. My thoughts are, she knows where her food is, and it’s always there so, she doesn’t need to kill. She won’t even kill little birds, just slaps them about. And I think that’s sad, as I’ve inadvertently taken one of her important instincts away…Her ability to survive in the wild without me. If I were not here, I believe she’d adapt, but I don’t know that for sure, and it’d take some time.

It seemed to me, looking back on the dark days, I was drowning in grief, and it appeared the whole world was collapsing in on my head. That is, until, “I was rescued by a feral cat.” And believe me, it was a blessing.

Here’s the kicker to the story and it might just make you smile. Six months ago my daughter Melissa was at my home and looking at Sheila, who was laying on the patio washing herself. She loves being clean and will have a wash before she leaves the garage to go outside or before she comes back in.  She said, “Dad, who told you Sheila was a girl cat?” All I could say is that, I just assumed she was a girl cat, as she had a bunch of nipples. As I found out from my daughter, boy cats have a bunch of nipples too. Well, as it turns out, Sheila may be complicated but, she is actually a boy cat, just like on Crocodile Dundee. She is not a Sheila at all, but what a great name for a strange but beautiful cat. And apparently, boys can be complicated too. I didn’t know that. 🙂

Who would have thought that a feral cat, so different and strange to everything I’d ever known, would play such an instrumental role in helping me through my journey with grief. I’ve always said, if a griever can just steal a few minutes a day, where there not thinking of their loss, that’s a good day. Feral cats, or a pet can do that. I suspect a loving puppy would also be a good, in the moment, grief buster. Rescue one, and in turn you just may be rescued too.

About Bob Harrison

Bob Harrison was raised in the heart of the Redwoods in the far northwest comer of northern California. The little town of Crescent City, California was located near some of the world’s tallest trees, with the west shoreline being the Pacific Ocean. Bob spent most of his time fishing the two local rivers where some of the finest Steelhead and Salmon fishing is located. He was also well known up and down the north coast as an avid motorcycle racer, winning several hundred trophies, and one Oregon State title. Bob graduated from Del Norte High School with the class of 1966, then spent a one year stint at the College of the Redwoods, before having a strong sense of patriotism and joining the United States Air Force. After three years of service, Bob met Annie, the love of his life, and they got married in England in 1972. Bob’s love of country pushed him on to what turned out to be a very successful career, retiring in 1991. Bob’s last military assignment was Wichita, Kansas, a place he and Annie decided to call home. Together they developed and ran two very successful antique businesses until the stranger knocked on their door and changed their lives forever; “Because of Annie.”

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