March 25, 2012
The Tree and the Cat
My cat, Trilby Kitty, and I go for a walk every night, weather permitting. Trilby loves his late night walks after the neighborhood quiets down. As far as the cat is concerned that nightly walk is probably the best part of his day. And the highlight of our walks is a certain tree growing close to the road in a neighborhood yard. I was told the tree was a river birch, but to Trilby and me, it's just "Tree." It was a double trunked tree with each trunk just the right width. Like Goldilocks, Trilby is particular about his scratching sites. He doesn't like them too narrow and doesn't like them too wide where he can't get his paws on both sides of the trunk. This tree was just the right size. The bark of the tree curled off it in tough strips like sandpaper. "Tree" made for a perfect scratching post, and it was Trilby's favorite tree in the neighborhood.
Every night, Tree was part of our walk and had been for many years. Sometimes if I got to Tree first, I would stand next to it and scratch the bark. I would call to Trilby, "Tree. Tree," ---- something that never failed to get an indulgent smile from anyone who saw me doing it. If Trilby had wandered off to check out a bush, the word "Tree" and the scratching would get his attention. He would come up to Tree. Sometimes it would be a casual thing........he'd give it a pause, then walk on by. Sometimes his entire body would light up and he would run full-out at the tree to either dash up the trunk or attack it with a fierce scratching. If I scratched the peeling bark high above his head, he'd stretch into "long kitty" and scratch as high as he could reach.
Other times if I got to Tree first, I would just wait in the road. I could call "Tree" or point at it or just stand quietly. Trilby would go up to Tree and once he'd shown Tree who was boss --- as I would laughingly put it to Trilby --- we'd continue on our walk.
There were nights when I was deep in thought and passed Tree without stopping. I would hear a meowing behind me. When I turned to look, there would be Trilby sitting next to Tree staring at me with a puzzled air. I had forgotten Tree. So I would have to walk back to cat and Tree. When I was back with them, Trilby would take care of Tree, and we could continue our walk.
Earlier this week when Trilby Kitty and I were out on our nightly walk, we rounded the corner only to find the street soaked with water even though it hadn't rained. I looked and there, running down driveway of Tree's yard, was a wide stream of water. Ordinarily, I would have knocked on the door to let them know, but the walk had been delayed and it was close to midnight ----- too late to knock. Instead Trilby helped himself to a drink and we continued the walk. The next night the street was still soaked, the water was still flowing, but I could see where they'd dug up part of their yard. I figured it was a busted pipe and wondered if a tree root had done it. The night after that, when I rounded the corner, the street was drying up. I was so focused on the water, I walked past the yard.
When I turned around to see if Trilby Kitty was following, my eyes grasped at emptiness trying to find what wasn't there. Tree was gone, and Trilby was sitting by a stump. My immediate reaction was "Oh shit." Of all the pets I've ever had, cats, or at least this particular cat, were the most dependent upon routine and the least able to adjust to changes in routine. When the amber bulbs in the street lamps had been replaced with white bulbs, Trilby had been freaked for a week. Now Tree, his favorite tree, a tree that had been part of his routine for all the years we'd been walking was gone overnight.
I walked back to Tree's stump and Trilby. When I got next to them, Trilby began rubbing up against Tree ---- something he'd never done before. He'd climbed Tree. He'd scratched Tree. He'd never rubbed Tree. But he rubbed and rubbed and rubbed. He circled the double stump and rubbed Tree from every side.........then rubbed some more. I didn't know if this was Trilby's way of saying goodbye or if he was trying to comfort himself or what he was doing.
When I figured he'd rubbed enough, I thought we could continue the walk so I took a few steps. Out of the blue, Trilby lunged after me and attacked my leg, biting it. I wasn't bothered as I understood that he was doing something that any psychiatrist would term "displaced aggression." He was upset, and I was a safe object to take that upset out on ------- a now bleeding, safe object. So I sat in the yard and cradled Trilby in my arms. Looking around, I thought the best thing for Trilby would be to get him interested in another tree on our walk.
In the next yard is a tree that grows at a steep angle, almost 45 degrees, like a ramp. Trilby occasionally enjoyed running up the tree. I went to the tree and called "Tree" to Trilby. He ran up the tree, but once there he turned around in confusion. This wasn't Tree. He tried scratching a branch, but it was too narrow. So he jumped down from it.
In the second yard was a tree that also has curling bark. It was a little close to the house and I'd never approached it before, but I wanted to try to find a new tree for Trilby. The bark wasn't tough but felt like tissue paper. Trilby walked up to it, then crouched down and stared at it, but wouldn't scratch it. This wasn't Tree either.
In the third yard was a skinny tree. Trilby got within about two yards of it, but no closer. Again this wasn't Tree.
And then the crying started. It was plaintive and pathetic, and it tore at my heart. Anyone who can hear a cat crying and not be moved to sympathy by the sound needs to get a new heart because the one they've got isn't doing its job. Trilby cried into the night, and even if he couldn't say the words, I could hear the words in his cry, "Tree? Tree? Where's Tree?"
I sat down on the curb knowing Trilby would come to me. He walked across the yard and rubbed against my back. I picked him up and put him on my lap in a position I always think of as "Lion King on His Throne." As I stroked Trilby and tried to soothe him, I found myself contemplating for the thousandth time just what our pets must think of us. We must seem so powerful to them. We make food and water appear. We can whisk them off in cars. Make it light or dark on a whim.
I wonder if they realize just how powerless we really are.
Any pet owner who's even been beside their pet lying on a cold, stainless steel table at the vet while the vet tells you the news you don't want to hear knows how helpless we are. Anyone who's ever seen a beloved pet suffer and been powerless to stop it knows how helpless we are. I couldn't do anything about Tree. Tree was gone and, what made it worse was, unlike with a child, I couldn't even explain to my cat why or how Tree could suddenly disappear from one night to the next.
All I could do was try to comfort my distressed cat and say to him that even though Tree was gone that I was here for him.
When I had him quieted, I set him down. Instead of continuing the walk, Trilby turned around and made a beeline back to Tree, only stopping to sniff some wood chips which had come from Tree. When he got to Tree, there was no rubbing. Instead Trilby just sat forlornly next to Tree's stump.
I thought I could distract him by taking him in a different direction, so I walked him to the park (an occasional destination on our nightly perambulations). But Trilby wasn't interested in the park. He started crying again.
So I ended up just taking him back home. Normally, after I drop off Trilby, it's my turn for exercise as I walk the remaining miles by myself. But not this night. Instead I lay down with Trilby. As we lay together, my heart ached for my saddened cat who missed his Tree.
To read more about Trilby Kitty there's "In the Mind of a Sleeping Cat," "The Devotion of a Cat," "His Person's Voice or A Cat Who Will Come When Called," or a few other pieces which you can find in the Archive. Trilby Kitty also makes a guest appearance in "The Suburban Wilds."
If you have a cat, I strongly recommend you read "7 Scary Things You Didn't Know about Your Pet's Food."