As my teen grew up and away from me, a sweet little bundle of fur brought us back together
My girl slips in the back door after a long day at the end of a long week. She looks weary and defeated. Her big brown eyes are dragging suitcases under them. It’s tough to be a high school freshman these days.
But all her dog-tiredness disappears when a certain black-and-white friend spirits into the room.
“Shadow!” she shouts, eyes sparking, smile lighting up her face. She shimmies out of her too-heavy pack, drops her violin and scoops a petite tuxedo cat into a tight embrace. “How was your day, buddy?” she baby talks. All her worries — grades, friends, science fair, ballet roles — are shed as easily as her instrument and lunchbox.
I watch from a few feet back as my guarded teen forgets to keep her feelings tucked away. She buries her face in her little guy’s thick fur and whispers sweet nothings to him. I think to myself: This is why I love this kitty best of all.
Like most of us, I’ve enjoyed a parade of pets through the years: an Irish Setter mutt, a series of goldfish, a milk-white bunny with black olive eyes. There was a Lhasa Apso and a Pit Bull. And Gracie and Eliot, two extremely patient cats who followed me through my 20s and into my 40s — from Boston to Atlanta to Raleigh to Roanoke.
After they died, I thought I’d never have another fur baby. At the time, I had three small humans that demanded more feeding and grooming and training and walking than I could muster most days.
If I’m honest with myself, I’ll admit I’ve never had a deep connection to animals. I’ve done my share of snuggling, sure. And my longtime feline duo certainly cheered me through many lonely nights and stressful days. But none of them ever made me feel as if my heart were beating outside my chest.
Not like this cutie.
Is it that Shadow happens to have the sweetest personality of any pet on the planet? Since he came into our home after being rescued from beside a Franklin County dumpster two Christmases ago, he has scratched no furniture and wouldn’t dream of hurting a human. He stays close by when let outside and even leaves most of the wildlife alone.
He hides under furniture, revealing only his tiny white toes, then playfully pounces when we walk by. If we clink a spoon on glass, he knows a scoop of tuna will follow and starts into a happy dance that rivals any penguin’s. When he winds himself into a tight, black ball to snooze in a patch of sunlight, it’s all I can do to keep myself from uttering an audible “awwww.”
But it’s not only Shadow’s charm that has me wrapped around his dew claw. The difference is my daughter.
Seeing my girl so smitten has made me love this cat double. I love him. And I love her loving him.
When our kids are babies, toddlers, even elementary schoolers, there’s so much — joy, laughter, loud, hugs, tears. But as they get older, all those heart-on-the-sleeve moments are replaced by … hardly anything at all.
My teens don’t sit on my lap or pull me close when they’re afraid or want me to kiss their boo-boos. But my daughter, she can get that kind of comfort from her kitty.
And so can I.
At this moment, when my taste in tunes is eye-roll-worthy and most of my advice is “cringe-y,” Shadow is something we share. We swap stories about him. I care for him when she’s away. And because she wants to do right by her baby, she’s open to my lessons on how to respectfully raise another living being.
Watching my high schooler with her kitty, I see sides of her that she doesn’t often reveal. She is doting when she bakes him a cake on his birthday, nurturing when she applies his flea medicine even though he whines and wiggles, responsible when she chides us if we over-feed him while she’s at school.
This fall, Shadow got into a couple scrapes with a neighborhood stray. As I worried about him, I realized how much he has come to mean to me. If he were seriously hurt, I would be crushed. But then I think of how devastated my daughter would be to lose her little guy and my heart absolutely shatters.
I love this kitty best of all because my daughter’s devotion magnifies my feelings for him.
There is a hug that a toddler and a mama share. It’s so tight everything else falls away and all that is true is the two of you. Back when my kids were toddlers, I thought I’d be able to reach for that hug forever. Now I know that holding tight to this adorable kitty — the same one my daughter snuggles with every night — will have to take that special embrace’s place.
It will do.
This essay first appeared in The Roanoker magazine’s March/April 2019 issue.