It rained this past weekend and I went outside and rescued our old cat, hiding under the bushes. And had an afternoon of autism…
We used to feed him when he was wandering the streets of Louisville. The woman next to us “owned” him, but had no name for him. She called him “Kitty” when she talked about him, and since no self-respecting male cat goes by “Kitty”, he became Kiki to us-not much better, perhaps, but a name nonetheless. She rarely fed him and the day that I found him at our doorstep during an ice storm was the day we took over care of Kiki. He was a beautiful orange tabby cat, king of the neighborhood, with an attitude and a swagger to match. His attitude taught me much about the power of bravado and positive thinking because he was declawed. The cruelty of having a declawed cat as a stray was too much for me.
When we moved houses in Louisville, we took Kiki with us. I was bound and determined that he would be a part of our family, and for three very long months, he and I took on the opposing forces of my two other cats. I kept Kiki inside to become adjusted to this, his new home- separated by several major streets from his old haunts. No “Incredible Journey” for us! My other two cats, spoiled darlings, rescued themselves from a feral life, would have none of him. They hissed at him, and peed on everything. They ganged up on this interloper.
The worst part was that Kiki- that Frank Sinatra of a cat- had lost his mojo. He would shake and shiver all day. He cowered from the bullying of my other cats. The straw that broke my back came when I picked up Kiki from my bed one morning after three long months of cleaning cat urine up, and he had peed all over it. I placed him outside, where he almost immediately regained his swagger and his zest for life. He kept that swagger when we moved to Georgia, muting it a bit with age and the tropical temperature, but still King of the Backyard. He and Bailey play together. He thinks he’s part dog. Ice storms are no longer an issue. And thus it is- we have two indoor cats and one outdoor cat- and everyone is happier for it.
But Kiki has one Achille’s Heel- he is terrified of thunder. Terrified. Not a very good thing for an exclusively outdoor cat to be terrified of. And we live on a sub-tropical island. We’ve been having some terrific/horrific thunderstorms lately, and normally, Kiki goes to ground. Where, I do not always know.
But this past Saturday afternoon, I found him, right when the sky was blackening and the thunder rumbling in the distance, pressed into the leaves, under the bushes, flat as he could be. I picked him up in a towel, and he and I spent the afternoon with him wrapped in a towel on my lap, while it roared and thundered and grumbled outside. He was warm and I was cozy, reading “Eat, Pray, Love”- an afternoon to enjoy while Ray played in his room and Elizabeth was over at Emily’s.
I was struck, as I held the cat, normally happy and content in his sunshine, cowering, barely breathing, eyes half-closed from fear, taking the warmth from my body, how similar this was to when I snuggled my children, offering the warmth of my body as they cowered in fear, autism taking the breath from their bodies. How some sensation- storms, sand, darkness- strikes terror into all of them at a primal level.
I was reminded of Temple Grandin’s relationship with animals and how she recognizes her own autistic tendencies in them- or them in herself. I could recognize that there was no language that Kiki was processing his reactions- this was pure terror. But there was trust of me.
And I’m also painfully aware of how the reactions of my cats to this interloper with his fear and how those hisses and slitted looks of irritation the inside kitties are making are remarkable similar to the looks that we get from others when a meltdown is threatening. How Ray’s spitting and anxiety can create a withdrawal from the people around us that is no different than the deep looks of suspicion that my spoiled fat girl cats sent my direction this afternoon. How Elizabeth’s high-pitched EEEEs can produce the same offended look and a turning away, but with continued, fascinated looks back.
I swatted the other cats off of the couch, creating an island of safety, of warmth, of love. I wish I could do the same for the people at restaurant, at the mall, at the grocery store. It is at that very primal level that I offer help- how my body, my love, my arms, a towel- surrounding the cat, my children, me… that we are safe. We are safe. On a rainy Saturday afternoon, fear and love war with each other for primacy.
And today, love won.