When I first met Harriet, she was about four months old. At the time, I was an intern at a university hospital. She was brought to the emergency service of the hospital as a stray. Typically, stray animals were turned over to the local animal control. This kitten, however, had a foreign body which required surgical removal to save her life. Without an owner to pay for the surgery, animal control had made the decision to euthanize her. One of the other interns had alerted me to the situation and that’s when I stepped in. As an intern, I had no money to pay for her surgery but I knew I had to do something. I went around the hospital collecting five and ten dollar bills from anyone interested in helping. When I had the total amount, I adopted her before she left the building. She had the surgery that day. She recovered with no complication. The sutures were removed two weeks later and she was off to my house. By the time she left the hospital, she had a name. She was officially Harriet, named after one of my favorite lakes in Minneapolis.
I was worried about bringing Harriet home. I already had two cats and my roommate had two cats. Bringing a fifth cat into the house could have easily upset the balance we’d created. I brought her home placed the carrier down in the living room. She stayed in the carrier while the other cats got accustomed to the idea that they had a new housemate to contend with. After an hour or so, we opened the carrier door. This was the exact moment I knew that I had a troublemaker on my hands. Harriet, rather than peeking out of the carrier or taking off to run and hide, literally sprang out like a cannonball. She landed squarely in the middle of the room with a loud and clear pronouncement that she was here and that she was staying. I was in love with her right away.
Interestingly, Harriet intuitively understood that Emilio and Madelline, my other two cats, were her tribe – not my roommate’s cats. The three of them became fast friends and allies. She also became the most likely to cause me a headache. Some of her favorite adolescent antics included opening cabinet doors and throwing every available cup and mug to the floor, tearing up rugs, running full speed around my bedroom at 4 a.m., and destroying shower curtains. There was no amount of trouble that was too big or too small for her. This all sounds like it could be very annoying and it was. The only issue was that she did it with such zeal and such joy that the only way to see it was with an equal amount of happiness. Through her chaos, she brought me absolute happiness.
On the list of naughty behavior, was Harriet’s propensity to want to escape. The first time, she was only about one year of age. Our house had been broken into. The thief had broken a kitchen window and climbed in. The thief, by doing this, left a reasonable escape route for a cat longing to explore the wide world outside. Coming home that night had two unpleasant surprises for me. A ransacked house and one less cat than was there that morning. I was more upset about Harriet being gone than the burglary. I spent the entire week going to every animal control center and calling every shelter to see if they’d found a gray cat roaming my neighborhood. I made “lost cat” signs that I left at every police station and placed on every telephone pole within a ten-mile radius of my house. The search was frantic and I was devastated.
I had been searching for exactly one week. On the seventh day, I was outside bringing the garbage out and I heard a faint meow. I called out Harriet’s name and out she walked from some hedges in the backyard. She walked calmly and happily and sat at my feet ready to be picked up and carried back inside. She had her adventure but she was clearly done and ready to go back inside. I was simultaneously relieved and ready to wring her little neck. I was more relieved however so I hugged her for about an hour.
I wish I could say that this was her only escape. I even wish I could say she only escaped once more after this. The truth is that she has escaped at least once from every place that I have lived since that time. These other adventures last only for a few hours or overnight at the most. Each time, she was hugged for an extensive period of time upon her return home.
When Harriet was seven, she stopped eating which was very unusual for her. She loved life and as part of that she loved eating so I knew something was wrong. She was ultimately diagnosed with acute and severe inflammatory bowel disease. She was in the intensive care unit at the hospital I worked at for two weeks. She had a feeding tube, a central line, and she was on multiple medications to try to control her disease.
She initially responded to nothing. The internists and the critical care doctors were preparing me for her to die. At day ten of her hospitalization, one of the internist pulled me aside and asked if she could try a very aggressive treatment to try to turn things around for Harriet. It was a scary treatment option. The internist is someone that I respected and trusted and there was not much to lose. So we proceeded and four days later, she was feeling better, eating on her own, and she was discharged. She was on medication for this issue for most of her life but with great spirit and great dignity, she never looked back. She went back to leaving a wake of terror behind her.
Harriet was not only a terror, she was also very sweet and very affectionate. In the lull between the bouts of chaos, she loved cuddling up with me or one of the other cats. She purred loudly when she was happy which was most of the time. She loved being carried, she loved sleeping on my chest or on my lap. She would rub her entire body against me if she felt that I was not giving her enough attention. She would seek me out to comfort me when I was tired or sad.
Harriet was a one-man cat. She did not really like too many other people. This made it a bit difficult for Connor when he started coming around. She had obvious disdain for him at first and she would do everything in her power to ignore or avoid him. The relationship between them was built very slowly. She was cautious of him but over a long period of time, she realized that Connor was a valuable member of the tribe. She realized that having two options of shoulders to lay on was way better than one. She learned that she could love and trust another human being as much as she loved me.
For Connor’s part, he was wary of her at first as well. But as they grew to know and love each other, I came to find that he would carry her around the house like a baby. He would spend more and more time with her. Connor developed many nicknames for her. The number of nicknames that Connor gives you is directly correlated to how much he loves you. She had more nicknames than I could count. She would call her “gray cat,” “gray storm,” “gray kitty,” “bitch cat,” “sweet cat,” and several others. It was heartwarming to see them together. It was heartwarming and a strong affirmation of the network of love I had built around me.
As I write this and as I reflect on her life, I realize more and more that her love was pure and absolute. It has only been one week since she left us and Connor and I both still cry every day. We talk about her all the time and we support each other as we work through the grief. More importantly though, we celebrate her life and all that she gave us. She will be very missed.