I want to introduce you to my best friend. She’s turning fifteen this month, and that deserves celebration.
One of the reasons I don’t waste time regretting the odd turns and phases of my life is that they always bring a gift. The autumn of 2003 was one of those random sidetracks. I was temporarily in Pensacola again, in a short-term attempt to save a relationship that ended soon after. Most of those days were unhappy. And I was getting sick of it.
In a characteristic attempt to punch back at darkness, I took a detour on my way home from classes one September day, and paid a visit to the Escambia County Animal Shelter.
When I told them I was interested in adopting a cat, they showed me down a long hallway. At the end was a room with a glass wall, and behind that were stacks of cat cages. Almost every one was filled with a sleeping or pacing or meowing animal, their voices muffled behind the glass.
As soon as I came around the corner, though, one cat was already staring at me. Staring like she knew I was coming. Sitting still, silent and alert, as though by sheer force of will she could convince me to get her the hell out of there.
I tried to make an effort to examine the other cats, but it was hopeless. She was the one.
I took her back home to my then-boyfriend, who helped me name her. She had been born in May, so we named her Maven.
Maven is a Korat, a silver-tipped blue-gray breed originally from Thailand. One of the rarest and best breeds of cat there is. She has green eyes, a heart-shaped face, a squawking meow, and as much intelligence as many people I’ve met.
I kept her with me in Pensacola, and when I went to Richmond for a year and then to France, she stayed with my family. One of the best things about having to come home from Europe was seeing her again.
She’s so observant. She wants to know everything, to monitor and to understand. And it never feels like the simple curiosity of another cat. It’s like she wants to be knowledgeable and competent, and aware of everything.
On the other hand, she’s also got a silly side. I don’t know if animals have a sense of humor, but Maven loves it when I’m laughing, and will start purring if she can make me crack up.
One of the most amazing things about this cat is her empathy. I don’t cry as much as I used to, but whenever I do, she’ll run to sit on my lap, boop her face into the tears, and purr until I hug her. When I’m sick, or had to have an operation, she’ll check on me. Even sometimes lay on my chest or legs until she’s sure I’m better.
She’s utterly loyal. She loves most people, but there’s never been any doubt that I’m hers.
As Maven’s gotten older, her tolerance for fighting and bad energy has gone down a lot. I’d always have to reassure her if I fought with my ex, and one of the things that’s made me want to straighten out my life is my desire to give her a good, calm place to live. She’s made so much effort to help me out of my worst headspaces, the least I can do is center her happiness.
She likes to play. One of her favorite games is to be covered in a sheet or blanket, while I pretend I don’t know where she is. I call her name, poke around through the sheet trying to “find” her, while she purrs and tries to bite me.
But she doesn’t really go for being tricked.
She talks back, lets me know when she doesn’t like things, and I swear she’s muttered a few cat-profanities at me.
I think one of the only real regrets of my life is that I left her with my parents in 2011 when I moved to DC for the first time. That separation was much harder on us than when we were both younger. The sadness in her eyes the day I left was just awful.
When I returned to Florida in 2013, I vowed never to live apart from her again.
And I haven’t.
She went with me to Pensacola, to New Orleans, to Ohio, and now to DC, all the while being a little trooper and acting as though it were a great adventure.
When I drove from Ohio to DC on this past New Year’s Eve, in the frigid weather and snow, she rode for eighteen hours in a crate with no complaints. She went to the bathroom in a shoebox, ate treats out of my hand, drank water from a bottlecap, and stayed much calmer than I was. She even went so far as to meow quietly in reassurance when I had to drive down mountains at twilight.
She’s been a huge part of what’s kept me going through the writing of my books. I call her my little Writing Gargoyle, as she’ll sit somewhere watching me type. If I’m writing a tense scene, she’ll feel it and wake up from her nap. I’ll have to reassure her that it’s all pretend, that my vibes are part of the process and nothing she needs to fix.
Eventually she’ll pass back out somewhere nearby, and I’ll keep typing to the sound of her purring.
She feels it when I’m overjoyed, too. When I pick her up in the air and tell her she’s my space cadet kitty, and put her on my head like a hat. She knows when things are going right. Even when all she can do in response is make her contented little grunt and chew on my rough drafts.
She’s made me a better person. Every time I lose my temper with her, I’m reminded that whatever I’m upset about is not as important as us. When I calm down, and explain things to her in quiet words, she usually listens and obeys.
It dawns on me, over and over, that having her in my life is not about making her behave.
It’s about being more like her — alert, compassionate, contented, self-assured, forgiving. Always ready to love.
This is a photo of me at one of the lowest moments of my life, when I really felt like giving up. Guess who stuck by my side?
And now that everything’s changed, I find the most important things really haven’t. I’m just better at valuing and protecting them. Though I do think it’s adorable how she’s tried to match my voice drop by meowing deeper.
I was scared of the responsibility of having a cat, and to this day it sometimes stuns me how this beautiful, trusting thing is dependent on me for happiness. It’s sobering, and I have to live up to it every day. Sometimes in the past fifteen years, I’ve had times where I didn’t want to care about anything, even myself. But I cared for her. And so often she’d pull me out of that dark space, just by being herself.
I don’t trust anybody Maven doesn’t like. I’d be willing to stop testosterone if it harmed her in any way. And when my house almost caught fire one day in New Orleans, I didn’t take my computer, or my novel notes, or even my phone. I grabbed my cat, and I ran out.
One day she will die. And I will be absolutely devastated. A part of me will leave with her. She’s fifteen now, and while Korats are a long-lived breed, the day will come. I’ve been thinking about it for the past few years. And while there’s no way to prepare yourself to lose something of such importance, I have developed the habit of trying to love her as though each time I see her might be the last time.
Because shouldn’t that be the gold standard of love anyway?
Maven’s my soulmate, in a funny way. Nobody taught me that it might be an animal companion, and yet here we are. And I wouldn’t change a thing, except to have given her even more happiness.
She’s jumped up on my lap at least three times while I wrote this. And once I hit publish, I’m going to read it to her, in the off chance that she can understand English as well as I suspect she can.
She might just wander off and fall asleep, listening to my voice, But that’s fine. I’ll take fifteen more years of that, please.
Happy birthday, sweetheart.