The Life and Times of Florence Knitingale

Friday, September 08, 2006

Loving Gussie

This is Gussie. Or, more accurately, it is the back of Gussie's head as she is sitting in my lap at the computer. In truth, it is more of her than most people will ever see, which gives it a pleasing sort of appropriateness. Gussie adopted me rather determinedly about 5 years ago when I was volunteering at an animal shelter. She is semi-feral--born to a wild mother and rescued at the age of 12 weeks. She was terrified, huddled in the back of the cage when I first saw her. I took her out, held her to me, stroked her and whispered to her while she trembled. Eventually, though, she relaxed and began to purr, her face tucked into my neck. The manager of the shelter said "That's your cat, you know." As if I needed to be told.

In addition to being semi-feral, Gussie is also part Siamese. She has the long, slender body of a Siamese, as well as the pointy face, yowl, intelligence, and as much curiousity as fear, her nearly constant companion, will allow. Another trait of Meezers, is that they tend to bond fiercely to one person. For Gussie, I am that person. I believe that she would find the world quite perfect if she and I were the only beings in it, and she could have some part of her body touching some part of my body most of the time.

Gussie spent the first two days of her life at my house under the bed. She didn't lose weight or have any accidents, so she must have come out at some point, but I never saw her. I thought this would change as she settled in, and it did a little. But not much. 5 years later, she is still a phantom, a ghost cat, moving through the house nearly invisibly, and almost always running. By many standards, Gussie is not an easy cat to love.

Most people think of cats as aloof, but they assume they will get to see their cat, pet their cat, even cuddle with their cat. Gussie is not aloof, but she is always afraid. She is not comfortable being vulnerable or exposed, so she does not stretch out in sunbeams or curl up prettily on cushions--when she is not with me, I generally do not know where she is. Sometimes, when I finish showering and getting dressed, I'll emerge from the bedroom to find her sitting silently at the foot of the stairs, gazing up at me with her huge, yellow eyes. If I make to walk down the stairs to pet her, she runs. Her world is generally under things or in closets if she can find one open. I can find her if I look for her, but I've learned from experience that she often abandons a place once it's been found. For that reason, I no longer look for her. I did have to shut the door to the spare room because she became so fond of the space under the dresser that she would literally rub the hair off of her back on the wooden edge as she ran underneath it.

Picking Gussie up is asking for lacerations. She can't tolerate feeling trapped or held in any way, and so goes quite berserk the minute two hands are on her at the same time. When it becomes necessary to trap her (to go to the vet, for instance, or when moving house), she emits a horrible, heartbreaking howl that sounds for all the world like she's being run through with a sharp object. I've cried each time I've had to move her; I've cried in the car all the way over, as has she.

If I sneeze with Gussie in my lap, I'll have bleeding scratches from her frantic attempts to run from the noise. If I travel for a week or more, I'll come home to find her physically ill from the stress of having me gone. In all of her life, there have been only 3 or 4 people other than myself whom she has allowed to touch her. She does not much care for Mr. Knitingale, although she will tolerate him if I'm present. The last time I went away without him, Gussie spent most of my trip glaring balefully at him from under chairs, seemingly convinced that he was responsible for my disappearance; that he knew where I was and was holding out on her. When I'm knitting, she will sit on the back of the couch and lean heavily against my head, yowling in my ear with far more volume than melody. If I don't respond quickly enough (that is, by dropping my knitting and petting her), she will whip me with her tail--which, given that her tail has a small, bony kink at the tip, is not unlike being smacked repeatedly about the face with a rope with a knot in the end.

No, Gussie is not the easiest cat to love. I have had people describe her as neurotic. Her life seems sad, lonely, driven by the terror she can never quite shake. Still, I love her unreasonably. I love her more than I've ever loved a cat. Perhaps it is her absolute devotion to me or, more likely, the tremendous amount of work it takes her to demonstrate that devotion. Given her level of fear, I can only imagine the effort involved in leaping into my lap each day as I peruse the internet. Her body is always tense at these times--ready to run should the need arise--but she stays. She even purrs, and rubs her face against me over and over, but with one ear always turned towards the door. As I said, she does not care for Mr. Knitingale, but will nonetheless come to snuggle against me in bed, albeit always with my body between hers and the offending OTHER person in the bed. Under the covers, she curls up against my back, moving only when I do, to make certain that she does not lose contact with me until I'm asleep; only then does she leave me to go wherever it is that she goes. If I am sick, she will lie on or next to me all day, leaving only to eat and use the litterbox. If I'm crying, she will not leave my side until I stop. And you can see how much it costs her, how the stress has her thrumming like a coiled spring. Her sleep when she is not hidden is fitful, her tail twitches seemingly without her input, her ears move constantly. But she loves me without limit, and she is determined.

One night, Hubby was lying awake in the wee hours, and happened to see Gussie as she came trotting purposefully into the room. She is normally loudly talkative when coming into a room where she knows I am; this time, she made no sound. She leaped onto the bed, walked carefully up until she stood by my face. She looked down at me for a moment, then meowed very softly ("softly" is not a word normally in her meowing lexicon). I didn't awaken or move. Seemingly satisfied, she trotted back out of the room to whatever place made her feel safe. I'm anthropomorphizing, I know--but I can only think that she was checking on me. In the words of Winnie the Pooh, she was "making sure" of me, and leaving her place of security to do it. I have no idea how many times in a night she does this, but I've awakened once or twice since then to find her standing patiently over me, watching but silent; slipping away as soon as she was content that all was well.

It is a bit humbling to be loved this way. Gracie, although fond of me, would trade me in a heartbeat for a can of Super Supper and a catnip mouse. Ed is content as long as the barn across the street has mice. But Gussie--Gussie courts terror on a daily basis, entirely out of love. How many of us would surrender so much to love so fully? How much sweeter, how much gentler would the world be if more of us did?


  • At 8:53 PM, Anonymous Lee said…

    I have just (rules for painting a and copied to my niece who is painting a bathroom as I type this!) discovered your blog and now you post this wonderful paean to The Cat.

    Elsa (She Who Must Be Obeyed aka The Cat in The Window) doesn't understand why I picked her up and gave her an extra hug just now...aren't they wonderful?

  • At 9:21 PM, Blogger Ms. Knitingale said…

    Lee, thank you SO much for letting me know that my writing touched you. It means more to me than you might guess. Give Elsa an extra hug for me. They ARE wonderful, and I wouldn't trade any of them for anything.

  • At 4:54 AM, Anonymous Marianne said…

    Oh, well, there you go, I love Gussie, please tell her for me. I've been there.
    "Christopher Robin?" whispered Pooh. "Yes, Pooh Bear?" "I'll never not remember you....ever."
    I'd say you and Gussie have shared past lives...for such a strong tie, you're both lucky (what am I saying?) I'm just saying...and you know this in your was always meant to be.
    I love this post, laughter and tears.
    Thank you.

  • At 5:05 AM, Anonymous Marianne said…

    I'm back, was just looking at Gussie's photo, the back of her head, am I the only one, but the backs of cats' heads ....there's just something so endearing...

  • At 9:05 AM, Blogger CarryFairie said…

    ME!!! Gussie loves ME too!! :) Or, well, she used to...she hasn't sat on my lap in ages, but she has and quite willingly too! :)

    Give that Guss a scratch behind the ear for me...

  • At 5:25 AM, Anonymous Elle in Conn said…

    Have you considered some kind of homeopathic remedy for this poor cat? I wouldn't know which one, but emotional problems can often be helped homeopathically. My #1 daughter needs "pulsatilla" frequently, but my second one only needs "a barn full of mice". And non-humans are just as treatable as us bi-peds.

    Best wishes.

  • At 5:49 PM, Blogger Ms. Knitingale said…

    Hi, Elle--

    You're so sweet to worry about my Gussie! No, I haven't tried anything homeopathic, although I've considered many options very carefully. The truth is that holding this cat down for any reason--including giving her any sort of medicine or treatment--is so traumatic to her that she once became literally paralyzed with fear when I had no choice but to do it. Scared me to death. The vet assures me that there is nothing "wrong" with Gussie per se; she is simply semi-feral and so is for all intents and purposes a wild animal. She is reacting to instincts that kept her alive in the wild. Those instincts are not particularly adaptive in a loving home, but the vet further assures me that she is neither suffering nor unhappy and that the best thing for me to do is to love her exactly as she is (and to feel honored that she makes the effort to love me back). Thank you so much for caring!


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