As soon as I saw Hissy’s sweet, sad face looking up at me from her photo on Petfinder, I knew she was my baby. Her bio mentioned a sister, Fitz, and the fact that both were “shy.” Besotted as I was with my new little girl, and having spent nearly every day from infancy on with my parents’ feline companions, I figured a) two cats couldn’t be that much more difficult than one and b) their shyness would wear off within a week or so. Even when their foster mom explained to me that Hissy and Fitz were something called “semi-feral,” I remained unfazed. I was beyond psyched about the prospect of having my very own cats and my brain was swimming in furry magical thinking. I couldn’t wait for their foster mom to leave us so we could get to the business of cuddling like champs.
Except Hissy and Fitz wrapped themselves around the toilet and wouldn’t come out and it didn’t take long for me to wonder what I had got myself into.
Semi-feral animals typically have had some exposure to and comfort level with humans. Hissy and Fitz had been rescued as kittens from the mean streets of Brooklyn and fostered until they were ten months old, when they came to me. I can only imagine how devastated they must have been to lose the only person in the world on whom they’d come to rely, only to end up in a strange house with a ding-dong who hadn’t even troubled to set up a special “cat room,” as one is supposed to do with new semi-feral adoptees, not that this is an easy task in a tiny New York apartment. Besides, the girls seemed to have decided that the bathroom was their Dedicated Cat Room; they didn’t emerge from their sanctuary for a good five days, and then, it was to seek shelter under the living room couch.
As a PTSD sufferer, I had not a little in common with my two new babies, and I took their rejection of me very personally. Their foster mom said not to, that they knew they were home and it was a matter of time and patience. She came over and helped herd the girls into my bedroom, where we placed the food and litter box and their beloved bouncy balls. Occasionally they would paw at them; although they didn’t feel like playing, I took that as a good sign. Another good sign was while they didn’t let me pet them, they slept on my bed and bestowed me with long, blinking glances, which my foster mom called “kitty kisses” and encouraged me to return.
Hissy and Fitz and I stayed in my room together for most of the summer of 2001. I had just lost my first job, and when I wasn’t half-heartedly emailing my resume to headhunters, I was curled up in my room, either reading or trying to write overwrought fiction. The three of us eventually drew something of a truce. They understood I was now the person who would feed and water them, so they would reward me by sleeping on my bed and merely running away instead of yowling and scratching if I tried to pet them. I responded by giving them as wide a berth as possible, giving them kitty kisses, and crooning nonsense words to them.
We existed in that state of mutual fear and repressed affection for a good five years. Hissy and Fitz were relaxed enough to saunter around the apartment and lay on furniture like any other cats, but if you came too close to them, forget it. It was not unlike the habits of their human, who was able to work a series of office jobs but whose inner psychological state was as fragile as crystalline. People couldn’t believe I was copacetic with living with two cats who wouldn’t let me pet them. I can’t say that I was, but to give them up was unthinkable. Although I wouldn’t realize this until much later, it would have been like giving up on myself.
In the summer of 2006, seemingly out of nowhere, Hissy began head butting my shins. Sometimes I could even sneak in a little head scratch before she went bounding for the safety of the couch. I wish I spoke cat well well enough to figure out what had changed her mind. When it fell upon me to save poor Hissy’s life - she’d been chewing on a piece of thread that had a needle still attached, and she swallowed the needle - it became clear to her, at long last, that I was one of the Good Humans, and I would never let her down. Head butts led to head scratches and soon Hissy was snuggling next to me on the pillow. Through the miracle of cat communication, Fitz soon followed suit.
Our remaining seven and a half years together would turn out to be a big furry cat pile of unbridled love and affection. Hissy developed a meow I interpreted as her saying “You pet me NOW!” and Fitz took to wrapping herself around my neck as we curled up in bed. They remained scared of houseguests, but not so scared that they wouldn’t adhere themselves to my person when people came over, giving them wide-eyed stares. In 2011, when my dad had to move in with me to care for me when I broke my foot, he became Hissy and Fitz’s caretaker too, and they soon came to appreciate this new, gentle person who put out their food and water in my stead. (I am still kicking myself for not saving the series of photos I took of Fitz crawling around on my dad as he lay on my living room couch. Such is the plight of dying iPhones.) It became unthinkable to me that these were the same two cats who’d shied away from my slightest movement, let alone touch.
Sadly, even the most wonderful people and things are not immortal. Hissy’s kidneys started to fail in June 2013; we were able to bring her back from the edge for another eleven months with weekly injections of saline and Vitamin B, but when she crawled under the bed and wouldn’t come out until I picked her up in May 2014, I knew it was time to see her “back to her home planet,” as a fellow cat friend phrased it when her beloved feline passed, just as I had with sweet Fitz three months earlier when she was dramatically sidelined by an undiagnosed heart ailment. With both girls, I held and cuddled and cried over them until I felt ready to see them off. As wrenching as it was, I am grateful for those final hours of love and that they died so peacefully in my arms.
I wish I’d had more time with Hissy and Fitz, more years of cuddling, more years of their engaging the world on their own terms rather than being terrified by it. They were special not just because they were my “first babies,” but because their affection was so hard-won, and because it was, it was all the sweeter. New feline companions, Lena and Beckett, have since found their way into my life. I adore them too, but I will always miss my semi-feral darlings. We had a lot in common and we grew and changed together, and if there is such a thing as an afterlife, I like to imagine it as a big blanket where we can curl up with our dearly departed animal companions and cuddle for eternity.