Notorious MLE and Her Talking Bear
My mom lived to be 100 years old. When she was 94 and unable to get out much anymore, she got Emily as a kitten, to keep her company. She was my Aunt Virginia's pick of a litter, a little black and white tuxedo cat from Kern County. When she was old enough, she came to live with my mom in her little mobile home near the beach in Carpinteria, Santa Barbara County. That was Emily's whole world for the first seven years of her life.
Somehow my mom convinced the cat that going outside was a great danger, so that whenever the door to the outside was opened, Emily would jump away from it, and retreat to some other part of the house. She never went outside and had to find ways to amuse herself with what she had. She minutely examined every square inch of that place and noticed immediately when something was moved or something new appeared. She never knew another cat in her adult life, but she had a little brown stuffed bear that she moved around and meowed at when nobody was looking.
She was very skilled at hiding. My mom's mobile home was no more than 700 sq. feet at the most. Yet Emily could find impossible locations to disappear into: deep into a box on the clothes closet floor, up on a closet shelf with the blankets, behind the undisturbed knick-knacks on a bookshelf, a box behind the mops and cleaning supplies; and one day she had me completely baffled. Mom was sure she had gotten out. It turned out she was up in the upper cabinet above the kitchen sink with its doors closed, and had gotten in and behind the water glasses near the front without dislodging them. I had to take all the glassware out to remove her. It's pretty hard to figure how she did that.
And then one time, she was hiding in plain sight in another impossible feat. I was surprised to find her on top of a wooden pendulum clock my mom had hung on the wall with the tiniest little old lady finishing nail. It's really inconceivable how she got there.
My mom had to move around the house with a walker. Her pace was very slow. Emily devised a game to make of it. She would lie down in the obvious path of Mom's travel and watch as the walker clicked forward, 3 or 4 inches at a time. Mom would say, "Emily, get out of the way, I'm going to run over you!" Emily would hold her ground until the very last second, and when the wheels on the front of the walker came within a hair of her paw, Emily would get up, move a few feet down the hall, lie down again with her tail twitching, and repeat their game of chicken.
One of Emily's strategic spots was on a sewing machine cabinet between the recliner and the front window. The big attraction was the hummingbirds that came to sip on the orange sage flowers in the window box. Sometimes she got so worked up with her teeth chattering in primal excitement, she would lunge into the screen or closed window.
She grew into a luxuriant black and white beauty of a cat, not fat, but well fed. So she and my mom lived there happily for years, constant companions when Mom was home, lounging together in the recliner near the front window, watching out the window a view of the comings and goings of neighbors, and the birds at the flower box, and curled up behind Mom's knees in bed at night.
There was just one problem. My mom was sort of jumpy, and when startled by a noise outside or the loud phone ringing she would make an exclamation. That would in turn startle Emily; so Emily grew up to be as jumpy as Mom was. The problem became serious when Emily typically would be sleeping on Mom's lap and one of these noises would send Emily from sound asleep to tearing off in panic to go hide somewhere, but in her scrambling she would slash the paper-thin skin on my mom's arm. This had happened several times, once requiring stitches.
My mom, with her limited mobility and arthritic hands could not manage to clip Emily's nails, so from time to time, she would enlist some unsuspecting male relative to come over and take her cat to a local pet grooming place for a professional trimming. This is how Emily became suspicious of strangers and earned her reputation as a kitty not to be trifled with. From time to time, a stranger would come chase her around the house, catch her, put her in her cat carrier, and take her away to the pet shop where job could be done. She made them pay a price for their good deeds: It was a rare occasion when this could be done without bloodshed. My son, Johnny, took most of the brunt; she would run and hide when she heard his BMW pull up. My brother-in-law Bob, my cousin Lowell, (probably others, I'll have to check) deserve to be acknowledged for the wounds they suffered.
At 97, my mom had fallen down repeatedly, we determined that she could not live alone anymore and that it would be best if I stay at her house and let her have a few more years at home. The job of catching Emily and getting her nails trimmed came with the territory. She scratched and bit me the first time but I didn't flinch, and after she realized that her worst weapons are not going to work on me; that I'm gentle when I do get a hold of her; and nothing bad happens; she learned to surrender, grumbling. At the pet shop, young Jose is calm and good natured and somehow in a matter of it seems like two minutes; he takes the cage, disappears into the back room, takes her out, clips all her nails so quickly and efficiently she does not have time to work up her resistance, returns her back in her carrier and back out to the counter where I'm waiting. Maybe it's because she's in a room with wet dogs in wash tubs back there, and she doesn't want to make any trouble. Jose always says that she was no problem at all. He even gave her a bath one time.
So I had been there for maybe a year and she had gotten used to having me around, but still I couldn't pet her. She would take a bump-sniff of my fingertip as a greeting like almost all cats will, but she objected to any move that suggested overhand head-petting: That's the motion people would make when they were going to try to catch her. She would take a swipe at any visitor who innocently attempted that.
She was pretty much a one-person cat. She would follow my mom around the house, and sleep in her lap in the recliner until Mom would switch off the TV and announce, "Time to go to bed, Emily." Emily would get up, stretch and jump down to position herself on the rug to be exactly in the way; ready for another game of chicken.
I slept on a daybed on the porch. One night, in the early hours of the morning, I woke up abruptly. Emily was batting me on my leg. That was so peculiar I looked around and realized the light was on in my mom's room. I got up to check. Mom was awake, sitting up in bed, and had been having chest pains and other signs she was having a heart attack. The symptoms had subsided. I stayed up with her the rest of the night and it didn't happen again. The next morning we went her doctor, who took a blood sample and by the markers confirmed that indeed, she had experienced a heart attack. That was the only heart attack she had in her whole long life, never had another one.
Somehow little Emily, with the brain a little bigger than a walnut, realized that something serious was happening to Mom, and that I needed to be told about it. How could she analyze the world of humans and know if, when and how she should intervene? She overcame her wariness about me, took action and woke me up!
My mom died about a year later; not of a heart attack, not of any identifiable ailment. She was ready to go. She had reached her 100th birthday, had no more goals, and one day looking at her daily pile of pills, she said, "This is a losing battle," and stopped taking them. She was worried about what would to happen to Emily after she was gone, being such a hard cat for anybody to get close to. And so, Emily came home to live with me and Carol in Petaluma.
I spent a month and a half getting my mom's house ready for sale. Finally we made the one-way 400-mile car ride to Northern California, January 2013: Me, Em, and the bear.
In Petaluma, she began to find places of refuge and came to think of my room as her uncontested safe space. At first, she challenged Carol for the back bedroom in a hissy encounter. It remained a standoff between them for the first year, but when I would go away for long weekends and Em had to rely on Carol for food and water, they began to work out a detente.
Once she was comfortable around the house, we let her experiment with going outside. Her dream had always been to go chase the birds. She found out that it isn't so easy. She had no chance of snagging a hummingbird. She would try to sneak up on birds on the lawn, but they were completely wise to her. Then the birds began to post chirping sentries over where she was "hiding" (a black and white cat against a bright green background) and some days they would swoop down to harass her directly. It had seemed like fun when there was a window screen between them. She decided to become almost exclusively an indoor cat, and when she does go out to the deck, she always lounges under a chair or plant stand so she won't be exposed from above.
Before long Emily settled in and accepted me as her buddy and protector, and she had become a one-man cat. She kept Carol at a distance for the first few years. But now I think we all bonded over the bear.
Emily's bear came with us to Northern California. At my mom's, I had noticed that Emily did not meow except a little barely perceptible "mrrp" when she liked something. But sometimes when she was alone with the bear; you would hear a lot of loud meowing.
I lived with Emily and observed her act for about eight years. She only moved the bear when there was nobody around to see. In all that time, I'd only seen the bear in her mouth twice. Each time as soon as she saw me, she dropped the bear and walked away. You would find the bear at different locations in the house, but never see it being moved. From time to time, maybe once a week, we would hear a lot of meowing from the other room, or the hall. It was every kind of cat vocalization you could imagine with lots of trills and meowls. When you went to look, Emily would be there, standing over the bear, and the sound had stopped, and she walked away. Or she had disappeared just before you got there. She was an illusionist; a ventriloquist. She wanted us to believe that the bear moves itself around, and talks!
Somewhere along the line, I started playing along: When Emily wasn't looking, I would go and hide the bear in the living room. The next time I saw Emily I'd say, Emily, do you know where that bear might be?" and the game is on: When I'm not looking, she will find the bear and move it to the middle of the floor, and leave the room. Then when I happen through the room, often hours later, there it is and I will say loudly "Oh Emily, look, the bear came back!"
Carol started hiding the bear during the day when I'm gone. We people can move the bear when Emily is watching, just not when we're doing the hiding. So the game continues. Sometimes Carol and I are on the couch and we'll hear a whole lot of meowling in the hall, and I'll say, "Carol, do you hear a bear? I think I hear a bear in the hall!"and Carol says, "I hear a bear, too!" Then I get up and go look, and sure enough, the bear is laying in the hall, and Emily is no where to be seen. The bear always has its left paw behind its left ear when it's been talking -- apparently a good listener too.
Her tail was completely black except for a tiny patch of white on its very tip. Sometimes when we were sitting in the living room and the bear had been recently hidden, Emily would walk in and sit down. I'd say, "Emily, do know where that bear might be?" You could barely detect a flicker of reaction in her eyes, but nothing else. Then I'd say, "Emily. Are you thinking about that bear?" She'd stay motionless and maintain her poker face except for a tiny twitch at the snowy tip on the end of her tail. With us sitting right there, she'd wait a few moments for us to change the subject and go back to what we were talking about, then she'd nonchalantly saunter through the room surreptitiously scanning for the bear, and when she did spot it, she didn't let on: She'd keep walking and wait for the opportunity to move it without witnesses. The game would never stop.
Over the last 12 years I've done a lot of work on the Sebastopol property of my friends Bill and Ali. It had historically been a poultry farm and apple orchard, and my first projects were to restore and repurpose the barns for new uses. Ali is a skilled and prolific creator of murals for natural history museums, and I was tasked to restructure some of the chicken barns so that she could paint 10 foot high murals 40 feet long, which she did many times over the years since, including 19 murals for the visitor center at Yosemite.
I was out there one day in March 2016 for a brainstorming session about new house to be built on the property; a house we started in 2017, and we're just finishing now. We got through with our meeting and I asked Ali if she was working on anything now. She said that she was, and invited me out to see. Most of Ali's commissions are accurate depictions of wild animals in their natural habitat. This particular one however was for an interactive exhibit highlighting the interface of a suburban backyard, a clipped lawn and a running dog, with the adjacent natural world over the back fence. The project description called for a cat looking out of the window of a yellow house. Out the window, near the ground, a hummingbird sips at an orange sage flower. She had the whole painting finished, except for the cat. She had painted the cat's body, a black and white tuxedo cat, and had painted everything but its face. She didn't have any inspiration for the cat's face, except it would be black and white. Ali had never met my cat.
To make a long story short, I provided photos to Ali, and now Emily's portrait hangs in the "Lindsay Wildlife Experience" in Walnut Creek, California; Emily, honorary wildlife, by Ali Pearson.
We would sit on the couch in the living room in the evenings and Emily as often as not would join us there: Carol on the right end, Emily on the left, and me in the middle. Sometimes she would pass through the living room, jump up on the couch, walk across me, then jump up on the back of the couch and behind Carol where she would sit and whip the back of Carol's head with her tail. Often it was a ploy to get me to chase her. She knew I would try to get her to stop pestering Carol and if she held her ground, I would get up and come around and chase her off. The pursuit would always end when I caught her at her food bowl. She would tease people if she liked them and bat at them to invite play. You had to be brave enough to let her paw hit you to find out if there is a claw in it.
I never set out to have a cat, but over time I inherited two. Each was a great treasure in a completely different way. Em was a friend and companion to my mom and then to me. She would come out to see me when I got home from work, greeting me with a nose bump and slow blink. She liked me to chase her around the house and she would purr when I caught her and bit her on the back growling like a dog. She liked to hang out with me when I was sitting in my chair, out on the deck, or lounging on the bed. Just liked to snooze nearby. She lounged with me watching the news in bed in the evening and would sleep part of the night curled up behind my knees. She would touch my elbow with her nose when I was waking up. She would play hide-the-bear around the clock and sometimes I would wake to hear her bear talking late at night, when the house was dark and still.
Then one day in late May, I noticed she had stopped eating her dry food. A few days later she had lost interest in her canned food. Finally after a week of no food and little water, I took her to the vet, first time in her adult life. She hadn't ridden in the truck since I brought her to Petaluma 5 1/2 years ago and she let me know she didn't like it. At the vet, we were led into an examining room, and I took her out of her pet carrier and put her on the scale. The assistant was taking notes on a clipboard, and I warned her that this cat is not going to want to be touched.
I was holding her on the scale when the assistant went out of the room. She was growling in fear and anger; I never heard her growl before, as I tried to comfort her, I touched a sore spot on her paw, and she bit me, then jumped down on the floor and slunk into her carrier. When the doctor and assistant came in, I was bleeding, and I warned them again they wouldn't be able to handle her. They had a way to put her under with gas, without handling, so they went ahead and performed the exam and x-ray. They found that she had some kind of "mass" in her abdomen and that needed to be looked at further.
Later that evening, I got a call from Sonoma County Animal Control. Vets are required to report animal bites; I was told to expect the call. Notorious MLE was officially under house arrest for 10 days! (first time offender, in this county anyway).
At a facility in San Rafael the next day, she underwent an ultrasound examination and was determined to have a lymphoma in her abdomen. There was not much could be done about it except a chemotherapy regime that would be a nightmare for her. I was told she was not going to last very long without eating.
In the weeks that followed, she became thinner and thinner, and my efforts to feed her were not successful. She just licked some of the gravy off and left the rest. As she got weaker she dropped all her wariness toward Carol and took to putting herself between us on the couch, where she could accept some of Carol's affectionate touching, instead of the far end where she had always been before. In her last months she would find a sunny spot on Carol's high bed in the afternoon, but when she became too weak to jump up there, she actually let Carol pick her up.
She was sitting there as I was writing this. But now I've changed all these tales to past tense. June 28th she had outlived her house arrest and died a free cat. At 13+, in cat years, she was 100.
Good kitty. Never ever was a bad kitty even once in my mind. The two times she bit me were perfectly understandable, not guilty. I thought she deserved to have her stories told:
The Notorious MLE and her talking bear.
Copyright ©2018 John Oliver