Clarissa was a feral cat. She was born right after my ex and I moved into our house in a neighborhood that was (and still is) “transitional.” There are a lot of rental properties, poverty, and other long-standing issues that create a breeding ground for neglected animals. We would see Clarissa and her mother on occasion. I have some sweet images in my mind of her nursing and the two of them sleeping together on the porch. She had a good mother, attentive and nurturing. Most of the time, we would catch just a glimpse of one or the other silently slinking out of sight. They looked very similar and once Clarissa matured, I could barely tell them apart. After a while, only Clarissa was around and I’m not sure what happened to her mother, as she just disappeared.
Clarissa was beautiful. She had clear green eyes and was a grey and white tabby with elegant black stripes across her jawbone. Her nose and chest were stark white and so were her paws. And she was petite, adding to her cuteness. We eventually had a lot of nicknames for her: Gorda, Shaniquah LaShondra (her jump-up name), Esmeralda Maria, Nancydotter, Squeaky, Bunny, Baby Kitty…
I had never been confronted with a feral cat before. My ex and I discussed whether or not to feed her, had debates back and forth about how to deal with this animal that clearly felt our house was her home too. Having come to love her like we did, it’s hard to admit now that we resisted a relationship with her at first.
Clarissa had two litters of kittens. The first litter did not make it. The second consisted of three. On one remarkable occasion, Clarissa sat with the kittens on the deck and let us watch them all play and romp while we were in plain sight just a few feet away on the other end of the deck. It was after the second litter that we knew we had to intervene or we were going to be eventually overrun with cats. And Clarissa was winning us over. So we contacted the Friends of Feral Felines, an organization that works to neuter and spay ferals. They helped us trap her and her two surviving kittens, Duke and Jade, and we had them all fixed. Our neighbor adopted the kittens.
We started feeding Clarissa after she was spayed because we knew she would not be able to hunt for a while. And that shift changed our connection. Clarissa slowly got closer to us, wouldn’t run away when we were around. Eventually she came to tolerate, then enjoy being petted and loved on, always on her terms. We let her approach first and never tried to touch her without her full awareness and consent.
Over the past nine years, Clarissa taught me a lot about myself. I come from a family of doers, and getting things done matters. I end up putting needless pressure on myself and can get ramped up by all of the responsibilities in my life. I can also get up in my head too much and forget the importance of being in my whole body, using all of my senses. This translates into unnecessary rushing and my “energy” (my ex-partner’s code word for me being anxious and unaware of it) is one of tension.
Because Clarissa started out feral, she was especially sensitive and alert to abrupt movements. When I came mindlessly buzzing through the back of the house, her domain, she would “flatten” out in a reactive way, trying to determine if she was in danger. I felt badly that I was scaring her and hated to see her respond to me in a defensive manner. This motivated me to change.
At first I could only catch myself after the fact. But slowly she retrained me to shorten my response time of awareness of when I was needlessly “hurrying.” I regret having to admit that this was and is often. What’s so damn great about doing things fast anyway?
I eventually came to enjoy gently walking through the deck area with awareness of her most of the time. My focus became finding her instead of getting on to the next thing. I learned that just stopping and speaking to her let her know that I had seen her and that I was still to be trusted. She was very forgiving when I would backslide and almost always let me apologize by connecting and petting her. I can’t tell you the countless conversations my ex-partner and I had about this dynamic of mine to no avail. Sigh. It was Clarissa’s unmistakable and innocent but honest sensate response that taught me how to truly attune to another being. And thankfully this awareness has enabled me to be more mindful of when I revert back to an anxious and keyed up energy state and shift into calmness instead.
Sadly, we had to put Clarissa down last fall because she had cancer. I count her among my truest and dearest friends, and I miss her terribly. No doubt in my mind that I got the better end of the relationship.