“Daddy, is that a cat?” The heat was unbearable, but we had been living in Maadi, a suburb of Cairo for almost a month and my parents had yet to take me and my two brothers to visit the Pyramids of Giza. They actually had been holding off, hoping the temperature would cool at least a bit, but their intention was unrealistic given the sweltering Egyptian heat that penetrated the city and its surroundings for much of the year.
I had been pointing with my one finger at the Sphinx, showing it to my younger brother, Teddy, age nine, who had just blurted out the comment. Ironically, or at least coincidentally, the past school year in 6th grade in Illinois I had given my first oral book report on the Pyramids and the Sphinx. That same night I came home to learn that our family was, yet again, moving abroad and this time to Egypt. I responded to Teddy. “Yeah, now we finally have our own pet!” It was an inside joke reflecting our restless family life. At the time I was only twelve and we’d already lived in five different countries outside of the U.S., making it impossible for our family to keep an animal we could call our own.
I felt drowsy from the extreme heat. “One day,” I thought to myself, “I’ll have a cat.” I had longed to be able to give unconditional love to something.
This past week began the Passover holiday and, as in every prior year of my life – no matter where in the world I was living – I prepared to celebrate. Passover recalls the departure of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt about 3,000 years ago. To celebrate, Jewish families and friends come together on the anniversary of the Exodus, right after sunset and retell the story during a ceremonial dinner or Seder. Despite the repetition and ritual of the holiday year after year, this particular week was quite atypical.
We hadn’t planned on taking in a cat, actually, because both my husband John and our son Charlie are generally allergic to most breeds. For that reason, John had declared that we couldn’t have a cat unless one literally came up on our porch and adopted us. Unrealistically, we hoped for such an event and even chose the name Madaket for our, as of yet non-existent, pet.
And as it happened, on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur this past autumn, we noticed a gray
and white three-legged cat lurking around our home. “Are you Maddie-cat?” I exclaimed aloud the first moment I saw her. That first day she had hobbled away from us, yet I couldn’t help but feel instinctively eager to help this new “flaunter” cat. Every day Maddie returned and so we began to leave food on our porch. When Savanna asked me why Maddie only had three legs, assuming she was born blatantly different, I had to explain the harsh reality of this cat’s life. “No, honey. She wasn’t born that way. She likely was attacked by an animal or caught in a trap.” The kids were taken aback and immediately expressed a strong desire to take her into our home and protect her.
And so, after a few weeks of feeding our new feline friend, we decided to inquire around with our neighbors to check out if Maddie belonged to them. In fact, a group of women in the neighborhood had been caring for her and other cats outside of their homes for years, even getting her to the vet for her shots. After Maddie had given birth to two litters over the years, they even got her ‘fixed.’ In fact, despite her seemingly youthful appearance, we learned she was at least twelve years old.
Then one day the kids watched, horrified, as Maddie crossed the street not knowing a car was fast-approaching. Fortunately the car stopped just in time, the driver noticing our alarm. But in that moment, we knew we had to bring her in right away, and especially before a cold and harsh winter approached.
It was November when we brought Maddie in and soon realized that she was hard of hearing. Her left eye seemed injured, too. This cat has endured much living on the streets. As I watched her eat, it was clear she had been traumatized, always taking a couple of bites, then looking around as if in fear another animal would soon pounce on her or steal her meal. And although she never fully warmed up to us, allowing us to hold or pet her, Maddie seemed content in her new home. Our neighborhood friends told us they believed she was a smart one and we saw it ourselves. And thankfully, she learned to use the litter box immediately upon arrival.
Little by little, Maddie grew more comfortable in our home, realizing there was nothing for her to fear. John even began to call her our “old lady.” And then one day in February the garage door was left open and we feared she had run out. In reality, she had found a new, reclusive spot and had been asleep all day. Unaware of the panic, neighborhood phone calls and searching that had preoccupied us all day, that evening she came out and revealed
herself, shocking us all. When we realized with joy that she had “returned”, it occurred to me we had in fact grown to love her.
Not only was Maddie the kids’ first pet, she was my first pet. And inside I longed for the day she would finally crawl onto our laps so we could pet her and feel loved. But that day never came. Instead, she started showing less interest in eating. When we left for a week over the school break, our sitter would come each day to feed her and clean the box. She texted us that Maddie seemed to be eating less and less, concluding that the cat must “miss us.” We returned to find the cat visibly thinner. She also was having trouble breathing. The next morning John was able to scoop her up without a fight and he took her to the vet. To his dismay, he learned she was suffering from heart failure and wouldn’t make it.
And then, after this heartbreaking event in our family’s lives, we caught the news of Prince’s untimely passing. Like millions of others, I admired Prince for his phenomenal talent and songbook. But on a deeper level, I appreciated his self-confidence and unconditional self-acceptance. It was clear that Prince never cared how people might judge him, his dress or his decisions throughout his career, including perplexing millions when he changed his name to a symbol. It seemed to be an instinctive ideology for him. On the day of his death, I posted on our Don’t Hide It Flaunt It Facebook page a quote he gave while performing at the Assembly Hall in my hometown in Illinois. “Despite everything, no one can dictate who you are to other people.” With countless posts all over social media, I learned also that Prince was heavily teased before he was famous. In an NPR interview, he shared that despite being taunted, he realized he no longer wanted to be afraid. That if people were going to talk about him, it might as well be for something he felt passionate about…..music.
And so this week, ironically, as my family sat together to celebrate Passover, I sat in my chair grieving two lives that had passed-over. Early in the morning before the 1st Seder I had cried harder than I ever imagined. The week had been an emotional one, and I realized my breakdown was mostly about wanting our three-legged flaunter-cat more time to feel loved. But somehow, hearing all the outpouring of admiring and adoring messages in honor of Prince helped me to put Maddie’s own death into perspective. In an interview with Anderson Cooper, Stevie Wonder said of his dear friend, “It’s always great when we don’t allow fear to put our dreams to sleep, and he didn’t. Prince was someone that allowed himself to be himself and encouraged others to do the same.”
I thought about Stevie’s message a lot, realizing that at the end of the day, no matter how long we all have to live, that to me if the greatest part of life is love, the worst part is fear. Fear of being judged in my own life kept me from being comfortable in my own skin. Prince was widely admired because he learned and taught the same lesson. And upon learning of our own personal loss, a close friend helped me to move past my tears. “Meg, even though Maddie died sooner than you had wanted, in truth your family provided her the perfect way for anyone to end their life…. no longer feeling any fear, just love.”
This weekend after our 2nd Seder with his cousins, Charlie asked if we could consider getting another cat or even two. Thinking about his and his father’s allergies, he added, “Hey Mom, we could even get a hairless Sphinx cat.” Indeed, although I’m not sure what tomorrow will bring, I hadn’t thought of that. Or had I?