In January of 2015, Neil Shock and I decided to adopt a cat. I fully admit I pushed for it, even though my previous cats have been strays I found on the side of the road: Genji in a culvert in Erie, Pennsylvania, Mushi outside of an abandoned barbecue restaurant in the mountains of Virginia. Genji and Mushi now live pampered lives with my ex-husband, and I didn’t plan on getting any more pets while my life was still in a state of upheaval.
But on June 30th, 2015, I found Edith while getting ready to take the bus from Chapel Hill to Raleigh. Crossing at the intersection of East Franklin and North Columbia streets, I saw a tiny black blur dodging between tires, eventually darting into a church courtyard. I jogged to follow, worried it – not even really knowing what “it” was – had been injured. I found a hissing, puffed-out kitten literally climbing the church wall to get away from me. It took a minute and a few puncture wounds, but I managed to catch her and determine she wasn’t obviously hurt.
Then what? I shared a house with a roommate who had her own adult cat. I had to take two buses before I could even get home. I barely had money to make the minimum payment on my student loans and credit card, let alone litter and cat food and vet bills.
So I did the logical thing: I carefully stuffed her in my book bag and we rode the bus home together. At about 8 weeks old, Edith was, at first, a feral terror. Slowly, she warmed up to me and eventually my partner Neil, though she doesn’t cuddle, can’t bear to be picked up, and hates when I laugh at her.
After Neil moved in with me, I wanted Edith to have a companion while we were away at work. I had another motive, too; I felt like it would do Neil good to have a cat he bonded with primarily, given that I’d brought Edith into our relationship.
We talked about the kind of cat we wanted to bring home from the shelter and agreed we wanted to give a home to a cat otherwise unlikely to be adopted. Statistically, those are black cats, male cats, and cats with disabilities or health problems. We also wanted a kitten, in hope of making it easier for Edith to accept a new feline housemate.
I encouraged Neil to take the lead on our cat adoption project, and we ended up visiting the ASPCA several times. On our third trip, in early January, there were no kittens available: Cats, they explained, just don’t really give birth in the cold months. We were ready to set aside our adoption plans until spring when one of the volunteers stopped us.
He told us they had just brought in a kitten who had been rescued from a hoarding situation. The kitten had developed a severe upper respiratory infection from living in filth and overcrowding, and despite finally receiving treatment, the infection moved into her eyes. From there, the infection was likely to proceed to her brain and kill her. The shelter made the decision to remove her eyes and save her life.
They called her Puffin. She was finally well enough to find a permanent home, and to help her adjust to sightlessness, the shelter wanted her placed in a home that already had a cat of a similar age.
Neil and I shared a look and agreed to visit with Puffin. She was curled up and asleep when we entered the adoption room, a very small gray cat with a short, almost stumpy tail. After we rudely woke her up, Puffin followed our voices and happily chased the toys we dragged on the floor for her. When a photographer came to take portraits of the cats for the ASPCA website, Puffin was fascinated by the sound of the shutter clicking. She tried to insert herself into every picture, sticking her nose in the lens.
We fell in love with Puffin, and took her home that day. When we went to bed that evening, Puffin curled up between our heads, alternating which of our chins she tucked her head under. Quickly renamed Helen, she soon learned the layout of the house and completely took over, fearlessly investigating everything she could climb up or into. Her lack of eyes doesn’t slow her down in the least — We always explain that she’s not in any way a special needs cat. She just takes a few hours to figure out what’s changed when we rearrange the furniture.
Helen charms everyone she meets. A couple viewing our house for rent even offered to buy her from us, and she happily climbs into new laps and chirps and chatters to anyone who talks to her. Neil is definitely “her” person, though — she even climbs into the bathtub to nuzzle his face and fall asleep on his chest.
I didn’t intend to name my blind cat after Helen Keller. Neil wanted to name her Helena, after the Grey Lady of Ravenclaw, and I couldn’t for the life of me pronounce “Helena” correctly, so I insisted we shorten it. Helen also happens to be one of my aunts’ names, and Edith is my grandmother’s name (Edith was rescued on what would have been my grandmother’s 98th birthday) so Helen seemed appropriate enough for those reasons.
I’ve neglected Edith a bit in this story, but that’s not because she’s any less remarkable than Helen. Her feral background makes her cautious and a bit standoffish, but she adores Neil and plays fetch with a single-mindedness any Labrador would admire. It took her a few months to accept Helen, but they now chase each other in circles around the house and snuggle up together when it’s cold.
As child-free young adults, our cats have become the light of our home. We tirelessly researched cat food that would offer the highest quality for its price (Trader Joe’s canned food, it turns out) and only give them purified water. They have their own health insurance. In 2017, between the two of them, they’ve racked up $1200 worth of vet bills — Helen’s gone through a laundry list of minor health problems, most of them related to her awful first 6 months in a hoarding situation, and Edith ate a bug in May 2017 that made her throw up blood all night.
While I’m more interested in telling their stories than asking for money, I’ll put it out there that donations towards our darlings or toward the Wake County ASPCA (among many, many, many other fantastic rescue organizations) are sincerely appreciated to help Helen and Edith and other critters who need human assistance to live happy and healthy lives.