Sunday, February 6, 2011


When Patrick was around two, we were living in and renovating a historical home in Fort Worth. At the time, his favorite song was the children's Sunday school song about Zaccheus, the wee little man who climbed up into the sycamore tree.

One spring afternoon, a cute little gray kitty hopped up onto our front porch, climbed through an open window, and decided to live with us. We looked for her owners, but couldn't find them. One afternoon, our "new" kitty was climbing up one of the trees in our backyard. Toddler Patrick pointed up and said, "That kitty Zaccheus, Zaccheus climb up de twee!"

Of course the name stuck. A few weeks later we realized Zaccheus was actually an unwed teenage mother, but by that time we couldn't imagine her going by any other name!

Living in an old 3600 sq ft old house, drafty, with a creepy basement, you can imagine the problems we had with mice. When Zaccheus came to live with us, Philip would open the door to the pantry and say, "Here, Kitty, Kitty!" She would delicately stroll over to the closet, then an incredible transformation would occur. Fur would fly, howls would emanate from her throat and it looked like something out of the Tasmanian devil cartoons. In less than a minute, the tornado would stop, and there she would be, pleased as punch, ready to lay the dead mouse at Philip's feet.

You can imagine that she became his new best friend! Finally, in a house that seemed to be falling down around our ears, we had an ally. One day she caught SEVEN mice out of that pantry. Didn't take long until she completely eradicated our rodent problem.

One morning I was talking to my mom on the phone. Zaccheus was napping in a sunny spot on the floor of our breakfast room. I was bemoaning that fact that some birds were snatching my green bean seedlings out of the garden, right as they sprouted out of the ground. I suggested that with a cat on the premises the birds ought to be afraid, but maybe I had never given Zaccheus a detailed enough job description.

Well, Mom and I changed topic of conversation and I forgot about the birds and the cat. Until a few minutes later I heard a "thwack, thwack, thwack!" sound coming from behind me in the breakfast room. I turned around to see feathers flying. And a cat batting around a fluttering bird.

"EEK!" I screamed and used a broom to hasten the kitty and feathers and bird out the backdoor. She brought the bird back in through an open window. I finally got kitty, bird and feathers swept outside and quickly shut the windows. Later I went out to survey my little urban garden. There, in the middle of the green bean patch was the decapitated bird. Next to the garden, Sphynx-like, Zaccheus lay on the grass, proud to know that green bean security guard was now part of her job description.

From that point I had no doubt that Zaccheus could hear and understand anything we said.

Zackie wasn't really a kid-friendly cat. She was known to be a little persnickety around over-zealous toddlers. She never hurt them, just gave a quick spank or almost a scratch, to let them know when they were being too rough. Didn't take long to train them. She never was a lap kitty. Which suited me just fine. With three little children, then four, then five, I didn't have time for affection-starved, needy pets. She would sleep at the foot of our bed and would tolerate a gentle petting on occasion and we would feel so honored.

But after some time I noticed a pattern. When one of the children would fall down, get hurt and cry, Zaccheus would run to the weeping one and climb up into his or her lap to offer comfort, as if to say, "Look here, sweety, just feel my soft fur and it will make everything feel so much better."

And it did.

Of course she was quick to remind the children that SHE was the one who would decide when they could love on her.

When I was pregnant with Rose, Zaccheus was pregnant with kittens. Rose's birth was a homebirth. The day after, Zaccheus did everything she could to try to have her kittens in the bed with me and baby Rose. I finally got her to settle down in a box next to my side of the bed, and we all were able to witness the miracle of kitty birth, sweet little babe in arms. Of course we knew the responsible thing was to get her spayed. And we did. But, oh, the joy of baby kittens! Weren't we happy in December, to see pictures of one of her babies, Henry, who lives with our friends in Atlanta!

When we moved to New Jersey, Zaccheus was thrilled. She helped even out the chipmunk and mole population, which thrilled the gardener neighbors.

The move to Virginia was an even greater adventure! Wow! The smells! The new mice! The rats!

I remember one night, Philip had been in the hospital repeatedly, trying different new procedures and surgeries hoping to correct the serious atrial fibrillation. Not too long before, he had acquired MRSA in his sternal column, after a simple procedure that was to repair a weakened mitral valve. He had to be in a medically-induced coma for two weeks and we thought he was going to die. After all the hospital trauma, I was weary. Weary, worried and nearly at the end of my rope. Lying in bed, Zaccheus at my feet, I started to pour out my heart to her. I told her that I know she wasn't a lap kitty, and that I appreciated that about her. In fact, I would never want her to change, but then I told her how sad I was and that if she wouldn't mind, it would comfort me greatly to have her jump up on my tummy and let me pet her.

I spoke to her in a normal voice. No gestures. I was flat on my back, weeping. As soon as I mentioned the jump up on my tummy part, she climbed right up and curled up on my tummy, purring. The first time in over ten years. I wept. And pet her velvety fur. And was comforted beyond belief.

I tell you these things because I hope you will understand why losing Zaccheus pains me more than any other pet we have ever lost. Sometimes people think that since we live on a farm and butcher animals that it makes us inured to grief over pets.

It doesn't.

Zaccheus came to lie under my bed two weeks ago. She is old and I knew she was preparing to die. I made her a bed on my bed and talked to her. Started to say goodbye. Pet her soft fur. Had the kids spend some time with her and say their goodbyes. Being in bed sick gave me more time to love on her than I would have ordinarily had to give. I explained to the children that we don't take dying animals to the vet to try to falsely extend their days. Since she wasn't suffering, I didn't see the need to euthanize her. So we gave her clean water, pet her, cleaned up after her and after days of seeing her go downhill, it made it much easier to say goodbye. We told her how much we have loved her, and we thanked her for all the sweetness she brought to our life.

She disappeared last night.

Seems most animals like to go off and find a dark and quiet place to die. I have searched the house, under beds, behind furniture, and can't find her. I wonder if she went outside? I feel certain she is gone. If she isn't, she will be, probably very soon.

We will miss Zaccheus so very very much. Being a busy mother of five, running a farm and my own business leaves me little room for pet sentimentality. I just don't have much patience, even though I enjoy seeing the kids have their sweet pets. But Zackie was different. I have never loved a pet like I love her. Her sweet memory will give me joy. I will never forget her. So thankful we got to enjoy her as a part of our family and life. I will miss her precious self.


Jill from NC said...

So sorry for the loss of your sweet mouser. Thanks for sharing her story-- she was truly a remarkable girl.

Chris said...

So sorry for your loss. I can relate. You honor her with your remembrance.

Anonymous said...

So sad, Ginger! Henry came from such good stock. We know you will miss her. Lee

Debbie Millman said...

oh, won't be forgotten. thank you for comforting my friends, the Hillery's, and for being such a good listener. and for knowing when to climb in a lap or on a tummy.

Jeff said...

Such a well-written sad story. I'm a cat person myself and can relate. I hope you find another sweet cat friend.