She has been the forgotten cat, the middle child, the outcast, the runt for most of her life. She was born in a dingy apartment closet in suburban Orlando, but she has lived in Manhattan, Brooklyn, LA, San Francisco, and is retiring on an island at 21lbs.
She was the only one of her siblings not to have a breeched birth, but she came out the smallest, and her mother didn’t lick her clean. When she was a few days old, we arrived home to find she was missing from the nest. If we stood still, we heard a muffled peeping from somewhere in the apartment. We discovered her in the bathroom cabinet, under the sink, twitching and still blind from birth.
It seems strange to think of animals intentionally disowning their children, but it apparently happens all the time in nature. According to an article in National Geographic, when newborn animals are sick, or if there is a shortage of resources, many mothers will eat their young, which provides needed nutrition and prevents predators from following the smell of rotting carcass to the den. Nina could have had it worse.
After a week or two, things turned around a little bit. I had taken Nina from the nest to show off the adorableness of a kitten to a neighbor. She was tiny, with one tan half of a face and the other black. As soon as I was just outside our front door with a wide-eyed Nina clinging to my shirt, I heard the mother scratching and wailing at the inside of the door. I opened the door and set Nina down, and the mom immediately picked her up by the scruff and jogged back to the nest.
Nina grew to an overweight adult cat in Florida, and we noticed she seemed a little off, a little empty-eyed. She tended not to look at people’s faces like the other cats. She would just see a human hand and dive into it, snuggling it whether you wanted her to or not, often pushing with such force and bad timing that it would spill a drink or knock the glass into your teeth, launch your hand off a keyboard, or wake you up.
When we moved to New York, we stuffed Nina, her two littermates, and a skinny dog into a minivan with our stuff, and drove a thousand miles, arriving exhausted at our new 250 square foot apartment in the West Village. It was a lot to ask of four animals, but they managed to make it work, the cats quickly finding a spot on the window sill, overlooking the brick of the building next door and the pigeons that would coo amorously in the shaftway on other window sills.
But it wasn’t great for them. Nina started having seizures, thrashing and spitting. She had a seizure on the way to the vet. We saw no reliable correlation between the seizure and anything going on around. We’d see them happen once a week or so, and the vet didn’t seem to have much to say about it. They said there wasn’t really much to do as long as she wasn’t hurting herself, which she wasn’t. We just considered it part of her, and we’d clean up the puddles of urine and spittle she left behind and give her a bath during which she would dissociate, staring out of the window, her body stiff, still and soapy. The whole process continued as we moved to Brooklyn and it lessened in LA, where we had around 900 square feet and lots of sunshine.
When we moved back to New York to the Upper West Side, to a 400 square foot apartment with access to a walled-in backyard, the seizures almost completely stopped. I recall her having one seizure there, under the bed. The bedroom was exactly the size of the bed, and we couldn’t get to her to comfort her, not that our attempts at comforting were necessarily successful. She came out on her own eventually, seeming as normal as she ever was.
We lived in one more Upper West Side apartment before departing from New York. On 76th street, Nina found a mouse. She was the only one who seemed to take an interest in our intruder, sitting by it proudly as it wriggled. We put the injured critter in a box with some dog food and water, high up on a shelf where the cats couldn’t reach it. However, the mouse regained its strength at some point in the night and managed to venture out. It was not revivable this time after Nina had played with it.
In San Francisco, we rented a two story house, and the cats, now 12 years old, spent most of their time upstairs, especially after we got a half Border Collie puppy — the herding instinct was strong. I hardly saw them outside of the time I spent in my office. But in considering raising a puppy, I was trying hard to make him feel safe and loved. Thinking of what Nina’s experience of being kicked out of the nest as a little baby must have been like, I started to make a point of giving her love. I’d pick her up and hold her when she came purring and cackling around my desk.
Ronie, our male cat, had also been making a point to love her, but this is in the more aggressive way of mimicking a mounting. He leaps on her from behind and bites her neck as she cries. He doesn’t do this to our other cat, just Nina, still the runt in his mind, perhaps.
Just recently, we’ve moved to over an acre on an island near Seattle. It’s a warm summer with long, sunny days. Nina has been out the most of all the cats, interacting with us more than she has in many years. She’s been hopping up on the dining table, her fat pooling around her as she sits, hiding any indication of back legs. Her round eyes, the lids slightly melted torward her nose giving her a constantly tired appearance, seem to actually look at our faces a little bit, now, to see if we want to pet her before she plows into our hands. She’s been very calm with the puppy, trusting him to sniff her, and swatting him gently if his eyes widen to a concerning extent. Yet more unusual behavior, she’s been sampling my cooking, eating bits of tuna salad and licking the salt from corn chips. She seems finally to be comfortable, as though she knows she’s wanted here. She still eats plastic and throws it up and annoyingly scratches at our bedroom door at night, but she seems more herself than I’ve seen her, at age 14.