Barbie the black cat has lived with us some ten years or more. A transgender cat ahead of his time (and through no actions of his own), he was a Christmas present to our daughter Elysa in a season when cats were few and far between (an unusual situation to be sure, given the reproductive tendencies of cats). Elysa wanted a girl cat, but only a boy cat was available. He was named, therefore, Barbie. That was during our daughter’s ‘Barbie phase.’ Since that time, Barbie has been the subject of any number of debates over pronouns. He? She? Him? Her? Maybe if we had had the currently vogue zie or zir, it would have been eaZier.
At any rate, Barbie came with a matching cat, a brother gray with white paws, who was named Socks. He belonged to Elysa’s brother, Elijah. Socks, like Barbie, was extremely devoted to his child-master and often slept the night standing guard at the head of his bed.
Socks, alas, had a propensity to wander through open doors. Once we found him in our woods, high in a tree and calling out in his most pitiful cat voice for rescue. Jan talked him down and ultimately he returned. Several years ago, he wandered out again and was not recovered. We mourn Socks to this day, good egg that he was. We hold to the hope, faint as cat whiskers, that he will return one day, king of the forest, with the look of one gone on extended adventures.
Barbie, however, lives on. And on. Barbie has likely burned through at least nine lives and perhaps nine more. You see, Barbie’s teeth fell out years (and years) ago. He/she has claws like well-honed sabers, but not a tooth to be found. I dreamt, one night, that her/his teeth had grown back. But it has not happened.
Some time ago we noticed that Barbie was losing weight. Pick him up and he was a furry bag of bones, purring loudly but a wisp of a kitty. A trip to the vet, with fears of cancer, feline AIDS, leukemia or worms, and I was informed that our cat was hyperthyroid. That’s right, Barbie burns through calories fast enough to make a Sumo wrestler anxious about gaining weight.
As a consequence, Barbie is on medication. Every day we shove a pill down his toothless gullet and he purrs like a madman as we do. But because of his endless calorie burning, he learned long ago to eat. And eat. And eat. He eats non-stop. Downstairs in the morning? He sees humans and paws the glass back door frantically, as if to say, ‘Hello! Hyperthyroid cat here!’ Jan has said we should put little cleaning pads on his paws and we’d have sparkling windows.
I feed him, we feed him, multiple times a day. Cat food and scraps, all day and all evening, and still an open door leaves him frantically running for the house. His ability to juke between human legs and come inside is the stuff of soccer legends. His co-cats (later arrivals, half-Manx maniacs named Leo and Frodo), have no trouble gaining weight. But they have learned the frantic food pursuit from Barbie and as soon as he begins to panic, so do they. Despite the fact that together they could probably take down a deer. (If you’ve had a Manx, you understand.)
So we have a cat of some 11 years at least, who lives in the yard and on the porch of a house in the South Carolina Blue Ridge foothills. He is surrounded by any number of creature would should by all rights have eaten him by now. (He is guarded by five dogs of increasing sloth but who still bark and smell doggish to predators.) Said cat is nearly weightless and fully toothless. And yet, he remains.
I think, sometimes, that he stays for Elysa. She is a rising junior and they love one another. Perhaps, he waits for his brother. Maybe Socks said, ‘wait here, I’ll be back,’ and went to a foreign land to hunt mice and get rich. Maybe he’ll bring back cat dentures of gold and diamonds.
We theorize that he has a happy dementia. Some of us have postulated that he is actually dead, or the Walking Dead. A cat who passed years ago and simply forgot to die. Barbie the Zombie Cat sounds like a B-rated horror movie to be sure.
But utimately, Barbie is just a reminder that life is good. No matter what nature throws at him, he rolls with it. He is full of joy in his few small joys. A bit of turkey, a cup of milk, a bowl of cat-food or even his medication and he is dancing on cat toes, tail high and happy. But a little cradling in Elysa’s arms and he purrs like he has loudspeakers. Hold him and he reaches up with his blade-embedded paw, not to strike but to caress as surely as any human ever touched another.
Life is hard, for people especially but also for the small creatures of this world. But we should all be as satisfied, as joyous, as Barbie the hyperthyroid, toothless Zombie cat.
Long may he purr.