Breakfast with Charlotte.
At Large in Ballard: Homecoming
By Peggy Sturdivant
I spotted a black cat down the alley where I was trying to find a quiet spot. When I called “Here, Kitty Kitty,” the cat positively loped toward me, rubbing its head against my knees as I waited on hold to speak with Dr. Howe at Ballard Animal Hospital. I was sitting on a curb in South Boston. She needed to talk to me about my cat.
When I prepared to leave Ballard for a record-long time period I was mostly concerned with getting my garden planted before I left. Martin would still be there so I didn’t have to wrap up every detail. It absolutely never occurred to me that Charlotte-the-Cat wouldn’t be there when I returned. I was more worried about cat pee in the basement and sugar ants in her water.
So when Martin called to say that my 17-year-old cat couldn’t walk up the stairs, despite chasing for treats the night before, it was completely unexpected. From the time he called I kept picturing a particular photo taken of my daughter, age five, beaming, with two kittens in her lap.
The cat has been my constant since as I journeyed from newly widowed to remarried. Meanwhile Emily has gone from an open, smiling kindergartener to this serious 22-year-old college graduate who travels the world. From ringlets to a defining braid down her back to short hair that she cuts herself. As I tried not to hold my daughter too close there was always Charlotte, who insisted on sleeping just above my heart.
Charlotte was never a carefree kitten. We first spotted her at the Animal Shelter on Elliott Avenue on July 2, 1996. You had to walk through dogs, many of them marked “surrendered,” to reach the cattery. Charlie was in a cage with a note that said born in April, “feral but somewhat tamed by a neighbor who fed her.” She was grey, older than the palm-sized kitten we’d thought it finally time to adopt. We’d think about it. When we returned the next day she seemed to recognize us and came to the front of the cage. We took her home with us that day. Charlie became Charlotte, after E.B. White’s heroine and Laura’s rag doll in “Little House” books.
The second kitten came from an ad in the Ballard News-Tribune. Children answered the door holding kittens and we plucked one out as though performing a rescue. Within a day the little male black-and-white kitten was curled against grey Charlotte. Within weeks he began his path to becoming the overweight, overbearing alpha male.
Over the years I have made many visits to Ballard Animal Hospital on Leary Way. The receptionist’s son was in my daughter’s homeroom and we would talk about family. I would sit with the cats, each howling in a separate cardboard box, and dream up a reality show involving a veterinary clinic. It took visiting someone with cable television to realize I was years too late.
When he was just seven the fat male cat went into inexplicable kidney failure. We kept him alive for a year, saline drip bag suspended from the dining room chandelier, my middle school-aged daughter able to do subcutaneous fluids single-handedly. I never could.
There are a lot of desperate people in veterinary clinics and in my experience the interactions are far kinder and gentler than in hospital settings for humans. These professionals seem to have a better awareness of the relationship between humans and animals than those who deal with just humans. Even the City of Seattle clinic encourages you to call during spay/neuter day.
When Martin called from early morning Ballard, I went to the darkest place right away. While he waited for it to be late enough to call the clinic, I begged him to learn the video feature on his telephone so I could see and talk to my cat 5,000 miles away. On a fleece blanket on the bottom step of the stairs to the second floor Charlotte turned her head to me. My constant.
Unlike with humans you are allowed to turn down expensive tests. Once again a bit hysterical over health issues surrounding my late mother-in-law, known as Charlotte-not-the-Cat, I told the veterinarian, “It’s not the tests themselves; it’s what to do with the results of the tests.” I had long decided that there would be no feline oncology or cardiology. No kidney specialists. They would keep her for the day and at least do some blood work.
It never crossed my mind that Charlotte wouldn’t be waiting for me in Ballard but I won’t deny there were times I looked to see if she was still breathing at her spot by the heating vent. She didn’t even move when I vacuumed near her but she could still run across the tops of furniture, outrace the off-leash dog that chased her around our yard, toss her own mouse toy and consistently dribble small objects off the coffee table and under the piano.
“She’s waiting for your call,” Martin told me just after I had found parking in Boston at the other end of that long day. He meant Dr. Emily Howe, but he could have been speaking of Charlotte-the-Cat.
While on hold I spotted the black cat in the alley. The black cat rubbed against me, and then my daughter, as Dr. Howe described Charlotte’s inability to walk. “The prognosis isn’t good.” As my daughter said later, “My mom made the call about 6:30 tonight.”
No more Copper Gate Tavern. No more Charlotte-the-Cat. You go out of town and things disappear. We age. Pets die. Parents and children die. Everything wears out, from our Tupperware to our hip joints. But there was a time when it was just me and Emily. Then it was me, Emily and our two little cats, with Charlotte as the constant. Carried to our new merged household on Christmas Eve 2008. White chin, popcorn paws, beautiful eyes ... goodbye to Charlotte and the little girl with two kittens in her lap.
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