When I was 11, my mother got me a kitten for my birthday. I came home from school and it was in the center of my bed, a tiny gray circle, awake and wary.
I wasn’t new to cats, we’d had several. One ran away. Two of them my mother ran over with her car in our driveway. Another that someone else ran over, on Easter Sunday. The current house cat, Ditto (so named because she looked exactly like one of the dead ones), was a stray my mother took in, who never really got used to people but was generally nice enough. If you left her alone, she was fine. She spent the warm months outside, sometimes gone for weeks at a time. The cold months she lived in our basement.
Ditto stayed in the basement because at some point my mother had decided she was no longer a cat person, but a dog person. This happened when she met my stepfather. My stepfather had a dog when they started living together a few years earlier, an old golden retriever/lab mix named Michael. Michael was mean and vindictive, he spread garbage all over the house at every possible opportunity, he'd bite your hands if you tried to touch his tail. My mother hated the dog at first. At some point, that changed, and dogs became her entire world.
They started a collection. A big chocolate lab/doberman mix named Oscar, maxing out at well over 80 pounds and terrified of everything. A tiny purebred bichon frise named Tissue who was, by a wide margin, the least pleasant dog I have ever interacted with. A pug named Max, and then, when Michael finally died, a puggle whose name I have forgotten, since I was gone shortly after he arrived.
Growing up, I never understood why she had so many dogs when they only seemed to make her mad. The dogs were terrible because my parents were terrible. The dogs weren’t trained or loved, nobody played fetch with them or gave them cozy crates or made sure they didn’t have fleas. My stepfather governed the pack with fear, hitting them with whatever was nearby when they acted out. They peed everywhere, all of them, all over the house. You could smell it from outside, because nobody ever cleaned.
My parents fought violently, loudly, and constantly. This wore the dogs down until they were almost feral, whining from under furniture during outbursts, or pacing nervously as my mother slept off a particularly bad weekend on the couch. Anyone opening the front door could expect to be mowed down by the pack of them, one dog wedging itself between the door and the jamb while the others ran for it, then following into the street at a sprint. My parents, swearing, would climb into their SUV and drive around until they spotted them, lure them into the car with food, then beat them senseless.
At first, my stepfather, enthusiastic and vocal about his hatred for cats as a species, just ignored Ditto. But with each new dog acquisition, he got more cruel toward her. He began encouraging the dogs to chase the cat, to bark at it, he thought it was hilarious. Eventually the cat gave up and retreated to the basement forever, hiding in dark recesses among boxes and the old mattress and the bench with the bullet press on it that my stepfather would use for hours at a time, directly under my bed. As the years went on, and once he saw that he could do it with impunity, he grew increasingly hostile toward the cat, yelling at her if she came upstairs, talking loudly about how he couldn’t wait for her to die.
I hated thinking about the cat in the basement because even as a child it made me profoundly sad. She must be lonely, and cold in the winter, she must get scared every time she hears the door open. I wished I could help her but she hated me, and I don't blame her: I was a little kid, all hands and enthusiasm, and no patience. I get it.
So when I got home from school that day and saw a new cat, I thought, this one? This one I’m gonna save. I’m gonna keep the dogs away from it and it can live in my room and it doesn’t have to be scared. This one will be okay.
But I was wrong. There were too many dogs and too much anger in the house, and I had to go to school during the day. The cat withdrew from me, withdrew from my room first and the top floor next, retreated to the basement, little by little, just like the last one. I was crushed. When I moved out at 17, the cat was a stranger to me. He barely trusted me enough to let me say goodbye. I don’t blame him—I had never even managed to give him a name.
Long after I left, and after she finally left my stepfather, my mother continued to be a one-woman dog rescue facility. I realize now, though, that she never fully rescued them, not really. She’d take them in, make them dependent on her, and then neglect them. Their basic needs were always met, sure, but beyond that they were always just…there. Following her, or splayed in a pile around her feet on the couch, eating each other's shit out of the grass in the back yard. She never brought them anywhere or trained them to do anything or played with them. The dogs basically just existed, right up until they did something bad, and then they got punished, day after day.
Now, I think I understand why she had so many dogs all the time. Cats? Cats leave you. They get fed up, and when they’ve had enough, they go to the basement, they go outside and never come back. They left her. The dogs stayed. They became stressed and maladjusted and neurotic—but they stayed. She wanted something to yell at that couldn’t leave her.
Years later, one warm spring day, my mother came into my room to tell me that Ditto, who was nearing 20, was at the end of her life and had to be put down. How sad, I thought, I didn’t even realize she was sick. And then my mother told me that my stepfather had just put some antifreeze into her food dish and that they were going out for the day, and then she left.
It took a second to register but when it did, I ran from my room at the back of the house to the kitchen at the front thinking there was no way I was going to let him do that to a cat just because he was sick of looking at her. Her food dish was on the porch in the warm months, and when I got to the kitchen window and looked out to the porch, it was too late. She was gobbling the poisoned food, and I stood in absolute horror knowing that if I tried to stop this he would just find another, crueler way to kill her.
I watched her eating, for several minutes, I’m ashamed to say. I cried, sure, but ultimately: I watched. It felt, and I’ll never forget this, like it was her or me. And so I went into my room and shut the door and had a panic attack and a few weeks later, I moved out. I chose to save me. I was 17.
These past few weeks I’m trying, god help me, to go back in time and save that flea-bitten child who was terrified to come out of her room in the small green house. I’ve had enough therapy and done enough work to know that this is about me, that grief renders me angry and small, reduces me to a rubble of fear and reactionary impulse. I can’t though, I can’t reach far down enough to grab her. I’m tired, I’m fucking tired that all this stuff that isn’t my fault has to be my goddamn responsibility. I want it to be hers, just for one goddamn minute. But it's always mine.
All I want to do—all I have EVER wanted to do—is go back in time and rescue those cats. I want to take a gun from the cabinet downstairs and I want to point it straight between my fucking stepfather's greasy temples. I want to open the front door of that disgusting house and watch his dog pack finally run away for good, give them a chance at a second life with someone who’ll take care of them. Then I want to open the door to the basement and tell the cats that they’re free, that it’s all theirs, the food and the cushions and the windowsills, that they can lay wherever they want to in a quiet, clean house. That they can rest. That the people they trust won't run over or poison them. That just because someone’s a bastard to them doesn’t mean they aren’t loved, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the warm spot in the sun.