Monday, June 20, 2011

The Story Behind the Story -- The Cat Before Christmas and the Real Cat Before Christmas

The Cat Before Christmas is the story of Wiki, a Siamese cat that loves Christmas.

The idea hit me about two weeks before Thanksgiving. That didn't give me much time to write a novella and get it up on Kindle in time for Christmas, but I was excited about the story and decided to give it a shot.

I sketched out the plot and came up with my characters: Cary Tyler, Wiki's owner, Carrie's parents Ted and Lorraine, Carrie's friends Pam and Tina, and Ben Kendall, grandson of Charlie, the owner of the Christmas tree lot where Cary always buys her Christmas trees.

The real cat before Christmas is Smokey, the gray tabby that showed up in our driveway the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

I was not looking for a cat. The last of our three Little Queens went to kitty heaven several years ago, and I was enjoying a cat hair-free house. But there he was with his big green eyes. He was very sweet, had a soft voice, and he wasn't pushy -- he was just there. And he kept coming back over the next two weeks.

I agonized about that cat -- and the coyote that sleeps in our backyard. I talked to Michael. He said okay, let the cat in, and I did the next time Smokey wandered by. He's been here ever since.

He's a grown-up, he's been neutered, and he has all his claws. I worried about my furniture, but Smokey doesn't scratch. He comes into my office and sits by my chair until I take my feet off the footrest, which has a surface like Astroturf. That's where Smokey scratches. It only took him a couple of months to train me to do this.

In January we gave up searching lost cat ads and took Smokey to the vet. She gave him a physical, figured by his teeth that he's about 8 years old, and drew blood. Fifteen minutes later she told us that Smokey tested positive for FIV, feline immunodeficiency virus.

My heart sank. FIV is passed through saliva so likely Smokey was bitten by another cat with FIV. Just as HIV can progress to AIDS, so can FIV progress to feline AIDS. But, our vet was quick to explain, it doesn't always, and many FIV positive cats live long and healthy lives.

Michael wondered if FIV was the reason Smokey had been kicked to the curb. The vet thought he'd probably been infected while he was homeless. Her guess was the economy had put Smokey on the streets.

In multiple cat families a FIV positive cat is usually destroyed to avoid spreading the disease. We told the vet that we have no other cats and we wanted to keep Smokey.

He was underweight, just 10 pounds. He had a fungus infection in his ears, caused by his weakened immune system. The vet gave him two shots: his first rabies and the feline leukemia vaccine. She sent us home with an oral antibiotic to boost his immune system, salve for his ears and bad news for Smokey -- no more going outside because he could infect other cats.

That would be like telling me I could never eat chocolate again. Smokey was not happy about no more strolls around the neighborhood. He darted out the door a couple of times, but as soon as I yelled, "Smokey!" in my mother voice he froze until I picked him up and took him back in the house.

In February I took Smokey to the vet for his second rabies shot. The fungus infection in his ears had cleared up and he'd gained one whole pound. Our vet was thrilled that he'd responded so well to the antibiotic; she was actually grinning. So was I, but Smokey was sill not happy about being a shut-in.

Then I had a brilliant idea. Our deck sits a story off the ground and has no steps. "Why can't we let Smokey out on the deck?" I asked Michael. He replied, "He'll jump off." I said, "Only if he has a death wish. The rail is too high." Most cats won't jump if they can't see where they'll land. Michael argued that he'd jump through the gap between spindles, but we agreed to give it a try.

For a week Smokey was as good as gold. Then one morning Michael let him out at 5:30 and yep -- Smokey bailed, probably through the spindles; in the dark, no less. Michael grabbed the flashlight, went out and found him and hauled him back in the house.

The next Saturday Michael went to Home Depot. He bought two rolls of aluminum screen, which is tough enough that Smokey can't shred it with his claws, and stapled it over the spindles on the deck rail. Smokey spent an hour sniffing every inch of that screen looking for a hole. Then he gave up, flopped down in the sun and went to sleep. The photo is Smokey surveying his domain. He's the only cat in Kansas City with his own private sun porch.

What does Smokey's story have to do with The Cat Before Christmas? Everything. I wasn't looking for a cat, but Smokey found me and purred his way into my heart. Cary Tyler mowed down a fence to reclaim Wiki when he ran away. Michael built one so Smokey could go outside and be happy and safe.

Smokey picked me, but I picked Michael. My husband is the best choice I ever made.

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