In November of 2004 I was a new case manager at Chamberlain’s Children’s Center in Hollister, California. I was not very good at my job yet. One of the best things about CCC is that they truly strive there to create “practice families” and expose the kids to normal life stuff, rather than “rehabilitate” in a sterile vacuum then throw them back out into the world and hope they make it. We had been talking about getting some pets, so it was no surprise when our CEO, Doreen, showed up one day with a kitten that she found alone in her neighborhood. She was bushy, with big tufts of hair on her jowls, and had an air of elegance about her from the very beginning. I wanted to name her something sophisticated, but the kids took to her tabbyness and called her “Striper.” I have spent the last decade telling people that she isn’t a stripper.
And so Striper moved in to our office. She was entertaining by day and independent by night. She had a special love for anything that made paper move, and we quickly learned to dash and protect the fax machine as soon as it started ringing. There is nothing more professionally awkward than having to call someone and ask them to refax something because your cat jammed the machine. We also learned to unplug the desk printer at night… after Striper discovered that by holding down the power button she could print test pages. We came in to work one day to find all of the paper in the printer (at least 50 pages), previously blank and loaded, strewn all over the floor describing the features of said printer. We walked in to the same disaster months later when we forgot to unplug it, which made me wonder if she tested it out every night.
When Striper was small she would climb up my executive style desk chair and take a nap behind my neck while I worked. As she got older she became less and less tolerant of grownups, but she had eternal patience with the kids. Striper had this lovely progression of irritation starting with her ears lying back, then tail twitching, then a low growl, then a hiss, then a bite or scratch. This pattern helped the kids learn to recognize nonverbal cues and modify their social behavior to respect boundaries. From them she tolerated being accessorized, carried in some very strange ways, and some fairly rough handling. The only time she looked at me for desperate help was when a two year old tried to ride her!
My boss at the time, Cheryl, is a true cat whisperer, and she and Striper had a very close bond. In June 2007, when Cheryl started packing up her desk the week of her retirement, Striper moved into her litter box and wouldn’t come out. So I was asked to take her home with me.
I had a cat named Onyx. Onyx was my cuddlebug and special friend. And, despite being fixed, Onyx had true carnal desire for Striper from day one. Poor Striper. But over time we developed a routine, each of them got me for a specific part of the day and had their tasks. Bedtime was Striper’s time, and she always woke me up with her rough tongue – constantly annoyed at my alarm clock that kept going off. Onyx chilled out a little as he got older, and eventually they started getting along. A couple of times I even managed to snap a picture of them sleeping within reach of each other! As Striper got older her peripheral vision became compromised, and I think her depth perception – it got to the point that she wouldn’t jump higher than a chair because she miscalculated so often that it just wasn’t worth the risk.
In September 2012 I left CCC (I was good at my job by then) and started a clinical position at a Refugee Foster Care Program in San Jose. My plan was to save enough to move to San Jose, but the commute took too much out of me so I decided to move in with a friend for a few months in between. I couldn’t take both cats with me. Onyx also had this habit of peeing on everything, a habit that I did not want to torture a roommate with, and had a not-so-secret desire of becoming an outdoor cat and I wasn’t willing to risk the vastly increased outdoor dangers in San Jose. So Onyx became an outdoor cat cared for by an elderly cat lady in my complex, and Striper came to San Jose.
I met Debbie through a mutual friend, and she agreed to foster Striper while I found a place in San Jose. Plans changed, and she ended up keeping her for 3 months instead of 6 weeks. I’m so grateful to Debbie for her care of Striper during that time. I was adapting to a job that was incredibly difficult on so many levels, and it was during that time that I realized how much I truly loved and needed my cat. I’m told that she spent most of those months perched at the top of Debbie’s cat tree avoiding her two cats – which didn’t surprise me one bit. She truly does despise most other animals. God gave us a perfect apartment, and we were reunited in February 2013.
Striper and I lived a quiet life for a couple of years, although I did learn about cat depression and learned to keep a
couple of lamps on for her in my very dark apartment. I took her to work with me from time to time, both for my own comfort and the amusement of my clients. Some of the kids had never known a domestic cat before, and she was so great with them! I left the RFC program and went back to work for Chamberlain’s in January 2014, this time at their outpatient clinic in Gilroy. My days became even longer again, and I noticed Striper becoming more depressed and lonely.
The office was pet friendly, with two other clinicians bringing their dogs every day, and I received permission to bring her. Striper hated the car ride in the morning… I tried in the crate, out of the crate, kitty sunglasses, everything I could think of, but she would always scream the whole way. But when we got there she absolutely loved it! She loved working with the kids again, teaching them social skills, being cuddled, and spending time with me. The trip home was always fine, and she was definitely happier.
But Striper was getting old, and I could tell. She turned 11 and became a senior cat. She was tired and sore and seemed less able to jump even shorter distances. I knew that she was lonely, but didn’t think she’d be able to tolerate being around another cat. But I was also keenly aware that she was nearing the end of her life, that I needed a cat, and that I would never be able to replace her. So when my coworker adopted a kitten in May 2015 and was going back for another, I asked her to bring me one. And I was hand-delivered a 5-week old goddess of destruction called Persephone. Pippi looked like a little elf and was beyond adorable, but housed within her 10-oz body the energy of a typhoon. Needless to say, Striper was not in favor. Pippi got a belled collar when she started racing up behind my non-peripheral-vision cat and launching onto her back. Striper would have none of it, and I started to regret my decision.
Pippi and Striper meet
But then Pippi grew up, and out of her maturity emerged a therapy cat. I watched in amazement as she began a months-long process of earning Striper’s trust. She would put herself in Striper’s line of sight and approach until Striper began her low growl. Then she would stop and lay down and watch. Once Striper was fully relaxed, Pippi would take a few more steps until Striper growled again. Over weeks, the tolerated distance shrank from 10 feet to about 2 feet. I will never forget the day I was reading on the couch and suddenly heard bells jangling. They were wrestling. My. Cats. Were. Wrestling. Striper. Was Playing. With. Another. Cat. I cried. Striper had a friend. As their relationship progressed Striper allowed Pippi to groom her every day, and every once in a while they would sleep within touching distance. Striper turned 14 this past fall, around 72 in cat years. She could jump again, run again, she wasn’t so afraid or reactive. When we got Pippi she became “kitten” and Striper became “mama,” but Pippi was by far the caregiver. There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that Pippi added years to Striper’s life, and that Striper was never happier than when Pippi was her friend.
When Cheryl retired from CCC she moved to Visalia. Through a series of events we developed a close friendship that merged to family, and I now spend all of my California holidays here. One of the best things is that I can load up the cats and bring them with me. Both of the cats hate the ride, and they’re not really a fan of being here, but all 3 of us are certainly happier together than with them subjected to a cat-sitter in San Jose.
So last Sunday, December 23, 2018, was no different than any other “go to Visalia” day except that we were leaving in the morning instead of late at night. Striper woke me up to turn off my alarm and gave my face and hands a nice bath with her now smooth tongue. She demanded food and even got some coconut oil out of me. She hid under the bed when the suitcase came out, and came to cuddle when I took a break on the couch. She took her travel pill without complaining, although she didn’t seem to get as drunk from it as usual (usually she’s making out with the walls, it’s pretty funny!). She was getting herself a snack when I picked her up to put her in her crate, before I went through the traumatic ordeal of catching Pippi to put her into hers. We rested a bit after that, then we were off.
Striper was quiet in her crate, but she was further into her pill than usual at the start of a trip so I was just grateful. We were all listening to the 8th Outlander Audio Book, that I had started that morning. I paused in Los Banos for a power nap, then ran into Starbucks for some caffeine. When I got back into the car I realized that I still hadn’t heard a peep out of Striper. I called her name, with no response. I poked her through the bars, no movement. I opened the door. She was curled up, sound asleep, eyes closed, relaxed. I yelled at her, I shook the crate. She didn’t move.
Striper was gone.
Striper was gone, and I had 115 miles left to drive. I called Cheryl, sobbing. She calmed me down to the point that I was able to ask for prayer on Facebook then block it out and do nothing but listen to my book and drive – with the occasional freak out about Pippi being too quiet, but she was fine. I got to Visalia, where we confirmed that Striper indeed would not wake up, let Pippi take one goodbye sniff into the crate, and put her unceremoniously in the garage. I wrapped gifts, taking breaks to come comfort a crying Pippi. I fell asleep around 4:30am with her cuddled up with me under the blankets. She’s here with me now, purring, as we share Striper’s story with you. Her tongue is much rougher than Striper’s.
Truthfully, Striper did it right. One of my greatest fears was that she would get sick and I would have to make the decision to euthanize because I couldn’t afford medical treatment that would only extend her life by months. I’ve never actually seen a dead pet before, since only one of mine died when I was at home and I was too young to be involved. I don’t know what I would have done if I had to pick her up her body and transport her. This would have been so much more tragic for me and Pippi if we had been home, alone, if I had to go back to work the next day. Instead, Striper picked a day when she was healthy and happy. She was already in her crate. For all I know, she died before we even left the apartment. We were on our way to Cheryl, at the beginning of a 2 week break. Her death was free to me, since her cremation was covered by my friends as a “condolence gift” (whatever that is). I can spend all the time with Pippi that she needs. Striper was truly a mama cat in her final moment.
I could never replace Striper. But here’s the thing: Pippi is lonely. She has never been alone before. And she truly IS a mama cat. It’s like a calling for her. And what I want most for her is to have a life with a cat who can reciprocate all the love she has to give. So yesterday I went to the Valley Oak SPCA and adopted a beautiful kitten that I will pick up on Monday to begin the process of adding her to our family.
I think most pets are very special to their family, but it stays there. Because of how Striper started life, she has been so special to so many. So many kids have been loved and impacted by her! She has made so many smile, taught them things. And she herself finally learned how to allow herself to be loved. This is a legacy that cannot be spoken about many cats. And I am so grateful to have been her human.
October(ish) 2004 – December 23, 2018