My Fourth of July Gift: Gracie the Three-Legged Wonder Cat
"We have this beautiful girl cat at the clinic, but she only has three legs. We don't know what to do with her. Who's going to want a three-legged cat?"
Uh. Excuse me? Who do you think you're talking to?
I was standing backstage at the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, the summer before my junior year in college, when Sarah the assistant stage manager, a vet tech by day, first mentioned Gracie.
I had been contemplating getting a cat, but wasn't sure if, as a college student, it was a good idea. But when I heard Sarah talk about Gracie and her odd number of legs, I knew I had found my cat.
"Sarah, I want that three-legged cat!" And it was done.
That was the 1st of July. It was a miserably hot and humid summer in St. Louis (aren't they all?) and we were all REALLY looking forward to having a day off from working in the park on the 4th. Sarah and I made arrangements for her to drop Gracie off at my apartment on the 3rd, and that evening I practically skipped home thinking about my new cat.
On July 3, Sarah arrived at my house with a cardboard cat carrier. As she walked up to meet me at my building's front door, I caught little high-pitched mews coming from the carrier. In the elevator up to my apartment, the box gently rocked from side to side and the little mews continued. "The carrier rocks because she doesn't really walk, she hops around," Sarah said with a smile.
Upon getting to my apartment, we set the carrier in the middle of my studio floor and opened it up. At first nothing happened. Then a little black and brown tabby head popped up like a periscope.
"Hi, Gracie!" I said and she looked at me and meowed.
She then confidently leapt out of the carrier with surprising, well, grace, and hopped around the room. Three legs or not, I was amazed at the ease with which the little brown and black tabby skipped and skittered around my apartment. We laughed. "She's already surveying her kingdom!" Sarah giggled.
Throughout the evening Gracie and I got to know one another. She was affectionate, upbeat, and chatty. What delighted me was that she seemed to possess very little, if any fear. Top of the fridge? No problem. Investigating the deepest, darkest recesses of my closet? Sounds fun! "Observing" my shower taking skills? I passed the test.
Here was a cat who had been hit by a car as a kitten -- luckily in front of Sarah's vet clinic -- lost the use of her front left leg (it was all curled up and kitten-sized), who had been living in foster homes and a vet clinic for all of her life, and she just radiated positivity. She was HAPPY.
That first night together, as she curled up on my chest and licked my nose, I started to cry. I didn't realize how lonely I had been until this "Wonder Cat" came into my life.
The next day, I woke up with Gracie sleeping right next to my face. Starting my day that way, nose to nose with a blinking, meowing beacon of joy, put a positive spin on a day I'd kind of been dreading.
You see, it was my first 4th of July alone. It wasn't even so much the holiday, but the memories and nostalgia wrapped up in it. At the time, I had never had a 4th of July that wasn't spent with dear friends and family, gathered around food, music, and of course, fireworks.
When I was a kid, the 4th of July was one of my favorite holidays. As immigrants, it had special meaning to us. We celebrated not only Independence Day, but my parents and uncles and aunts celebrated that they were raising their daughters (we are all girls), in a place where they believed we'd have more opportunities. I'd beg my parents to let us FINALLY set off the sparklers and little sparkling "Pagoda" firecracker, and as we laughed and played in the glow of our celebration, such a sense of peace and safety pervaded my world.
But because I had this job with the Shakespeare Festival, I was unable to go home that 4th of July. It made my heart hurt to know that my family was grilling hot dogs, and watching fireworks without me. That my dearest friends were hundreds of miles away, getting ready to go to our yearly "concert in the park."
My plan had been to steel myself against the day, close my curtains, and turn up a horror movie REALLY loud that night to drown out the reminders of what I was missing. But with Gracie hopping around my apartment, meowing and "blooping" -- a sound I've never heard another cat make -- things didn't seem quite so dire.
That day I learned that Gracie preferred unsharpened yellow pencils as toys far more than the numerous catnip mouse toys I had bought her. I discovered her favorite spot was curled up on my chest, her face centimeters from mine.
I was amazed to learn that she was FAST. At one point, I accidentally slammed the inner screen door of my apartment, and she shot into the kitchen, just a blur of black and brown. I found her perched on top of the fridge. Three legs? What-EVER! This cat had spunk!
Gracie and I had a great day. I mostly forgot about my loneliness. However, as night descended, and we quietly ate our "4th of July Treats" -- wet food with a dash of tuna for her, hot dogs for me -- I felt the sadness start to nibble at me again. Even with Gracie "blooping" circles around me, begging me to play with her and her pencil, the peace I craved wouldn't come.
Gracie abandoned her pencil and raced into the kitchen.
Fireworks. I'd forgotten they were having fireworks in the big park behind my building. Poor kitty.
I ran to comfort Gracie. One again, I found her on top of the fridge. Climbing up on the counter to get her down, she crawled into my arms and wrapped her tail around me.
Sitting in the floor of the darkened kitchen with Gracie snuggled in my arms, I was able to look out the kitchen window and see some of the fireworks exploding over the tops of the trees.
I felt Gracie's little heart stop pounding so hard, and in a few minutes she was purring and nuzzling into my chin.
Sitting there with Gracie, my Wonder Cat, the loneliness ebbed a bit. My eyes welled with tears, yet again, but this time, in the silence between the BOOMS, something felt different -- something felt a little more okay.
As I sat in the dark, with a near-snoozing kitty, the light from the fireworks barely glinting of the floor, I realized that what I had been missing was home -- at least the idea of home I had so clung to for all these years. And while my parents, my friends, my family would always be a home to me, what I had there in my arms was the seed, the beginning of something new.
I wanted my family. Now I had one.
So as Gracie slept and purred in my arms and I watched the fireworks light up the night, I let go of needing things to be like they used to be. I had a new little family member in my arms, and new adventures to have with her. And quite quietly, without much fanfare, I finally found the peace I had so longed for on that 4th of July.