The Cat’s Tale by Jeff Nickloy

The Cat’s Tale

            There was a cat that came to live with us shortly after my wife and I were married.  I knew Sandra was a cat-lover, so it wasn’t a total shock when I got a call from the local shelter informing me that a cat I knew nothing about was ready to be picked up.  We named him Bilbo Baggins.  The name was the result of a compromise.  I got naming rights and Sandra got to keep the cat.  That was the extent of the compromise.  I was in the third year of law school at the time, so naturally I suggested a “Cat Contract” with provisions regarding litter box care, hair balls, sleeping arrangements, smelly cat food etc.  Neither Sandra nor the cat were amenable, so I settled for naming rights.

Bilbo turned out to be a wonderful pet.  He was a yellowy-orange tomcat with a huge fluffy tail that he proudly carried almost entirely erect and constantly swished.  Why is it, by the way, that cats’ tails swish and dogs’ tails wag?  Never figured that out.  Regardless, Bilbo was lovey, non-aggressive and quite playful.  Unlike some of our subsequent feline pets, he did not hide under furniture only to leap out and attack our children’s ankles.  Bilbo was not bothered by Sandra’s mantra (What good is a cat if he won’t let you hold him?).  So, Bilbo perpetually was in someone’s lap.  But, the problem was not his attitude, it was his tail.

Even when Bilbo was curled up in a lap, his tail seemed to be moving from side to side.  If he was lying anywhere near your head, this could be quite disconcerting (think feather dusters in your face).  So, we began to simply hold the cat’s tail if we were holding him.  The surprising thing was that once Bilbo’s tail was released, it would seemingly try to make up for all those lost swishes, whipping rapidly from side to side.  This previously unsuspected fun feature of the cat prompted us to intentionally hold Bilbo’s tail from time to time just to see how fast he’d move it on release.  Retrospectively this seems idiotic, but at the time it was fun.

The downside of Bilbo’s perpetually moving tail was brought home to us when Bilbo swished left when he should have swished right, and his tail was caught and broken in a closing door.  The sound that ensued from the cat’s mouth was bad enough, but the sight of Biblo’s tail was heart-wrenching.  Instead of the fluffy mast Bilbo normally carried behind him, Bilbo’s tail drooped over in the middle to resemble a fuzzy crochet wicket.

Sandra, who was at that time working at Duke University Hospital, brought this tragedy to the attention of the hospital interns.  They reasonably suggested splinting Bilbo’s tail with tongue depressors, which were readily available at the hospital.  So, the next day Bilbo’s tail was in a wooden splint.  But there was a new problem.  It seems that fluffy cat hair is far lighter than wood and Bilbo’s tail was now much, much heavier than he, or the musculature of his tail was used to.  Try as he might, Bilbo could not keep his tail erect.  The wicket-droop was gone – replaced by the appearance of a cat dragging a broken piece of quarter-round behind him.

To his credit, Bilbo was not to be deterred.  As he could, he tried to swish or rather flop his splinted tail from side to side, causing is to whack against wooden furniture, cabinets and the tile in the kitchen.  He just couldn’t hold up in the air like he had done before his accident.  But, after a few weeks it was time to remove the splint and zip, up went his tail, just as it had been before his accident, although now his tail seemed much stronger than before in its swishing movements.  I’ve reflected on Bilbo’s tail as I think about the Covid pandemic.

I know some folks are concerned about how we will all react as we eventually come out of our Covid restrictions.  Will we snap back to pre-pandemic behavior and habits, or will we remain standoffish and separate?  Will we shake hands and hug each other?  Will we see smiles?  When I hear those concerns, I think of Bilbo’s tail, both in its resilience after confinement and its desire to make up for lost swishes after being released.

While it may take some time for people to collectively feel safe, I find it unfathomable that we will forsake urges so powerfully engrained in us (presumably by design).  I don’t expect to hug or shake the hand of everyone in sight after getting vaccinated.  But, I do expect that we will have a new appreciation for all aspects of human-connection and that “love thy neighbor” will be a lot easier to sell now that we appreciate our neighbors so much more.   Like Bilbo’s tail, we may well need to make up for lost time.

Jeff and Sandy Nickloy