73: The Greatest Gift

73: The Greatest Gift

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Cat Did What?

The Greatest Gift

It isn’t the size of the gift that matters, but the size of the heart that gives it.

~Eileen Elias Freeman, The Angels’ Little Instruction Book

Anybody who’s ever had an outdoor cat is probably familiar with the concept of “gifts.” I don’t mean the kind of gifts that come in sparkly packages. I mean the “Ew, there’s a dead thing on my porch!” kind of gifts. No matter how well fed an outdoor cat is, chances are he’ll still enjoy the occasional hunt… and he’ll want to share the spoils with his family.

As a nature lover, it was never easy for me to find a limp field mouse or a wounded bird on my doorstep, but I accepted these moments as part of country life. If I wanted to feed the neighborhood strays, I’d have to put up with their good-natured attempts to repay me.

I dealt with the “gifts” as best I could, giving swift burials to the dead and medical care to the injured. Over the years, my parents and I had some interesting patients: blue-tailed lizards, star-nosed moles, even a crayfish. I didn’t think I could be surprised anymore by what might be waiting outside our door.

I have to admit, though, that I was scratching my head the first time I found a stick on the porch. The twig was about four inches long. It hadn’t come from a pine — the only kind of tree near our house — but I figured it must have blown in from somewhere. I tossed the stick away and forgot all about it… until I found another one a few days later.

The second stick was short, like the first — and again, definitely not from a pine. Over the next few weeks, the mystery deepened. More and more sticks appeared. Some were short and stubby; others were long and bowed. Some had bark, some didn’t. And oddly enough, they were all lying parallel to the door. Like they had been placed there. Deliberately.

Frankly, I was getting a little freaked out. Strange possibilities flooded my mind — everything from cryptic alien messages to a really ambitious ant colony. But even my wildest imaginings couldn’t prepare me for what I saw one afternoon on my way to the barn.

I was halfway down the driveway when I heard the distinctive, eager mewing that cats often make when they’ve caught a small animal. I started to run, hoping it wasn’t too late to save the poor creature. But as I rounded the corner, my eyebrows shot up: our fuzzy orange barn cat, Panic, was trotting down the lane, and he was indeed carrying something — but it wasn’t a mouse, or even a lizard.

The object in his mouth was, unmistakably, a stick.

“You!” I said. “You’re the one who keeps leaving those!”

Panic dropped the stick and rubbed against my legs. I shook my head and scratched his chin, my eyes never leaving the stick.

In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised — after all, Panic had never exactly been a “normal” cat. He even looked different than other cats, with his bowed legs, unusual sea-green eyes, and a face that was more Ewok than feline.

Another thing that set Panic apart was his behavior. For starters, he wasn’t afraid of dogs. Or lawnmowers. Or even cars. The one thing he was afraid of: mice. Once, I actually saw him jump back in terror as a small field mouse approached him.

As far as other cats went, Panic loved them and the feeling was mutual. Aggressive tomcats didn’t even blink when Panic wandered onto their territory. Kittens joyfully followed Panic around like he was their mother. Even our oldest and crankiest cat, Molly, could frequently be seen snoozing peacefully beside Panic.

There was just something utterly benign about him; even tiny mice seemed to know he would never harm them. Maybe, on some level, Panic realized this too. Maybe he knew he just wasn’t cut out to hunt live prey. Maybe that’s why he started bringing sticks.

All I know is that once he got the idea in his head, he never gave it up. He was shy, at first. If anyone caught him carrying a stick, he would immediately drop it. The earliest photos I took were blurry, because I had to jump out from behind trees to catch him off guard. As time passed, though, Panic grew bolder. Eventually, he proudly deposited sticks right at my feet, as if to say, “Here — I caught this for you!”

When he was hunting, Panic’s head would turn right and left, his green eyes scanning intently for that one special stick. At times, the search could take over thirty minutes. Once he’d “captured” the perfect prize, he’d hold his head high and swagger back home.

In summer, Panic would bring us as many as ten sticks a day. Sometimes, he’d carry two or even three sticks in his mouth at once. When the weather turned icy, the hunting would stop for a while. But as soon as the snow melted, he’d be at it again, showering us with a Dr. Seuss-worthy variety of big sticks, little sticks, soft sticks, brittle sticks.

Eventually, I stopped photographing them because there were just too many. Dad started grumbling about having to pick up sticks every time he mowed the lawn, and Mom stopped exclaiming whenever she spotted Panic carrying a ridiculously enormous branch. We all learned to casually sidestep the numerous twigs littering the walkway.

Then, one evening, I saw a car stopped on the road, right near Panic’s favorite hunting spot. My heart froze for just a moment — then I caught sight of him, healthy and unharmed, trotting along with his latest treasure. A woman was leaning out the car window, snapping a photo of him. As I heard her exclaiming over my cat, realization stung me like a smack to the cheek: Panic was special — truly one-of-a-kind — and lately I’d been taking him for granted.

That night, I scooped Panic up and scratched his chin.

“She probably put you on Facebook,” I told him.

Panic’s throat rumbled.

The next day, I started taking pictures again. I even managed to record one of Panic’s hilarious “hunts” on video. I mowed lawns to earn money for his vaccines, and always gave him an extra snuggle at feeding time, just because.

When Panic didn’t show up for dinner one night, I assumed he’d wandered off to cuddle with one of his many friends. It was Mom who made the terrible discovery the next morning: our fuzzy orange cat with bowed legs, lying stiffly by the roadside.

I felt like I’d been stabbed. Tears half-blinded me as I walked out to the road and gently lifted his body off the rough gravel. I dug the grave under a tree, where I knew many sticks would fall. And even as the ache tore right through me, stealing my breath as I tried to choose some of Panic’s favorite twigs to place on the mound, I couldn’t help but feel grateful too.

After all, there was only one “stick cat” in the whole world. Just one. And I got to take care of him. I got to be with him every single day — playing with him, scratching his chin, laughing at his silliness.

And that was the greatest gift of all.

~Gretchen Bassier

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