Years ago, when I lived at my folk’s place in a small development past the outer edges of the suburbs in the country, there was a cat.
He was black, and at first we just caught a glimpse of him every now and then, but it was enough for Mama to get some cat food to put out. (While not a believer in indoor animals, she liked to encourage strays to hang around the house and cut down on mice and snakes.)
I’ve always had a fondness for black cats, and I started thinking of him as “Hamlet.”
The next time we saw the cat, I put a bowl of food out on the back deck. He ran as soon as I opened the door, but later that evening we saw him eating. I did the same thing the next time we saw him, and the time after that. And eventually he would come back for the food sooner and sooner after I’d gone back inside.
One evening, I decided to stay out on the deck when I put the food out. I curled up in a chair as far from the food as I could. It took a while, but eventually he sidled up to his bowl and ate anyway.
After that, I stayed on the deck every time I put out his food, gradually moving the bowl closer and closer to the chairs, until eventually it was just just an arm’s length away.
The whole time, if I moved to get up, or even just lifted my arm, he was gone. But I could talk to him. I’d talk to him and meow, and he’d meow back. We’d have whole tentative conversations out there on the deck.
But always at arm’s length.
He was so close, but so skittish.
I started moving more naturally –talking with my hands – as I sat and we talked. And he stopped startling unless I moved toward him, so I never did.
But gradually he started moving closer to me, until one day he walked around me and rubbed lightly against my side. If I moved to pet him, he was gone.
He was still afraid, but part of him wanted to trust me.
One day, as he rubbed against my side, I lifted my arm at the elbow and he walked under it, arching his back under my hand.
It was the breakthrough. Soon I was petting him naturally and his attention was as much on me as his food.
Our conversations lengthened, a series of meows I was mirroring from him. “Who knows what you’re talking about?” Mama remarked.
But talk we did, and soon, if I saw a black dot far off in the neighboring farm fields, I would walk out on the deck, say, “Good morning!” in a normal voice, and watch a small black head pop up and then streak across the fields to me.
One evening when I returned from work, I was standing beside my car outside the garage when I heard a distinctive “Meow!” I looked around the corner of the house, and there, 18 feet above me on the deck, was Hamlet. We talked back and forth for a bit, and then I watched him gather himself and jump down to me.
Mama said, “Cats don’t jump like that. I wonder what you told him?”
After I moved away from home, if I was visiting my folks and we were talking outside, Hamlet would always show up to see me.
One evening, in the dead of winter, Mama and I were talking in a basement room when I thought I heard something. “Meow…meow!” Hamlet was outside the small, high basement window where he’d heard me, and I went out for a visit on the porch.
That was one of the last times I saw him. One of the dogs that roamed the neighborhood got him.
This past spring when I went to meet Nemo to consider adoption, he didn’t want anything to do with me (or much of anyone, to be fair). He hated the shelter, and especially the kittens being raised in a big cage in the center of the room we met in. He stalked around the room muttering, “Damn kittens! Seriously?” like a grumpy old man.
I liked him. He was black (with a white shirt front and collar), he was intelligent, and he spoke his mind.
I was looking for my first pet, and as we waited to see if he’d warm up to me, I told the shelter manager and the cat-person friend with me about Hamlet.
Nemo didn’t warm up that day, but they gave him to me anyway. “I really had my doubts,” my friend said, “but when you talked about that cat, I knew you wouldn’t rush Nemo. You’d give him the space to get to know you.”
And he did. At home, I let him explore and soon he was rubbing against my legs and offering his head to be petted. All these months later, we’ve bonded, but he’s still the same cat.
He’s always happy to see me in the morning and when I get home from work – talkative and ready for attention. When he’s caught up on things, though, he’ll settle down somewhere. Maybe keep an eye on things.
When I go to him, it rarely works for long. He’ll tolerate a moment of affection before moving away. But often, if I let him go and just wait a while, he’ll come back and leap up to settle in my lap.
Patience has never been my strong point, but I’m learning to wait. It’s hard sometimes, but it’s part of the relationship with this cat of mine. And when I wait and respect his terms and timing, he eventually comes.
Patience is hard.
It’s always been worth the wait.