My parents divorced when I was 18. It happened the way many divorces do: My dad moved out and my mom stayed in the house and kept the animals: Maddie, a 120-lb. purebred Rottweiler, and Hilary, a gray and white cat from the SPCA. It was a strange trade-off because my mom was never much of an animal person.
My dad, on the other hand, was the sole reason anything covered in fur was allowed to reside in our home in the first place. He was the one who ultimately convinced our mom to save Hilary from a “death sentence” at the SPCA and fed her with an actual bottle when we discovered she brought a case of kennel cough home with her. He was the one who proudly displayed Maddie at her short-lived obedience class, and laughed without embarrassment when his giant pup routinely squatted in the middle of the obstacle course and left her mark on the competition.
To be fair, eventually my mom learned to love Maddie, so much so that she frequently took her out for drives, to restaurants, and even on special trips to get hamburgers together. She made Maddie homemade lasagna the night before we had to put her to sleep because, well, “it was Maddie’s favorite.”
Hilary was a different story. She didn’t demand the same constant attention as Maddie. She was simply overlooked by my mom, who was trying to cope with her recent divorce and the fact that her kids were now out of the house. Several times on our trips back home from college, my sister and I would pull into the neighborhood and see Hilary, an indoor cat, strolling around, several blocks from her home.
After every visit we left feeling like Hilary got the raw end of the deal.
The following Father’s Day, as my sister and I were getting ready to drive over to our dad’s place, we felt our gift selection⎯a tie, and a Stargate DVD⎯just wouldn’t suffice. Our dad needed something better. After all, our mom had the house, the pets, and us for the summers and most of the holidays. The least we could give our dad was a decent Father’s Day present. And as we were pondering what else we could possibly get him, Hilary sauntered into frame as if to say, “What about me? Your dad and I always did see eye to eye, and, anyway, I could use a change.”
So my sister stuffed our already elderly cat into her ample purse, and we set off to give our dad a Father’s Day present he’d never be able to claim was unoriginal.
Our dad needed something better. After all, our mom had the house, the pets, and us for the summers and most of the holidays. The least we could give our dad was a decent Father’s Day present.
Before our dad could even open his generic gifts and feign excitement, Hilary let out a meow, squirmed her way through the opening in my sister’s purse and jumped to freedom. She plopped herself right down on his couch as if it was her regular spot and began licking herself furiously.
He burst out laughing, and it took several moments before he composed himself to mutter. “You know, your mother would kill me if she ever found out.” But, we argued, how would she ever find out? What he didn’t say was, “You need to take this cat back right now,” or “Are you guys out of your minds?” And we knew right then that we’d given our dad the perfect used Father’s Day present⎯and that Hilary was about to get a major upgrade.
As it turned out, mom noticed the missing cat right way, not four to six months down the road like my sister and I had anticipated. Maybe she wasn’t such a neglectful cat mom after all.
Not only did she notice, she sat Jess and me down and said: “Kids, Hilary must’ve gotten out and, well, it’s been a few days now, so I think we may have to accept the fact that she’s not coming back. I’m going to keep praying, but …”
And just like that, Hilary got a new home. Of course, my sister and I told everybody we knew what really happened to the wayward pet. But somehow no one ever let the cat out of the bag (horrible, horrible pun absolutely intended) to our mom.
Hilary thrived in her new environment. She went from being a skinny, skittish creature that hid out in our mom’s basement to avoid running into the giant Rottweiler that held dominion over the house, to a diva that acted like every object in our dad’s townhouse was her own personal possession. Whenever we walked in the door, Hilary would be perched on top of the couch, and her cat toys, as well as many of our dad’s things, would be strewn about the apartment. Our dad would always be beaming, as if Hilary had done anything more impressive than gaining a significant amount of weight.
Five years went by, and it seemed like Hilary had been my dad’s cat all along. One night, I was out to dinner with my mom and she started complaining about our dog’s skin problems: “Hon, Maddie’s fur is just so knotty and that dandruff is disgusting … it’s hard to even pet her when she’s like this.”
“You should get this stuff dad uses on Hilary, it’s …”
“Wait, did you just say Hilary? Like my Hilary?”
“No, no, no. I don’t know why I said that. Dad got a cat, and it’s got all these crazy skin problems and …”
“What’s its name?”
“What color is it?”
“Gray, it’s gray … with a little bit of white on the belly and …”
Before I finish convincing my mom that Otis was real, I lost it and I was laughing in the same uninhibited way my dad did when we offered him Hilary as a Father’s Day present. My mom was staring intently at me at this point, so I told her the truth.
Whenever we walked in the door, Hilary would be perched on top of the couch […] Our dad would always be beaming, as if Hilary had done anything more impressive than gaining a significant amount of weight.
Let it be known: My mom has a huge heart and an even greater sense of humor. She slowly responded. “You gave the cat I inherited in my divorce back to your dad, the man I got divorced from, and let me believe I lost her?”
I nodded, feeling some guilt, but wiping tears from my eyes at the same time.
“I can’t wait to tell my sister about this one,” my mom said finally.
“She knows, mom!”
“Everybody knew except for …”
“Except for me,” she said, finishing the thought.
Luckily, my mom has a great sense of humor, and she actually found it funny. But even if she was angry or hurt or both, it wouldn’t have mattered too much. Hilary ended up in the right place.
My dad loved that cat more than most people love their immediate family. When Hilary’s health took a turn and even an ardent PETA member would’ve said enough is enough, my dad gave her IVs himself, just so she could enjoy the good life a little longer.
In the end, Hilary lived to be 24, which is like 142 in people years.