BY REBECCA RULE | ILLUSTRATION BY CAROLYN VIBBERT
Pawprints in a dusting of snow. A bowl of tuna on the steps. Gone the next morning. And the next. Until one evening, at dusk, she revealed herself—a tabby we called Shadow. She ate our offerings but kept her distance. My mom had just come home from two months in rehab for a broken pelvis, adjusting to life in a wheelchair. The bone healed, but she wasn’t walking. Her dementia got in the way. Watching for Shadow through our glass kitchen door kept her occupied as winter settled in. It was an epic winter—very cold, snowy and long. Shadow survived, even grew fat, but declined our invitation to come inside.
Before Ma returned from rehab, we tried to make way for the wheelchair. When she’d originally moved in, we incorporated her things with ours. Familiar objects, we thought, would help her feel comfortable in her new digs. Her Gone with the Wind lamp on the marbletop. Her china closet beside the TV cabinet. Grampa John’s sea shells on Aunt Molly’s bureau. The grandmother clock at the foot of the stairs chimes every fifteen minutes. At night, aware of the hum of the baby monitor, I guessed the time and listened for chimes. If I missed one, I knew I’d been asleep.
She hadn’t wanted to leave the house on Corn Hill Road where she lived with my dad for sixty years and another three years after he died—but we forced the issue. “I’ll give you a week,” she said of the move from Boscawen to Northwood. After a week, she decided to give us two. After a while, she began to call this house home. She’d been with us nearly a year when she fell.
To prepare for the wheelchair, we removed leaves from the dining room table, pushed back chairs, inched the couch closer to the fireplace. But a wheelchair requires more room to maneuver than you might think. The space between the Glenwood and the counter made for a tight squeeze. We call it Crawford Notch. The lip—about an inch rise, between the dining room and the living room—is Mount Washington. She needs a push. Every time.
Surprisingly, Ma didn’t mind the wheelchair. She’d made it home from rehab—something, she confided, she didn’t think would ever happen. Yes, it was the dead of winter. But it was warm inside. She loves a wood fire. And our dogs. Her cough bothered, but the special cough syrup helped. The nebulizer helped. So did the morphine. The cat and its mysterious comings and goings—each sighting a surprise and a relief—kept her distracted.
We tried to trap Shadow in a Havahart—tempted her with tuna, sardines, a hot dog trail leading into the trap. We caught two big male cats we’d never seen before, and with the help of a feral rescue group, got them neutered and adopted. We caught three raccoons. Or one not-too-bright raccoon three times. But Shadow fell for none of it.
Then the cat stopped coming. Ma asked every day: “Where’s my kitty?” About two weeks after Shadow’s disappearance, the sight of something small, bouncy and fuzz-furred on the steps stopped us all in our tracks. It was a kitten. It was three kittens. It was six. Shadow had left them for us to care for. She knew we needed them.
One of my favorite photographs and favorite memories is my mom in her wheelchair, six kittens curled in her lap on her favorite shawl, all purry, all content, and Ma just a-grinnin’.