The above may seem a bold headline for someone to write who doesn't believe in angels. I'm not going to make up the existence of angels, my readers know, even in the interests of appealing fiction. But I'm also not going to make up this story you are about to hear of a wonderful part of my past. The story deserves telling. It is something I want to make sure gets passed along in the cruelly shunning stream of time.
I've never been a die-hard cat-lover, but I've made several exceptions in my time, the first one being the most precious of them all—my childhood cat, Jake. She was as close to a guardian angel as this teaming-with-life planet could offer me. Jake was a pure-blooded Siamese goddess if ever there was one. You may not have known her, but she was a legend on a few streets in one small neighborhood in my old neck of the woods in San Antonio.
Jake came around just before I was born. In January of 1973, a neighbor who my parents barely knew informed them that she had a Siamese that just had kittens. This overburdened, overworked woman practically begged mom and dad to take one. The litter was healthy, and without a pet of their own, mom and dad were glad they walked a few doors down to take a look. The only one that stood out as a clear choice was the one walking toward them, a brown and white-coated little beauty willing to leave mom's warmth behind to share her new, baby kitty love. Right then, she was named and taken home (why she was given a boy's name I know not. Must have been popular at the time).
Dad discovered that this cat was not like others. She was so naturally adversarial as she grew, so strong and formidable. That small cat grew, alright. And, as always, when dad needed a play partner, Jake would never let him down. Jake was a fit and ferocious fighter, born to make mongrel dogs howl in pain.
Dad's tough arms were so clawed up that he had to start wearing up to six pairs of socks on his arms, and eventually, shop gloves to stop her claws from digging in. Everywhere he went, people would say: “WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR ARM AND HEAD?”
Why head? Because Jake was that agile. She could get past his arms and go to work on the balding head of this six-foot tall weightlifter of a dad. He couldn't do "the claw" thing on any of us since we weren't around yet, which left Jake as the only candidate. She was more than up to the challenge. Dad finally had to quit. Jake was too fast and too tough.
Jake: The Beginning: Part I
April 16, 1974 was when I entered the world. I'm told I met Jake in my crib just as I was brought home from the hospital. My parents were afraid as they came into the room and saw a Siamese cat sitting next to a newborn baby's head and licking it. They removed her from the room, but she kept getting back in. She would push a door open or jump up and hit the handle to open it. She would climb the curtains to jump in when the rails of the crib were put higher. There was no keeping her out. Even at this early age, it was clear I had an admirer.
Once I came on the scene, Jake was “my cat.” As I grew, she would venture off, but still hang out with me as I played in the yard not far away. She would always watch me. When not doing that, she would lay on her favorite arm of the couch and watch me play outside. As a rambunctious kid, a three-year-old Joe Holman sometimes tormented her, but she endured it, only half-heartedly swatting at me once or twice out of an abundance of fierce feline frustration. She never hurt me and was as patient as she was tough.
Jake, My Protector: Part II
The Alaskan Spitz
July 17, 1977. My brother is born, and as it happened, we had just moved to a nicer part of the neighborhood. We were on Welcome Drive Street in the Live Oak community. This was the place of my first big memories. Dad now had more money and mom was finishing up her college degree. I was playing outside one day, walking across the yard when out comes a vicious dog.
It was a large Alaskan Spitz.
The thing was a ways off, but seemed to be heading in my direction. That massive bark was sharp-pitched and the dog was big. As a blur in the corner of my eye, Jake takes off like a rocket, not waiting around to see how close the thing would get. I barely saw her brush past me, but I saw the fight. I can't say I remember it well, but I remember dad talking about for quite some time after.
Such explosive movements...this vicious, powerful animal, snapping his jaws, trying with his great might to chew apart this house cat that should have been no match for him...one bite would have done her in. But Jake emerged the winner. She would jump on and off his back, scratching and tearing at the speed of light. Rolling on the ground to dismount her, she would jump back on as he yelped and went down again before finally giving up and running off. It was over so fast.
All I could do was watch. Soon, dad was right beside me, seeing this loud brawl some ways off that moved its way to only a few steps off of the big dog's property. Neither of us could do anything. The owner finally comes out, and Jake gets ready to finish up with him. But Jake would not relent until she was ready. Before retreating, that dog was rolling on the ground in a submissive/shocked posture, losing blood. Poor thing couldn't even get away!
The owner, a law professor at St. Mary's University, takes the dog to the vet and then comes over that night around eleven o'clock to demand that my parents pay for it, which, after some discussion, they didn't do. Jake re-emerged on our couch that night without a scratch.
It's an accepted truth that pound for pound, an equally sized cat vs. dog will favor the cat winning, but the larger and meaner the competition and the favor goes to the dog. Not with Jake. She was like a bobcat. She was always the exception to the rule. We knew that from the beginning—all the more so when she drug a box of Meow Mix out of the pantry and into the living room when we were slow to feed her one lazy Saturday afternoon.
Two Dinged-up Doberman Pinchers
As awesome as the previous fight was, it took second place to this one. Jake sees us playing out in the yard. The family of questionable moral character next door, with their two dobermans that responded on command to their owner, made her nervous. They got too close to the fence as me and the little cousins played in the sprinkler on the trampoline. Jake put an end to that.
One decent-sized cat against two dobermans...it was a sight to see. The fight moved behind the wooden fence, so we couldn't see all of it, but we heard the yelps, and they weren't coming from Jake! Jake retreated this time, but only when the owner came outside and tried to spray her with the water hose. Even quicker than the last fight, it was all over.
The owner, a large Mexican man who always wore Hawaiian-colored shirts, saw his dogs get their asses handed to them from his sliding glass window. He just stared angrily in our direction for quite a while. Those dogs were never quite the same. They didn't come near the un-boarded areas of the fence anymore. To my surprise, he didn't ask my parents to pay for it. I guess it was too big of an ego blow.
A Poor, Pooooor Dalmatian
Jake's fourth victim was a stray dalmatian that wandered over into our garage. Jake pounced him down from a distance of less than 8 feet away. I was playing with my pretend lawn mower outside. The good thing was, she let the poor thing run off when she realized he wasn't a threat.
A 57-variety Sheep Dog and a Brown Pit Bull
Of Jake's better-known victims was a large mixed-breed mutt the size of a bullmastiff. It was the easiest yet - save for the dalmatian - surpassed only a little by a pit bull that took off like a rocket when bested by this cat of cats in under a minute. It was a surprisingly one-sided fight. The pit turned out to be one of my friend's friend’s dogs whose dog came home torn up, but he didn't know by what animal.
I don't remember the kid's name, but this guy was always bragging on how his pit kills cats every month. I have always known pit owners to be braggers on their dogs, even today. Well, this week, I guess the cat goddess decided to turn the tables. That big, stupid dog never showed its face on our street again.
The funny thing was, when this guy remarked about how easily his pit kills cats, my friend Brian replied: “Yeah, well, your pit got his butt whipped by Joe and Eric's cat! I saw the whole thing! Your dog got took!” The guy couldn't believe us, but he eventually did. We could see in his eyes that he knew Jake was the only explanation for the injuries. Quite the reputation Jake was getting!
Jake, My Adjunct Parent: IV
One of the funniest moments of my life was when I was 10 years old. I opened a sack of concrete in the garage and played in it, but the real harm was the way I opened the bag. I tore the sack so that it had to lie on its side to not be spilled. Dad found out about it later, and with belt in hand, came for me to teach me another to-be-shrugged-off lesson on laziness. I got a good one across the back of the legs and I took off running. As I ran, dad comes behind me into the bedroom where I had gone. I do what any smart, shiftless kid would do in my predicament—pull the covers up over my legs and lay motionless on the bed. Jake jumps on top of me, and here comes dad, with belt still in hand.
Jake sees him coming, and being surprised, she gets in full attack posture and hisses at him, just like with the dogs! Jake didn't agree with the punishment and she wanted her opinion heard! Neither dad, nor brother, nor mom could believe it upon entering the room. Everyone forgot about the whole thing. We just looked at each and then at Jake as she gradually eased her posturing as dad eased his. I got off with a verbal scalding instead.
Jake, the Golden Years: Part IV
It's 1986. Jake by now is going through some changes. It was hard to say we noticed them before the next thing happened. But Jake wasn't as physically active as we remember her being. She was a little lazy when compared to her former high standard of activity. It was all about to become very noticeable.
It is a bright and sunny, but cool day. I am 12 years old, playing out in the front yard. A 70s model, yellow Trans Am turns the corner. It's coming real fast. He sees Jake traipsing across the road and he speeds up. I know he saw her. I could see his face. I remember it to this day. He was a black-haired, mustached man, really skinny, dark-skinned, with a stupid smirk on his face. He looked like a mechanic, very dirty, maybe a druggie as well.
He stared at me as he went by. I heard it.
That was what we heard, along with the continued squealing of the tires as the car burned rubber and picked up more speed. Soon, he was out of sight.
And Jake...there she was, lying on her side on the asphalt. Mom runs out and we run over to her. I'm too shocked to think straight. It happened right in front of me. Jake lies there a few minutes, bleeding badly, missing large patches of fur on her body and head, and then she gets up and stands for a bit before barely walking.
Jake was THAT tough. I don't know how it was possible, but it clearly was. She was caught under the rear tire of this 4,500-pound car and shot out the back. And here she was, still alive. We took her to the vet. Mom tried to be strong for us, but she was fighting back tears harder than brother and I were, and she wasn't entirely successful, we could tell. I was in too much shock to cry. The doctor was unsure how much damage had been done internally, but he didn't expect her to live. He expected her to die within a few days. There was also spinal damage.
But the doctor was wrong. Jake lived for nearly another year. But things weren't the same after this. She would “mess” in the house and it would contain blood. She was lethargic and cried out for no apparent reasons, her eyes squinted as she watched us throughout the day, in obvious pain--much more with every step. Her behavior became erratic and unpredictable. As 1987 rolled around, it was obvious that she had lived a full life, and now it was...time.
We got home from the vet and I buried her myself in the back yard. It was hard work digging, but in a somber and hazy state of mind, the task was done all too soon. It was just me, saying goodbye with her remains inside an 18-by-24-inch box. I placed the box in the hole and covered it up. The full impact didn't hit me until several weeks later. I don't think I had cried a single time yet. Now was when it became the hardest to handle.
To give you an idea of how hard, I still have a good cry over these photos about 2 or 3 times a year. Imagine how this would hit a child.
Jake and The Will to Believe: Part V
1989 was the last year my brother and I shared a room. In it, our beds were on different sides of the room against opposing walls. I awake one morning to find Eric in the kitchen talking with mom. I go in there and mom says: “Joseph, you have to hear this...” Eric tells me he awoke from a dream during the night and saw a blue glowing figure of a cat with its two front legs on the bed, looking over at me to see if I was alright. I was facing the wall on my side. I can remember burning with the desire to believe that. I think I did at the time.
Please don't accuse me of using Jake's memory as a heart-tugging means to promote my depressing atheist agenda. I'm not doing that. But it is the religious who so often try to use memories and grief to trick themselves and others into believing that they must get more of what they don't have--more life for themselves and those they love. There is always food for the sentimental, for the bleeding hearts who must believe that life goes on after the grave. Fighting to believe in an afterlife is like holding on too firmly to the past—both are unproductive and painful.
There is really no point to my telling this story except that I wanted to share it. I don't understand all that I'd like to about the bond between animals and humans - or the bond between humans and humans - but I had an angel, one of the very best kind. I don't understand all that I'd like to about being human, but I understand one thing: It's nice to be able to cry together.