Letter from Yvonne: Life of Sky

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Dear R J and Daily Blague readers,

Four summers ago, the deaf kitten Sky came to live with us.  It was like being charged with the care of a magical creature:  beautiful, wild, ever a mystery.

Try to imagine a curious, clumsy, irrepressible little being who emits a wide vocabulary of charmingly expressive noises.  If that made you think of WALL-E, you’re pretty close!…Now try to imagine WALL-E as a fearless living plush-toy, rather than a skittish robot.

Sky deserves his very own musical theme.  Not like that clarinet-voiced cat from Peter and the Wolf, though; Sky’s theme would be a perfectly-balanced fusion between Prokofiev’s carefree child-of-nature Peter, and the single-minded wolf!  So please try to hear that woven through the following scenes…

 

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Deaf cats are not silent.  In Sky’s case, quite the opposite!  As a kitten he would keep up the chatter even in his sleep:  adorable peeps and hoots; low grrrrs and sweet num-num-num sounds.  His voice is startlingly loud, and sort of toneless — a typical deaf cat’s voice.

He inspired me to study American Sign Language (ASL)!  I have the romantic notion that a standardized form of communication, rich from two centuries of repetition and human engagement, is sure to hold special resonance — even for a pet.  I watched Children of a Lesser God, and read the fascinating history of ASL…and was so excited to find an online resource for learning signs.  That kitten Sky did not seem as keen on the project as I was didn’t matter.  That my signing lists more toward the Koko the Gorilla-end of the continuum than the Marlee Matlin-end didn’t matter either.

The grace and flow of sign language can be beautiful — and the individual signs (i.e., words) are often delightfully evocative.  The word LEARN, for example:  the left hand, flat, palm up, represents an open book.  See it?  With your right hand, pluck out an exquisite nugget of knowledge from that book and deposit it straight into your brain via your forehead!  (Ah, if only…!)

You already know some signs.  DRIVE and CAR are the same sign; you can easily guess it.  And how would you sign CRAZY?….Right!  (Okay, please stop doing that one now.)  But many signs — classified as “opaque” — are way beyond guessing.  For example, if you were to try to indicate CHIN by pointing with a slightly-bent forefinger at your chin, a person fluent in ASL would be confused:  what exactly are you trying to say about FINLAND?

Pantomime shooting yourself in the head with a gun = MOUNTAIN DEW.  (You’re welcome.)

I’M HAPPY I MET YOU, we sign to Sky, just the way Lily Tomlin taught Keith Carradine in Nashville.  BEAUTIFUL, BEAUTIFUL SKY:  that one is a lovely, swirling-sweeping dance for the right hand.  Obviously, Sky doesn’t understand these signs, but he sees that we are connecting with him…and our facial expressions tell him the rest.

He learned FOOD so quickly!  And the other two cats learned it as well.  (Genius cats!  I knew it!)  In fact, after calling three cats to two meals a day for the last four years, I have distractedly signed FOOD FOOD to my husband Robert as a way of announcing that our dinner is ready.

PLAY, I sign, and Sky looks around for his favorite toy mouse.  RAIN RAIN RAIN has unique meaning for him — approximately this:  Yvonne is going to do some laundry now, so if I jump up onto the dryer, she and I can watch the washing machine fill with water and bubbles!  Which is very relaxing, by the way. (I don’t get to the beach too often.)

We had to make up our own sign for NO, because the ASL one didn’t work.  Ours doesn’t work, either — but at least it’s more satisfyingly dramatic and emotive…and possibly provides some aerobic benefit, since we do it so vigorously and so often.

Oh, Sky knows what NO means, and he knows that we know that he knows.  He simply can’t imagine that NO could ever possibly have anything to do with him.  He doesn’t take it personally.  Like any wild thing, he never bothers to worry about our disapproval; he has no concept of “bad” or “wrong” as they might apply to himself or his adventures.  In the same way we observe that dark clouds sometimes hang heavy and low in the sky (the clouds’ business, not ours), he simply notices that Yvonne and Robert are sometimes displeased.

Could it be coincidence, then, that we find ourselves constantly signing YES to Sky?  It’s an efficient, clear, comforting sign:  the right fist shakes up and down, like a head nodding.  And YES has become our way of saying yes, good, that’s right; it is also our shorthand for it’s okay, gooood boy, I love you, and even just hello

Sky’s whole life is YES.

I love this passage of E. E. Cummings:

yes is a world
& in this world of
yes live
(skilfully curled)
all worlds

 

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* * * * * * * * *

Soon after Sky had settled into our home, he wandered into the living room just as two polite building-maintenance guys in neatly-pressed work uniforms were explaining to me why our broken air conditioner would require a squadron of specialists.  Always excited to make new friends, Sky trotted right up to greet them; sat down at the feet of the man speaking and craned his neck to look directly into the man’s eyes.  Mr. Maintenance stopped mid-sentence to stare at this tiny, presumptuous…thing…and exclaimed, “What is that?”

I could see that he immediately regretted blurting those words, especially because it came out about a half-octave too high, and in a tone of childish wonder.  His assistant was silent.  Keeping my own voice breezy, I said “a cat” as though it were mere speculation; as if I weren’t quite sure either, so no need for him to be embarrassed.  He relaxed — and just as he reached down to pet him, Sky scampered off.  (Was it my imagination, or did Mr. Maintenance seem a little relieved?)  But in no time, Sky was back, a toy mouse dangling from his mouth.  He resumed his place at Mr. M’s feet, and reestablished eye contact.

“Um…he wants to play fetch.  Sorry.  I’ll put him in another room…”

Mr. Maintenance was staring at Sky with palpable confusion.  “Fetch?  Like, a dog?

I understood his befuddlement:  Sky, as a kitten, did resemble some kind of…baby Arctic Fox, perhaps?  Certainly, this display of boldness might’ve seemed un-catlike, as did the way Sky moved in general:  like a happy, floppy puppy.  (Deaf cats tend to lack feline grace.)   Also, he is strikingly odd-eyed — which is quite disconcerting, until one grows used to it.

I’d meant by my tone of voice to imply that it would probably be best for us all to simply ignore the kitty. (!)  But at that moment Sky laid the mouse beside Mr. M’s boot — and assumed a racer’s crouch, ready to spring.

Glances were exchanged with Mr. Assistant; Mr. Maintenance sighed and gave the toy a lame toss.  Sky shot right past it, leapt high in the air to reverse direction, then did a forward roll, landing on top of the mouse.  Which he returned swiftly to Mr. M — and hunkered his haunches, awaiting a do-over.

Five minutes later, I had moved on with my life — skimming a newspaper in the dining room — while Mr. Maintenance and Mr. Assistant took turns firing the toy mouse up and down the hall off the living room for Sky to chase.  I mean, honestly!…two large men, laughing and rolling around on the floor with this wild kitten, cheering loudly at his catches and lovingly chiding him when he missed:  “Aw, c’mon!  You can do better than that!”  “Here, let me throw it — I got an idea….”  “Yess!!”

Variations of that scenario recurred over the next three weeks.  Other maintenance guys, assistants and specialists paraded through our sweltering apartment, working on the AC in between romp-and-fetch kitten games.  Sky hung out with them as they worked, contently munching their shoelaces.

 

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A deaf cat is harder to train than a hearing cat.  (Train?!  Ha ha, I make joke, no?  For making to laugh the cat know-ers here.)

Most deaf cats can be dissuaded from inappropriate behavior by a well-timed, well-aimed spritz from a plant mister — but have I mentioned that Sky loves water, and considers a spray of it a refreshing reward?  Few behavior-modification techniques even register with him, because he’s just plain curious about everything:  all objects are toys, all situations are games, places are for exploring, people are interesting, etc.

I’d read that deaf cats are frequently very oral — they are literally tasting the world in order to experience it, to connect with it.  Sure enough, as a young kitten, Sky was an incorrigible chewer.  Electrical cords!  Furniture!  Books!  He ate wool, he gnawed everything in sight.

Sigh.  We don’t collect or accumulate things; my aesthetic has always been less is more.  I could totally live in those Charles Rennie Mackintosh white rooms — with the subtle, sensual details and occasional rich green, blue-grey or aubergine accents — about which everyone says, “So cold and sterile!  Who could live like that?”  I’m sure it reveals something unfortunate about my psyche, but I like the surgery-could-be-performed-here-at-any-moment look.  Anyway, my point is, there isn’t a lot of stuff around here, but what there is is beloved and well-cared for.  So when that stuff was being systematically ruined by a relentless, amoral kitten-termite…it was bloody upsetting!  Veering toward overwhelming.

The flash point:  my Wayne Theibaud retrospective catalogue, a large glossy art  book, was discovered with incriminating indentations on its cover.  Of all the books Sky had nibbled, this particular one undid me, and I crumpled and began to cry.  There were bite imprints all over the edge of that chocolate cake!  I pictured some art book-lover of the future, after I’m gone and my books have landed on a sale table somewhere:  the future art-book lover will stand, puzzling over those tooth marks, and wondering WTF kind of weirdo had previously owned — and tried to taste! — this book.

My husband was goshed by my overreaction.  But then he hadn’t spent the day following Sky around, trying to teach him to stop doing…most of the things he wanted to do.  (NO NO NO NO!!  I would sign, flapping about like a madwoman.  If he deigned to notice my signing at all, he seemed to think it was a trippy avant-garde dance meant for his entertainment. Boredom soon overtook curiosity, and he was off to lick a power strip.)

I sobbed, “Why won’t Sky learn NO?”  Robert was sympathetic, and said comforting things — to which I responded, as one does, by becoming even more hysterical:  “I mean, I know he’s deaf, but is he also, like, stupid or something?!”  (Ouch.)

Robert replied, most gently, “I don’t know.  I don’t think he’s stupid, Sweetie.  But even he is, he’s our cat, and we’ll love him and take good care of him.”

Well.

That was a good answer.  THE answer.  As though I’d been in a trance and he’d snapped his fingers, I was jolted back to clarity by his heartfelt words.

Would I trade Sky for a whole library of toothmark-less books?  No.  For any mere object?  No.

(I once read about a book store with a resident cat.  The cat became famous in the community; people visited the store to pet him.  Occasionally he’d indulge in vandalizing a book or two, which would then be featured on a separate table — and with the price marked up!   A book was considered extra-special for having been…celebrity-chewed.)

As Sky eased out of kittenhood, he became less oral; for our part, we leaned that rubbing orange peels on the tempting cords and wires discouraged gnawing.  And my rude question was answered by Sky himself, who has proven that, indeed, he is highly intelligent.  But it’s the kind of intelligence found in an undomesticated animal, whose free spirit is neither guided by, nor readily acquiesces to, NO.

* * * * * * * * * *

If your impression of white cats is based on media images of an indolent, airbrushed Persian lounging on a tasseled pillow (near a crystal champagne coupe?)…I do wish you could meet Sky!

He is touchingly affectionate.  When he’s in the mood for human companionship, he strides up and demands hugs and love in his loud voice; says thank you with his loud purr.  He loves to be slung over my shoulder and gently bounced, like a baby.

Even though he is the youngest, and despite his deafness, Sky is the Top Cat here.  The other two reflexively drop their toys and back away when he approaches; in the tradition of little brothers everywhere, Sky takes up the toy — and promptly breaks or loses it.  But he is a benevolent prince, and they’re all good friends.  Sky knows that Jamie is the go-to cat for wrestling, lamp-crashing chase action and general roughhousing; sweet 14-year-old Matthew specializes in languid, thorough grooming sessions.

He is a busy guy.

When it’s time to rest, Sky often seeks out Matthew or Jamie and — never one for subtlety — plops down heavily right on top of him.  The squished cat is blinky and annoyed.   But since no one can say no to Sky, within moments they are spooning (skilfully curled), and, yes, his friend is his pillow during a luxuriously long nap.

Sometimes when people meet him, they fail to consider that Sky is unaware of his deafness — he doesn’t know sound exists — and they look at him kindly, but with pity:  “Aww, how sad!  Poor thing.”

We reassure those folks that Sky is living a pretty good life.

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Happy Holidays!  I wish you all health, joy, and peace in the New Year.

Yours,

Yvonne

5 Responses to “Letter from Yvonne: Life of Sky”

  1. jkm says:

    Yvonne: I enjoyed this post so much! Sky the kitten-termite brought back memories (originally unpleasant, now mildly amusing) of of my dog Winston as a puppy (nothing was safe from those sharp little puppy teeth, a habit not shared by his litter mate Franklin, oddly enough), whose most egregious acts were to chew holes in two rugs and gnaw the edge off a leg of one of our few pieces of antique furniture. But back to Sky–he’s a beautiful cat and sounds like he’s great fun to have around. So thanks for bringing a smile to my face on an otherwise rather dreary day, and happy holidays to you, too!

  2. Nom de Plume says:

    Yvonne, what a gracefully spooled and tenderly loving profile! My recently deceased dear Aunt Barbara had a white kitty, named Miss Muff because she was required to be clandestinely silent (muffled) in the Philadelphia suburban 11th floor apartment where they lived and where cats were categorically not allowed! Miss Muff was selected for her all-white beauty, and that was the entirety of her appeal. It was also sufficient. She was irascible and indifferent, but she looked good. Toward the end, it was a face-off between Aunt Barbara and Miss Muff as to who would predecease the other. It was only last January, but I honestly can’t remember who went first. Probably Miss Muff since I can’t remember her being a post-death problem for the family. Miss Muff became friendlier during her last year, deigning to snuggle with Aunt Barbara as she read in bed. My favorite mental movie of Miss Muff was chasing my big honey-colored Labrador retriever, Indiana, down a sidewalk at her retirement community. No question who was in control of that relationship!

  3. Yvonne says:

    Hi, jkm: Thank you. Winston and Franklin: what great names for two dog-brothers! Don’t you wonder what non-chewy puppy Franklin was doing while destructive puppy Winston was working on the rugs, etc.? (Was he watching and thinking, “Ooo, Winston’s gonna get in truuuh-ble!”? Hee.) If you haven’t read the book The Hidden Life of Dogs, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, it is highly recommended.

    Hi, Nom: In so few sentences you’ve crafted the most touching vignette — a lovely tribute to your Aunt Barbara and Miss Muff. Also, sigh: Indiana the honey-colored Lab! In my volunteer work I’m been lucky enough to meet a few magnificent service dogs who assist blind people. All have been Labs or Lab mixes — chosen for training because of their intelligence and focus and social skills; their beauty is just extra buttercream on the genoise.

  4. lynette says:

    What a lovely post! Your Sky is a beautiful creature and I know that wildness of spirit that seems to be a special gift of deaf animals. I am so glad you directed me to this post. It’s just magnificent.

  5. Yumie says:

    Brian hoje ne3o respondo ao Bartolomeu pouqre ontem fiz uma chamada de atene7e3o para uma doene7a que geralmente ne3o tem cura masque por vezes o amor e carinho faz milagres e depois como tu Perdeste o teu amigoFin eu tambe9m perdi a minha amiguinha Efi como lhe chamavamos mas o nome dela era Efegenia musa da inspirae7e3o..agora e9 uma linda estrelinhaAmanhe3 vou recompensar o meu namogadinho ,pois je1 duas semanas que ne3o namogamos Turrinhas pratodos ai de casa da sempre amiguinhaKika

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