This is Poncho. A big fluffy gray cat who came into my home in the fall of 2009. Before he slips completely away from memory, I thought I would celebrate who he was by telling his story. He came into my life when I had little time or energy for his needs. His origins are mysterious. He was a city cat that found his way into my father’s backyard shed and survived a lonely winter there a dozen years ago. His feral behavior attracted both the sympathy and censure of the household. But, his spirit was strong with the need to be somewhere safe and to fit in. Beyond food and shelter, beyond the essentials there is a quality of character that is evident whether we are on two legs or four. Poncho was mighty courageous. In this street cat beat the heart of a brave little cougar. He reached into his ancestry to survive and behaved with pride, determination and patience. Where at first he was a burden to me, he eventually became my superior in so many ways.
Poncho was “saved” from the backyard shed. A trust was formed based on a mutual curiosity and inability to ignore his presence outdoors. He had a health problem and needed attention. I recall stories of progress and challenges in administration of veterinary care. Eventually, he was accepted into the home and spent several years in feline comfort. He must have gone feral to survive as he became a tame, domestic house cat with not too much persuasion. When my father died, I took over some of the health care to keep up vaccinations. Poncho lived with my mother for several years. I had to foster him for a few weeks when she needed rehabilitation after a surgery. He couldn’t stay in the house alone and I couldn’t visit every day to tend his needs. I brought him to my home which was quite a challenge as I had an exceedingly territorial cat at home and a tiny apartment to shelter us in. Relations became so volatile that I had to find him a temporary home for my own sanity. He went back to my mother’s place for a year or so. She had to give him up entirely in a move to more comfortable living space. So, what do you do with a full grown cat who once again, had some health problems? He was dirty, lonely and failing to thrive. After making a few feeble attempts at placement, I took him in.
At that time, I was living in a larger apartment while searching for my first house. There was a generous government incentive program available for first time buyers. It was a chance I had to pursue. I already had two house cats that barely tolerated each other. Sweetie was taken in a year before Poncho. I found her wandering around outside homeless and eating birds. She had some social issues of her own that made her a handful. He came into the household in tense, tight conditions. Not only was he unwelcome by the other cats, but he was also ill and recovering from major periodontal surgery. The poor guy had bad gums. He lost many things over the course of a few weeks. He lost his home. He lost his steady companion. He lost his sense of place and came into a hostile environment. Oi! I was not unsympathetic to his struggles. But, all these needs had to get in line behind one another. In time, we got to know each other. It was hard not to like Poncho. He was generally very good matured and wanted to give love. There was just a lot going on.
The house was found. The deal was done. In late October of 2009, I moved into my little home in the country. The large backyard offered a comfortable place to let go and enjoy nature. The borders are marked with maple trees on one side and shrubs on the other. The yard ends at the railroad tracks and beyond that a long, slow river. It’s only a ten minute walk to the downtown. However, the community is quite rural. I am a strong believer that cats enjoy better physical and psychological health when they can be outside. An animal needs to be in its element to thrive. Cats roll in sand, climb trees and stalk prey. Yes, they harass birds and wildlife. My cats are brought inside overnight, but if the day is mild, they belong outdoors. Poncho agreed and quickly established that he was the boss of the yard. This neighborhood had a number of cats that roamed about day and night. Poncho’s territorial instincts emerged and he chased off other cats that dared wander on the property. Many a morning was punctuated by howling standoffs that sometimes needed a broom to break up the tension. I became an expert at how to intervene and give the offender a chance to skedaddle. As soon as they left the boundaries, he stopped pursuit and came back to the house. Somehow he figured out where the borders were. How did he know?
Poncho was not shy about his need to be cuddled. An empty lap was a natural place to be. I couldn’t sit down for a minute and not have him join. Many a night I woke up to find him laid out over my legs while Sweetie curled up on my tummy. If I turned over slowly enough, the cats rolled along and simply readjusted to the big pillow of me. Some of his habits included biting and grabbing me on the leg when he didn’t get his way. But, than he’d turn around and ask to be picked up with his big saucer begging eyes. He had a lovely way of meeting me when he heard me coming home. As soon as I drove in, he would pop up and saunter over, happily saying hello as I parked the car. As soon as I opened the door, he would fuss and meow, roll around on the ground and let me know, it was good to see me. He was patient when waiting to be fed. Three cats in the morning can make a scene wanting to be first, but Poncho often just sat and figured out that in the pecking order, he came last. His appetite was strong but not fussy. When the other cats put up the nose at the meal, he gladly polished off leftovers.
My most vivid memory of Poncho involved a dog that ambled into the yard one Sunday afternoon. I was raking leaves and a very mild mannered lab came wandering in. I was way in the back and a little concerned for the cats. Poncho was somewhere behind me and that left a long run to the safety of the back door. But, have no fear. Poncho took charge. I was astonished when a large hissing ball of gray fur charged the dog. He charged him twice and I prayed the dog wouldn’t turn around and bite him in half. What a scene! Hiss, Hiss, GET OUT! Hiss and the dog calmly trotted away. I went to praise Poncho for his courage but the poor guy started to cry. He limped toward me with one paw upraised. He hit the dog so hard he hurt himself. He had to be carried about for a day or so while the sprain healed.
Poncho sometimes acted more like a dog than a cat. He was a companion in good and bad times. On June 1, 2011, the weather turned from a mild hot afternoon into a fast rising thunderstorm. I had hoped to make it to the farmer’s market for eggs, but the wind was so sharp I gave up and went home. It didn’t occur to me that it was anything other than a summer storm. I found my older cat Gigi, huddled down at the bottom of the basement stairs. What was she doing? Sweetie was sleeping up on my bed. Poncho was circling me and meowing. It was about an hour later that I turned on the weather alert radio to find out why the sky looked so strange. I can only describe the clouds as having the texture and color of a dark haired French poodle. The clouds were low on the horizon but wide and cottony, almost cauliflower in shape. When I turned on the weather station, I heard the siren for dangerous weather, but I thought it was just a thunderstorm approaching. Oh no, the voice said: Tornado on the ground in Wilbraham. Two beats later. Tornado on the ground in Palmer, Monson, than Brimfield and Sturbridge. The twister was just over the hill about four miles away. I couldn’t tell if there were four tornados or one? The alarm went off twice for Sturbridge. We later found out there indeed had been two touchdowns in the town. Gigi knew what to do! But, Poncho stayed at my side as I started to panic and wondered what to do. Considering how close it was, I hustled down to the basement and prayed the twister would not turn north. How he meowed and sensed my panic. I still scold myself for attempting to sleep on the second floor that night. If another twister had come down, I could have been blasted outdoors. I think Gigi spent the whole night in the basement.
He came to despise workmen at the house. The cash from the homeowner’s incentive program took care of new windows and doors the first year. Eventually, the roof and chimney were replaced. By the next year, when it came time for some serious tree trimming, he had had it with what I called big boots. Construction workers stomp around in heavy boots. The day the arborist came to the door was one of Poncho’s proudest moments. I heard the truck pull in and couldn’t figure out why the guy wasn’t coming to the door. When I took a look, I found Poncho sitting on the front steps puffed up in that “I Dare You” stance. He was growling and looked very intimidating. The guy was not taking any chances and waited for me to sort out what to do. This guy climbs trees for a living but was afraid of a 14 pound house cat. This does explain the mean looks from the roofer about a year ago. I thought the guy had a bad attitude but perhaps Poncho had let him have it.
He took ill again in December 2013. He had been doing very well health wise. He loved his yard and home. On sunny afternoons, he loved to lie in the grass or under the shrubs. The cats sorted out how to tolerate one another and we made the best of it. But, his gums became terribly infected again and this time, the cost was just too high for me to manage. I had to make that awful decision of whether or not Poncho comes home again. I was with him until the last breath. Where three years before, I found his presence too much, I had a hard time letting him go. I struggled with this decision for months. His usual sleeping place was empty. I never realized how much spirit one cat could have until it was gone. What a cat! I don’t think the other cats felt that way. He was just a big furry unwanted beast. But, to me, he became a friend and defender. I tell myself he had three good years with me. He was allowed to be himself and find a way to fit in. He taught me the qualities of loyalty, acceptance, bravery and determination. Sometimes, I can still sense his spirit nearby. All that’s left of him now are memories and I miss him still