Monday, June 25, 2012

Howard's Whisker

A few years ago, when my cat Howard’s vet proclaimed that Howard’s whiskers were the longest that she had ever seen, I felt as proud as a parent. For me, this was just one more example of how extraordinary and exceptional a cat that he was.

From that day forward, if I found a whisker that Howard had shed, I taped it to a door as a testament to his talent.  It was a wonderful curiosity that always made me smile.  

Howard came into our lives eleven years ago. While looking to adopt another dog, I got it into my head that it might be nice to have a couple of kittens, too. In order to coordinate with my interior design color scheme,  I wanted a gray cat and a black cat to complement  the two gold colored dogs. 

Emily and her best friend Carolyn were given the honor of name selection.  They decided that the black one would be named Howard, and the gray one would be Simon.  

My mother called Howard “Dennis the Menace”.  He was always getting into mischief of one sort or another.

The years flew by and Emily went off to college at Tulane University in New Orleans.  That was an interesting choice, because her father and I had met when I had an apartment on Tulane Avenue.

Emily missed the animals and telephone conversations with her were frequently about Howard’s latest antics.  When she was home, Howard could always be found in her bed, day or night, and frequently both.

During her junior year at Tulane, Emily chose to study abroad for a semester at University College London.

This was another interesting choice because our home was on Westminster Place in St. Louis.  Who could have foreseen that she would live in the environs of Westminster Abbey one day?  

Emily had been in her London dorm room  for only a few days when she found what was clearly one of Howard’s whiskers.  It was smack-dab in the middle of her bed, on a new white sheet.  Her immediate response was to laugh, and then she taped it to the wall. 

When she told me this story, I marveled at the miracle. She hadn't packed sheets because English bed sizes were different.  Perhaps Howard had slept in her suitcase the night before she left, just as he had slept in her guitar case on occasion. How had the whisker made the transatlantic journey and not been lost? 

Here’s my theory: Howard had never traveled anywhere but to the vet’s office and occasional walks around the neighborhood. Of course, he couldn't accompany Emily on her voyage to London. As the armchair traveler that he probably was in his never-ending naps, he sent one of his whiskers instead.  Cats are known to have a particular sensitivity to the earth’s magnetic field and so are masters of direction. Was Howard trying to help Emily navigate the globe?

Whiskers also help cats determine if their body will fit into tight spaces. It’s as if Howard sent Emily the whisker to help her squeeze into a coach fare seat, 

the small confines of a college dorm room,

 a tight subway,

or crowded street. 

Though Emily had Howard’s whisker, and not Howard himself, I may be stretching things to suggest that she enjoyed the benefits of having an actual cat. But could the whisker represent an old friend and provide companionship? And as cats are known to do, could the whisker help to dispel feelings of loneliness that Emily might experience in her new situation, far from home? 

Emily’s semester abroad was coming to a close.  Her father visited in March, and I visited her in May, when she was done with her coursework and preparing to leave for two weeks in South Africa. 

Just as her father had brought her ski equipment to ski in the Alps, I brought her hiking boots to climb mountains and a wetsuit to surf off the tip of the continent.

Howard’s whisker was not done yet with its duties. It needed to help Emily to navigate to another hemisphere, and then home again.  It did.

Another inscrutable connection occurred a few days after Emily had returned home.  She took a bowl from the kitchen cabinet and exclaimed that it had the logo of University College London! It was a mismatched and random bowl that we’d had for years. Nobody knew where it came from. Most of the time it had been used to feed Howard his dinner  – until I decided he needed an official cat bowl. Then the bowl made its way back into the cabinet.  

Had the bowl predicted Emily’s study-abroad experience years in advance?  How had it traveled from a University College London dining hall to our St. Louis kitchen cabinet? How had Howard’s whisker traveled to a University College London dormitory? The whisker and the UCL bowl!  Are these curious coincidences or magical mysteries only Howard the cat can explain? Perhaps we’ll never know because Howard is always asleep!  But then again, that cannot be – because Howard is Howard and he’s only being himself – always making mischief!