The year is 2016. I had just arrived in Guiyang for the second time. It was not my first move to China, which made me extra confident that this time the process of adaptation and separation from family and friends would be easier. I can’t describe how disappointed I was. The city, the people, some inconsistencies at work–each day something different happened. A month passed, and each day, my focus was on finding another place to live, because I didn’t know how I was going to get used to it all. That’s when a foreigner shared the story of the scared cat he’d found in the middle of the street but couldn’t adopt.
I grew up asking my parents for a dog. It took years for my family to finally get one, and by the time Vicky arrived, I was already in high school and soon after, I started college away from home. I never really understood the responsibility and the connection that we create with these little animals once they enter our lives.
I remember that when André had just been born, sometimes, while he took his afternoon nap, we would tell Vicky to take care of him. She would stay close to his room and let us know when he woke up. Seeing her there, you would know exactly when André was about to cry.
Seeing André growing up with Vicky sharing pão de queijo (Brazilian cheesy bread) and getting licked in the face was very special. There were times when André loved to sit in the dog’s bed, but she was never aggressive with him or any other child who tried to get close. This kind of bond with a pet is something you can’t force, just as it’s almost impossible to change their nature, which is unlikely to become violent unless pushed to do so.
When it came time for Vicky to leave us, I was not at home. In fact, as much as I had asked for a dog, I was never a good owner to her. I didn’t take her for enough walks and didn’t feed her or brush her as much as I should. My mother took care of her the most. She was there when her puppies were born, knew when it was time to take her to get her shots, and even years after she died, she told me one day that every time it’s mealtime, sometimes she still thinks that it’s time to feed Vicky, who was always served before everyone else at home.
Before my better judgment could change my mind, I had already met and adopted my cat Snow. I knew a pet wouldn’t solve my problems, but sure enough, knowing I wouldn’t go back to an empty house every day was a start.
I will never forget the day he finally came to live with me. As soon as the door to his carrier was opened, I only saw him for ten seconds before he ran under the couch. It took weeks until he got used to my presence. Sometimes we met in the hallway of the house, he on his way to his food bowl and I to the bedroom, and when he realized I was watching him, he would run away again. He had his favorite hiding places: under the kitchen sink, the sofa and bed in the guest room.
It took a while, but he eventually gave in and I could pet him for a few minutes, and every day, my house became a little bit nicer to stay in. He was already waiting for me at the door when I came home. At night, he brought a stuffed animal for me to play fetch with him, and he was always around to hear André’s voice while I helped him with his homework.
Snow was becoming an emotional support that I never imagined a cat would be capable of being. I lived on the first floor and risked leaving the window open for him to explore the surroundings. He loved it, and he always came back, which made me believe he actually enjoyed my company, no matter how aloof he was with most humans. One day he came back hurt, and I never had the courage to open my window again.
When I went to Brazil, my co-worker moved into my old apartment. She had three cats and I believed that maybe this would help him, but two weeks later, he ran away from home and I thought I would never see him again.
As soon as I got back, I moved to another apartment, but I still had access to the old one. I visited it a few times; I spent hours there to see if he would smell me or sense my presence. Before long, I got a message that Snow had been seen near the house. I went back to my old apartment (there was cat food there on account of the cats she had). I went to the place where she had seen him, put the food out, called for him, and waited. Two minutes later, a white cat jumped out the window of the abandoned apartment on the first floor. He was skinny and dirty, but it was him, it had to be.
I brought it to the new house. I bathed him and removed all the fleas and ticks I found. He didn’t seem to recognize me, and I started to have second thoughts that it was my Snow. On the first night he was skittish and meowing like he didn’t seem to understand what was happening. I picked him up and put him close to my neck like I used to do. He finally calmed down, let me pet him and I felt the wound mark he had gotten when he had the freedom to explore. At long last, he recognized me and there was no more doubt between us.
Some time passed and a very close friend was going to leave China. She was having a hard time taking home the cat she had bought and said that I was the only person she trusted to take care of Cleo. My son could not contain his happiness: we would have two cats, one for me and one for him. I confess that for some time I wasn’t sure if it was the right decision–one cat is already anxiety-inducing enough, but two seems like a lot more, but André had just arrived in China and Snow was still the same scared cat who didn’t interact easily with others.
Cleo arrived and we did everything the YouTube videos told us not to. In less than 48 hours, the cats were able to tolerate each other, and by the end of the week, they were already playing together. Cleo was used to humans–her house, unlike mine, always had visitors, and she loved to play. Whenever someone went to another room, she followed them; she teased Snow all the time, and at night, you could hear the two of them running through the house. Maybe that’s the good feeling of a full house that people talk about so much.
And there goes four years. Snow still hates any loud noises or visitors, Cleo loves to follow anyone around the house, and usually, she lies in front of the legs of the person who almost falls trying to avoid stepping on her. Despite everything, they are the easiest cats to care for that I’ve ever had (and the only ones I’ve ever had).
In China, I had my first opportunity to be a real pet owner. I clean, feed, take care of, and vaccinate them, and in that time, they have never had any serious problems (except Snow’s injury, which I’ll never know how it happened). In return, I have the affection that these kitties give me every day.
Being away from family is one of the most difficult decisions for those who believe that being present in their children’s lives is fundamental. I don’t know how many times Snow was by my side while I needed support to keep persisting in keeping the distance that would provide my family better opportunities in the future. And as strange as it may seem, it was as if he understood that his presence was needed.
Science may not yet have found ways to explain why our pets are so important in people’s lives, but most likely, it’s because it’s not a question of science, but of love.
Proofreader/Translator Evelyn Jamila