A Christmas Story

When I was a kid, I wanted nothing more than a cat. Every birthday, every Christmas, every opportunity I had I asked for a kitten. For ten years, a cat remained an elusive dream. I loved our dog. I loved my guinea pigs. But I was a cat person through and through. Then I turned ten years old. I was in fourth grade. Christmas time rolled around, as it always does, in festive lights and spirited songs. On Christmas Eve I assembled, as always, a plate of cookies and a glass of milk to leave out for Santa, and carrots for the reindeer.  And then, as always, I began to write my letter to Santa. I had my suspicions about the whole Santa business. But I loved the ritual. I wanted to believe. Reading The Polar Express with my father each year made my heart beat faster and my tongue tingle with the taste of the imagined hot cocoa they drink on the train. That night, however, I put my dwindling belief to the test. “Dear Santa,” I wrote, and I cannot remember exactly what my thought process was, and when my pen changed route. But rather than my typical sweet thanks-for-being-your-jolly-old-self letter, I said something to the effect of, “If you’re really real, you’ll bring me a kitten this year.”

I put it all on the line. The gift I wanted most of all. The merry figure I wanted so badly to believe in.

On Christmas morning (and it was a white Christmas that year. Even if it wasn’t really, it will always be in my memory), my family joined together in the living room, the wood stove radiating heat as kindling snapped and sizzled. We opened our stockings as we always do, going around and around, each person taking a turn, pulling some small delight out one by one. After stockings my parents prepared breakfast, I played Christmas carols on the piano, and my brother probably set the table seeing as I had most likely avoided that duty by plopping myself down at the piano. We ate our breakfast cheerfully, as always. Eggs, bacon, some scrumptious cinnamon concoction made for us each year by family friends, and freshly squeezed orange juice. Then my brother readied the chairs around the Christmas tree, assigning each person a seat. He always handed out the gifts, and we opened them as we always do, going around and around, each person taking a turn. I love this tradition of slowness and suspense and lingering over each gift, enjoying each other’s pleasure.

That Christmas, though, I confess I was a little bit disappointed. I felt guilty about that disappointment, but it was there nonetheless. I had known I was too old to believe in Santa. I had known my parents weren’t really going to get me a kitten. But I couldn’t help hoping. We finished opening our gifts, and I pushed my disappointment down and stood up to play a little before getting dressed. Then a blurry magical moment. Someone pointed out that there was a letter in the tree, stuck high up in the branches. A letter with my name on it. Someone pulled it down and handed it to me and I opened it. There in my hands was a letter from Santa telling me that I would find my kitten waiting for me in the next couple of days. A Christmas kitten. I read it over and over. The handwriting didn’t have my mother’s elegant slant or my father’s hurried scrawl. It was neat, readable, and unrecognizable. Of course it wasn’t my parents’ handwriting. I mean, I knew they were opposed to having a cat. They would never have agreed to get me one. And I had written the letter so late at night that there was really only one plausible explanation: Santa Claus himself had written me a letter.  He had read my letter and understood the urgency, the fragile belief on the line, and he had responded. I cried happy tears. I was getting a kitten. From Santa. And there was nothing my parents could do about it.

I did find my kitten, at a local animal shelter. When we arrived to the shelter on December 26th it was closed still for the holidays. However, one employee was there feeding the animals. She unlocked the doors let us in. A litter of kittens had just been delivered (by Santa, obviously). And there was mine, waiting for me: a playful, grey, fluffy furball with a white chin, a white chest and belly, and white boots on all four paws. In an attempt to be poetic I named him Snow Prince, thinking myself very clever since it looked like he had snow on his paws. He quickly captured all of our hearts, tortured our dog (who was the most patient, mellow dear in the world and Snow Prince was never quite the same after she passed away), terrified any guinea pig I had from that point on, and destroyed my mother’s beautiful furniture. He was the love of my life. He treated me like a sibling cat, cuddling, licking, wrestling with my arms, biting them. No one else put up with his wrestling moments, being the wise people they are, but I didn’t mind the scratches. I loved that cat too much. He trotted around with a rubber cricket—some old toy of mine—in his mouth, tossing it up in the air and batting it around. He lay on the floor next to my feet as I played the piano and purred. He waited for me to finish my showers in the morning so that he could walk in and lap up the water. He slept on my bed with me at night, and never quite outgrew pouncing on my toes if they wiggled just so.

One day when he was still quite tiny I went for a walk to our town library. It was a windy, cold, grey day. I kept hearing a little jingle behind me, but any time I turned around there wasn’t anything there. About half a mile from our house I finally turned and there he was, my little Prince, trotting behind me, his collar jingling. He had been darting in and out of the woods alongside the road. At the moment I turned around, though, an enormous truck zoomed past us. Prince spooked and ran into the woods. I hurried after him, and found him huddled in a ball, quivering. I turned around and carried him home.

He really was a Christmas miracle. In my hometown, it is unheard of for cats to live more than a few years because of the coyotes, owls, and other wildlife that prey on domestic animals. Snow Prince grew into a tough cat, nothing like his dainty name. He stayed out all night during a horrible lightning storm. He got into many fights, returning with battle wounds to show off. Once I heard the fight happening from afar and called and called and called his name fearing the worst. He returned home within the hour with a hole in his head, but seeming none the worse for wear. Eventually I think he just earned his keep. He outlived every cat we knew in town by more than double, triple, quadruple, quintuple in some cases. He survived enough misadventures that those other animals let him be, and he prowled the woods as he pleased. Well, and after probably twelve or so years, his stringy meat didn’t look so appealing.

Every summer when I went to camp Prince would express his displeasure by vomiting in my shoes or on a sweatshirt on the floor in my closet, which I wouldn’t find for months sometimes. When I went to college, my heart broke a little. Whenever I returned he would follow me everywhere, not even letting me go to the bathroom without him.  When I moved to Wisconsin after college and a year in Thailand, my heart broke even more. But I couldn’t take a fourteen-year-old cat that had always had a big house, big yard, and big woods for his playground and coop him up in a tiny apartment. Every Christmas I’ve returned to find him there, a little more deaf, meowing a little more loudly because he’s a little more deaf, and a little more arthritic, and even more affectionate. As he’s aged he’s been more content to lay in the sun and leave the prowling to the younger generation of felines. He loves nothing more than being held and hugging the holder. He even came to tolerate our sloppy, happy-go-lucky dog who could never take the place of our first dog, but who shares his smelly dog bed and therefore is acceptable. He’s gradually needed a little assistance hopping up on beds, but could manage clumsily if need be.

And this Christmas he won’t be there when I return. Tomorrow, my beloved Snow Prince will be put to rest, and I can’t even be there to comfort him. Or more to comfort me, I suppose. I know he’s suffering from poor health right now, and I want nothing more than for him to be content and comfortable. But it’s breaking my heart most of all that he’s so many miles away on such a hard night. I know he’s probably purring in the arms of my mom or dad, but not mine. I will never hold him again or bury my face in his fur. And in some ways the most grown up thing I feel like I’ve ever done wasn’t taking marriage vows, paying my first bills, buying my first home, or birthing a child. The most grown-up thing I’ve ever done was listening to my parents tell me that Prince’s time has come and not screaming no. Not begging them not to. Knowing that they are the ones with him every day and that they know when the scale of physical suffering and happiness has tipped too far to one side. And knowing that it must be terrible to tell me the news. The most grown-up thing I’ve ever done is to my let my kitty go. I turned twenty-eight in October. He turned eighteen this month.

Tonight we had a video chat so that I could say goodbye, not that the deaf old boy could hear me anyway. He purred in my father’s arms the whole time. I think we all were crying.

Snow Prince is the most amazing pet a girl could ever have hoped for, and the one I thought I’d never have. And so even though he won’t be there this Christmas season, I will still do what I’ve always done: write my letter to Santa. And this year, I’ll be sure to thank him for the best Christmas gift there ever was.

Photo of Snow Prince the Cat