Xerion: inveterate thief, seasoned traveler, cat

Some cats are just indiscriminately friendly, rubbing up against any ankles that come by, purring and begging to be petted. Xerion was not one of those cats. We will always be incredibly grateful to the cat sitters who were willing to look after her well being when we traveled (including once Googling how to reprogram the auto-feeder), despite the growls and hisses they typically got in return.

The cats that “dog people” imagine to be the norm are aloof and uninterested in hanging out with the humans who coexist in their living space. Xerion was not that type, either. Toward those select few whom she’d decided were “hers”, she was fiercely affectionate – a professional lap-sitter, shoulder-sprawler, and snuggler-in-bed whose non-stop purring when we’d return from a trip made it abundantly clear how much she’d missed us in our absence.

There is also the image of the archetypal cat as a picky eater, refusing deli meat if it’s more than a day old and accepting only the choiciest fare, carefully selected for the highly refined and ever-evolving feline palate. That definitely bears no resemblance to Xerion; the stories of her antics driven by her food obsession are countless and hilarious (though sometimes only in retrospect). There was the roast beef tug-of-war; the years-long auto feeder saga; the streak-of-tortie-colored-lightning meringue snatch; the rotting turkey neck stolen from the trash can; the crater eaten into the side of the unopened food bag that we had thought was safe in the closet; the ongoing arms race when we lived with another cat and had to come up with ever more elaborate methods to make his food accessible to him and not to her . . .

Perhaps the best summary of Xerion is that she was a cat with an incredible amount of character, who came to embody her name more than I’d ever imagined. It was originally her tortoiseshell coloring – mottled black and orange – that inspired me to seek out a name associated with the transmutation of lead into gold1. But as it turned out, it was her entire manner that would undergo a dramatic – if never fully complete – transformation from feral beast into domesticated feline.

It was my first year in grad school, and my flatmate and I weren’t trying to adopt a problem cat when we brought Xerion home2. What we didn’t know was that the shelter had made a mistake in identifying her as being spayed, and her initially solicitous manner was a symptom of being in heat; when the tide of her hormones turned, she was downright vicious. After a month or two, we figured this out, got her spayed, and her temperament evened out; the solicitousness and the viciousness were both gone. The cat who remained was best described as wary. Also hungry.

That second part never changed. The vet attributed this to her having spent her first five years living a life of deprivation on the streets of Los Angeles; the need to take food whenever it was available had become hard-wired. The wariness, on the other hand, steadily receded – but only toward me, at first. With everyone else, she remained incredibly defensive. Then, about six months later, I started dating one of my classmates. Surprisingly, he and Xerion were soon napping on the couch together, utterly spent from the latest round of problem sets. It was the start of a beautiful relationship.3

Nine years later, Xerion met, initially disapproved of, further evaluated, and after 14 hours deemed acceptable the third and final of “her” people. The “sibling experience” that our daughter had over the subsequent 2.5 years has included such gems as stealing back her cheese after Xerion made off with it (a move her parents don’t always have the gumption to attempt); each playing with the other’s toys (while the other expressed annoyance); hours upon hours of shared lap sitting (not least because each was always jealous of the other’s lap time); and being called the wrong name, particularly when being bad (e.g., “Xerion, get off the table!”).

Xerion was never a “good” cat in the Aristotelian sense, in that she repeatedly failed to behave virtuously – e.g., by earning a “CAUTION” sticker on her file at the vet’s office, by peeing on my mother’s suitcase when my parents visited, or by not retracting her claws when she jumped on your back while you were changing the baby’s diaper. When it came to providing companionship, however, she was unparalleled. She was with us through the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of grad school, post-docing, and parenthood. This included five moves, the third of which involved a drive across much of the U.S. and a flight across the Atlantic. None of it seemed to phase her. When she died last month, just short of the 12th anniversary of her adoption, she was probably about 17 years old, but she had remained just as playful and obnoxious, clever and fast, bad and affectionate as ever, right up until the end4.

The average lifespan of a cat is around 16 years. For a human, it’s around 80 – in other words, five cat lives long. Five cats aren’t so many, when you think about it; that’s only five chances to find the one that wants to purr and snuggle and really be with you (assuming that’s the sort of thing you’re looking for in a cat). One popular solution to this paucity is, of course, to have multiple cats at once. It follows, then, that “only cats” – those who only truly thrive in the absence of other feline family members – are “expensive” with respect to one’s lifetime budget of cat relationships. Those cats really have to be something special, to make the investment worth it.

Suffice it to say that those 12 years with Xerion were really a steal5.

[1] Searching the internet in 2005, I found a website explaining that in ancient Greece, it was presumed that the material that could turn lead into gold would come in the form of a powder — the Greek word for which is “xerion”, and therefore “xerion” came to have a connection with this transmutation. As this sounded like a decent cat name, so I declined to conduct further research and ran with it.

[2] At the same time, we also adopted Cheeto, a delightful orange tabby who ended up going with my flatmate when we parted ways. The poor guy really wanted to be to be friends with Xerion but never managed to get her on board with that plan.

[3] My mother has been known to say of her and my father, “I married a man of whom my cat approved.” I guess that means it runs in the family, though I’m pretty sure that her cat Charley was a lot easier-going than mine. When the time came, Xerion was not invited to our wedding itself –- among other reasons, there would have been no keeping her away from the buffet table –- but she did have a spot front and center on the cake.

[4] Both quick and unexpected, her death was due to some combination of an enlarged heart and a pulmonary infection.

[5] Pun intended, in honor of the furry, brazen little thief.

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