“Gandalf, the ‘Greater’ Grey”

Renny Gehman

There is a truth that goes beyond fact, just as wisdom is more easily seen in retrospect. Am I wise? My family might dispute it—but the truth is I am wiser than I would have been if Gandalf had never been my cat. Let me begin by telling how we met.

Bob and I stood in the living room of a breeder’s magnificent Back Bay brownstone, staring around with awe. Bob was an Air Force Captain, and we lived on base. Our ground floor apartment, though spacious, looked nothing like this. As I glanced down at my platform shoes buried in a splendid red Oriental rug so deep it touched the bottom of my bell-bottoms, I heard the breeder say, “Awah. Theah he is,” scooping up a miniscule grey kitten riding into the room on the back of an enormous German Shepherd. She put him in my arms, and he immediately claimed his position, nestling his round head on my arm and gazing calmly around.

I couldn’t believe we were shopping for a kitten, or that we were willing to pay one-fourth of Bob’s monthly salary for one. A long-time dog owner, from a family of dog owners, I wasn’t particularly fond of cats. However, Rachel, with four-year-old persistence, begged for her own kitten to add to our five-year-old Sheltie, Bonnie. Shelties were good with cats, so my best excuse, “It won’t get along with the dog,” was useless. I then assumed we’d rescue a kitten, or get one of the many free ones on base. But, back then, rescuing wasn’t as popular as it is now. Instead, my husband, on an impulsive foray into a pet store one day, fell in love with a black, Persian kitten. As I debated petting its extremely soft fur, I noticed the price tag on the cage: $400. “Bob, come on! No way am I paying $400 for a CAT!”

We left the store, but a week later a similar expedition discovered a silky grey Himalayan kitten at another pet store. Bob liked this cat even better because, as he said, “Its nose isn’t all squished.” I, however, pointed out that he was moving in the wrong direction; the price on this kitten was $600! “I refuse to pay one month’s salary for a cat we could get free at a shelter,” I repeated. But Bob, whose persistence Rachel had inherited, kept campaigning for a “purebred cat so we’d know what it would look like when it grew up,” an unfair argument I’d used five years earlier when we were shopping for Bonnie. So I gave in and looked for Himalayan breeders in the paper. Sure enough, several local breeders were listed, and one had kittens available for $150. I still thought the price outrageous, but since we’d paid that for Bonnie, I had little ground on which to stand.

Which brought us here, to Back Bay Boston, and a small, 8-week-old fuzzball who rode on dogs with aplomb and settled into my arms as if he owned them. “Well,” she said, “I hate to give the seal-point up; I got him as my pick-of-the litter, and if his nose was just a little shorter he wouldn’t even be available.” I looked down at the kitten’s miniscule pink-tipped, brown nose, defensively thinking, What’s wrong with his nose? It’s perfect! He squinted those blue eyes back at me and I realized we’d just bought a cat.

We decided on Gandalf for his name because he was grey and furry, reminding us of Tolkien’s description of Gandalf in The Hobbit. In retrospect, our kitten didn’t really look like the wizard, but his name fit in ways we never anticipated.

On the drive home, Gandalf curled up in my lap and slept. He exhibited no fear; his diminutive claws remained sheathed, he neither meowed in protest nor tried to escape. Instead, he briefly explored our Buick’s front seat, then moved into my lap and demonstrated his acceptance with a purr so loud it seemed an impossibility issuing from this diminutive ball of fur.

It was an attribute we’d hear often: Was there a spot free next to you on the sofa? Purrr. Did you have room in your lap? Purrr. Were you finally filling his food dish? Purrr. Were you brushing him? Purrr. Taking him for a ride in the car, even to the vet? Purrr. His gratitude for and contentment with even the littlest things were overwhelming. I smiled more often because petting him brought a smile. I complained less often about our basement apartment, because I was smiling more. I was more content, despite two floods, because I was complaining less—and because watching Gandalf walk through the water on top of our carpets, shaking each paw in disgust as he raised it for the next step, made me smile. I reminded myself, You didn’t want this cat.

One morning, Gandalf sat on the windowsill of our new breakfast room’s bay window in Houston, chattering his teeth in frustration: chchch…chchch. I turned my head, startled, That’s a new sound! I realized his gaze was riveted on the bird feeders I’d newly installed in the lone tree gracing our flat back yard. There, hopping impudently back and forth between the sunflower and safflower seed, was a mockingbird.

I scooped Gandy up in my arms. “No, kitty. No birds for you. You are a house cat.”

With long, soft fur that multiplied his size by four, paws large enough to earn the description “snowshoes,” and a pedigree which went back to England, we’d long-ago determined Gandalf belonged inside—a decision with which he strongly disagreed.

Gandalf knew who he was, and what God designed him to do: to forage for his own food. To slink under bushes and catch critters. To pick a warm patch of dirt and lay in the sun. To extend his boundaries beyond the walls of our new, two-story house. Despite appearances, Gandalf insisted, I am an alley cat.

I appreciated this instinct when it kept the mouse population at bay, but not when directed at my feeder birds! It was a lifelong discussion. For one period of six months our conversation involved my girls, Rachel and Lydia, whom I blamed for leaving the back door open and letting the cat (and dog) out.

“But, Mommy, I didn’t! I shut the door.”

“Then how did the cat get out?”

“I don’t know!”

We repeated this conversation endlessly with no resolution. I complained; they objected; the cat got out.

Then, one morning, finishing my shower, I heard strange noises coming from the back door in our utility room. Rubbing my dripping hair, I cut through the dining room to, I assumed, once again shut the door and hunt for the cat. I thought the noise I heard was the door banging in the wind.

I should have known better—this was Houston, the part of Texas where it’s only windy during hurricanes. Approaching the utility room, I glimpsed Gandalf perched atop my washing machine. Something made me stop, then sneak closer.

There at the bottom of the door was Bonnie, scraping eagerly at the gap between door and frame. That was the noise. Then, Gandalf leaned over, put his soft, snowshoe-shaped paws on either side of the doorknob and twisted it in a good imitation of how I manipulated the knob if my hands were full. The knob clicked; Bonnie resumed her scraping, and…the door opened! I stood, mouth agape, towel in my hands, hair dripping, as Bonnie happily scampered into the back yard while Gandalf executed a graceful leap off the washer to follow.

Mystery solved, I apologized profusely to my righteously indignant daughters while driving them home from school that afternoon.

“I told you, Mommy! I told you I shut the door!”

“I know. I should have believed you.” I promised, “I will remember in the future.” I will, too, I promised myself. After all, they were honest girls. And I was their Mom.

I made a promise to Gandalf, also. Impressed with Gandy’s insistence on living life as an alley cat, not a bouffant show cat, I began including him when I worked in my sizeable vegetable garden. There he kept me in sight, kept one eye on the frenzied mockingbird objecting to his presence, and kept his paws sunk deeply into the patch of catnip I cultivated for his enjoyment. Once he defended me from a snake. Several times he presented me with dead mice. I never saw him stalk any birds except the mocker—who seemed to enjoy the game as much as Gandalf. He still tried to sneak outside, but I remembered my promise. After all, Gandalf was a cat, and I was his Mom.

I have a picture that captured his expression perfectly. His blue eyes plead, Rescue me! Help! His aristocratic face, with the slightly-too-long-nose and elegant whiskers, is framed by a pink frilly doll cap. His copious fur hides under a pink dress, ruffled with lace. Pink booties cover his plump paws. Gandalf balances precariously in a doll carriage, proudly presented to me by Lydia as her baby. Although covered with a pink blanket, he is not restrained in any way. Lydia, however, has been inside for several days, contagious.

I don’t remember if I offended Gandy’s dignity further by smiling. I do remember he endured several costume changes, claws sheathed, while an occasional purr slipped past his indignation. With Gandalf as playmate, sniffles or chicken pox could be endured agreeably.

Rachel, on the other hand, would fill her arms with cat and lug Gandalf up and down the stairs, positioning him in various locations to photograph. On the stairs, under the stairs, on the sofa, on the coffee table, in the morning, under moonlight, in a bright patch of afternoon sun, on his back, on his side, sitting, standing—no high-priced, fancy, New York model posed more than Gandy in Rachel’s quest for an A. In each of her pictures, you can see in his squinted eyes his cat smile.

I watched, and rescued when necessary, but far less often than you’d think. Freed from his costume, or from his position, his typical response was to nestle next to one of his girls and purr. I’d shake my head and wish for his serenity. You never saw his claws.

Not long after Gandalf came to live with us, Bob suffered a broken leg that kept him in traction for three months. Home by myself with two girls under six, worried if he’d ever walk normally again, marooned in Boston miles from family, there was little I found comforting—except my half-grown, Himalayan kitten.

Gandalf was that obnoxious age for a kitten which would be thirteen if he was a person. Mouthy, all leg and tail, jumping on kitchen counters, singeing his tail by leaping off the refrigerator onto the stovetop; he was always underfoot.

But Gandy was also by my side at night, my loneliest time. He slept on Bob’s pillow, purr imitating Bob’s snore. When I read, he inserted himself exactly where his tufted ears obscured the words, insisting I share my feelings. When I cried he’d pat my face with a gentle paw, settle down in my lap and purr. I’d fall asleep to his purr.

If I forgot to say good night, a sleekly round head with a W stripe between blue eyes pushed my hand, purr rumbling loudly enough to keep me awake. I’m here. You forgot to say good night! Once petted, Gandalf assumed his position on Bob’s pillow; I wondered frequently where Bob would sleep when he returned. On the floor? (I misjudged Gandalf’s innate propriety; Gandalf’s spot was atop Bob’s feet, presumably because I moved too much.)

In the morning I’d start awake, unable to breathe, my first glimpse of daylight obscured by limpid blue eyes so close they seemed attached to the end of my nose. Gentle claws on my chest inquired why I hadn’t noticed it was already 60 seconds past breakfast. No bed of self-pity for me. My appointed comforter reminded me he was always there and listening—just like his Creator. So I got up, and was there for the girls, and by Bob’s bedside thirty miles away. During this hectic, lonely period, Gandalf greeted me at the door when I arrived home, followed me from room to room and assumed his position on the pillow each night. He never left my side.

I learned sometimes it’s simply company we need, not words, not opinions, not abilities—just the sense that we’re not alone. How would I change if the Lord’s presence became as real to me as Gandalf’s?

Listless. Solitary. Not hungry. I knew something was wrong when he failed to appear at the sound of the electric can opener. Gandalf never missed an opportunity to complain about how slowly I opened his can of food. Usually he stalked up and down the kitchen, tail shivering, teeth chattering, purrs mingling with meows until his bowl assumed its proper place.

But today, he wasn’t there; I hadn’t registered his absence until just then. I finally found him hidden in the back of our walk-in closet. He didn’t lift his head when I approached, but gave a silent meow that brought tears to my eyes. Something was terribly wrong.

Our vet worked Gandalf in that afternoon. “Kidney failure,” he announced, and placed him in a cage with IV’s attached. Dr. John didn’t give us much hope, “Only 30% of his kidneys are functioning.”

Lying limply on his blanket, fur matted, Gandalf seemed a shadow of his former self. Where was our fluffy, overbearing, bossy, “what a beautiful cat!” cat? Bob and the girls could barely stand to look at him. But remembering my adolescent guardian-cat, I never saw him with pity. When I petted him, Gandalf purred. When I spoke to him, Gandalf forced his eyes open and gave his silent meow. When I gently placed my hand on his side, Gandalf just as gently covered it with a paw. When I scratched his ears, Gandalf bumped his head against my hand—almost imperceptibly at first, but more like his spunky self every time. When I looked at our sick cat, I saw Gandalf the warrior, the hunter, the tough alley cat. I knew he’d pull through.

We brought him home Christmas Eve, accompanied by warnings and diet charts. Dr. John reminded us Gandalf would be fragile for the remainder of his life. He’d shed five pounds in the hospital; at six pounds now, I swore two of those were hair, he was so thin.

Thin, but tough. Every year for the next six Dr. John warned us about Gandalf’s health, after expressing surprise that “this handsome fellow” was back for his annual check-up. Gandalf displayed his disdain for his vet’s opinions through impudent tail twitches. When we went to gather Gandalf’s records for our new veterinarian in Dallas, Dr. John said “I still don’t believe it. God is sovereign, and He is the One who heals.” Through Gandalf I learned not to figure odds, but to reckon each day a blessing.

Five years later, our new vet, Dr. Doolittle—really!—examined Gandalf with a grave face. I’d brought him in, again, because he wasn’t eating and was in pain. This time Gandalf gave no silent meows. “I can keep him alive on medicine for maybe a year more, but…” Dr. Doolittle’s voice was serious.

I cannot say who cried harder. We both stroked the thinning, 21-year-old, still stunningly beautiful, cat on the table as anesthesia dripped into his left paw. Gandalf looked up at me with those blue eyes, sighed, rubbed his head cheekily on my hand one last time, and slowly passed away.

I kept his collar for a long time.

Why is it the things we fight hardest against teach us the most? Let me be brutally honest: I cringed at hairballs, moaned about grey tufts of hair, and screeched at claw marks on my sofa. I craved sleeping in just once, and I maintained the façade of dog person for many years. It never bothered Gandalf; he knew just as his namesake did, that appearances are deceptive and wisdom is found in unlikely places. I’m not sure when he went from being Rachel’s cat, to owning me. I suppose it was a good investment, buying a kitten. He would have been cheap at four times the price.

Non-fiction piece by Renny Gehman


Renny is a grandmother of eight and an office manager for a landscaping firm. She graduated from UNT in December with her degree in Creative Writing—50 years after starting it!


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