The nest

Since our oldest daughter went off to college, the cat started doing his evening rounds in the afternoon. He walks around the house carrying a small stuffed mouse in his mouth and crying mournfully. It’s like he has a ventriloquist mouse that is very upset about something, like maybe being carried around in a cat’s mouth. I don’t know why the cat does this but it doesn’t seem aimed at us. If we look at him or call his name, he freezes until he’s sure we’re not watching anymore and then starts up again. He also leaves the stuffed mouse in various places around the house, like at the top of the stairs, next to the bed, or my personal favorite, on a couch cushion. I like to think this is his version of putting a jacket on the back of a chair, saving a seat for later.

I googled this behavior and found it is pretty common. I did not find a conclusive answer as to why cats do this. Some say mother cats do this to model behavior to their kittens. But our cat is a kittenless male. Others say a cat is offering gratitude by leaving gifts, which can include far worse things like dirty socks or headless real mice. My favorite explanation is that cats bring us mice and other gifts because they think we are terrible hunters.

I wasn’t expecting this cat to be affected by our daughter moving out because they have a tenuous relationship built on mild mutual torment. She has always been somewhat afraid of him and he knows this. When she goes to pet him, he might bite lazily at the air. She might then tap him on the nose, which he totally asked for but looks insulted anyway. Before she moved out, she instructed her little sister to bother him while she’s away. This has not really happened, as her little sister has an entirely different relationship with the cat. She doesn’t dress him up in doll clothes or anything, but he would probably let her.

I also hadn’t expected my husband to take it hard when our daughter moved out. I’d been so worried about how her little sister would take it, it never occurred to me he might cry a little on the drive to work after helping her move in two cart’s worth of stuff from home.

It was a little embarrassing how much we sent her with, at least until we saw other kids’ move-in piles. Comforters, mattress pads, body pillows, keurig machines, shower caddies, mini fridges, under the bed storage bins, bulk supplies of mac n cheese. It seemed like we equipped them with more comfort than they had at home, which was maybe the point.

Move-in day went so smoothly, it felt easy and even fun. Parking was plentiful and free. Staff smiled with seemingly endless patience. There were plenty of move-in carts. Elevators waited until after she had moved in to break down. There was a terrifyingly loud fire drill, but even that gave parents peace of mind knowing there is no way a student could sleep through one of those. Her little sister and I helped set up her room and then we had a leisurely lunch. When it was time to say goodbye, we hugged but none of us cried. Driving off, we honked and waved and then got to do it all again after I hit a traffic light and she caught up on foot.

I always have had a delayed reaction to difficult emotions. It shouldn’t have been a surprise when the depression hit a week and a half later. This was after she reported a successful first week and pushed back plans to come home for the holiday weekend by a day. One of the reasons I hadn’t felt sad about leaving her was because I knew she was only an hour train ride away and could come home whenever she wanted. Maybe I thought this would be every weekend. Maybe I hadn’t thought about it at all.

Having her home was almost harder than missing her. When I picked her up from the train station, she looked fresh faced and surprisingly well rested even though she assured me this was not the case. She napped on the couch for several hours that afternoon and it was like old times. I fought the urge to keep poking my husband and saying “Look who’s here!” The novelty of having her home was bittersweet because I knew it was only temporary. We would have to send her back. She said it was weird being home because she’d already gotten used to dorm life. Well, except for the communal bathrooms. Home will always be superior because you never need shower shoes.

The night before we drove her back to college, the cat did his mournful cry thing and jumped up on the back of the couch to drop his stuffed mouse. He left it mostly behind my head but it just as easily might have been for her. Maybe he couldn’t decide which of us needed it most. Maybe he was hoping she’d reach for it so he could snap at her hand. We all show our love and pain in mysterious but equally meaningful ways. 

Plotting his next move from an empty bin in her room

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