There’s almost nothing that I would rather read than a true story about the animal-human bond. Write a book about life with your beloved coyote, parrot, pig, or neurotic dog and I will be all over it. But a blind cat? Doesn’t that sound – well, let’s be frank – kind of icky and drenched in bathos?
That’s the mind-set in which I approached Homer’s Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, or How I Learned About Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat by Gwen Cooper. However, my struggle against the book was brief. It took only a glance at the foreword, and before I knew it I was devouring the whole thing like a warm brownie sundae.
The story begins in the office of a young, idealistic Florida veterinarian. A well-meaning couple brought her a tiny foundling kitten struggling with a severe eye infection. The vet explained that the only way to save the kitten’s life would be to remove his eyes. Please put him to sleep, they begged. It seemed the only humane option.
But the doctor couldn’t bring herself to do it. So she operated on him, saved him – and then began the daunting task of looking for someone kind enough to adopt a blind kitten.
Everyone she asked said no. Until she tried Gwen Cooper, a client who regularly brought the two cats she already had to the vet’s clinic. The last thing on earth Cooper needed or wanted at that point in her unsettled young life was a third cat – much less a blind one. But she didn’t have it in her to say no. “Pitting me against words like blind, abandoned, unwanted, and orphan was like sending someone armed with a toy rifle into trench warfare,” Cooper writes.
She took the kitten home and named him Homer, rightly assuming that life with him would be a type of odyssey. But little could she have imagined the character that she would encounter behind Homer’s odd, eyeless facade.
The little cat (he never grew to be more than 3 pounds) turned out to be a daredevil, a spitfire, and a passionate lover. Homer, who of course had no way of knowing that he was blind, simply assumed it was normal to navigate fearlessly in the dark, lunge five feet into the air to capture flies in his mouth, and hurl himself onto the top shelves of closets for entertainment. He also assumed it was normal to enthusiastically befriend all he met, in addition to becoming an eager, adoring, gallant beau to Cooper.
Cooper was quickly disabused of the notion that Homer was a frail little thing. Early in their relationship, she was forced to leave him with an ex-boyfriend for a few days. She was horrified to return and find out that the boyfriend’s buddies – who had nicknamed Homer “El Mocho, the cat without fear” – were regularly chasing him around the furniture, tossing him six feet in the air, and flipping him on his back to wrestle with him. But the only thing that made Homer cry, Cooper realized, was when they stopped.
As an adult Homer remained joyous and puppylike at all times. Cooper frequently sacrificed her own comfort and ease to keep him happy and well and had to live with the constant fear that he would one day slip outside – a potentially disastrous scenario for a very adventurous but completely sightless cat.
And yet in the end it was Homer who most often proved to be the hero, once even saving Cooper’s life when an intruder broke into her apartment. (This story alone is worth the price of the book.) Cooper is a genial writer with both a sense of humor and a gift for conveying the inner essence of an animal. (Her other cats, the lovely Vashti and the haughty Scarlet, play strong supporting roles here as well.) Cooper wraps her own story (boyfriends, changes in cities and careers, and eventual marriage) into that of her cats. If she sometimes struggles a bit too hard to make it all feel portentous, it’s a forgivable offense.
The thing Cooper most wants us to understand is that, rather than pity, it’s admiration that fuels her great love for Homer. His ability to transcend his physical limitations is a constant reminder to her that “there could be something within you that was so essential and so courageous that nothing – no boyfriend, no employer, no trauma – could tarnish or rob you of it.”
In fact, boyfriend, employer, and trauma seem small compared with the obstacles that face Homer every day. The indefatigable feline should be an inspiration to us all.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.