Cat’s Cradle

Michael Frame on life with seven felines

Within seven minutes of stepping in the door of adjunct professor of mathematics Michael Frame’s house, I’ve met just as many cats. They differ in size, temperament and appearance but share the same history, starting as strays nosing through the backyard and ending here, much-loved and well-fed in their cozy home with its book-lined walls.

The first to make this journey was a cat named Scruffy, a stray who waited on the back porch for Frame’s wife, Jean Maatta, to come home from work. One day, having taken the cat to get vaccinated, Maatta called Frame in tears with the news that Scruffy had been diagnosed with feline leukemia. Extremely contagious, the incurable disease would spread through the stray community if Scruffy were released. Besides, the life expectancy of an infected cat was not promising. Euthanasia was the only apparent option.

As Frame walked to the vet’s office to keep his wife company, he suddenly realized that Scruffy could move into their basement. Frame would gladly live on antihistamines if it meant that Scruffy could live, too.

As he tells this story, Frame flails his arms and legs in his office chair to mimic his bursting arrival into the vet’s office. His wife, confused and relieved, asked him, “What about your allergies?” He responded, “Fuck my allergies! I don’t care, we’re not going to kill a good cat because of something stupid like allergies.”

So Scruffy came home. Though he was expected to live only six months, Scruffy kept them company for almost six years, eventually moving out of the basement as Frame realized his allergies were subsiding. “The lesson I take from that,” Frame says, “is that love can’t cure leukemia, but it can slow it down.”

A series of similar stories followed Scruffy’s example: there’s Chessy, all black with a penchant for radiators; Fuzzy, named for obvious reasons; Dinky, who at 22 pounds is anything but; the fiercely affectionate Bopper; Leo, who once sported a leonine mane; Crumples, with his battle-torn ear; and a skittish grey cat named Dusty. Involvement with the Greater New Haven Cat Project, a nonprofit that works to trap and neuter strays in the city, helped to facilitate many of these adoptions, and Frame and Maatta remain supporters of the organization.

But the support goes both ways. Now, as Frame contemplates his cancer and Alzheimer’s diagnoses, the cats are a source of comfort and empathy to him. This relationship is easy to observe as Frame sits with Bopper in his lap, smiling as the tabby energetically nuzzles into his grey beard and purrs. “There is a spark of familiarity that millions of years of evolution does not separate,” Frame says. “There are similar things about the way we feel, the way we think. I don’t chase mice, they don’t do math — that I know of — but there are still some similarities.”

A lively curiosity is among these shared attributes. On otherwise discouraging days, Frame find pleasure in observing their varied antics. One night, Frame felt a soft plop land on his head. And then another, and another. He looked up to find Chessy’s black paws pushing the socks in need of mending0 stored on his bookshelf headboard one by one onto his head. This game only played out once, but for Frame that’s the beauty of it. As a professor specializing in chaos theory, cats, he says, are an “important source of randomness in our lives.”

 

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