Monday, November 04, 2013

A Furry Heart-Shaped Space

I remember the day perfectly. It was sunny and cold. We'd been in our new house for a little over two months when our old kitty who shared our lives for 18 years finally gave up being my extra special lap cat, and died in my arms in the middle of the night.

It was over 17 years ago, but I remember the sadness that gripped me for days. I walked around still practicing cat tail awareness, the art of making sure there wasn't a tail in the path of my feet. I got up every morning and immediately headed for the cat food, before I remembered there no longer was an insistent demand for breakfast at my heels. And since she was the kind of cat who could work a room better than any politician, it was weeks before I could be in a crowd of friends without breaking into tears.

As you can see from her photograph, she was gorgeous, probably one of the most beautiful cats I've been privileged to have in my life.

But she was also the kind of cat who fell out of trees and off of roofs. The vets we took her to for emergency treatment could find no reason for this clumsiness in a cat. Our theory was that she would just get so blissed out by sunbeams and lovely spring days, that she would forget where she was--a real "in the moment" cat.

She was the perfect cat for us then because we were social and she was social. We had lots of people, friends, acquaintances, loved ones who filled our lives then and she adored them all. Except for a couple of them, she managed to get at least a hand on her from every single person who passed through our lives. In retrospect, we should have paid closer attention to the ones she rejected. She saw what we didn't see and was therefore that much wiser.

In her last months, she was frail, thin and very much dependent on us for everything. We got a used playpen from the classifieds (it's what people used before there was Craig's List) and made that her safe place. We bathed her, hand fed her, and when it became clear that she needed help to make the transition, we called the vet. He was going to come to our house in the morning, but that night, as I was holding her in my arms and crying, she slowly slipped away and left me broken-hearted.

I thought I would never have another cat. She left too big a hole and nothing could ever fill it the way she did. But I've always lived with critters and the house felt empty and cavernous without one. I walked around like a sad armless zombie until one day, a lovely spring morning with birds chirping in the trees and the first buds on the pear tree just forming, I'd had enough of empty cat syndrome. I called up the feed store and asked if they had any kittens. They told me they had a whole bunch of 5 dollar bundles of fluff and to come on down.

I was convinced I knew what kind of cat I wanted. He had to be orange. For some reason I wanted a male, probably because I loved one of my friend's cats who was an orange love bug. He had to be short-haired because it meant less cat hair to clean up and less hairballs to throw up. I knew he would be there waiting for me.

And he was, an adorable little orange fluff ball that I was test holding when a tiny little claw hooked itself into Jeff's sweater and looked up at him with a pleading promise of love if only he'd pick her. Her name was Ashes and she was sleeping in the litter box away from all the other kitties. There was something about that which appealed to both of us since we had just bought a house and were feeling all grown up, and also a bit alone being the adults all of a sudden with a mortgage and jobs. He handed her to me and I put the other kitty back in the cage and reached out my arms. I was already half-way to the cash register the moment our eyes met.

She was barely 8 weeks old and when we brought her home, the first thing she did was check out where the litter box was, where the food dishes were, and where the best place to hang out was. She did all this with the confidence of a critter who had accomplished what she set out to do that day--get out of that cage and into her own palace. She went from Ashes to Sophie and for nearly 17 years she ruled our house and hearts.

She was truly a princess. Unlike Esme, there were only a handful of people Miss Sophie decided were worthy of her grace. If anyone tried to get her attention or forced her to be touched or petted, that person went on a permanent shit list. They never got near her again. But if you ignored her, she would eventually come out after the third or fourth visit and sit down in front of you, with her back turned, and a very clear attitude of "Okay, you can pet me now."  After that, the person became just another body in the house who would be honored with the privilege of giving her a pet or two.

There were many days over the next decade where she was our soothing balm during difficult times. We had no money most of the time as we struggled to survive in a trashed economy. We had no money to travel or go out for dinner or buy anything but the basics.

But we had a cat who kept us company, who was always within a few inches if we needed to just hold a cat or pet one. She made herself available to both keep us company in times of want, and to heal us in times of sorrow and broken hearts. She was the strength that allowed us to get through the loss of several of our friends to death and illness. She was the soft warm balm that eased some difficult decisions we had to make then in order to survive both physically, emotionally, and financially.

The biggest gift she gave us was teaching us how to love openly and completely. She was our princess and we loved her unashamedly. We were a solid and loyal and loving tribe of three. And we were certain we'd have many happy years together.

This summer I noticed that she was losing weight and at first I tried to deny she was ill, that it was simply old age that was making her so thin and frail. And then one day she tried to jump up to her favorite perch in my office and she missed and landed on the floor. I picked her up and put her on her perch and that became our routine for a couple weeks. By then I knew she was dying, that surgery would be ineffective and wouldn't be worth the cost and the misery it would put her through. If I knew I could get a few more years, we might have chanced it, but for three or four more months, it wasn't worth putting her through it.

I spent most of the next couple weeks crying with her in my arms. I couldn't bear the thought of not having her in my life after almost 17 years. She was a part of me. She slept in the office with me all day, hung out with me and Jeff at night, and always would come to say good night and tuck me in before leaving to explore the endless fascination of night time through the windows in the living room.

And then the day came when we knew she wouldn't survive the night. We made her as comfortable as possible and in her last moment of consciousness, we locked eyes again like we did all those years ago and said our goodbyes. Once again, another beloved pet died in my arms after 17 years of love and devotion.

I didn't think I could ever go through this kind of pain again. Before Esme died, we also had a dog who lived part of his life with her. He died at the age of 18, ten years before we lost Esme. Sophie was pet number three we had together who lived over 17 years. There's only so much grief you can handle before you say enough, I can't take anymore. We were both reluctant to get another pet ever again. I told myself we were too old for another pet, that it would outlive us and that wouldn't be fair to any potential furry one.

And the grief was so strong, it felt disloyal to even think about another cat. I had bonded with Sophie in a way I never had before. It was a new feeling for me, to trust my heart so completely to something outside of myself, to love so completely there was no shame, no embarrassment, no fear someone would consider me silly for such a thing. She was part of me and when she died, I lost a large piece of myself. I didn't think I would ever recover.

But life has other plans for us when we think we have everything all figured out. I cried myself to sleep for at least two weeks after Sophie died. I couldn't sleep without being "tucked in" by her every night. I was exhausted from lack of sleep and grief. Neither Jeff nor I could handle being around anyone. We isolated ourselves with our loss and our grief and waited for time to heal the deep sorrow and make it tolerable enough to go on.

And then one night I fell into an exhausted sleep and dreamed that Sophie was alive and leaping around gracefully and miraculously healed. She was the young cat again, full and round and warm and a bundle of happy armful. And then I saw she was with another cat who kept staring at me with these great big eyes. In the dream I turned to look at this cat and when I turned back to look at Sophie, there no longer was a Sophie, just this big-eyed cat staring at me. I heard someone call her. "Daisy! Come here, Daisy!"

I spent the morning in tears, and more because I wanted to look at pictures of kitties than anything else, I clicked on a Craig's List ad for a kitty. It's our lean time of year so we couldn't afford the "rehoming fees" the posters wanted for their kittens, so I was sure I was just window shopping. And I was, until I saw her picture, the cat I dreamed about, the big-eyed cat named Daisy.

We had absolutely no money as every cent we had was going to buy propane. I didn't even look to see how much the poster wanted. I called and asked about her ad. It turned out she lived a couple blocks away and for the "right person" there would be no rehoming fee. There was no question about whether she was coming home with us. We put the cat carrier in the back seat and drove to pick up our new cat.

She's two years old and in a week she has already charmed her way into our hearts. She's adorable and cute and funny and smart as can be. We are still getting to know each other, but she's already gone through the house and sat on everything to let any interlopers know this house is taken. She is a lovable little creature who doesn't tolerate being held but absolutely loves being petted. She's the first cat I've petted who demands her tummy be rubbed, who loves being combed, and who loves water. We keep finding her in the bath tub, on the sink, batting at drops of water on the window. Unlike our other cats, she's a climber. We find her in places we can't even imagine how she got there. And once again, when we wake up in the morning, there's a sweet little merping sound wishing us good morning and by the way...where's breakfast?

It is a most delightful way to start the day.


valerie said...

What a wrenching, sweet, raw story of the furry beings who've graced your lives.
Your dream - when Sophie introduced your new purry home companion, Daisy - what a beautiful stream of magic. These wise kitties take care of us when we open our hearts to them. May you, Jeff & Daisy enjoy many healthy, fun, loving years together.

Kate Taylor said...

Thank you. :-)

Anonymous said...

KATE -- Your told their tales so beautifully it is as though we knew them too! So glad your cats had and have you & your husband.