The Little Emperor, The Complete Animal

Dear Millicent,

I write today with sad news.  My cat died yesterday morning.  She passed away, she went to the next plane.  She suffered.  She left.  She was exquisitely polite about the whole thing.

We knew she was sick, and had been watching her lose weight and strength every day, but the vet told us that tell tale signs would be lack of interest in food, and difficulty breathing.   The day before she died she ate, with gusto, not only her food but my lunch leftovers (all rules went out the window with her diagnosis, if she wanted to eat it, it was hers), and at dinner she tried to sneak a bite of my hamburger.  She also managed to get on the counter (something that was her nighttime rebellion when she was healthy, but I would have imagined to be impossible lately).  And then, she died in the early morning, and looked as if she had stretched in her sleep, and decided to go.  There were no horrors in finding her.  She released us from the dreadful choice of euthanasia…something I was certain we would be considering in the next few weeks.  She released us from watching her weaken even more.  She even managed to arrange things on a day we both had off, and when we were both there.  She was also wearing a tuxedo, a joke we often said about her, but that she never really got because she was a tuxedo cat.  I am trying to say she was beautiful, even in her death.

We buried her in one of our mutually beloved friend’s parent’s backyard, near their family pets through the decades.  I’d never asked to bury a dead animal in somebody’s yard before.  We have a community garden in this yard that was started the week before we knew the cat was sick.  It overlooks the city, is visited by neighborhood kitties, and in general, is a lovely place.  I love that she is there.  I love that we were able to take her body from the house to the grave and bury her ourselves.  I love that I know where she is.

This cat taught me why one should be open to increased responsibilities and new experiences.  It is trite, but in such a simple thing as taking care of a pet I felt emotions and saw parts of my character that I had never imagined.  I could not have written them before experiencing them.  At first, there was a panic at having a new creature in my house that I had taken responsibliity for.  I didn’t love her instantly.  It felt like there was an alien in my house.  Sometimes she made me wildly angry, swatting glasses of water off the nightstand, waking me up relentlessly, and it was a kind of anger and dominance that was new to me.  I came close enough to hitting her on mornings when all I wanted to do was sleep ten more minutes and she demanded I get up, NOW, that I realized I may very well beat my children one day.  And then, jointly and later, and still, I swear my heart grew a new chamber, or at least another ventricle, just for her.  I used to have anxiety dreams where there were seven tuxedo cats in the house, and I couldn’t find the one that was specifically her.   I worried desperately for her safety, telling Mr. Carla Fran all the reasons she couldn’t be an outside cat, all the reasons we had a certain brand of catfood.  And then, when I had relaxed into a relaxed stability of affection with her, she presented with a rare disease, and all of sudden there were only three weeks left.

The night before she died, I had a feeling that she might be trying to tell us that she was dying (the counter trick was eerie, and as I put her nighttime food down, she had looked at it with a kind of weariness that suggested she might not get up again).  I sat with her, and told her she could go if she wanted.  I said a Hail Mary for her, the hour of our death line finally feeling profound, and asked Mary to take her into her blue cloak, and let her stay there as she long as she wanted, to not hold her if she didn’t want to be held (she was a finicky cat, always the alpha).  I also imagined Mary to have a wondrous cloak that expanded forever, like once she opened it, its folds were full of hills and sunshine and blue skies.  I asked St. Gert to be there too, and for them to watch over her like Miss Marple and her lady friends would.   I hope she didn’t suffer, and that I am not romanticizing a hard struggle for her alone in the night.  But I do think she went before her disease had totally taken her, and  hope she went because she was tired and it was easy, and that she was safe and loved.

When so many people talk about pet deaths, they list how many years the pet was with them, the number of apartments, the number of boyfriends/girlfriends, marriages, children, jobs it was witness to.  I understand this urge, and used to find it a little tacky– –an obvious symptom of how much our love of our pets is really love of ourselves.  When we mourn them in this way, we mourn the passage of time in our own lives.  A book mark has been placed for us to stop, look back, and see our younger selves.  But I think it is part of the larger sadness. Finite moments that can’t be undone.  They are gone.  Our lives have changed.

In a story that I think could persuade anybody to like Islam, the Prophet Muhammad was meditating and praying, with his cat asleep by his side.  When he was done, he wanted to get up, but like all smitten cat owners, had to decide if what he was going to do next was worth disturbing the sleeping cat.  Instead, he cut off the sleeve of his robe, in order to not wake the cat,  and got up, with the cat happily cozied on the robe.  If I every wore things with giant floppy sleeves, I think some of them might be armless by this point.   In his “Ode to the Cat,” a lovely poem, Pablo Neruda calls the cat a  “little emperor without a realm.”  While she was a little emperor, to a tee, she did indeed have a realm. Though she was a housecat in a small apartment, her realm was everywhere, even the countertop, and our hearts.

Yes, dear, I am weepy and sentimental and using the word “heart.” But I am already a proven cat lady that points out cats to whoever I am with, from if they are printed on tea towels in a catalogue, or happily sitting in apartment flower baskets, with their butts hanging over the edge because there is usually not enough room in a flower basket for flowers and a cat.  I use the word heart  full strength, both Valentines day cut outs and pumping, achy,  veiny center of the body.

She was wonderful.  I hope she will be my ghostcat and hang out with me aurally for as long as she finds it interesting.  As we buried her, a strange black cat wandered into the yard.  At first, I thought I was going to have to wave him away from her body, defend animal from animal world.  Instead, he rolled on his back, and chewed on he grass.  He tried to eat some of the garden, and sallied between lounging  and watching birds in the distance.  He came up to us and asked to be petted, inspecting the hole we were digging, and sitting back and watching as we finally buried her.   Then he sat with us until we left.  I cannot call such a visit coincidence, and like the idea of cats coming to grieve their own, a tiny kitty funeral of sorts, or at least greatly comforting the other mourners.

Think good thoughts of the sweet kitty when you can.  She is greatly missed.

Yours, and hers,


2 Responses to The Little Emperor, The Complete Animal

  1. Millicent says:

    Dear heart,

    I watched you grow that new ventricle and am thinking tonight of you, and of peppermint tic-tacs, and of that verse (John, I think) “in my Father’s house are many mansions.” You prepared a place, is what I mean.

    As for the strange cat that presided over the garden ceremony with a shrug and a swagger and a sampling of greens, it sounds right in a way that rites seldom are. (Once, on my loneliest night, a strange dog appeared out of nowhere and pressed up against me, hard, like staunching a cut, in a gesture of animal absolution I will never understand.)

    It seems chockful of trust, the current in which animal energies operate, even when there’s bird-killing or glass-smashing, even in that grim second when you realize you’re capable of animal rage. Maybe trust is the wrong word. Make it purity, then. Or assuredness. Or manners—a scrupulously polite relation to nature.

    This civility is corresponded, I suspect, and I’d guess that death’s version of the blue cloak offered the right amount (with all its small permissions) of comfort and freedom, just like you did, and do.

    Yeats has this poem called “The Cat and the Moon.” Do you know it?

    Minnaloushe creeps through the grass
    alone, important and wise,
    and lifts to the changing moon
    his changing eyes.

    This was so beautiful and worthy, dear CF. I’m thinking of your nearest kin of the moon, and whatever love I have in animal currency I send you, from one freelance household beast to another.


  2. Pingback: Fables and Nests « Millicent and Carla Fran

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