Thursday, July 30, 2009

She only weighed thirteen pounds at her heaviest, but she was the queen of the house, climbing over our bodies when we were trying to sleep in, sitting on the head seat at the kitchen table (and jumping back the minute she was moved,) yowling when she woke in the middle of the night, and purring like an outboard motor on steroids when she was in her favorite place in the universe, Christopher's lap.

Their relationship was wordless and complete. First thing every morning, he'd take care of her needs. She had the cleanest litter box any cat ever knew. Her water bowl and food dish were always full. He understood her panoply of expressions, from butting her forehead up against a hand or cheek ("Stroke me! Not like that, like this! Harder!) to sitting near her food dish with a pained expression ("It's been a half an hour since you last checked to see if this was full. What gives here?") The last thing he did at night was fill her bowl again, change her water, check her box.

She had a coquettish ladylike way of crossing her front paws which belied her strong willed nature. She was unsquelchably curious and bore no grudges. If you picked her off the kitchen table a thousand times, she would climb back on a thousand and one. Though she lived to be a very old lady in cat years, she retained the personality of a kitten to her last day.

She was Christopher's spiritual teacher, and she became mine as well. She taught unconditional acceptance and love and was unshakable on this point: Be yourself. Even when you're being annoying. She enjoyed the best spot in the middle of the couch, or sometimes laid in front of the refrigerator at dinnertime, just when preparations were busiest. She was a night owl who kept Mick Jagger-esque hours, and would yowl at our door in the middle of the night if she awakened with a bad dream.

She lived with Christopher for almost all of her nineteen years, moving with him from apartment to loft space to our house, vetting his girlfriends and climbing on his head when he was preoccupied. She liked me fine, but she was a Daddy's girl to the core. In my lap she purred placidly; in his lap her purr deepened into the sound of orgasmic contentedness.

For the last couple of weeks she'd been getting weaker and stiffer, but she was still interested in trying to get to whatever was on our plates; she was still jumping on the furniture, although more awkwardly and slowly. Then a few days ago, she really began to fail. She was too weak to eat, she fell over when she tried to stand, and her paws curled inward in strange positions--from anemia, the vet said, brought on by kidney failure.

Our vet, Dr. McKinney, makes house calls. In that way he reminds me of our rabbi, who also sat with us in our living room in the months and weeks leading up to our wedding. Both men were there to help us through big initiations.

We'd called Dr. McKinney before several times; a year ago he'd given Dede four months to live. She'd outlasted his prediction by eight months. We had gone through dress rehearsals for this, but there's no way to prepare. When the moment came for her actual death, I felt a huge blackness. She was such a physical presence in our home--always there.

Dr. McKinney was quick and gentle--she didn't suffer. Afterwards he nodded at the plate on which I'd put three cookies in an automatic gesture of hospitality. He took one and Christopher took one. I didn't want a cookie. "Communion," Dr. M said, and I took and ate.

We cried a lot after he left, and we brushed her amazingly soft dark fur and Christopher clipped her toenails one last time. She didn't seem dead, she was still soft and warm and I thought that the thing I liked best about her was her weight--she was such a warm, comforting little bundle. I realized I would miss her more than I had thought.

He wrapped her in a t-shirt his mother had mended for him in the week before she died. I had never seen it before. It was just an ordinary t-shirt, frayed at the neck. She had taken care to fix the breast pocket just so. This little detail told me more about the woman I never met than anything else. I saw where Christopher gets his attention to detail, to small simple things, to love.

He dug Dede's hole deep, so raccoons and possum couldn't get at it. Even though we're in the middle of the city, I felt the presence of the wild kingdom all around us as we buried her. A crow flapped overhead and cawed once. And the feral cat who showed up about a month ago, who had her kittens in a nest against our back wall and whom Christopher has been feeding faithfully--the Cat We Are Not Adopting, whom he has named Uomie (pronounced "You owe me"--skulked behind the shed where she moved her kitties after an overenthusiastic visit from our kitten-loving five-year-old niece Lucy.

We buried her, and I said Kaddish, which made us cry more, and we put some flowers on her grave and got some wine, and poured her out a little libation and then we drank a toast to her. And now it is two days later. the first day we were awakened by a call from Lucy, who asked me "Is Christopher sad?"

"Yes," I said. "He's sad but he's also okay."

"Is he sad because Dede died?"


"And Mimi died too." (Mimi is the kids' name for my mother, who died eight years ago.)


"That was before I was even in Mommy's belly, when I was just a twinkle in the sky."

"That's right."

Then we went through a litany of all the people and animals who had died before she was born--her great-grandparents, and Christopher's parents, and several family pets, and on and on.

"A lot of people died when I was just a twinkle in the sky," she concluded.

(I recounted this conversation to Carla later and she said, "Yeah, being the youngest frees you from the delusion that it all started with you." It's true. When you're the oldest child it's just the opposite--you transformed two inexperienced kids into parents, you are Adam naming the animals, you, you, you are the alpha and the omega.)

We are two days into our new cat-less lives. The house is quieter. We let ourselves laugh, or dance or cry as the spirit moves.

I know she's dead, I watched it all happen, and yet it still seems to me that she is just in the next room. Christopher isn't sure what to do with her litter box. I told him to just put it in the basement--out of sight, but not thrown away. have a feeling another feline is in our future--if not Uomie, who has been feral too long for house-living, then maybe one of her kittens, if we can catch them. Or some other animal will find us. But they won't be Dede.

I reflect on her graciousness in picking the exactly right moment to die--two weeks after the wedding, so as not to disturb the celebration, a month before school starts again, so as to give Christopher time and space to grieve. Their connection was deep beyond words. I have faith that somehow, some way, they will meet each other again.


Anonymous said...

In the connection between people and their animal friends, the best of human beings will emerge.

Anonymous said...

what i know of grief
is that it never ends
and why should it?
you love the cat
the dog
the lover
the man of your heart
the mother
the father
the child
and on and on
in your heart forever and ever
and tears are shed whenever they need to be in remembrance of the heartfelt connection
of those lives and ties that forever bind us together
through life and death
the powerful
connection to
these loves ones

may Dede rest in peace and be grieved solidly
gently, forever

Angela said...

What a beautiful tribute to the incomparable Dede, Alison. I'm holding you and C in my heart and send you love. May you both find peace in the coming days.

Alison said...

Thanks, sweet Angela.