On Cats, Mothers and Death

If you think I’m gonna fall for this simple pleasures stuff…you’ve got another thought coming. Pleasure and simple. Uh uh. No way. I mean, unless you’re talking something like a whole economy size bag of CVS strawberry twizzlers…with no one, I mean no one, expecting you to share.

That’s a pleasure. And it’s kinda’ simple with some complications added. Long walks on a Saint Bart’s beach? Come on. Candlelight dinner for two at Four Seasons? Oh, please. Give me a 400 thread count Wamsutta cotton sheet fitted so the corners don’t pop off in the middle of the night. That’s a huge pleasure. I just can’t justify putting it in the simple category. Hearing my 90 year old mother on the phone long distance laughing with her wonderful 94 year old roommate with their two television sets blaring at full volume in the background. “What sweetheart? Oh, we’re having a ball darling. I can’t talk now. I have to run to my watercolor class.” That’s pretty simple. I think I’m getting the hang of this.

After I wrote my cynical “oh please” simple pleasures piece I thought about where my heart had been in that writing. I had just discovered the deer had eaten all my tulip tops. I wrote the thing and then searched my yard glumly for any growing bit of color. Ooh a teeny, tiny may flower…ooh look…two of them! Then, zounds, I spot a mini grape hyacinth struggling to stay upright. I wrestle with whether to pick them and have the simple pleasure of seeing them in my house or leave them reaching for the light and having the simple pleasure of coming home to their beauty in their natural habitat. A lightweight “Sophie’s Choice” kind of a deal. I did pick all three and placed them ever so mindfully in a sweet shot glass of lapis blue. I step back, move it a few times ’til I find exactly the place it wants to glow. It is amazing how something that small can bring that much joy. Now I am working on forgiveness. After all, the deer obviously found their simple pleasures in my budding spring garden. So who am I to deny all the Bambis in my neighborhood?

Maybe all this silliness (which I just found out in Greek means “soulfulness”) is leading up to where I wanted to go anyway. Which was: the simplest pleasure might have been my relationship with my cat. Especially when I came to realize she was my teacher.

I just came back from visiting my almost 90 year old mother. She shows me her hands.

“Look,” she says, “there is no flesh anymore. And my hip, oh my God, it’s so painful. Sometimes I just want to die.”

“Is it bad more than it’s good,” I ask?

“Yes, it’s gotten to be,” she answers.

“Well…are there things worth suffering for in your life?”

She used to say, “Of course. My precious great-grandchildren, my grandchildren, painting, the thrill of seeing my visions on the walls.” But now she says, “I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.”

I bring Japanese food to the Hebrew home where she lives and we take it out into the beautiful courtyard. We sun ourselves, catch up on little details we may have forgotten in our daily phone conversations. She introduces me to a man who works there. They are great friends, you can tell. My mom asks me to take a picture of them together. Instead of her usual smile, she winces. I leave her with the rest of the California roll and a dreaded feeling that this could be it. Maybe she wants to quit, I think on the 3 hour ride home. I keep trying to talk myself into believing that “Well, she’s old,” will make it easier. It doesn’t. When I walk into my house I find my 21 year old cat in the bathroom facing backward not moving.

“Hi Baby!” I say, and she doesn’t even react to sound. She backs out of an awkward position and I pick her up. She is alarmingly light. I carry her over to her bowl of food place her gently down and she slowly, slowly swings her head away from the food and over the water bowl. She stays there for what seems like a long time.

What’s going on, I think. Is this a two-fer? Are they both checking out at the same time to spare me two losses? Is this some sort of spiritual conspiracy? I gather her up in my arms and lie down on the couch. I am holding her like the baby we named her for and I sob. She begins purring and for an hour we stay in the dark that way. Her face next to my cheek, my lips pressed to her velvet ears.

The next day my mother calls and says she feels much better and we consider the healing properties of ginger and soy sauce. Again, Baby refuses to eat. I even open a can of tuna and wave a small plate of it under her nose. She wanders away uninterested. That night we repeat our ritual on the couch — me crying and her purring. But this time something happens. I have always thought people (and some of them I respect and love) who talk baby talk to their pets were a tad over the top. People whose lives are centered around their animals — “Oh no, we couldn’t possibly come out tonight. Our collie is terrified to be alone in a thunderstorm.” I used to put those people in the neurotic category, and now here in the dark, holding my disappearing kitten of 21 years I am becoming one of them. My cat is talking to me. Of course there are no words. Not even sounds. Just thoughts that came out as words: I am your guide to death, she says. Watch me. It’s a process. That doesn’t include fear.

The next morning when Baby wanders off, I am sure this is it. She will not return. After all, she told me…I mean she communicated to me…I mean she telepathically informed me…whatever she did, I heard, “I am your guide to death.” I spend the day intermittently blown away at the unfolding events and feeling waves of sadness rolling over my heart. My friend, Gerry, says you have to be in the play of your life and in the audience equally so you have the option of another perspective. When the story gets to be too much you can get off the stage.

At 7:00 that night she slow motion ambles back into the yard. I carry her in the house and again she lies in my arms weighing practically nothing and repeating her message: watch me. Her eyes are slits now. I cry. She purrs. I stroke. She nestles.

My mother calls the next morning and I tell her Baby is dying. “She’s old, sweetheart,” she says, and for a second, that actually makes me feel better until I am struck by the bizarre parallel. Every day it is the same routine. Baby lumbers out and stays away until night. On day six I keep panicking. What if she gets hit by a car? What if she’s wet and freezing? What if she’s disoriented and can’t find her way back? And then these waves of calm — her voice, her assurance. It’s a process, and like she said, it doesn’t include fear.

At 5:30 that rainy night my neighbor Elizabeth carries Baby to me. She’s barely breathing and definitely dying. I wrap her wet muddy body in a towel and hold her to my chest. She spends the next hour and a half barely breathing and when she exhales she shudders. Her leg twitches and then, so quietly, she is gone.

That night I place her on the little footstool that served as her bed. The next morning I half expect her to meander off her pedestal. I touch her and she is soft and hard at the same time.

We bury her, and my husband — who has never spoken to animals — tells her what a gift she has been to us. We shovel dirt into her deep grave. I’m strangely serene. After all, she told me to watch, she told me it was a process and she told me not to be afraid. Maybe the story got to be too much but I did get to swing off the stage and luckily become a witness. Now the question is, who can I tell and why is it so important that I do? And the answer is, I think because if I don’t tell the story, the power of what actually happened will dissipate and I won’t believe it happened. My cat was my guide to death. So I’m telling you and now I’m going to call my mother.

Nancy Slonim Aronie is a commentator for NPR, the author of Writing From the Heart and teaches writing workshops on Martha’s Vineyard. Attend Nancy's Writing Workshop at the 2012 Natural Living Expo, September 30, 2012 in Sturbridge, MA. Tickets are $35, click here for more information: www.NaturalExpo.org. http://www.chilmarkwritingworkshop.com.