Vegas or Kitties?

“What’s on your mind, Dawn?” asked Nosy Server, who whenever there was a silence during lulls in the server aisle would start asking personal questions of whoever was standing around. “You look upset today.” I groaned inwardly at how my face wears what’s on my mind like outlandishly trendy clothes that should never be worn at all. The Bald Man stood nearby listening. It was a slow hour at The Pie Shoppe.

“My cat died and I’ll be picking up her ashes today,” I said with my customary directness for which I sometimes wish had a filter. I’m not very good at waffling around whatever I ought not talk about.

“Oh,” said Nosy Server, looking bored.

“Do you have a pet?” I asked.

“I dated a guy with a dog once. Never had one of my own. They’re too much trouble.”

I turned to the Bald Man. “What about you? Do you have a pet?”

“No,” he said. “I’m not a pet guy. Don’t like ’em, don’t need ’em.” Perhaps he realized that he sounded harsh, or perhaps my transparent face betrayed my dismay, because he laughed like he was supposed to be charming and continued. “Think about it.” He poked his finger in the air. “I couldn’t spontaneously spend a weekend in Vegas if I was burdened with a pet.”

Nosy Server gave a polite laugh.

I didn’t particularly like the Bald Man, but right then he had my sympathy. Both of them did. Puppies and kitties give far more than they receive. Their presence is nourishing to the spirit.

On the day I lost Sonoma, I woke up to her laying on her side, stiff and cold, her mouth drooping open and her little pink tongue hanging over her lip. Open eyes, which had stared unseeing from sudden blindness during her last month, now lacked the luster of life. She looked like she may have suffered in her last moments, breathing her last breath while hanging onto life with ferocity I hadn’t known she possessed. I felt guilty for not calling the man with the merciful syringes to come to my home the day before. My mournful vigil over her final days was fraught with uncertainty over what was best. She wound down slowly, like a watched clock. Yet, the home pet doctor and a life and death decision carry their own guilt. The euthanasia of Napa, her sister, taught me this. Death weighs heavy on consciousness, no matter the circumstance.

The beginning of an 18 year journey.

Outside, a morning mist grayed the trees and sky. I turned off the heater, which had been set up to keep her warm in the autumn chill hovering about the house. As prepared as I was to find her laying there, the sharp ache of her passing hollowed out my being, like a gutted and carved pumpkin. She and her sister purred on my lap for over 18 years. They came into my life before I bought my first cell phone or sent my first email. They witnessed two career changes. They moved with me from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. They watched my heart break, and love again, then break again, love, break, love, break, and love once more. They were my intimates, constant companions in a life filled with change. The loss of Napa earlier in the year was soothed by Sonoma, now laying on a cream-colored blanket. I could barely accept they were both gone.

It took almost a week for me to throw away their litter box. I hadn’t been rushing to get rid of all-things-kitty, and their toys and favorite blankets sat around where they were left. The kitty food container, and what was left of their food, rested on top of the fridge. But the eyesore sitting next to my toilet, all dusty and poo-stained, seemed clearly doomed for the trash. What surprised me was how the unpleasant nightly ritual of sifting through litter, carried out approximately 6,753 times over the lives of my kitties, had embedded itself in the normalcy and beauty of my life. They were consummately clean, never once doing their business outside of the box. The task was unlovely, but it was performed lovingly and was a privilege of their presence. I miss the litter box terribly.

Precious memories.

Every so often I see Sonoma out of the corner of my eye, a ghostly glimpse of her sitting patiently at my feet while I tap away at the computer. In the past, if I took too long to notice her, a little paw would rub my leg to let me know she was there. And if that wasn’t good enough, she’d meow incessantly until I picked her up and put her on my lap. If I briefly left the computer without picking her up, I’d come back to find her laying across my keyboard, something she knew I didn’t like. Negative attention was better than no attention. Of course in her final months, all I needed was the paw-rub. She eased the loss of Napa, which in turn made me realize her time was short. Every bit of attention I could give her was given.

When I wake up in the morning, I sometimes imagine Napa is still sleeping between my legs, her favorite place. She had a way of settling into my lap where her eyes, a passionate blue, almost violet, would soften and deepen as expansively as an endless twilight sky. They were loving and dreamy, and made me feel like I was her whole universe. She knew how to relax into bonelessness, her purr rumbling like an outboard motor and her breathing billowing her whole torso. It was quite unlike the shallow chest breathing I see afflicting many of us with worries tightening our stomachs. My kitties embodied how to live in the moment and just breathe.

Napa and Sonoma put love above food in their hierarchy of needs and would stop eating to luxuriate in my pets. When I held them, they would cling; when I needed to set them down, they masterminded passive resistance, becoming dead weight, far heavier than their dozen pounds. Both expanded my heart into an understanding of love which made our often cruel world feel like a soft place to land. They were as separated from me as a fish from a tree, yet they taught me how to feel connected. In a universe where two little creatures could fill my heart to overflowing, how could it be rooted in bad? How could there be a heaven better than the moments I spent cuddling in the furry warmth of their affection?

My Baby Girls’ gifts were everlasting.

Yin Yang Kitties: they taught me about life and death.

I looked at the Bald Man squarely and said, “If you had a pet, you might think they offer more than a weekend in Vegas.” He frowned and I walked away. It was probably better to have kept my mouth shut, but I often can’t help myself.

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Passages

I stood at the hostess stand and one of my regulars, The Wife, walked in with a man who resembled her husband– same handlebar mustache, same slightly wild, side-combed hair, only they were sandy-colored instead of gray.

“Hi! I haven’t seen you in forever,” I greeted with a big smile.

She smiled too. “Have you met my son?” she asked.

“No, I haven’t had the pleasure.” He and I shook hands then we walked towards a booth in my section. “Where’s your husband? Parking the car?” The words tumbled chirpily out of my mouth, even as I suddenly sensed what was next.

“He passed away a couple months ago.” She sounded calm.

My chest collapsed. My eyes stung. Death’s hooded presence was looking over my shoulder again, his scythe hollowing out my heart. I was still reeling from the recent loss of my cat. The Wife’s loss of a lifetime love, whose union was represented in their middle-aged son, and his loss of his father seemed incomprehensibly painful. All I could manage was, “I am so sorry.”

“Thank you,” she said, recognizing compassion in my moistened eyes.

As they settled into booth, I asked, “Would you like your extra-hot decaf?”

“No,” she said with a tiny shake of her head, “I’ll just have water.” She’d never just had water before.

I looked at The Son. “I’ll have water too,” he said.

“He looks just like him,” I said to The Wife.

She puffed up proudly. “You think so?”

“Oh yes. I almost thought it was him when you walked in.” I was happy to make her happy. But, as I walked away, I looked back to see her sparkle had dulled like lead, and her ash-colored hair hooded her crestfallen face.

When they were finished, he approached me at the server stand with the bill book open, exact change for the bill on one side and a $5 bill–a generous tip–on the other. His father paid with the same style. I thanked him.

He stared at the front of the restaurant, a wall of windows and a door leading into the patio. The parking lot blacktop glistened darkly under the midafternoon sun. “He passed suddenly. A bleeding ulcer. I had lunch with him the day before. The next day he was gone. We argued at lunch. I didn’t get to say I’m sorry. I didn’t get to say goodbye.” The words were stated blankly, numbly, as if they were said before and often, but the repetition hadn’t eased their poignancy. Then he looked at me. “Life changes. It always changes. We can’t fight the changes.”

My mind floated to my cat. She was put to sleep in my lap by a home pet doctor’s needle. I had to fight the rising force in me to jump up and rip the needle out of the gentle hand, whose owner was invited into my home to do exactly what he was doing, to scream out, “Stop! Stop! You can’t murder my cat! I won’t let you! Please stop!” Instead, my scream stuck in my throat in a bilious lump. My hands caressed my kitty as they had for all her 18 years, while tears dripped off my chin in steady rhythm. She was ill and had suffered enough. Any alternative was more suffering and little hope for much else.

Her surviving litter sister took it better. We all spent the morning huddled in bed, their purrs a continuous hum. As her sister ceased breathing, she moved restlessly about. The body was laid to rest in a cat bed to be picked up later by the crematorium. She sniffed her sister softly, then licked her gently, like goodbye kisses. She laid down to share the bed, as if she was still alive to snuggle, until the body became cold and stiff. She got to say goodbye. I got to say goodbye. I got to say I’m sorry.

No, we can’t fight the changes.

I said, “He will always be with you. He is with everything now.” I hugged him spontaneously, though I’d only just met him, then hugged his mother, who joined us at that moment. We said no more and they turned to walk slowly out of the restaurant.

Me and My Sweet Survivor