Meditations On Life And Death By A Crazy Cat Lady
By Pamela Tarlow-Calder
When I got home, reeking of blood and disinfectant, the other cats ran from me, fur raised on their backs, but Sita jumped on the bed and lay across my stomach, purring her booming trademark purr, incubating what was left of the baby. The baby turned out fine, and spent the next twelve years as Sita’s token human kitten. I’ve often wondered if that rhythmic vibration rumbling through my uterous somehow strengthened that tenuous hold, and prevented the miscarriage. I wouldn’t put it past Sita – smart as hell, fearless, full of empathy – the undisputed matriarch of her pride.
I’ll always remember the moment I met Sita and her brother, Jindha. My love for them was instantaneous. I’d always wanted Siamese Appleheads – the traditional old-style Siamese breed I grew up with. My childhood was textured with these clever, delightful and elegant characters: Ho, Chi and Minh, Toivo and Wilho, Eartha Kitty, Piaf, Noah, Divine, Twister, Edelweiss. Contrary to popular opinion, Siamese aren’t standoffish, secretive and obnoxiously loud (except for Sita’s purr!) The ones I’ve known are highly affectionate, good-natured and full of humor. They’re like humans who have been abducted by a superior alien race and magically transformed into cats – embodying the most admirable qualities of both.
Sita and Jindha became the feline loves of my life. I didn’t get them “fixed” in time, and they ended up begetting Leela and Chotu. I couldn’t bear to take the kittens away from their parents, and with the decision to have four cats, I immediately morphed into that pathetic creature that many so arrogantly feel sorry for: “The Crazy Cat Lady”. Well, if that’s the worst of it, bring it on. It’s me who pities those who haven’t experienced the privilege of observing the complex interactions and dynamics of this beautiful and infinitely fascinating species. But the real privilege is the gift of being accepted into their world. Humans are not separate from the pride, they are integral to it. I have my place and my role, as each member does. To them, I was mother and grandmother.
We lived together and shared environments and experiences for almost two decades. Sometimes I can still hear myself calling, “Sita! Jindha! Leela! Chotu!” They were the only truly non-dysfunctional family I have known. They were my teachers, modeling healthy relationships with kindness and respect. Artifice, greed and manipulation did not exist for them. Enjoyment and curiosity were their guiding lights. My responsibility was to keep them safe, warm, dry, watered, fed and loved. And in return they opened their hearts and souls to me with complete trust and appreciation.
Leela died first, of cancer. My son was seven. Her death was the hardest. I couldn’t protect him from it, couldn’t change it or stop it. It was the tolling bell – the downside – the cruelly enforced understanding that this is what I signed up for – animal companions don’t live as long as humans do, and that’s if things go well. But the process of Leela’s death, the journey to the end of her life, was also profoundly life-affirming. This was it – an instant portal to the unending cycle of life. There was nothing to fear, no sudden disappearance, no hiding from the pain and sadness. We got through it together and saw it out to the end with support, gratitude and love as our guides.
Chotu followed soon after from complications of diabetes. Two syringes of insulin a day for ten years couldn’t stop the inevitable. Her passing was easier. We knew we’d given her a good life, and had done all we could to extend it as long as possible. Then Jindha – the Greatest Cat In The Universe . . . heart failure. When I accepted that no amount of diuretic pills and invasive siphoning would stop the fluid from building up around his heart, I thought my own heart would implode with sorrow. I knew what I had to do. I googled “Siamese Appleheads”, and found Ziggy and his sister Snowbelle. Just as I’d hoped, in the weeks before he died, Jindha’s gentle and sweet spirit rubbed off on those kittens, and he schooled them in everything he knew. It took Sita longer to adopt the kittens, but I eventually caught her pretending to nurse Ziggy. The gig was up, we had a renewed cat family.
Snowbelle and Ziggy came into our lives because of heartbreak, and heartbreak followed them home and stayed for a while. Poor little Snowbelle. She had a congenital illness, and after far too short a time with us, became very sick, and I had no choice but to have her euthanized. No matter how I tried to spin it, it wasn’t fair. She was too young, with barely a chance to live her life. Poor Ziggy, too. As a baby, he had been severely traumatized by his first owners. They had left him stranded under a cabinet with no food or water for three days, while two Rottweillers snarled and growled at him. By the time he was returned to the cattery, he was terrified beyond description. I’m glad I got there when I did, or he would have been – in the cattery owner’s words – “put to sleep, because there’s no way I could sell him after that!”
Snowbelle’s death gifted us the next kitten, Pasha – spunky, gorgeous and super-bossy – who basically cured Ziggy with her strident demands that he constantly play with her, or else. And, darn it, before I could get them “fixed”, they fell in love and had two babies. My son witnessed their birth – an immensely healing antidote to the deaths he’d endured. The cycle of life forges on in all its glory. He named the kittens Tiger and Leo, and I became an even crazier cat lady with five fabulous cats.
The problem with having five cats is that when one of them dies, people say, “But you have four more at home, don’t you?” As if that diminishes the loss. I hated this about Sita dying. Sita was the last of my original cat family. She died last week, at the ripe old age of eighteen, or as my son calculated, one-hundred and twenty-six in dog years.
In the days before her death I watched her traverse our shared landscape, visiting and revisiting her favorite spots, like a doctor doing rounds; finally disappearing more often to dark enclosed spaces harder to find. When she became incontinent and too weak to get upstairs I strategically placed litter boxes around the house. But it didn’t help. People said, “How can you stand it? Just put her down and end it.” But I didn’t care about my floor, my rugs, my couch. It was her home too. So cats utilize the physical dimension differently than we do. If we had claws and anal scent glands whose to say we wouldn’t be destroying our own furniture too? I can have my carpets and upholstery cleaned. What I cared about was that she still purred, that bizarrely loud and sonorous sound that for almost two decades amused and irritated us, woke us up, lulled us back to sleep, and quite possibly saved my son’s life. Her life ended peacefully and naturally, at home with my son and I, Ziggy, Pasha, Tiger, Leo, and all that was familiar and essential to her.
Every day before Sita died, my son said to me, “Mommy, are you prepared? I’m prepared.” I always replied, “Yes, I’m prepared too.” I’m sad, but I’m also deeply grateful. We have been incredibly lucky to have experienced pure love with an entirely different species. How amazing is that? As we hug, the energy of love eases the grief and we know that the hole in our hearts will mend, and we’ll be blessed with wonderful memories of our feline family members, past and present, who continue to enrich our world and enable us to thrive.
Pamela Tarlow-Calder Bio:
Pamela Tarlow-Calder is an award-winning poet and occasional freelance writer. She’s been a columnist for a community newspaper, and has had articles published in B.C. Parent, Western Living, and art education trade journals. Pamela is an art and museum educator, and has worked for various galleries including the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Canadian Craft Museum, Vancouver Art Gallery, and currently as Interpretive Programmer for the Surrey Art Gallery. She’s published a children’s activity book on puppetry, written many Study Guides and other creative educational material for all ages, on topics as diverse as censorship to celebrations of light. She thrives in South Surrey with her very talented 12 year-old son and four fabulous felines.