It’s been awhile since you and I have had a good chat. Someone suggested I write you, catch you up on things. Since you have left it’s true, I’ve been adrift. Perhaps sending you news about things you may not remember will help right me and set me up in a direction that’s more steady-on.
I wish I knew another way, though, because talking was never really that interesting to us. You and I, we just knew, right? At least I knew. I knew from the first time you sat in my hand and pushed your nose into my face, patted my necklace with your paw, pulled at my earrings with your delicate teeth. Not a word was needed.
The word euphony comes to mind: the way things sound inside, like when sea creatures find each other and the vibration comes from within, one blood-coursing being settling into another, colocating. It wasn’t words on a page or in your ear, in any event. People could learn a lot about love from the way we were.
You and I didn’t fuss and wallow in all that. We didn’t dance around. I took a long time to find you: I went everywhere, watching and considering. I saw many potential yous along the way. After awhile, I figured I would just know. And it happened exactly that way. We loved each other from the start. The way you pushed at me through the bars. The way the little pink-socked girls, there with their mothers, stood aside for us. That was that; the rest was simply working through everything that came after it.
I would come home from work and there you would be. You’d look up and we would see each other and you’d open your mouth to cry hello but no sound would come out, just a ritchety-scratchety kind of sigh, your version of miaow since a baby. You, having fought another battle of another day of breathing, looking up to greet me, and what would I do? I didn’t lay out my day; I didn’t natter on about what she said or he did or strategize with you about how to maneuver when next I went out again. I buried my face in your coat and breathed with you. In you. My warm air blew, I hoped, good things to that fevered, swollen head of yours; then we, you and I, cleaned you and fed you and gave you the good healing herbs; and how good you were! How patient, while I scraped at your nose and dumped things down your throat, while I slid and blew and wiped and squirted. Then sometimes I would put you in the steamer with the towels and the humidifier. And when you were better and could breathe a little, you would pop back out, and look up at me from the carpet. Sometimes I would sit with you on the floor, rocking, for minutes, hours, sometimes days it seemed, purring into your purring face.
Those green, green-gold eyes of yours, always half-closed in pleasure, that twitching fat tail; the wondrous completeness of you, that smell you had, of hot, burning life; and fish. Your roundness, your sleek, shiny silvery body that fit so well when we slept together at night. We met there, and there we lived together. I was your world and you were mine. No negotiations were necessary.
What would the point of nattering on have been, really? The world outside didn’t exist for us, I just didn’t care, it only brought me back to you. It paid for us — that’s what it did.
We talked about birds sometimes; I remember that. Birds were a big topic for you.
Perhaps my resistance to this letter at first was because you are gone not two months, and I have not stopped talking to you in any event. The conversations are held in my head now instead of between us. I don’t see your eyes, those half-lidded almonds, drinking in sound. Now I see you in my mind and we begin. I talk to you in the car on my way to work and in bathroom stalls; on sidewalks, at the Laundromat. Everywhere, now. Our conversations continue and the conversations are as they always were: not conversations, really, just the proximity of each other. Just the warmth of you, next to me, the person I came home to tell my stories to. That is who you were. You were my person.
So I am conscious that all I’m about to tell you is what you already know. Poor things, words. They are like I was, before I knew you.
I want to talk about how you died, Fiona.
I knew it was time. There was no other way, it seemed. And your friend, you remember Carol? The one I would call when I wanted to know how you felt about things. When it seemed time, I called her to ask about you. She said you were very tired; she said you were content with going; she said you wanted me to help you go and you wanted me to be there. And so I came home that night with a box from work, an ugly, stupid box. It had a green top and it said “Weyerhauser” on the side. But I realized it would hold you, your great silky length at rest with no trouble. That night was a Friday. It was the Friday after Christmas and there was Christmas paper still around.
Remember Botwyn and Diana? How could you not, right; they spent more time with you than I did. You took care of them and you told them what was what in the house and who was in charge; and that was good for us all. I brought them home from the shelter to be with you because I thought the burden of my sadness was too much for you to have every day; the heaviness of my fear lay suffocating us both, so I thought, “If she can’t be here for very long, at least she will have company.” So Botwyn and Diana, for you, not for me, came to play with on the days when you felt well enough. I saw through them how movement excited you, how the light breaking over my window would sort you into stretching and yawning and curling your body into reckoning each new day. How you loved the things my eyes did not catch; so I watched them through you, through you and your new pals.
With Botwyn and Diana there I stopped worrying, a little. I saw what you smelled, when you could smell, how you stretched your nose to the air! That time you caught that mourning dove in your mouth on a day when you couldn’t snort out a solid, even breath — there you were — sitting upright, looking quizzical and stunned yourself, feathers drifting slowly down around your whiskers. Heaving, and so, so alive.
I didn’t know how else to entice that world into your short life. So they came, a brother and a sister for you, distractions. Breathing, solid, healthy little dumb-bunny cats. Botwyn, happy-stupid, doing his Heffalump Ballet–he still stretches his dirigible-self out, still bares his belly and crosses his feet whenever he catches sight of anyone moving through a room. Diana with her furtive, deer-in-headlight creepings, lithe as a panther and just as beautiful. And much as I tried to feel what you were feeling, I never was a cat; I never could quite get it right, could I. Another of my many great shortcomings.
Now Botwyn and Diana, they are great, fat cats; so full of themselves. Diana watches from your bed in front of the window; she perches high, like a vulture, looking down at us all. Botwyn sleeps inside your carrier, where you lay for so many hours–half your life really– in that tent of steam and heat getting the air that could come in, wet and slick and hot. They’re happy when I feed them and the rest of the time they are very much consumed in their own affairs. They are not as you and I were.
When I came home with the box, Botwyn and Diana went somewhere else and hid for awhile. They didn’t like this box; not like you, who would always jump in and jump out, in and out, any box that came home; and look to me as if to say, “What’s this? What will it do? Where will this box be going? Can I come?”
I knelt on the floor. Remember? You were there; you were trying to breathe in your sauna-house; the house that we had made for you. You could hear me and you came out to play with the Christmas paper. The steam was on and so were all the air purifiers and the heaters and the humidifiers, whew. Such an electricity bill we had that month!
So I knelt on the floor and I wrapped that box in gold and white paper, and the lid in brilliant, shiny red foil. Just as I imagined people were buried in the temples of India and the pyres of Nepal and everywhere, the red and gold and white of holy events; of exaltation; of mourning. In the fierce God of love, I imagined, I wrapped that box. Then we put your favorites, the soft blankets and a picture of me and your favorite toy. Wait just a minute; let me tell you that story. The story about toys.
When you first came home with me I had no proper toys so we made some. You loved the telephone cord especially, but your favorite thing was a wine cork tied to an elastic string, dangling from the door knob. In the middle of the night, ponk, ponk, twing-ponk, I would hear it from sleep and know that you were there and you were happy and finding all the things you could do with those soft, wicked-smart paws, oh, the touching you could do, the toys that things became! And I would turn and go back to sleep, knowing you were there. Knowing you were touching things there and that was what I needed to climb back into my sleep and make everything stop, nothing matter but the sleep that you had given me, ponk ponk, twing-ponk.
So in that toy went, curled up in the box, and I wrote a love message that was horrible and drunken with sorrow in black magic marker, inside the lid. I was embarrassed later, thinking that the doctor would see it. Next I sent word to everyone that you would be gone the next day. Pamela had called, so I listened to her message. You remember Pamela, my mom’s friend. You went to stay with her during the time that you had to have the shots and I had to be gone for Thanksgiving. I think that was when Pamela fell under your spell.
While away I called Pamela to check on you. “Oh, she’s just fine,” she said, and her voice had little bells in it. She was laughing. “Guess what Miss Fiona did?” she said. (Pamela always called you ‘Miss Fiona’. She was very formal.) “I was taking my evening bath, and I had a book propped up on my chest, reading.” Here Pamela’s voice got high and kind of stylized, that way she had when she told stories about you; her s’s and t’s would get clipped and nasal, as if she were Queen Elizabeth talking about one of the Royals. “Miss Fiona wandered into the bathroom and clearly was very interested,” Pamela said. “She kept pacing up and down on the bath mat, looking in over the side, sniffing the water, talking to me.” There was a pause, and a chuckle. “Then for a long while I didn’t see her head over the edge of the tub, and then whump! Suddenly Fiona is sitting on my chest!”
While she’s telling the story, I am thinking “Hm…that would be scary, for me…if I’d had a mastectomy.” And so I thought, a minute, about having a breast cut off…and you sitting on the scar…then Pamela continued: “She picked the only dry spot on me; and there we lay, for a good half hour, Miss Fiona on my chest, purring away, and me terrified to move because I’d dump her in the water.” Another gale of laughter. “And since then, every night Miss Fiona and I have been taking our bath together.”
While I was away, I walked to the edge of the world and watched the waves hit the shoreline. It was cold and beautiful. The place is called Black Sands Beach but there is no sand, there are only black, smooth stones made from when the earth was hot and spit up and cooled, and made that place. It is a place called The Lost Coast, Fiona. Will you remember that, The Lost Coast? I brought some of those stones back with me and they reminded me of a poem called “Stones,” do you remember it? That poem that went with you in your box.
These seven stones
are what makes anyone different
One kissing another
built out of pastel sheets
is a feast a banquet
among all creatures
vengeful gods of judgment
leave us alone leave us alone
to love one another
we finger the navel of pleasure
and then we run
what you yourself are alone comes alive
in dreams alone
then all outcry slays us
the key into worlds
And how you gave so many people the key into worlds.
I would pick you up from the vet’s ER in the wee hours of the morning or at midnight after class, and some harassed vet tech would come out and say, “I have to talk to you about your cat. What a love she is!” She would tell how, from the cage, coming out of anesthesia, you had put your paws out and tried to grab passersby, wanting to be touched, wanting entertainment, wanting contact. No matter how sick, no matter how compromised, no matter what was being done to you. Sometimes I wondered if I would get you back home to me with all the people falling in love along the way.
All the things we try, we idiot humans, the stupid nasty drugs and the horrible ways they twisted your body, all the different doctors. They stopped your eating, they wrecked your sleep, they made you fight even harder; we shaved and injected you; we anesthetized and fought the demon inside you from the outside. We never knew, not once, for sure what it was we were trying to kill. I would have stopped it all if I’d known how little those things would help, Fiona. How much they took from you. How little they gave.
I had to give you up, Fiona, to save you. The night I made your box for you, I began to give you up.
“Does she know how much I love her?” I asked Carol over the phone that last day. I was standing outside in the wind; I heard the tunneling of satellites echo on the line, in the air between us. Then it cleared, and there was a silence, and Carol took a breath. “Do you know how much she loves you,” Carol said, as if that were the answer.
Then she gave me a name, and a number to call; then I went back upstairs to the office, and picked out your box.
While finishing the decorations, I heard every breath you took and every breath you tried to take. Your box sat next to the place where the doctor would come the next day. And that night you shook; and you pulled, and you tried, with everything that anyone had, to breathe in; nothing would give you air. I listened to you try, all night. The night was long but never long enough; and when the sun rose, I bathed, but you did not come to see me, and I watched you, but you would not leave your house; and then I held you; and I lay down next to you. And you did what you always did: you put a paw over my hand and curled your pads around it and kept it there. We lay together and waited; I drew the curtains and lay with you, and we waited together.
The air got quiet and then the doctor came.
It was noon. I had shut the light out from the windows and was sitting on the couch, drinking tea. I never drink tea. I had put you back into your house, under the tent of steam. The doorbell rang. I went down and there he was, a young, sad man with round eyes in a Tshirt with dolphins dancing across his chest. Walking up behind him, letting him in, this Doctor of Death, he was everything he needed to be: someone who didn’t know you, someone with dolphins dancing on his shirt, someone who would help us. I had told him that today was the day when you would be ready to go. And I did not know that. But I was the one who had told him to come.
I couldn’t make it up the stairs behind him. The air roared, the walls were hot and loud, what was going to happen next pushed back at me like wind from a far-off, burning planet. He would leave and when he left, you would be nowhere, you would be gone from this place and gone from me. The box, your house, this ending of the way between us, it was happening too soon, too fast. It was happening. I sat on the steps. I apologized and he said it was all right and his voice was soft. He kept going.
The box was ready. Again I use words, these verb tenses, these conjunctions, they all escape me now too; that day, there was nothing but the hot, roaring wind and my knowing you would be gone and that I would be causing it. It was happening too fast and I couldn’t feel everything enough to remember it. I wanted so much to love you and I couldn’t feel anything but the hot wind and the loss of you and that I was the one to do that losing. The one thing I had loved more than anything I had ever loved, was now going, was going after no time, no peace, and only pain; and I was making this thing happen and it was the only thing that I had ever loved.
I showed Dr. Death where you were and he asked me to bring a towel. I brought a towel and then I brought you.
How else could it have been, Fiona? Can you tell me now?
He took you from me, feeling along your hot body, as I recall, and then he told me what would happen. He would inject you and then you would feel nothing, you would fall asleep; and then he would stop your heart. I knew you would fight your leaving as you had fought to stay, for three long years and all the seconds and minutes and breaths that there are in three years, despite all we did, in the consortium of all we did, in the harmony and acrimony that is the euphony of this one song, the song of us. I knew you would fight this leaving. He handed me back; and so you did that.
When Dr. Death injected you with the sedative there on my lap, your face tilted up into my face, you touched your nose to my nose in the way you always had, you wanted to know. You gazed at me, searching, and said, in your way: “What is this? Is it all right? Will this be okay?” You asked permission to leave. You wanted to be sure of me…and I touched you back, I wanted you in no pain, finally, I wanted that place for you, nepenthe, I wanted surcease of sorrow. I touched your nose to my nose; I rubbed my forehead against your ears, those ears that always told me what kind of mood you were in and where your attention lay. I moved my face down that lovely jaw.
I don’t know, Fiona if I will ever know that what I did was right. Because even then, without your being able to breathe, the sedative made you yawn, a normal cat, sitting on my lap yawning. Dr. Death and I both smiled at that. You looked up into my face again. Your face had a kind of wonder in it, an inquiring. But no air came in; no air went out. No life. You were saying goodbye to life without even being able to breathe it in the end, or breathe your life out. You tilted up, up, searching. And I thought: how could I have been the one? Who was I, to have called him here, to do this? Who was I, for you? Were you ready to leave? And after that, where would you go? Where could I go to find you after that?
The illness had left your veins weak and thin and incapable of opening so he shot it into your abdomen. Just before he shot your heart to stop, I sat and watched your face; and I talked to you and I told you how I had tried and I didn’t know what else to do, but there you were, reaching up, yawning, looking at me, saying “Is this all right? Am I okay, then?” And what could I tell you about how you were, what could I tell you that would make things right. So then he gave the other shot. He had told me he would do it this way. He kept telling me everything he was going to do and he told me about it slowly and carefully. He was far, far away from us.
I sat with you in my arms, still not knowing for sure what else we could have done. Carol, the Death Doctor, all the other doctors who had known you, could there have been another thing, could there have been someone else, one final place we could have gone. Did I not go everywhere. Was there some secret, still, that was being kept from me, the one secret that would make you well. No one could find what was truly wrong. And you asking me. Because I had fed, had contained, had made, had defined us, had said that I could do it all. Now here you were, tilting, asking me if it would be all right to go now. Because I had claimed you.
The room held still and there was no breath anywhere. No one was breathing then. Your head went back and rested on my knee. I leaned down into you, listening for air. The flowers I had bought for the table hung still over your face, and the room stopped, and Dr. Death touched your chest and he used his stethoscope and checked again, and I could not see your chest moving. And your eyes got vague and fixed, and the blockage in your head started to ooze out of your nose and I took the towel and washed your nose clean but it would not come clean and Dr. Death said then, “She’s gone.”
Your eyes stayed open and I asked why and he said it was your reflex and I thought, I don’t know what she sees now, like any other day, like we always did. I don’t know if I will ever get to tell what she’s seeing again. How we would sit outside at night and I would tell you what you were seeing. I thought, will she see me there, wherever she is going.
You were very still. You had grown quite heavy. Your eyes turned such a clear green, like the bottom of a pond, the shelter of shade, the sun through leaves. Finally, the monster was leaving your house and you weren’t there to see it. Finally, that strong rib cage and those lungs, grown twice the size of any normal cat’s — your lung cavity that had become half of you –finally they didn’t have to work quite so hard. You, with no breath left to take, now had all the room to breathe that you wanted.
And you smelled, Fiona. You smelled in a way that I had never smelled you. You smelled of anger. You smelled foul and of rage and waste and injustice and of all the things that I had known, and felt, when I was away from the house and I could scream them without hurting you, without letting you know. Those three years of your life. You smelled now of waste and of loss and of an ending that did not belong to you, that had no story that anyone would want to know. You smelled of decay and exhaustion. Your eyes gazed on something far away. Your tail lay still.
I am sorry to tell you about the smell; but we never lied when we were together.
I carried you to your box on the towel and the towel went with you. Dr. Death had said you might wet it while you were dying, but you never did. It seemed a very rude thing for him to have said. You had not eaten in many days and had drunk only through the dropper; there was no water left in you to come out. The sickness had taken it all. It was not important. He did not know you and he would never know you. But it’s funny, now, how many things the doctors never knew, that I knew. It’s funny but not funny.
I laid you inside and I put the flowers there, next to your mouth, where you could sniff them if you wanted, and I knew this was silly. I cut some of that wild underbelly hair of yours to keep, that tawny hair of savannahs and lions and courage and abandon and fight, and love, that wild hair you rolled over to show me when you were especially content. The underbelly of your love.
The doctor had me sign some papers. He told me where the box with you in it would go, that you would come back, in a small cedar container, a box, he said, suitable for coffee tables. I could feel then that he wanted to finish and that he couldn’t stay to hear the rest of your story.
He took you away. I heard his steps going down. The room stayed heavy and the day let me sink underneath it, out of it, somewhere not in it. I felt a small, great peace; I knew that in the space that that peace occupied, things would come that I would have no control over. I did not see the light change outside; I did not know when night came. I did not know who called. There were no days for awhile. There was no Saturday or Friday and there was no weekend and there was no Monday or tomorrow or yesterday. There was nothing but the space between, between where you had been and the direction you had headed. And the fact that I would have no one to tell my stories to in the home that we had made.
Except this one — this one, Fiona, I wanted to be sure that you would hear.