Yes, I know, I know... I've been away from this Whirled for yet another month. I apologize. After this long-overdue eulogy for a departed loved one – a lengthy piece that is, I suppose, both a horror story and a love story – I will get back to snarking. I promise. And you probably know the drill by now: If you think you are in danger of getting screen fatigue, print this out and read it the old-fashioned way. On the other hand, if you really do not like cats, you might consider skipping this piece altogether.
“Dogs have a depth of loyalty that often we seem unworthy of. But the love of a cat is a blessing, a privilege in this world.”
~ Kinky Friedman, from a 1993 eulogy for his cat Cuddles
I long ago learned a secret about cats, one which you may know as well, and I share it with all due respect to the Kinkster, who seemed, in the quotation above, to be implying that the love of a cat is a rarer and more difficult thing to earn than that of a dog. It's not that I would ever take a cat's love for granted, but the truth, and I suspect that Kinky knows this too, is that cats are at least as loving (or perhaps more accurately, as emotionally needy) as dogs. They are simply not as inclined as dogs to display it in obvious ways – unless, that is, they are compelled to live their entire lives within the walls of human homes. It is then that we get to see them up close and personal, and vice-versa, and they reveal their truly affectionate natures on a consistent basis. Or maybe it is simply that the confinement makes them neurotically desperate for stimulation, and we're the best they can come up with. In any case, during my so-called adult life I have seen to it that all of the felines I've lived with have been indoor cats, and while some people may consider that a crime against nature, to me it is nothing more than an expression of concern for the cats' well-being (not to mention consideration for neighbors and wildlife).
Coca Bean Kaye, an odd-eyed, pure white domestic shorthair who died on November 12, 2010, at the age of 16, wasn't always strictly confined to the indoors. In her kittenhood, I hear tell, she occasionally got out and about in the Alaska wilds – dodging rapacious eagles and the occasional meandering moose, or so I like to imagine – but that phase of her life came to an end in the mid-1990s when she relocated with her original companion human to Houston, Texas. She then became an indoor cat for the most part, but her existence was hardly quiet and peaceful, as her human lived with an abusive partner who, fueled in part by a dangerous mix of recreational substances, became more violently abusive as time went by. Given the dynamics of that relationship, and the reluctance of either partner to simply go their separate ways, there was almost no chance of avoiding a tragic ending.
Indeed, it all came to an abrupt halt one terrible summer night in 1996 with the shooting death of the abusive partner by the abused person's sibling – an act of desperate self-defense that was, nevertheless, referred to a grand jury. The shooting happened after a long day of ugly violence, and Coca and the other feline resident, Gracie, a pure white longhair, were right there in the apartment through the entire ordeal. When Ron and I paid a visit the next day the scene had not yet been cleaned up. I should have been prepared; the rookie news reporter I'd watched that morning on TV had haltingly described the scene as "graphic," and I knew, from the expression on his face and the slight quaver in his voice, that his description didn't begin to do it justice. Suffice it to say that on that day, I learned that it is not the sight of massive amounts of blood that gets to me; it is the smell. The carnage was in the hallway just outside of the apartment; inside, the human survivors of the incident were huddled together, dazed and numb. Coca and Gracie were nowhere to be seen.
In the turbulent months that followed, the survivors – both human and, presumably, feline – struggled to get their lives back in order. The grand jury that convened the following February declined to press charges, but the ordeal was far from over. The mother of the abusive partner, driven by grief, anger, and her own drug-induced mental problems, continued to do whatever she could to make life miserable and more than a little scary for the survivors and members of their immediate families who lived in the area. Please do not think that any of us lacked compassion for her loss, or sorrow for the way the situation had turned out. It was a tragic state of affairs all around. But her threatening phone calls and letters, her vows to seek her brand of "justice" for the death of her last surviving child (we were told that another child, an infant, had been shot to death years earlier by her ex-husband's drug-dealer buddies), and even her morbid insistence on taking possession of the firearm that had killed her offspring (the weapon had originally belonged to him) were disturbing to say the least. And it was all instrumental in the decision by Coca's human to flee back up to Alaska, sans Coca this time.
We were told that arrangements had been made for a friend to take Coca, though there was no word on any arrangements for Gracie. Ron and I found out after the fact that the friend had backed out, and we felt we had no choice but to go to that sad abandoned apartment and gather two frightened and very hungry white cats to take home with us. It was only meant to be temporary, till we could find permanent homes for them. I was adamant about it being temporary. After all, in addition to five dogs we already had two cats, and I had all the litter box maintenance responsibilities I wanted.
Of course, you already know how this went: Coca and Gracie (whose name we shortened to Grace) stayed. They really had no place else to go, and there was no way we were going to take them to a shelter, which would have almost certainly doomed them. So it was that in that chaotic summer of 1997, Ron and I suddenly found ourselves not only with our two cats and Coca and Grace, but also, for a while, with a cat named Quinnie, who, along with the sibling of Coca's human, also moved in with us for a few months. Quinnie was a pretty but demonic tabby, vaguely reminiscent of a Kliban cat. She had a large body and a disproportionately tiny head (I'm talking about a ridiculously tiny head; we sometimes called her Pinhead). Small as it was, that cat-head was full of evil mischief. But that's probably worth a whole other blog post.
The point is that now there were five cats, and overnight we went from being a one-litter-box household to a three-litter-box household. There were also three more sets of fully functional cat claws to shred the furniture. It's not that we've ever had impeccable furniture – far from it, but the addition of more cats made a bad situation worse, aesthetically speaking. A crappy-looking old '70s-era couch that our then-friend Joe Vitale had given us rapidly became even more crappy-looking. It was apparently more attractive to the tiny tigers than the sisal-and-carpet scratching posts we provided. Joe had also given us an old recliner, the back of which was already well-clawed by his own cats, and ours gleefully added their own contributions.
The extra litter boxes and clawed-up furniture were the least of the problems, though. Our original cats, Sabrina and Bruce (the latter of whom you met briefly here; see link below) were not happy with the interlopers, and vice-versa. Troublesome cat politics erupted, and even after the initial hissing and threatening behavior died down – even after Quinnie the Pinhead and her human moved out, in fact – the politicking continued.
Since cats handle their everyday political issues mainly by peeing and spraying, whether or not they are spayed or neutered, it is hardly surprising that we quickly reached a point where even Febreze and Nature's Miracle couldn't solve the problem. The epicenter of cat politics in our household was an expensive and once-elegant rattan couch that had belonged to Ron's late mother. Bruce, who was unquestionably the head cat, loved to lounge on it – it was his spot – and prior to Coca's arrival, the worst offense he ever committed was the occasional ginormous hairball, easily cleaned away. But Coca had been the head cat in her former household, lording it over timid little Grace, and she had issues with Bruce being the leader in her new home. Bruce was relatively laid back about the whole thing, but he let it be known that he was the supreme feline. He and Coca had countless discussions about this during summits at Camp Rattan. Some of their exchanges were quite vocal (with Coca doing most of the talking), and most, unfortunately, involved bodily fluids.
Over the next year or so, despite frantic efforts to keep it reasonably clean, the rattan couch became so foully saturated that we had no choice but to remove it from our home. Since we lived at the time in an uber-gentrified section of Houston, we knew we would never be able to get away with setting the pee-soaked piece on our front lawn and waiting for someone to pick it up – as much as it would have amused us to see the expressions on the faces of our snootier fellow residents. So we cleaned the couch as well as we could, loaded it into the van, and took it to a spot in front of the Dumpster at the apartment complex where Coca's first human companion, who once again had moved back down to Houston, was now living. As we were leaving a little later that day, we discovered that the couch had already been removed, presumably by someone who thought it might be a lovely addition to their living room. What a find! we could imagine them thinking, and it made us snicker. On a subsequent visit a couple of days later, we noticed that the rattan wonder had been returned to its spot in front of the Dumpster.
I was frequently frustrated because the task of cleaning up pet messes in our house generally fell to me. (Then again, the task of lawn mowing and fixing things that broke around the house always fell to Ron, so it all worked out.) The dogs weren't really a problem, because even though they stayed indoors with us most of the time, they were house-trained and went outside to do their business. But the cats... well, even absent politically motivated spraying and such, and even when there are no litter box glitches, cats are – I might as well be blunt – filthy little creatures, despite their reputation for being immaculate. Sure, unless they're physically ill or emotionally disturbed, they're constantly cleaning themselves, but where do you think all of that kitty body dirt goes? That's right: on your stuff.
At the risk of sounding hopelessly petty and self-involved, I will confess that despite my compassion for the plight of the rescued cats, and my continued love and concern for their former owner, I sometimes felt resentful. There were times I looked on the white cats as a symbol of what I viewed as their first human's irresponsibility and my own lack of choice in the matter. I think, though, that at my core I was also feeling residual guilt over the fact that I too had abandoned a couple of cats when I was much younger. I was a teenager at the time, still living at my parents' home, and the cats in question had "difficult" personalities. At some point I decided I simply didn't want to take care of them any longer, but I couldn't find a home for them, so I had them taken to the local SPCA, where, despite my attempts to convince myself that I had done what was best for them, they almost certainly met their end. I still feel guilty about my choice to this day. Taking in Coca and Grace so many years later could, I suppose, be looked upon as either payback or a way of making amends. Either way, from my perspective and those of the others involved in the situation, it was indisputably the right thing to do.
In any case I never took my occasional resentment out on the rescued cats or anyone else, but one day, in a fit of frustration after cleaning up more cat spray from odd corners of the house, I did declare to Ron, "Either the white cats go, or I go!" And he calmly said, "Okay. 'Bye." Of course he didn't mean that, and of course he knew that I didn't mean what I'd said either. Issuing fake ultimatums isn't my style, and he had simply called me on it. What is important is that for the most part we all learned to live in peace together. Eventually the kitty politics dissipated, the spraying all but stopped, and I found that I had fallen hopelessly in love with both Coca and Grace.
* * * *
It occurs to me, this far into my essay, that I've really said precious little so far about Coca as an individual, a being who had a life apart from the chronicle I've shared of violent death, unsettled human lives, and ruined furniture. If you've read any of my previous writings you probably weren't expecting a sweetly sentimental Rainbow-Bridge sort of tribute, but maybe you're thinking I should focus on Coca herself for a bit. All right, then.
Coca was an individual and she did have a life, of course, but she was also very much a part of our lives for more than thirteen years. She had an unusually strong personality and after recovering from the initial shock of coming into a new household, she was not at all shy. She was in fact quite forward and had no problems whatsoever with clambering all over anyone, even casual visitors, who came to our house and sat down for a moment. Even so, for a long time she wasn't what I would have called inordinately affectionate, and certainly she wasn't as cuddly and flirtatious as Grace.
Coca also had no problem with making her likes and dislikes abundantly clear. As is the case with many cats, she did not suffer extensive petting mildly. She would put up with it for a certain amount of time and then suddenly and quite without warning turn on the offending hand with a hiss and a quick slap, if the person was lucky. I learned early on when to back off. Later on, however, she became more tolerant of being touched for extensive periods of time, and even got to the point where she was as affectionate and hungry for touch as Grace. And although in the early years with us, Coca didn't like to be picked up at all and always protested loudly at the indignity of actually being carried anywhere, in later years she came to tolerate and then actually enjoy being in human arms. Especially mine. She even got to the point where she would let me pick her up and hold her upside down – one of the ultimate signs of trust from a cat. (Crazy Bruce, whom I probably continue to unfairly employ as the gold standard of felinity, used to love being held upside down and even swung gently about at times. But he was not at all a normal cat.)
Nearly everyone who met Coca commented on her odd-colored eyes: one green orb and one blue one. Having two different-colored eyes is actually fairly common among domestic cats and, for that matter, some breeds of dogs such as Siberian huskies and Malamutes. Coca was perhaps one blue eye away from being stone deaf; pure white cats with two blue eyes very often are. But there was nothing at all wrong with Coca's hearing, either on her "green side" or her "blue side."
There was nothing wrong with her voice, either, and she liked to use it; judging from its tone and timbre, there was a fair amount of Siamese blood coursing through her veins. Though not as generally conversational as Bruce, and not possessing his range, she was considerably louder than he. If Bruce was the head cat, she was definitely second in command.
She grew particularly attached to me, and would come to me when I called her name. She got to the point where she would respond to hand signals as well. Anyone who ever doubted that a cat can be as responsive as a dog in every way never knew a cat like Coca.
* * * *
Life became easier for all of the cats as time went by, but it was not always so easy for the troubled humans in their midst. There was still fallout from that awful night in 1996; the bereaved mother continued her campaign of harassment for a few years. When the two people whom she felt to be responsible for her son's death weren't available for harassing (they moved back and forth between Alaska and Houston several times), she aimed her harassment at Ron and me. We would find trash on our lawn – boxes of cards, letters, and other mementos of the doomed relationship between her dead son and Coca's original parent. One evening, as we were leaving the house to go out for dinner at a local restaurant, Ron and I found a very large, very dead, and very smelly snake on our porch; obviously it had been tossed there by someone, and we were pretty sure we knew the source. And somehow PsychoMom ended up in Las Vegas one Mother's Day weekend during the same time Coca's former companion and new partner were there. PsychoMom happened to spot them in a crowd at a popular Las Vegas hotel (really, what are the odds?), and began shouting and screaming, then pushed her way through the throng and proceeded to beat up on the target of her wrath before security personnel were able to separate them. Scary as that was, it could have been much worse.
Even that blew over, though, and life went on. Ron and I moved from the snooty neighborhood to a more comfy suburban area, leaving Joe Vitale's ruined couch behind in the old house, which was soon demolished and duly replaced by the requisite McMansion. But we did take Joe's old recliner, which the cats continued to slowly and methodically shred, although the really awful-looking part was hidden from our view because we tucked the chair into a corner of our living room. The four cats settled into our new digs with a minimum of fuss, and over the next few years they all became much closer, even to the point of growing quite fond of each other. Harmony prevailed. But time just never stops, and cats, even well-tended indoor types, are on a shorter cycle than the large lumbering bipeds who tend them: a cruel trick of nature to be sure. In early 2005, ten days before my birthday, Bruce left us at the age of almost seventeen-and-a-half years. I still haven't really recovered. His nearly-lifelong pal Sabrina, sixteen, followed a little over a month later, two days after Valentine's Day. I was heartbroken, and more grateful than ever for the two white cats who had insinuated themselves into our household eight years previously. I became even closer to Coca and Grace.
Over the following months I toyed several times with the notion of getting a kitten – maybe a little boy, preferably from a shelter. But I was in no big hurry and did nothing about it, and one bright Sunday morning in October of that year a tiny dilute-orange and white tabby showed up in the bushes under our bedroom window, crying like a lost bird. I scooped the kitten up and brought it into the house, and then proceeded to ask around the neighborhood, but there were no takers. It appeared to be a girl, and though I'd wanted a boy, Ron and I welcomed it into the fold and I named it Kyra. A couple of weeks later I was holding Kyra and noticed "she" had manifested some parts that hadn't been apparent in the beginning. Well, then, I had my boy after all. We scrambled for a new name, and Ron came up with "Sabu."
As Sabu grew to tomcat-hood lust took over, and, since he had no access to outdoor girlfriends, Coca was his target. Grace, usually so sweet and calm, had despised him from the beginning, even when he was a wee lad, and hissed whenever he came near her, so he knew to stay well away from her. Sometimes Grace would pick fights with him, just for the hell of it. But Coca was much more tolerant of his attentions, and in fact she rather liked him. Both Coca and Grace were spayed so there was no danger of kittens, although Coca did occasionally lose patience with Sabu's repeated efforts to grab her by the scruff of the neck with his teeth and climb aboard. "We need to get Sabu neutered," Ron and I kept saying, and kept putting it off.
In early 2008 we slipped the surly bonds of crowded suburbia and finally moved out to the country, to The Ranch at the Edge of Nowhere. I'm almost embarrassed to say that we still had the clawed-up chair Joe Vitale had given us many years ago; because the damage had been hidden, we hadn't really paid attention to how truly awful its back side had become over the past decade or so. In the large and many-windowed living room of the ranch house, there was no corner for the chair to hide in anymore, no wall to back it up against, and its ugliness stood out in a particularly embarrassing way. (Oh, God, had the movers really seen that?!?) Although one of Joe's fans had previously and in all apparent seriousness offered me $100 for the chair, it was too much of a hassle to work out the logistics. We exiled it to the garage, and paid $20.00 to have Stacy, our trash lady, haul it off. I did feel morally obligated to inform her that the chair had once belonged to the world-famous Joe Vitale, and she looked at me, puzzled, and said, "Who's that?" before she and her partner heaved it into the back of their truck with the other country folks' trash. Another fab money op lost, no doubt.
We all settled happily into life in the sticks, our joy marred only by losing our big dog Rex a couple of months after we moved. The cats were particularly pleased with our new home because not only did they have a much larger area to live in, but they had many more windows to look out of. Grace still had serious issues with Sabu, though, even after we finally got him neutered and he became more sweet and mellow. But Coca and Sabu remained close, and became even closer as the residual hormones faded and Sabu grew larger and lazier.
In the last year or so, however, Coca gradually started keeping to herself more, and Grace began warming up to Sabu. Over the last few months of Coca's life, Sabu and Grace actually became quite close. Perhaps they sensed that before long, they would only have each other. It was in those last few months that Coca began losing weight, fading away, and becoming, as people used to say, a mere slip of a thing. It was a combination of conditions, common among older cats – kidney failure, mainly, and we simply didn't have thousands of dollars to pay a vet to temporarily slow it down. But she didn't seem to be in pain, and she was still sweet and affectionate, still eager to climb all over me whenever I was in the living room. She would stretch herself across my newspaper in the morning, and relentlessly use me as furniture when I was on the couch watching TV at night.
In late October of this year, she seemed to fade even more, though she rallied briefly, but then in November she developed a respiratory ailment. At first we thought it was a mere case of the sniffles; all of our cats had had this at one time or another and it was never anything serious. But Coca was not getting better and we decided to make a vet appointment to take care of the respiratory issue and perhaps give her a little more time with us. On the morning of the day the appointment was scheduled, Ron called the vet and canceled. There were unmistakable signs, he explained to the woman answering the phone. Cheyne-Stokes respiration. The telltale gurgling. The death rattle.
We sat with her all that morning. At some point it was apparent she couldn't see us any more; her eyes were glazed over, the green and the blue barely discernible any more, but she could still hear us, and we talked to her. And intermittently, she would talk back. Some cats go into that good night quietly. Bruce had. Sabrina had. Coca did not. She still had things to say. But by mid-morning, she was finally silent, and we buried her in silence too. We've talked of maybe planting a tree on her spot in the spring. It's too soon to think of doing much else right now.
* * * *
And the world moves on. Some time ago, Coca's first human found happiness at last with someone truly wonderful, and they were married a few months ago in Alaska. The sibling who shot the abusive partner is also up there, reportedly happy, though we rarely hear from him. I hope he finds his way back to us someday, and even if he doesn't I hope he really has found happiness. The last we heard, the bereaved mom was living somewhere up in the Texas Panhandle; we haven't heard from her in years (knock on wood).
And here at the Edge of Nowhere, Texas, we are once again a two-cat household, if you don't count the eternally wary self-owned gray tabby who lives outside, mostly under our house, keeping skunks, snakes, and other vermin away. Inside the house, Grace and Sabu are now as thick as thieves, eating out of the same bowl without trying to kill each other, and cuddling close together on the couch, or on me, when I'm lying on the couch. Cat politics are a thing of the past. Peace prevails. Christmas is creeping up on the ranch now, approaching on little cat feet (as the late poet Carl Sandburg might have said), and look, there's Coca at the top of this page, with Christmas-colored eyes, an artifact of flash photography. All is calm, too calm really, with no raucous Siamese-inflected songs streaming out from the cats' part of the house. Though our girl has been in the ground for more than a month, on occasion I still find myself searching, briefly, for an odd-eyed face when I'm doing a head count as we all settle into the living room at night to watch TV. Head counts have become easier over the past few years as our family has grown smaller.
"Grief is the price we pay for love," we're told. Among the countless others who've said that in one form or another, England's Queen Elizabeth II reportedly did while addressing a church congregation after the 9/11 attacks. Given the context, she no doubt had in mind the love and grief we feel for the humans in our lives. Almost certainly she was not talking about cats; the queen does not strike me as being much of a cat person. But she does love her Corgis, and I'd be willing to bet that she has experienced the grief, more than once, of losing a beloved animal.
Some people, once they've lost a pet, say they will never get another because they know they would just be setting themselves up for more heartbreak. To me a much worse heartbreak would be to have to make our way through this life without any four-legged companions. And many people who say they can't bear the pain of loving and then losing an animal overlook the fact that we endure much the same cycles of love and loss in our human relationships; the difference is that the latter are generally longer and infinitely more complicated than those we share with our animals. What the bonds with our animals lack in longevity, they more than make up for in their utter purity. I wouldn't miss that experience of pure love for any amount of money, and Ron wouldn't either, though our hearts have been broken repeatedly and will almost certainly break again.
And, given the opportunity, if we had to do it over again, I think we would both gladly welcome Coca Bean Kaye into our home – grief, aggravation, and ruined couches and chairs be damned. I've always thought that furniture was over-rated, anyway.
- Good cartoon tribute to a cat (thanks to my friend Jonathan Cohen for pointing it out to me): http://www.salon.com/comics/lay/1998/09/08lay.html
- More about Bruce (and other cat-related matters): http://cosmicconnie.blogspot.com/2007/02/feline-feng-shui.html
- Cats and Christmas: http://cosmicconnie.blogspot.com/2006/12/signs-of-season.html
- Silly New-Age cat love stuff, from Cosmic Relief: http://home.swbell.net/moonshad/catlove.html and http://home.swbell.net/moonshad/catlove2.html
- A book I've ordered recently, because I enjoy the author's work and am intrigued by the topic: The Divine Life of Animals: One Man's Quest to Discover Whether the Souls of Animals Live On by Ptolemy Tompkins
- Pet loss and grief support: http://www.pet-loss.net/
- Tips on dealing with cat pee and spray: http://www.getridofthings.com/get-rid-of-cat-urine.htm
(My current personal favorite, which is also recommended on the link above, is Simple Solution http://tinyurl.com/2fdy9s3 )
- Give indoor cats safe access to the outdoors with a Catarium: I know I pick on Joe Vitale a lot, but something like this is a genius idea if it is feasible on your property: http://www.catarium.com/index.html (Note: I am not an affiliate)
- A violent relationship will almost invariably have a tragic ending unless you get out of it. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (US, Puerto Rico & Virgin Islands): http://www.thehotline.org/