The Cat in the Fireplace

Open Fire

On November 29, 1995, I brought home a wee gray kitten to the Neo-Georgian house I was renting with my then-husband in downtown San Jose.

The first sound she heard as I set down her carrier was the crack of gunfire.

I had noticed on the way in that the street behind mine was blocked off by the police, and was grateful that my own street wasn’t closed so that I could bring home my precious cargo. I didn’t realize that there was a hostage situation (San Jose! Love!) taking place in the house behind ours. I had just set down Ophelia’s cardboard carrier box in the bathroom when shots rang out. I hit the ground, my face level with her little nose as it poked out one of the holes.

“It’s not always like this,” I told her. “Honest!”

We had asked the insane landlords if we could have a cat and at first they told as we did not “deserve” to have a cat unless we took the feral stray that they had recently found. We consoled The Crazy by reassuring them that we only had their house in mind. It would be easier to train a kitten not to scratch their vintage wallpaper than a fully grown cat that had already developed habits.

eat

Nom!

Love at First Sight

Eventually they relented and the landlord’s wife directed me to a friend of hers who was a foster mother for the Humane Society. I went to her house to see the three kittens she currently had locked in the master bedroom, isolating them from another sick cat in the house. I entered the bedroom and two kittens — one black, one calico — launched themselves from the big bed as they ran for their food dishes. The third kitten, perhaps only two thirds the size of her siblings, turned up her tiny gray face to me and walked straight toward me, mewling until I picked her up. She was so tiny that she fit easily in my palm. “The runt of the litter,” said the foster mother.

jack

Ophelia and one of her siblings nursing on a male cat named Jack. Don’t judge.

I went home and told my then-husband about the kittens but I said nothing about which one I liked. He went with me the next evening to see them with the understanding that I would stand back and let him interact with the kittens so that he could see which one he liked best. He didn’t seem to have a favorite. But later that night, as we watched The X-Files, he said, “The little gray one, huh?”

It felt like someone had turned on the sun inside of me. I nodded.

I named her Ophelia because her melodious meow reminded me of Aunt Ophelia’s singing in the Addams Family. I had loved her the moment I saw her. She was to keep me company as I was writing at home. That enormous old house built in 1906 could be drafty and lonely, not to mention more than a little bit haunted. She delighted me in every way — except perhaps the way my then-husband had taught her to climb up his thick Levi jeans. (Ahem.) But she had no faults. Affectionate and charming, she was the perfect companion.

A Fateful Night

And then one night in late March 1996, Something Very Extraordinary happened that changed my life forever. I was home when it happened and could reach no one on the phone. I was terrified and alone. But I wasn’t really alone. Ophelia was there. And what I thought was terrifying instead then quickly turned into something powerful and profound…

Who shall comprehend such things and who shall tell of it? What is it that shineth through me and striketh my heart without injury, so that I both shudder and burn? I shudder because I am unlike it; I burn because I am like it.

St. Agustine’s Confessions, 11:9:11

The experience bonded us in a dramatic and mystical way. From that moment on, Ophelia was an enormous part of my spiritual life. As more Extraordinary Thinges happened, and my life exploded with mystery and wonder, Ophelia never left my side. Not that she had a choice, but she tended more often than not to stand by me rather than flee under the bed.

godzilla

(Oooooh, no! There goes Tokyo!)

Major Changes

The marriage fell apart for various reasons soon thereafter. She moved with me to San Francisco, where I sometimes caught her playing Witchfinder General with her fuzzy mice as she dunked them in the toilet. When I was about to leave San Francisco to move to Los Angeles, the vet found a lump in her stomach that he couldn’t explain. “She’s not an outdoor cat, is she?” he asked. That’s when I remembered the evening over a month prior when two mice had broken into my in-law apartment. She had killed one before I got home, while the other ran loose in the parlor as she indulged in a nonchalant bath. I threw away the dead mouse and locked her out of the bedroom, shrieking, “You had better kill that thing! That’s your job!” The next morning, the mouse had vanished — into her belly, apparently.

Life With “Pye”

When we arrived in Los Angeles, my life was quickly plunged into immeasurable chaos and pain. I soon lost my hands to injuries and couldn’t work.

hollywood

Strutting around the new apartment — I’m sorry, HER new apartment.

As I stumbled in the darkness of disability, she saved me in more ways than I can ever tell other human being. Our pets are beacons to our souls — Ophelia so much more so than any other pet I’d ever had because she was there when the Very Extraordinary Thinge happened. She was my witness. My Pyewacket (although I would not see that movie for a couple more years). I could never deny the tender, simple wisdom in her meow or ignore the loving scrape of her tongue on my hand or cheek.

Pigeons Are Friends?

One day, I heard a pigeon cooing at the big window somewhere behind the papasan chair. When I went to investigate, I discovered it was Ophelia talking to the pigeons outside on the ledge. She had learned to mimic the pigeon coo perfectly. That’s when I declared that she needed another of her species and adopted Cairo Egypt the next day. They loved each other very much, although the prim and proper Miss Ophelia did not always appreciate Cairo’s bouncy, trouncy, in-your-face, how-many-dishes-can-I-break-tonight lifestyle.

Cairo Egypt thinks you have fucked up taste in movie stars.

Cairo Egypt thinks you have fucked up taste in movie stars.

Cato and Clouseau

Ophelia bitched out my bad lovers, put up with me smooching her silky head and ears, and was generally the easiest cat to live with I have ever known. She had this plaintive meow that seemed to say, “Is this the Complaint Department? I want to register a complaint. Complaint #1…” I was never exactly sure when the list of complaints had been fully registered, but I listened all the same. We played “Cato and Clouseau,” as she would wait for me to come in after work and then pounce on me from behind a piece of furniture.

More Extraordinary Thinges happened, although not as extraordinary as the one the year before. She comforted me when my tears soaked the carpet with grief. I did not want Extraordinary Thinges. I wanted a normal life. Ophelia reminded me with her patient, golden-green eyes that I needed to learn grace.

Painful Separation

Then the time came in mid 2006 when I was to go to France for a year with The Frenchman. I made plans to take Ophelia and Cairo with me, but the vet said no. They were too old to travel to the south of France, she said. They would never make the journey. Broken-hearted at the idea of being without my two fur babies, I talked to my parents, who agreed to take them for the year.

Every day, I missed my kittens, but most of all Ophelia. Even in my happiest moments in Aix-en-Provence and Paris, I missed her so keenly that I couldn’t stand it. I had given my family some disposable cameras so that they could take pictures and send them to me, which they did only once.

The Cat in the Fireplace

Then, like The Doctor in that episode of Doctor Who, “The Girl in the Fireplace,” even though I had promised her I would return for her at a certain time, I didn’t. When I came back to the United States, my parents refused to give back my cats. I was completely devastated. But it was difficult to argue because my mentally disabled sister loved Ophelia so much that I felt Ophelia was doing great good by being there.

hug

Mine!

The Frenchman and I moved in together and adopted another kitten — Robespierre, Le Terreur — before I discovered that my family was not taking the best care of Ophelia and Cairo. (Ophelia seemed okay, but Cairo was a total mess.) When I told The Frenchman that I wanted to force the issue and take back my cats, he told me that he did not want three cats. He refused to take them back. He would give away Robespierre if I did that. I thought I would die. I couldn’t get out of the expensive house lease that I had signed where I lived with him and wasn’t ready to give up the relationship. Maybe I could convince him over time. I waited to no avail.

His selfishness destroyed the entire relationship by the time the lease expired. But at least I was free.

gray

Reunion

Still, it wasn’t until my mother died two years later that I was able to recover Ophelia. While visiting my father I noticed that Ophelia, who was then 15 years old, was a little under the weather. Her litter box contents looked abnormal. When I informed my father, he gruffly stated that he didn’t want to have to deal with it. “Just take her,” he growled. I felt terrible for my little sister, but Ophelia was clearly ill. I scooped her up, took her to the vet for a quick check-up and blood test, and immediately drove her for six hours to Los Angeles. I cried all the way home for joy. My sweetest love, the Sweetest of Peas was with me once more. Never a day passed that I did not miss her. I loved her more than any person or animal. Four years had passed altogether. In that time, I had since retrieved Cairo, but he had died despite surgeries and thousands of dollars of the best vet care.

3 Cats on a Couch

After a slow introduction, she got along famously with my two other cats. I had since rescued Saphron, a golden Bengal, who was completely bonded to Robespierre, but who quickly adopted Ophelia, as well. The three cats so loved each other so much that I started a Tumblr account documenting the redonk called, “3 Cats On a Couch.” People could scarcely believe that three cats in one small condo got along so well. I had the world’s cutest clowder. I would show people the Tumblr account and say, “This is how we roll at my house. All is full of love.” My new boy friend — a big, tenderhearted animal lover — was completely smitten with her. She captured the heart of everyone who met her.

Sickness and Love

As her health declined near her 16th birthday, she needed so much care that I was afraid to leave her. I found an excellent pet care service that could take her whenever my new boyfriend couldn’t. The house became unruly with her messes: numerous urinary tract infections had made her permanently leery of the litter box. And she required a special diet that the other two cats loved too well. They often pushed her out of her dish so that they could gobble her food. I had to start feeding her separate from the other cats, which she hated. She was too social to eat alone and her appetite suffered. I wound up having to sit with her as she ate. It was ridiculously time-consuming.

sun

Yet I never cared that her needs were so great. I never minded cleaning up a single mess or giving her numerous medications. It mattered little to me that she was so high maintenance during meal times. I loved her more than anything. She was The Cat Who Had Witnessed Very Extraordinary Thinges. The Cat Who Had Saved My Life. My Pyewacket. Ophie-Wan Kenophie. She Whom I Loved Best. I wrote silly cat songs for her like the Calypso tune, “I Love Me a Little Gray Cat” and the Shonen Knife-inspired, “Kitties in the Kitchen (and They’re Bitchin’ Bitchin’ Bitchin’)”.

Death

After riding a roller coaster of health problems these last six months leading up to her 17th birthday, Ophelia slowed down dramatically this last weekend. On Saturday, December 1, I wrote on my Facebook timeline:

With a raspy yowl and a quivering paw, my little Ophelia is fading before my eyes. She prowls the house incessantly, confused, disoriented. She no longer knows where the litter box room is. All places are alike to her, as Kipling says, but not because she is wild. Rather, because she is frail, frightened, sinking into the mists…

By late Sunday afternoon, I knew she was going to die. She could no longer walk and her pupils were wide with death blindness. The vet offices were closed. So, I wrapped her in her favorite fuzzy blanket, placed her in an old kitten bed and lay down on the floor with her, soft music playing and candles blazing atop the piano.

bed

Remember what I taught you about grace.

I wrote on Twitter:

Oh, Grief! Death pads in softly on cat paws, yet you bite savagely while He still stands on the doorstep.

The raspy yowl diminished to a feeble cry that escaped her small wet mouth every once in a while when she soiled herself. I did my best to keep her clean and dry, all the while talking to her, reminiscing with her, telling her how much I loved her. I texted with friends. My boyfriend was working and didn’t have access to his cell phone, but I left him messages anyway. Grief savagely bit my heart, over and over. The pain wracked my body. Tears scalded my eyes and cheeks. My neighbor came downstairs and stayed with me. I continued to stroke Ophelia’s ears and head, cuddling her, kissing her as she trembled, my tears dampening her fur. Whispering in her ear sweet nothings and words of appreciation for her life, love and devotion.

Distracted by conversation, I didn’t recognize the moment that she passed until Robespierre solemnly approached the kitten bed, sniffed her and looked up at me. A hush fell over the room and for a moment everything seemed brighter. But then a cataract of darkness tore through my soul…

Some say that animals have souls and that our familiars become our spirit guides. I don’t know if that is true. I would like to think so. But one thing is for certain:

My world is much grayer without my little gray cat. And the color will never fully return.

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