I named my cat after a Phish song, one that’s plangent and peaceful and pastoral—which turned out to be nothing like her. Eliza was an ornery, short-haired and short-tempered tortoiseshell (I think, though maybe mixed with calico) who liked exactly two people: me and my ex-wife. And, at times, she only tolerated us. She meowed in brief, low mutters, like an old lady complaining about the “Negroes” taking over the neighborhood under her breath. After living for three years with Greta, a sweet but dim all-white cat that came with the marriage (and who stayed on with me after the divorce), Eliza never passed up a chance to rumble and hiss whenever the white cat came near.
Eliza was imperious, demanding rubs (but only in the right spots, on the ears and the lower arch of her back); a warm lap to lay in (but don’t touch her if her tail’s thumping; you’re there as a seat, pal, not a companion); and fresh food first thing in the morning (and she’d bat my face at 7am, as I slept, if I wasn’t on my way to the Purina bag). But there was a core of sweetness to her, a way that she rubbed her head on my chin and fingers, the way she “made biscuits” with her paws on my thigh when she was happy, the way she followed me around for no reason sometimes, and softly meowed when I would stop to look down at her.
The sweetness had to be earned. She wasn’t a slut for attention, as is Greta. Eliza wouldn’t lick your arm just because you scratched her. But she would sleep curled up beside me as I slept, a fuzzy ball resting in an oversized spoon. As I showered each morning in the bathtub, I’d see her silhouette between the waterproof curtain and the decorative curtain, waiting for me to be done. As I toweled off, Eliza raised up, placing forearms on my leg, and practically begged to be picked up. Still damp and soap-smelling, I cradled her, her head and forearms resting on my shoulder, and nuzzled her head. More often than not, she would purr loudly and bite me gently on the cheek.
For the first three years of her life, I exercised her most often by dangling an old, thick, brown shoestring at her. She batted at it, chased it down, kicked it with her hind legs when she “caught” it, jumped at it. After we were done playing, she would often pick up the string in her mouth, and drag it over to the food bowl. Until she was four, I would be certain to find that string hanging on to the lip of either the food and water bowl. Eliza wanted to make sure her friend got fed. Even in her last years, I’m not completely sure she ever completely understood that it wasn’t alive, just like her.
In her odd, crabby way, she loved books as much as I did. At least, she thought they—if they were in my hands—were extensions of me. She would rub the corners and spines as I read. Sometimes, while sitting in my lap, she watched the pages turn and followed my fingers descending down each line. In my old apartment, she knew the book-laden coffee table so well, as intimately as her own fur. I conducted an experiment once. After work, I had bought a new novel at Lemuria Books. When I got home, I scooped up Eliza, put her in the bedroom, and shut the door on her. Then I went back to my car, got the new book, and slid it in a stack of books on that table. Then I let her out of the bedroom. She sniffed once, twice, and then leaped onto the table. She made a beeline to the altered stack, and batted away each old book until the new book—Stephen Dixon’s End of I.—was visible. She ran her nose over each corner, rubbed it with her forehead, tapped her paw on the cover, and jumped down from the table. From the time I let her loose to the time she found the book—keep in mind that she couldn’t have seen me slipping it into the stack—was 30, maybe 40 seconds. After she had identified it, everything was fine in the apartment. She sipped some water, found a place to snooze.
* * * * *
I got her on 1 June 2000, though she’d probably been born six or seven weeks earlier. I always celebrated her birthday on Tax Day. At the time, I frequented the home of a physics professor and his wife, an elementary schoolteacher, whose house I had babysat the previous summer. The teacher, Nina, narrowed her eyes at me once, over coffee, and said, “Walter, you could use a cat.” They had three. My only previous pet was a hamster, Tricks, who was named so because she had the habit of escaping her fish-aquarium home and frightening my mom. That was in high school.
Across the street from Mick and Nina’s house, a neighbor named Paul lived. In the back alley outside his workplace, he had found a litter of six kittens. He waited, for three days, for the mother to appear. After that, he picked them up and took them home. Nina gave me a call.
To this day, I don’t know why I decided to heed Nina’s advice. But there I was, a week later, sitting cross-legged on Paul’s porch as a fuzzy brown-and-ginger kitten climbed all over me, clicking her back-foot claws on the worn wood. On her front left foot, she had one tan toe. A streak of burnt orange hair snaked across her forehead. (More red and orange would spread as she grew older.) Her lower lip bloomed a shocking white that spread down to the middle of her neck; my ex-wife would call it her dippermouth, “dipped in milk.” When I tried to pet her, she flinched and batted my finger. But she stayed put. I couldn’t tell if she was being playful or angry.
Throughout the twelve years I had Eliza, I never quite read her moods correctly. She switched from playful to pissed in a heartbeat. She was surly. Anna called her an “ornery cuss.” But Eliza would surprise me, too, by being possessive of Anna and me, by growling lowly if anyone other than me touched Anna, or if anyone other than Anna touched me. She was a jealous lover. She was loyal, often to a fault.
* * * * *
Eliza died tonight.
She had looked sick for a few days. I noticed that she had lost three or four pounds over the course of the week, and seemed unusually lethargic. She labored to breathe, and her chest thumped with each breath. She was light, too light, whenever I picked her up, pressed her to my chest. This morning, she looked especially weak, and didn’t even prance over to me when I called her name and sang her special song. (Greta came. Greta, God bless her, thinks every soft song is for her.) After work today, I walked to the grocery store to buy some de-worming paste and anti-hairball fluid. When I got home, Eliza lay limp on the bed but still living. I lifted her into the living room, and went to find the medicine. In the 30 seconds that took, she hid under the couch, like she was preparing to die. I pulled her out but—and this is so unlike her—she didn’t resist. She didn’t resist, really, until I was trying to force the medicine into her mouth. She struggled, she clawed, she growled. Even the growl sounded pitiful, weak-voiced instead of full-bodied. I tried to hold her lips shut so she’d swallow the medicine, and she was squirming and clawing, so it took me a minute to realize that something was terribly wrong. Even after I let go of her, she gasped and howled for breath. I grabbed her and ran to the bathtub to splash water on her face, or dissolve the medicine in her throat, or get her to puke it out, or something, anything. In the bathtub, I felt her soul leaving her. She became limp. Even when I set her down, she just collapsed—she didn’t even try to stand or climb out of the tub, away from the running water. She was still gasping but less frequently, and I knew the end was coming. I carried her back to the living room, set her on the carpet gently, stuck my finger down her throat to remove any blockage I could, but she was already limp. Her eyes weren’t moving. Her pink tongue hung loosely out of her mouth. And the breathing slowly stopped.
I drove her to the closest veterinary hospital but it was closed. Besides, even while driving, I knew it was over. Her paws, her legs, her chest—none of it radiated warmth anymore. For a creature that was as big, soft, and hot as a loaf of bread straight from the oven, this is ungodly.
What’s so terrible is that I may have accidentally hastened her death by trying to heal her. Her final living moments were spent in terror, instead of peace. I kissed her head, I cradled her, I said I loved her so much, but I think she had already died by the time that happened. I feel terribly guilty for making her last moments ones of fear instead of peace, of painful struggle instead of quiet sleep. I called my parents, and gave them the news. They were glad I was by Eliza’s side when she died, and emphasized that it wasn’t my fault.
As I type this, I keep occasionally hanging my left hand down and clicking my tongue softly. That was her call. In a few seconds, I would feel Eliza’s head rubbing my knuckles, a wet nose tapping on an index finger, maybe a low, content meow.
It’s going to be difficult to live without that. It already is.