Sunday, July 11, 2010


It was the middle of the coldest January ever, and my girlfriend Stacey and I were headed over to Circle Furniture in Cambridge to buy the rocker she had wanted for her birthday. As we approached Concord Ave. at Walden, Stacey caught sight of a cat following someone along the sidewalk.

"Aww, look" she said in her "Isn't that cute?" tone. And it seemed cute. It looked as though the cat was out for a stroll with its People. But those people took no notice of the animal, so it turned and followed the next person who passed. Was it lost then? Looking for help? Cat lovers that we were and are, we had to check it out.

The fluffy gray cat approached us immediately. By reflex, I reached to pat it, and what I felt sent tears to my eyes: under all that fur, she (?) was all bones. This cat was freezing and starving to death, and desperate for help indeed.

"What should we do?" Stacey asked.

"Put her in the car!" I said, and we did just that.

Back at Stacey's apartment, we closed her two cats in the bedroom, preparing to give the stray kitty some food and water and to figure out:  what next? With two cats apiece, it wasn't particularly convenient for either one of us to take her in, even temporarily.

Meanwhile, the cat made a bee-line for the bathroom, where she clearly knew she'd find water. The poor thing drank and drank wanting no part of any food at all. To me this demonstrated the severity of her crisis, the extent of her dehydration--and the wisdom of her instincts:  She knew how to take care of herself. When she stopped drinking, she came to me, to my chair.

"She wants you," said Stacey, and I had a sense that she was right. I took the cat home, but with a plan to commence an all-out search for her owners pronto.

Postings around town--at the various shelters, animal rescue, and area vets and clinic--turned up no one in search of this animal. In the meantime, for everyone's safety, I had the cat checked out at Brighton Animal Hospital. They pronounced her female, healthy (though underweight), about a year or a year and a half old, and previously owned, as evidenced by her spaying scar. I had figured she'd had a home, given her familiarity with household plumbing. And I kept searching for it. But by the end of a week of trying to find that home and return her to it, I started hoping I wouldn't, that no one would call to claim her. I had fallen for this beauty, and I wanted her to stay. I got what I wanted.

She was "Kismet" for a few days, but the name didn't stick. It seemed too cutesy for this regal looking cat. Stacey voted for "Picasso," for her cubist-esque markings. I could see it. But she reminded me of Cleopatra for some reason. So I settled on "Cleo" because of that.

I had forgotten the Kismet part. It was opening her records to recheck the date of that first veterinary exam that reminded me. I had been thinking I miscalculated her birth date, that I'd gotten her age wrong--or the vet did: that she wasn't 17'ish at all. Plus, I have pictures of that "one-year-old" cat--one taken soon after she joined us on Noble Street by my then roommate, a professional photojournalist. Last week I met a two-year-old cat at the vet who looked younger than Cleo did when she came to me. The fact was, and is: they estimated Cleo's age. I carved it in stone, proceeding immediately to calculate an estimated birth date for her, the date we've marked every year for the past 16, in the same month that we mark Sylvie's (my other cat of the "same age"). The fact is, any reference to age or birth date on her papers since then--International travel documents, veterinary receipts, health record--all derive from that original "guestimate."

I look at this candid portrait of Julie's on my kitchen wall, and I think, "This is no one-year-old cat." So I'm thinking now that "my old girl" was older still than I've thought all along. That she died not at 17 but at 18 or 19--or who knows? Maybe even 20. That would mean she flew to Dublin and back, with seven (out of my 10+) months of Irish Life in between, not at 15 but at 16 or 17 or 18, which leaves me even more impressed with how relatively well she fared. I knew it would be tough on the cats--on all of us--bringing them. But I chose to do it just the same--Cleo, I distinctly remember, because I had thought there was a good chance it would be her last year and I didn't want to miss it.

It's good to revisit these details now. To recall the times she didn't come home for a night or two or three, and how it worried me. So many times, it could've ended there. Flyers and emails to to neighbors, my relief when she turned up at the door or in June's garage, and Cleo's relief at my finding her there, dusty and hungry and aching for the love and comfort of home.

Even recently she was mostly deaf: what was I thinking? when she stayed out for hours instead of her usual minutes, I anxiously searched and called for her (by the toy water whistle she could hear), until I remembered to dowse: no, she was not dead; yes, she would return in her own time. And that she did. More relief, more kissing of her head, more speaking what I must've spoken hundreds of times in 16 years: "I'm so glad you're here," because I was, from the bottom of my heart, I always was.

All those rescues and returns. Cleo Of Many Lives (apparently) always returned. I can say this unequivocally now. Even with our urban coyotes in the "'hood," one (at least) seen running off with a cat in its teeth, even with my letting the cats out after dark despite my mother's endless pleading that I keep them in ("I'd rather they have a short, happy life than a long, miserable one," I'd protest), she always returned.

It's a special relationship that develops with a rescued animal, especially one who had been mistreated--and it was evident early on that Cleo was such a one. She would cower if I moved a hand or an arm too quickly. It took her awhile--years, I think--for that reflex to subside, even though she knew I would not abuse her. I saved her, and she knew it. I could feel her gratitude for that. Still, it took her many years to learn to ask for love, even if she was always very happy to receive it.

And there is a unique quality to a relation-
--even a brief one, let alone 16 years of nights and days--with a creature who has been that close to death. All the days are a bonus with such a creature. Every day is a day that might not have been. At the many turns when I thought I had lost her (9 lives, nuthin': That cat had at least a dozen), when I thought the coyotes got her, that she would not return, there was always "the gravy factor," the fact of the 5 or 7 or 9 or 11 years that I had already had with her. It was all gravy, you see--all 16+ years with her, or so it felt, by the quality of the time, how it shimmered always with gratitude and fortune.

I watched sunrise from the cold vestibule of Lissenhall Veterinary Hospital, Swords, Co. Dublin, a year ago last November because I couldn't bear the cats spending a single minute longer than they had to in their Sky Kennels. Though I'd arrived with a different understanding, Lissenhall (I would learn after the cabbie reluctantly drove off leaving me and my luggage waiting in the dark at their door) opened at 8:30 a.m. Dublin time. I was banking on someone arriving even earlier than that, so I could come in out of the morning chill. I was glad to be let inside around 8, but not half as glad as when later I heard commotion out back--the cats, arriving!--and then some meowing. Cleo's voice she lived! which I rarely heard because she hardly ever said a peep.

They both lived. I don't think I've ever felt such joyful relief as I did when I paid my 400-odd euros and the cats were released to me at Lissenhall. I had been totally stressed out about their flying to Ireland and about how they'd adjust on the other end. But they'd made it, through about 14 hours in their kennels, through a stint at Cargo, through the rumble in the hold. But Cleo had had enough and wanted out, and she got that as soon as we set off in another cab for our new home in Dublin town. Only to crawl straight into my arms and stay there till we reached the apartment. I guess she was as relieved to see me as I was to see her, to see them.

It's the end of a story that completes its arc and reveals it. Without the end, there is only a beginning and a middle; the story's shape eludes us. The container is incomplete. It is like a vessel without a rim, a side, or a bottom. With all its parts in place, it rests, it contains.

It is only now that I see: Cleo did learn how to ask for love. I spent a lot of time on the couch this winter beside her "throne" as I'd come to call it, even moving my work there, thanks to the laptop, because she needed me to--she let me know that. Sometimes I would try to take breakfast by the lightbox at the dining room table, to get my wake-up dose of light, but being in her view, giving her my eyes, beaming her love from across the room wasn't enough. She would sit there, after her breakfast and a bit of washing (I think her arthritis precluded the all-out grooming sessions of less recent days) and cry for me. I learned by obliging that she wanted my hand, its gentle stroking, which would quite obviously soothe her and ease her eventually into a relaxed sleep. I provided this as often as I could. When I couldn't or wouldn't, feeling put upon or torn, with other demands pressing in, it wasn't without guilt or regret. Her world had become so small; this was the least I could do, was it not?

Then one day she dispensed with the couch, and took up a place on the floor. I tried to reproduce the throne down there. I bought her a "stamp pad" cat cushion, added a blanket, and other propping pillows. She loved it--right to the end--but it was harder for me to sit with her down there, to give her the attention, comfort and love that she needed and deserved. I'd already developed a tailbone problem (couches are not ergonomically designed for desk work, to say the least!). Working from the floor was not quite feasible, though I tried it. I made up the time with her however I could--even lying some nights on couch cushions beside her and falling to sleep while petting or treating her with Reiki, for example. But it wasn't enough.

Surely with precise foreknowledge of a final day, I would have come differently to her over those last months especially. But then, I'd been thinking for some time that Cleo was leaving, so I certainly wasn't oblivious to the possibility. I saw it coming; I just didn't know when. So why hadn't I been more patient with her, more giving, more...ready?

Perhaps this is a human phenomenon, not to see the true essence of a loved one's life story until the arc is complete, to remain blind or partially blind to it along the way. Or perhaps it's not a human phenomenon at all. Perhaps I simply haven't been as present with my loved ones as I have thought.

Thankfully, I was at least present enough not to miss the graces that attend the end of a life. I've twice now attended this transition from body to Spirit: the months then days then hours, minutes, seconds, the moment of passing, and then the seconds, minutes, hours, days, months that follow it. The moment my father's arc was complete, I saw his life before me "of a piece," and I saw only good--what a good man he was, which I found myself uttering aloud through my tears. I had not thought so all my life, but I saw I'd been sorely mistaken. My clear view was obscured as if by clouds that gather at a low altitude.

Similarly, it was only in Cleo's last hours that I saw how aptly she had been named. She was a Queen indeed. An enormous spirit "in a cat suit," as Stacey might say. An angel among us. And though I recognized her comely, dignified stature from the start, I knew her all her life as a cat--albeit a cat with a power to entrain, to open my heart just by mine being near hers. I've never experienced such an instant, physical connection, heart to heart. I would bring her close to my breast and -click- there it was. Every time. My heart would warm and bloom like a time-lapse flower opening to the light. For this I called her "my heart kitty."

Still, I treated her like a cat because she was a cat. But she was so much more than that. It must be that all clouds of unknowing clear for the spirit's return to Spirit. Because again, for the second time, I saw when her arc was complete that I had been mistaken.

My Angel Queen Cleo, sage teacher-healer, who traversed it all without a blemish, was an expert at Love. By the end of her time here, she had even mastered the art of asking for it. Still, all the while that I was focused on answering her, she was healing me, showing me to Love. And to think she chose me for this. We chose each other.

How well Love knew Its way with us.

Photo credit: B&W image is cropped reproduction of original J. Elman print


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