The old cat lady: on grief, and the love of an animal

Mat cried more than I had ever seen, that day. More than our wedding, or the birth of our son.

‘I found her’ he muttered ‘she’s dead.’

****

My parents-in-law, the adventurous type, took themselves on annual travels. This year they made plans for their longest and most intrepid excursion yet – seven weeks in and between China and Russia.

But there was the matter of their cat.

She was a crooked little thing, by that time. They weren’t the first to own her, and we counted backwards to figure that she was at least seventeen years old. A white tortoiseshell, now one-eared and ragged.

I had no time for cats. I didn’t understand them, and couldn’t see the point. And if I’m honest I was perhaps afraid of their propensity for solitude, and air of indifference, their swinging moods and scathing stares.

On that first afternoon, the cat hid under the living-room couch, before stalking disdainfully about the house and coming to a stop on the windowsill, searching fervently for sight of the car that had delivered her. I felt sad for her then, this old lady displaced. Left behind with us, who did not really want her, and our three-year-old son, who wanted her all too much.

I was pregnant again, I’d just discovered. Settling in for a winter close to home. I wanted my life and house in order. Tidy, neat and predictable, before it once again descended into noise, stink and chaos.

It was perhaps a by-product of pregnancy, or just the heartbreak of watching her constant vigil for someone that wasn’t going to come, that gave me pity for her. That evening, when I sat on the couch, she gingerly stepped down from the sill and positioned herself on my lap. I was tense, and so was she, but she fell into a purr, kneading her claws through my thin leggings to catch on my skin, leaving red welts that would itch through to the next day.

From then we couldn’t sit anywhere without being clambered onto. Next it was the kitchen chairs, where she would camp on our laps while we ate. Then the bedroom, which for a futile week or scarcely so, we had endeavoured to keep a cat-free zone. Quickly she took to burrowing in under the quilt, to rest behind the bend of my knee, or stretch out on top of me – nose to my chin.

The larger my belly grew, the more she gravitated towards me. Perhaps I was just the warmest, or the most obliging. Doctors, midwives and my mother all warned me to stay clear of her litter tray, frowned at her presence and asked my assurance she’d be gone back home by the time the baby arrived. But quietly I began to enjoy her presence – the warm, vibrating fixture resting on my stomach, mirroring the small, fluttering one within it. She was all calmness and warmth. When my parents-in-law returned from their travels we extended the stay.

‘Just one more week’ we’d all say, week after next.

As winter leaned towards spring, the cat began to wither. Her frame seemed ever-more slight and her fur was receding in haste around her face, ears and haunches. Great fluffs of it billowed on the floor and gathered at her favourite couch spots. In our focus for preparation for new life this decline took a back seat. When she refused her breakfast two days in a row, we set to worry.

She was in excellent shape, for her age, the vet told us, but the cancer that had claimed her first ear years ago was at work again. This accounted for the loss of appetite, the loss of condition and would continue, most probably, to worsen.

‘You’ll know’, she said softly ‘when it’s time.’

And though I knew what she meant, I didn’t know that I would. How do you coddle a seventeen-year old cat? I wasn’t sure, but let her rest on my lap through dinner, stroking her bony spine without pause, though tufts of hair drifted up towards my plate.

***

Every day now, I scrutinized her behavior, in an effort to make some call on her quality of life. She became stiff in her movement, and more gaunt. She began to lose her balance, falling off the windowsill and slipping into the bathtub – but despite these indignities her days retained a pleasant pattern. She would sit in the sun, in the grass of our garden, surveying the bees and monitoring my trips to the clothesline, or were the weather cold and dreary she would hide in a cave of the quilt on the bed. And every day she struggled onto the round of my belly, where she would lie, eyes half closed in pleasure, paws spread like the grand sphinx, purring and purring.

Unlike mothering, this was a simple love; happily unexamined and free of doubt. I hoped someone (my husband, my son?) would give me something so simple when I was that old. Affection and dedication as routine as meals and sleep.

***

The days grew hotter. I sweat and became easily dizzy. Perhaps it was because she was losing her fur, and therefore not regulating her temperature, or perhaps she was senile, but the cat continued to sit outdoors all day, in the sun and dry wind. I tried to coax her back, would carry her back into the shade of the house, but again out she’d rush. Then instead I would bring her bowls of cool water, and place then within easy reach for the duration of her stubborn reverie.

We were so distracted now – assembling cot and change table, washing tiny clothes, meeting with midwives. The baby grew stronger, my belly larger and the cat more frail. We spoke about going back to the vet – was it time? In these weeks I was sometimes overcome by stress and frustration, emotion close to the surface, and the cat would come right away, right up into my face, amidst the tears and the snot with her wet chin and rattly breath. Selfishly I needed her.

The last time she clambered onto my lap I was struggling to lift my huge form off the couch and tackle my growing list of things that needed doing. I tried to place her away from me, but she was stubborn and I relented.

‘Just sit’, I thought, ‘just sit a minute’.

She settled into her favoured position and I searched for a part of her that wasn’t balding and scabby from scratching, or knobbly with bone. The bridge of her pink nose was still velvet soft. I stroked it, my mind pleasantly blank, while her eyes fluttered with pleasure and her purring resonated through the drum of my belly.

‘I love you’, I whispered.

Her yellow eyes, though ghosted with cataracts, gazed into mine. I stayed and stayed, and day became dusk, before the demands on me called louder.

Her final day was another hot one. She had found a new sitting spot in the long grass near the wheelie bins out the front of the house. Looking out the window during the day I noted the curl of her small white form, thankfully in shade. I was 39 weeks pregnant, flitting restlessly about the house. I didn’t think to check on her again, or to take her out a drink of water. Late in the afternoon I waited for the yowl at the screen door, announcing her return for dinner, and was still waiting in the evening when Mat got home.

What he found of her, tucked away further down the block, was pitiful. Nature had already begun making quick work. So ragged she was; so deflated and void.

We had to move fast, if we didn’t want our son to see her in this way. He took a spade and a black plastic garbage bag, but that would never do, so I fetched a fresh laundered muslin that was ready for the baby.

In the back corner of the yard Mat dug and dug in the afternoon heat, in the hard clay soil, sweating and choking sobs all the while. Not far down we found a burial of asbestos from a long-gone garden shed. He moved a foot over and started over again.

Then the clods were replaced, dropping with thuds over her stiff swaddled form and we cried each other’s shirts wet, clinging on tight to the evening birdsong and drone of lawnmowers, my tumbling belly in between. A week before a new birth, we set off back into the house, to our son, to try and find some words for death.

Image: Tony

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Yolande Norris is a writer and producer based in Braidwood, NSW. A graduate from the Australian National University School of Art she has worked with a diverse range of arts organisations, including the National Gallery of Australia, Gorman House Arts Centre and Canberra Contemporary Art Space. Her work extends into festivals, including roles as co-director of Critical Animals at This Is Not Art, and as a founding producer of You Are Here, an annual cross-arts festival in Canberra. Most recently Yolande worked as a producer with Big hART, Australia’s leading arts and social change company, on their national suite of projects. Yolande writes poetry, memoir and essays and commentary on arts, culture, social history and identity for a range of publications and platforms.

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