Tail Mustache

long post, but not twelve years long

Dad has put up both the bird feeders he got for his birthday (one’s a hummingbird feeder right outside the living room, and the other is a regular wood feeder for robins and such).  So when I bring my cat down she sits on the windowsill and tries to “catch” these birds from inside the house.  The double-paned storm windows that she continually bashes her thick little head into don’t seem to dampen her enthusiasm.  Everyone laughs at her, especially Billy [my brother], who resents how old and fat she makes Puma [Billy’s cat] look in comparison.  I have to admit she isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, that’s for sure.  Although to give her credit she is excellent at catching the flies in the house.  She catches one, releases it, catches, releases, etc. until she can manage to get a claw hooked in the curtains, at which point she decides to “kill” that too.

– letter to my sister Juliet, May 27, 1998

The other day Sophie [age 4] wrote this on the computer: “Sophie Daddy Mama Nels loves Blackie so much.”

– blog entry, November 14, 2006

The last couple weeks I’ve especially enjoyed the companionship of Blackie (we also call her Blackstone), my eldest kitty.  A svelte 7.5 pounds, a tiny little inky-black creature with a white bellypatch, in our new house she comes and finds me while I read or knit and sits either above me on the top of the couch, or just behind me on the floor.  She doesn’t sprawl, but pulls herself into a tiny ball, her paws and tail tucked.  Just thinking about my nearness she begins to purr loudly; it takes others considerable effort to incite that response.  I laugh because her purr is kind of rumbly and junky; it reminds me of when she was younger and would climb on my lap and begin to knead my chest.  The motion was always awkward and snappy and she had a look in her eye like it was not her but her cyborg arms doing the work; she didn’t know how it was happening.

Blackie came to me my junior year of college.  I was having a bad year.  I’d been left by my closest friends, had a bad breakup then a not-so-bad breakup in recent months.  School was hard yet boring; I was a lonely, crummy person and not a good friend to much of anyone.  My roommate J. brought the cat to our apartment one night, then left – J. was never home but stayed with her boyfriend across the city.  The cat hadn’t been especially cared for when she came into our apartment.  She’d been moved from an apartment full of young people to someone’s parents’ house; she came with a rather unfortunate name referencing drug-use since her original owners used to blow pot smoke or whatever in her face (I couldn’t bear to call her by this name but never did name her; the unfortunate and unimaginative “Blackie” was the result of my indecision).  She was a tiny, fearful little thing that hid under my bed and wouldn’t be cajoled out.

It wasn’t my cat and I didn’t give much of a damn about it at first.  I found the creature amusing, and silly, because it was so fearful and unappealing.  She seemed to not have the slightest bit of affection or grace.  She was unique in that most non-feral cats, especially young ones, will quickly seek out food and love and companionship; not so for this one.  She was like a solid, cold, shiny lump of dread and loathing.

I can’t remember how long it took her to begin venturing out from my bed.  But by the time my mother visited me a few weeks later, the cat had somehow attached to me.  I showed my mom a trick; I’d acquired a produce box with holes in it which I would lay on its side.  The creature would inevitably find the box irresistible and creep inside; then I would dangle a feather on a string just outside these holes.  My mom stared, dismayed, at the inky black paw with the abnormally-large gleaming white claws that snaked viciously out of the hole in the box and batted repeatedly and cruelly at the feather.  My mom tried to think of something nice to say and faltered.

But I do admit, the cat became an important companion.  She made me laugh, a lot of the time.  Her litterbox was in my bathroom; she’d wait until I returned home before she’d go in and scratch at her box while I washed my face.  I laughed at this because it seemed so ungainly and contrary to the desire for privacy I thought cats naturally had. I gained comfort in caring for her; I fed her oily tuna mixed with egg and vitamins and cream (my father, hearing about this, called the concoction “Powerball”) and I’d turn off the bathroom humidifier the minute I reasonably could, because I knew it made her uncomfortable.

Soon the cat liked me enough I felt it wasn’t right to leave her alone for the weekends.  I decided it would be best if I took her with me when I went to my parents’.  I did this with J.’s permission; during one such discussion (I felt guilty taking custody of someone else’s cat, even an owner often absent) it became apparent Hey, free cat if you want it.  And so I became Blackie’s “owner”, although that doesn’t fit.  In truth she became my familiar and longtime companion through my life’s many adventures to come.

While I attended the University of Washington in Seattle for the next year and a half she lived in apartments on busy streets with as much self-sufficient aplomb as she’d display in every other scenario I can think of.  I let her outside and she never found trouble; or if she did, she escaped it unscathed.  I used to take her in my backpack when I’d go catch a bus or visit a friend.  I remember talking to a woman as I walked across the UW campus and I mentioned I had my cat in my schoolbag and the woman smiled thinly and stepped back – because I was lying, or weird, or both.  Blackie didn’t soil the backpack (I would come to believe this would be true of any cat, but it’s not, ask me how I know this) and although I don’t think she enjoyed it exactly, she settled in, just as she always had.  She rode in backpacks and on my lap in cars.  One time I went to a houseparty in Montesano late at night, on my way back to Seattle. Trusting her, I let her roam outside while I visited friends; two hours later she came back when called, and we continued on our way. One time she got out of my car on the Ave in Seattle and slunk under parked cars while I tried to be calm and worked at catching her. Eventually two transients stopped and helped me corral her to safety – this was after many, many students and clean-looking “decent” people walked by, pretending not to notice our plight.

The first birthday I shared with this cat was my twenty-first; months after that I began dating Ralph.  My new boyfriend liked my kitty; I remember in July that year (1998) I made him a birthday card with her silhouette.  She became a source of constant joy and, it must be said, mockery, for the rest of our time together; she was my family and later, his.  I moved to Port Townsend upon graduation and lived in a house-share.  The boyfriend became husband and soon after we had babies.  Throughout these most important events in my life, Blackie was constant.  She was never a problem with infants or moving or other pets (although she profoundly disliked the latter). She has been, throughout all situations, tidy and prepossessing, and most loyal to me.

She has never been any trouble at all.

My cat is old now – we estimate fourteen.  She is a bit creaky and arthritic and over the years has shrunk even smaller than her original eight-plus pounds – back when she was a young lass ably catching flies on the windowsill.  Even so, in examining her last Wednesday it seemed to me she’d lost weight that couldn’t be merely age-related; Friday we had in her into the vet in what resulted in a series of tests (a “cat” scan – actually a double x-ray, plus bloodwork, ultrasound).  We discovered that under her winter coat her weight, shockingly, had dropped to 5.25 pounds.  Despite this, and a weakened condition and high respiratory rate, the vet told me they had trouble restraining her for nail clipping.  A little fighter.  When they brought her back to me she again started purring at the sight of me.

Sunday I found out Blackie has cancer with no hope of treatment.  But I didn’t know this when I went home Friday.  We had a steep vet bill and medications and fancy cat food ($27 for 5 lbs.!) and all of that, even though she was so thin and breathing in an alarming way, meant that we’d get on top of this thing and she’d live out a long(er) natural life.  And I was only a tiny bit troubled that Friday night after frowning over the x-ray the doctor said, “We’ll review this and call you tomorrow”, even though I am no stranger to cancer and I know what these kind of things usually mean.  I was in a fantasy of health and healing, things I am good at and have had success with thus far; I pet her and fed her and dosed her.

And then Sunday we got the call and the doctor said all this stuff about “rule outs” and “prognosis” and “severe lung pathology” and just like that, once again, someone is taken from me with my pre-awareness.

Sunday night I was picking up more medicines – including painkillers – and since that evening I’ve been watching her decline with that feeling of agonizing hopelessness, regret, and yes, guilt. Yet she is still constant.  I bring her food and water and I give her love and she still purrs when I touch her.

This little feline has lived with me in nine houses, in three cities, for twelve years.  She’s survived two cats that were adopted after her; she’s learned to love my children (with wariness).  Her health has been stellar up until this final blow; besides vaccines and one deworming pill she’s had no medical issues or ill-health besides a cold now and then.  Last year, as part of her geriatric exam, she was given a full blood workup – the same tests done a few days ago – and showed great health for her age.  And I guess I really just thought we’d  have more time together.

People think dogs alone are faithful of the small domesticated animals, but my kitty has changed my perception on that.  She has never wandered off nor left me; even in a hellish house-share in Port Townsend with a vicious un-neutered male dog (part German Shepherd, part grizzly bear) that relentlessly chased her with the intent of felicide.  Blackie moved out to the back shed and waited – for three weeks.  She wouldn’t come near the horrible dog (quite sensibly) but wouldn’t leave me, either.  Over the years her record at loyalty, toughness, independence and fidelity would remain untarnished.

So we’ve spent about $337 dollars on the cat in the last few days, but it was the last $40 that was the hardest.  This is the amount of money I’ve spent on pain medication and (futile) lungworm medicine.  The fancy bag of expensive cat-food I’d been complaining (boasting) about, she no longer eats.  I find myself resentful of my two young, very healthy cats.  They offer no comfort and seem, in their glowing health, to be taking her life force.  In effect, I currently feel about them like a lot of people feel about cats: disinterest and mild dislike. I know this will pass.

And let me just skip the part where nursing my cat’s ailment of lung cancer is a lot like the way nursing my father was, dying the same way. I won’t go into that.

Last night she left her heater and food and water in the living room and joined me in bed, huddled up on my pillow like she has done so many nights before.  She is uninterested at finding the litter box, so in the morning I found a mess on the pillow, which she’d politely at least kept from me.  I cleaned the mess and brought her food and water and pain medication and my affection.  Soon, after all these years, I will decide it is time to have her euthanized.

Very soon we will be saying goodbye.

Wherein I Make A Mustache From My Felines Tail
Wherein I Make A Mustache From My Feline's Tail

My Blackie Kitty is doing well.  The other night I was at a friend’s house with a few people and I started badmouthing my cat, all telling funny stories about how stupid she is, and my friend Ralph pipes up, “Yeah Kelly, you really hate your cat.  Every time I’m over as soon as she meows you jump up and get her food.  And it’s usually food out of the fridge, like fresh tuna!”

– letter to my sister Juliet, Thursday, July 2, 1998

In her old age and with the cold winter Blackie has let go her snobbishness and her anger (at the world) for allowing a new kitten into our home; in the morning she is minutely hunched just to my left, sleeping silently and leaving a mat of black cat hair such that each morning she sleeps with us I have to clean the bedclothes.

– blog entry, February 2nd, 2008

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