(I wrote this piece in 2016 for a Craft of Non-Fiction class in college and went back to edit and reformat it for this blog post 3 years later).
We have all, at least once in our lives, faced the struggle of trying to think of a gift idea for a friend for their upcoming birthday. Perhaps you haven’t known the person long enough for them to reveal their deepest interests. Or perhaps, the friend in question is the type of person that already owns all the things you could ever think to buy for them. When faced with this struggle, I often find myself searching Amazon for simple gifts no one could ever be unhappy receiving: shirts, mugs, snow globes. But more specifically: simple gifts involving said friend’s favorite animal.
Whatever the animal may be, chances are, there’s an adorable shirt, shot glass, hat, or mug with that animal on it bring sold somewhere on the internet. As for me, that would explain why my wardrobe is about 50% cat.
Most people that get to know me learn pretty quickly that cats are my favorite animal. Discovery of this information could be sparked by the picture of my cat on the lock screen of my phone. Or the cat I’m holding in my profile picture on Facebook. Regardless, most people that know anything about me know that I am a crazy cat lady in training.
My parents got divorced when I was about three, so I lived half the time at my mom’s, and half at my dad’s. Something that distinguished my mom’s house from my dad’s house throughout my childhood was the different cats at each house. My dad’s-house cats were Black Cat (or BC), and Myra.
My dad had found Myra in September of 1997 as a young, stray cat and took her in. I was very young at the time, and still living with my mom full-time after the two of them had split up. Myra was a beautiful, young tuxedo cat (a breed of cats that is inherently classy).
A little over a year later, in December of 1998, he found Black Cat: a skinny, starving cat behind a dumpster in the snow, maybe around a year old. My dad did not want to commit to adopting a second cat just yet, but with Sandy's coercion (I had not met her yet, but this is the woman that would eventually become my stepmom), they decided to take her in for the night. They decided to call her Black Cat for the time-being so not to get attached. The plan was to bring her to the shelter the next morning.
The next morning, they discovered that the shelter did not accept strays, and Black Cat found her new forever home – much to Myra's dismay.
When I was eventually introduced to Black Cat and Myra, I was about four. Like any young, excited child would do, I chased those poor cats around the house; my single objective in life: to pet them. Myra, however, had other plans. She quickly had me trained with bites and scratches that I was to remain at least 5-feet away at all times. The threat of getting swatted at remained just as effective even after she’d been declawed years later (a practice that my family hadn’t known to be inhumane at the time).
Black Cat on the other hand, was a different story. There was no place in my dad’s tiny apartment that she could go where I wouldn’t at least try to reach her. Finally, after following her around the house for what must have been hours, I finally had her cornered under a sofa. I quickly got down on my hands and knees and tried to peer into the dark abyss below the couch. Eventually, I gave up trying to make out her dark form and blindly reached my hand under, trying to overcome the fear of being scratched that Myra had instilled in me. Suddenly, I knew I was a goner. I realized that Black Cat had found my hand before I found her. I could see my fate as her paw moved quickly towards my hand. In a flash, her paw was on my hand. I closed my eyes and winced—but all I felt was the soft pads of her paw. I peeked down, only to discover that her claws were retracted. Despite her fear, she had no intention of hurting me, not even in self-defense. It felt nurturing: like a parent's gentle hand trying to teach their child.
Between my dad's guidance, and the different teaching methods of Black Cat and Myra, I quickly learned how to approach a cat with care, and Black Cat and I quickly became best friends. She would follow me around the house, hang out with my in my room while I did my homework all the way from Elementary School through Middle School.
Myra, however, took much longer to warm up to me. And by “much longer,” I mean the majority of my childhood. As a young girl, she never let me pet her. And because Myra tended to “bully” Black Cat, I also saw myself as Black Cat’s defender. Whenever Myra was swatting or hissing at Black Cat, I would make it my duty to run over and chase Myra away, which, of course, probably only fueled her dislike of me.
On what seemed like a typical night, Black Cat came to the foot of my bed. She had been getting weaker. At the age of fourteen, I didn’t think much of it when she seemed to struggle to jump onto my bed. I remember thinking I would help her exercise to get stronger, and lifted her onto my bed to go to sleep. She resumed her usual spot on the pillow on the left, while I curled up on the right and shut off the light.
I remember vividly when Sandy came to wake me up that morning. It was December 5th, 2009, and Sandy was waking me up early to take me Christmas shopping.
I woke up when she opened the door, but kept my eyes closed to savor my last few moments laying in bed. Half asleep, I heard her efforts to wake me, which was quickly replaced with a nervousness in her voice.
“Why isn’t she getting up…?”
I remember her telling me to stay there and that she’d be right back, unsure if I’d even woken up yet. It didn’t take me long to figure out what was going on. Tears were already streaming up when I sat up to confirm: I reached out to pet Black Cat, and she felt stiffer than I’d ever felt her. I buried my head in my pillow, pretending to still be asleep when Sandy returned with my dad. I was crying into my pillow and couldn’t raise my head. I could barely look up even as my dad carried my best friend away.
It wasn't my first experience with death, but it was certainly my first experience with a sudden death of someone I was close to. For those of you who have never had a bond with an animal this may sound dramatic, but that moment changed the way I looked at the world.
The years after BC passed away, Myra slowly—and I mean slowly—began opening up to me. I think it had something to do with the fact we were both getting older: Myra was becoming gentler, and I was becoming mature enough to know how to approach her. Over time, she would let me hold her (for short periods of time), and would sometimes even sit on my lap while I was watching TV, especially if I was underneath her favorite red blanket, or eating ice cream, which she always seemed to think was for her. I couldn't put a bowl of ice cream down for a second without her going at it.
It eventually became a habit of hers to sit on my chair beside me every night at dinner. The first few times she did it, she was after my food. Her favorites, besides ice cream, were Dominos pizza, and any seafood.
But eventually, she seemed to lose interest in the food and seemed to be more interested in peacefully sitting with the family while we all ate together.
When I was about 17, Myra was diagnosed with lymphoma. Despite the high costs, my dad decided to go through with the treatments. At first, we saw a huge improvement in her health. She began eating more, and could even muster up the strength to give an occasional swat if something displeased her. But the false hope that the treatments gave us were quickly shattered when the vet informed us that they were no longer effective.
A few months later, I went away to college. Myra hadn’t been doing well. When I left home, I feared that would be the last time I’d see her. When October came around, I took a short, three-day weekend as an opportunity to visit home. Before I’d even arrived home, my dad told me over the phone that Myra was going to be put down the following morning. I remember crying on the train ride home. I kept my face pressed against the window, hoping that would prevent anyone from noticing the tears (and probably makeup) streaming down my face.
I was incredibly grateful that Myra made it through October and that I could see her again, but devastated of the certainty of it: she would die tomorrow. When I saw her that night, she looked worse than she ever had: skin and bones, matted fur, motionless. The poor girl could barely raise herself from her bed. From what I’d heard from my family, she hadn’t moved much in days.
That night, I was eating dinner at my usual seat at the kitchen table. Myra was laying on her bed on the kitchen floor. Half way through my meal, Myra began to struggle to stand up. With the little strength she had, she made her way from her bed to the foot of my chair, and attempted to climb into her usual spot beside me.
With help, she sat beside me on my chair one last time while I (barely) ate my dinner.
That night, I was determined to sleep in the kitchen where Myra would be sleeping in her little bed (for some reason, she never much liked sleeping in my room). Instead of trying to convince me that I was being ridiculous, and that I should sleep in my own room, my brothers moved a mattress to the kitchen floor for me. I could barely sleep. Eventually, I did fall asleep, with Myra still resting on her bed.
When I woke up in the morning, I discovered Myra had moved onto the mattress beside me.
When morning came, there was no sense of hope in the air. Any remaining thoughts of she can still recover! were completely depleted. Part of me just wanted to get it over with—not because I wanted her to be gone, but because she was so weak, so tiny, so frail. The slightest movements seemed to cause her pain. When it came time to leave, I was the one that carried her to the car and held her in my lap in the back seat, with my dad and stepmom in the front.
Just as we were pulling into the local vet’s parking lot, Myra began to struggle frantically in my lap, using all of her strength to try to push herself up. It was more than she'd moved in days. There was a lot of commotion as I called out to my dad that I was struggling to hold onto her.
Until the struggle suddenly stopped. She made a horrible noise, unlike anything I’d heard before. And then she went completely still. I knew instantly what had happened. My brain couldn’t form words. By the tears streaming down my face in the rear-view mirror, my dad began to realize what had happened as well.
Myra had passed away in my lap while in the car to be put down.
Myra would do things her own way, until her very last moment.
When I think about the passing of these two cats, a lot of thoughts come to mind. First, the memory of the moment I discovered the loss—each completely different from the other: one completely unexpected, the other scheduled. One peaceful, the other in distress.
Second, the memory of who I was at the time of their deaths. Each death also caused for me a greater loss of innocence. Black Cat’s death was not the first death I’d ever faced. But her death was arguably the first death I’d faced while old enough to actually understand the permanence of death. Especially after Myra’s death, the insistence of “they’re in a better place now” wasn't really effective at consoling me anymore. Between the time that Black Cat died and the time that Myra died, my thoughts on an afterlife had changed from "maybe" to "probably not."
Admittedly, my memory is not that great. I can’t easily recall what I wore yesterday, and if I don’t write down all my commitments in my pocket calendar, I’m sure to forget something. But I can honestly say that these encounters with death are two of my most vivid memories. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to forget how stiff Black Cat looked when I woke up that morning in 2009, or the way Myra’s body shook in 2013 before she collapsed.
I'm not really sure how to conclude this. I could try to write about some sort of lesson I learned. But sometimes, maybe there isn't a lesson. But we can either look back on memories of lost loved ones with sadness, or we can be grateful that we were ever able to experience them. While I try to aim for the latter, I can't say I didn't cry while writing this. (And then again while editing it).