Note: Originally posted on October 21, 2015
Today I would like to tell you a story. It’s a true story, and a recent one.
You see, one week ago as I write this, I wound up with some family. It was trash day at the bar where I work, so I was out back consolidating the recycling before I put it to the curb. Finished with that, I turned to the trash cans themselves and let out a holler.
For a split second, I thought there was a raccoon sitting atop one of the cans. Those things are vicious. But no, this was a small, grey and black cat, a kitten, really, with white “socks.” She stared at me wide-eyed for a moment and then started walking away like she knew when she wasn’t wanted.
However, I’m a cat person, so in order to make up for my offense, I came closer and made the universal cat-calling click with my tongue, and, somewhat to my surprise—I had seen her in the back yard before, and she’d always been aloof—she came running back along the cans to me to eagerly accept some petting.
After that, she followed me around the back yard. Every now and then I would reach down to scratch her ears, and she’d raise up on her hind legs to bring her head to my hand a little quicker.
I got back to work cleaning up the place, but it took me a bit longer than usual, since instead of smoke breaks I took cat breaks. Every time I went or even looked outside, she was sitting there waiting for me on one of the chairs we keep back there.
She let me rub her belly; for my non-cat-person readers, I should explain that this is a sign of complete trust from a cat. Not that she had much belly to speak of; she was basically a spine with fur, so I poured her a little half-and-half in a cup for some clearly-needed nutrition. She had, surprisingly, no fleas and a very healthy coat of fur. I would scoop her up and hold her against my shoulder, she’d wriggle around and bonk her head into my hand any time I stopped petting her. She kept crawling up to sit on my shoulder like I was some sort of deranged pirate. (This is one of my favorite things for a kitten to do, by the way.) At one point she turned and started licking my arm, grooming me like I was a fellow cat. Again, for non cat people, this is a sign of complete love from a cat.
I realized at this point that I had a little furbaby. This was a little problematic, as I am not allowed pets where I live, but I knew in my heart I couldn’t let this kitten go. I’d figure something out.
I decided to name her “Sully.” My friend Kayla had already rescued a kitten from the same backyard a couple months before this, and was originally going to name him “Gilbert,” (she later changed her mind and called him “Tyrion,” apparently an obscure reference to some TV show or other—) so since my new friend seemed to be from the same litter, I thought “Sullivan” was a good handle for her. Sully for short.
I peeked out the back window at her a while later, and she lit right up when she noticed me; bounced off the chair, off the ground, onto the table where we keep the recycling bins, put her nose up to the glass and started gently batting at me with her paw, meowing all the way. Heartbreaking.
A walk down to the local mom-and-pop got her a tin of moist cat food. I realized that she’d been abandoned, because she knew exactly what that sound meant when I opened the tin, and came rocketing over to my ankles to start devouring.
The next day, she was still waiting for me out back. Basically a repeat of the first day, and this time my friend Holly (who is also my employer) got to meet her. She let out the same holler I had, because Sully was right on the table next to the back door, and meowed hello as soon as that back door opened.
We took a few pictures to post on Facebook, to try and find Sully a new home. She got another tin of cat food, which she didn’t seem as enthusiastic about, but then again it was a different flavor, so I didn’t think much of it.
Kayla came by for my shift that night specifically to see Sully, and at 3 AM we went out back to see if she was there. After a minute or so of chatting, Sully heard my voice and trotted blearily out to greet us. She was sitting on my shoulder again when Kayla scratched her behind the ears and warned me that stray cats are prone to feline leukemia.
Sully hissed. It was the first and only time I ever heard an unhappy sound out of that cat. Then she leaned her head in for more scratching.
Well, Kayla was hooked; she wanted to rescue this one as well, but for reasons I won’t go into here couldn’t take her immediately. It was arranged that I could take care of Sully in the storage areas upstairs at the bar for a couple of weeks—an old building needs a cat anyway—and this was a profound relief to me with the first snowfall on the way. The thought of my furbaby freezing was unbearable.
So the next day I was particularly happy to see Sully, who seemed less bouncy somehow, and after I finished my work, I told her I had very good news for her, and brought her upstairs. She was very interested, especially after being denied entry the previous couple days, and I plunked her down in a little bed I’d made for her out of a cardboard box. She bounced right back out of it and took a few bites of cat food. She wasn’t as curious as the proverbial cat is supposed to be; didn’t explore much, just sat in the hall. I showed her where her litter box was—twice, just to be sure—and then we sat on the floor in her room, Sully enjoying the attention before curling up in my lap for a nap.
We stayed like this for an hour, Holly occasionally poking her head in to remark “That cat loves you!”
I was aware. I loved Sully back, and it was a very good feeling.
Eventually I had to go, so I tucked Sully in to her little bed. Yet another friend, Mike, our building manager, added some unused promotional T-shirts to the box for some extra bedding, and upon hearing a contented sigh, I knew my cat would be happy.
The next day I showed up early, ready to spend an hour or so showing her some love before I started working. I savored the anticipation, expecting her meow as I opened the door to the hall.
Nothing. Perhaps she’s asleep.
And then all the sound in the world just stopped. She would never bonk her head into my hand again.
I will never know why she died; there are many possibilities, and without an autopsy, no way to select just one. She hadn’t touched her food or her water again after I left, never used the litter box. Those are the only indications I have.
It took me about two hours to go through almost all of the stages of grief, starting with denial: I was sure she was still breathing, only having a deep nap outside of her bed for some reason, or maybe no reason, that’s just what cats do—
The denial didn’t last long. On my way downstairs to get the things I’d need to clean up, I sat down on the top step and wondered to myself why I wasn’t feeling anything. I should feel something, as attached as I was to that cat, and I had a vague worry that I had become a sociopath, but that worry was laid to rest when I came back into Sully’s room.
I wept. I let out such unrestrained sobs as I’ve not done since I was three and every pain, physical and emotional, was the end of the world. I could not have cried any harder if I had lived with this cat for ten years. I may have dehydrated myself.
Of course I did; Sully had, for perhaps the first time ever in my life, made me feel loved absolutely and in particular. I loved her right back, absolutely and in particular.
And she was gone.
I sobbed at her, telling her how sorry I was, stroked her back a few times before I covered her in plastic and laid her to rest in her little bed. Covered her over with one of the T-shirts and taped the box shut.
It was a little big for a cat coffin, but dammit, it was hers and she was going to keep it.
I bore her solemnly back the way I’d brought her in, and set her down on her favorite chair out back. At this point Mike came in to prepare for a meeting with a contractor, and gave me his shoulder to cry on.
Digging a grave is, I discovered, very therapeutic. It gives you a purpose, somewhere to put your energy, a last service for the departed. I picked a shady spot away from the building and, after a final blessing, there she will stay.
I am no stranger to death; however, this is the first time I have ever had to bury a little piece of myself. I’m not sure if that makes me lucky or not.
Now, I said that I had gone through almost all of the stages of grief in two hours. The one that eluded me came, mercifully, the next day. I’d managed to hold it together for most of the day, though I really shouldn’t have watched that “Lassie” movie with my sainted Irish mother. Broke down again in the shower that evening, and then I set to my usual meditation.
Say what you like, scoff if you must, but I will swear on anything you care to put in front of me that Sully was there with me. I felt her put her paws on my shoulder and nuzzle my cheek, a kitty hug. I felt her gratitude.
The final stage of grief is acceptance. After that, while there will always be a cat-shaped hole in my heart, I could accept her passing. More than that, I could finally accept what my friends had been telling me to try and make me feel better: that I had, in fact, done what I could, more than most people would have, certainly more than whoever tossed her out a window to begin with, and that those three days were probably the happiest of that cat’s short life. I can take comfort in that, at least, even though it’s not as good as scratching an actual cat behind the ears.
I wasn’t quite done crying about it; the underside of my nose is still chafed. But now I know that when I feel like crying, I’m really just feeling sorry for myself.
I’m entitled to a little of that. You don’t lose something this good without feeling sorry for yourself.
I’ve written this mainly for closure. However, I’ve categorized it under “Sermons,” so I will say this: go back and read the part about me weeping. If you take nothing else away from this, take the fact that it is OK to cry. There is a certain stigma to it which is utter nonsense, and I know people who do damage to themselves by holding it in rather than letting it out. People, we are designed to cry. It helps, physically and emotionally. It makes you feel better. The sooner you let it out, the sooner you can adjust.
Here, I am openly weeping in front of the entire world. You can cry in front of a few people. Chances are, they don’t think less of you. And if they do, find other people to be around, ones that are less terrible.
And always remember that acceptance is possible. Your method may not match mine, but if I can do it, so can you.