The winter I am six years old, I meet a cat. She will determine the shape of my life, but of course I don’t know this yet. She is standing atop a fence in three inches of snow. In my amazement, I drop the snowball in my mittened hands. My plans for a snowman are forgotten.
She is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
Her green eyes stare down into my brown ones, and she judges me with the mercilessness of god. She assesses whether I am good and if I am trustworthy. I know I cluck my tongue at her. I know eventually she must have come down. But this is what I remember: the air smelling of ice and woodsmoke, and a white cat in the snow against a silver sky.
* * *
I never think of her as mine in the way I might think of a toaster or a coat as being mine. I only think of her as mine in the way my friends are mine. They don’t belong to me. They belong with me.
It is strange, this idea that you can own a living thing.
* * *
My mother brings food that first day, and the cat eats and leaves. But she comes back. She always comes back. One day, she stays. We try different names. My mother decides on Snowball, on account of her color.
I call her Kitty because it’s what she answers to.
Kitty is a good hunter. We can only conclude that she has been on her own for some time. At my seventh birthday party, Kitty watches the children parade through my living room, the offering and opening of gifts.
She scratches at the door to be let out during a game of charades. While we are still playing, she returns. She drops a dead robin at the back door, and my friends scream. I look down at her through the glass. She looks up at me, and I know it is a gift.
* * *
That spring she gives birth during a dust storm. My mother lays old towels in a wooden swing we have discarded on the back patio, and Kitty gives birth there as the dirt swirls and darkens the street lamps and fogs the roads. I can barely see her on the patio, even with the porch light on. But in the morning, after the storm, she lies there peacefully nursing five kittens. My parents give four away. But no one wants the last one, the white one.
My mother decides to keep him. She calls him Snowflake.
My parents finally take Kitty to the vet and have her spayed.
* * *
When I am seven and we move west to the Seattle suburbs, my parents let her outside our first day in the new apartment. That night she doesn’t come home. She doesn’t come home the next night, either. Or the night after that. Or the night after that.
A week goes by.
“We’ll find her,” my mother says as we stand at the back window overlooking a field flanked on one side by a deciduous wood thick with blackberry brambles and a forest on the other. The forest stretches as far as I can see.
Another week goes by. I call for her every night at the back door. She doesn’t come.
One morning, we see a coyote in the field. It trots back into the forest as the sun rises.
Another week goes by. My family takes a walk through the deciduous wood, following the gravel trail. As we turn back home, something white flashes across the path ahead of us.
She is thin and ragged-looking, but she is alive. My mother and I coax her home. We feed her.
“It’s a miracle,” my mother says.
A miracle, yes, but I know we are also lucky. I know she is alive only because she could hunt for birds in the brambles. Everyone else in the family has complained about her wildness, her unaffectionate nature. My brother tormented her when he was younger, building her into caverns with his blocks and waiting for her to try to get out so that it would collapse on her. Getting in her face and playing chicken with her. As a child, his cheeks and arms were dotted with puncture wounds and scratches, scabs where she had clawed him.
She has never clawed me. She is nothing but purrs with me, eyes closed in trust. But I know her wildness, her half-feral nature. I’ve seen it. And I know it saved her.
All I can feel is grateful.
* * *
Kitty has never wanted much to do with the rest of the family, but after that, she is done with them. She scowls at them from under the dining table or the corners where she sits. But me, she follows everywhere. She doesn’t want me out of her sight. She strolls up to me and gently butts me with the top of her head, purring. I bend down and touch my head to hers. We stay like that sometimes for long minutes, happy minutes of peace and comfort and family.
There are no hugs in my home. No pats on the back. No squeeze of the shoulders when someone is overcome with affection. We do not hold hands. We don’t rest heads on shoulders. We don’t fold arms around other bodies. Touch is not a language we speak.
Kitty teaches me. She nuzzles me awake some mornings. This is love, she says to me as she leans against me. This is being loved, she says as she purrs under my hand. This is how it feels.
* * *
I am 15, and Kitty is dying. Her fur is oily from her inability to bathe herself. She smells sour, like rotten fish.
Because she cannot bathe herself, her son Snowflake bathes her, licking away the grease on her fur while she stares wearily at nothing.
I don’t know what to do. I fold a towel and place it near the floor vent for her, so she can sleep near the heat. I spend extra time with her. But I know nothing about pet care. We don’t have a brush. I don’t know to brush cats. I don’t know to take her to the vet. I have been raised in a home characterized by, at its best, benign neglect.
I am making a poster for a chemistry project on nickel, sitting cross-legged on the floor and gluing nickels to poster board. Kitty walks up to me, and I pet her. She crawls slowly, gingerly into my lap and eases herself onto my legs.
My skin prickles. We often cuddle, but she has never sat on me before. No one has ever sat on me before. I am unaccustomed to touch, but the weight of a body on my body is almost impossible for me to bear.
I don’t know what I am feeling. Fear? Tenderness? Panic? Love? I only know that the feelings are too much, and I can hardly breathe for the swelling in my chest. There isn’t room inside me for so much feeling.
But Kitty nestles in and falls asleep. I take another nickel and dot it with glue and fasten it to the poster and pretend my heart is not bursting open, a flower budding in rapid time-lapse.
* * *
Kitty becomes incontinent. She cannot control where and when she pees, and my father banishes her outdoors every night before bedtime.
It is winter, and there is snow on the ground. I plead with him every night. We can shut her in the bathroom. We can get a litter box for her. We can put her in the bathtub. She’s too weak to climb out of the bathtub on her own.
Every night he refuses. Every night she stands under my window and cries, and I cry with her in my room, frightened of my father, horrified at his cruelty, not knowing how to save her. She has stood by me all these years, trusted me alone.
Now, I fail her.
* * *
On the night she will die, I know. I know it the way you know when a skein of love is knit tight between two souls. Pluck one end, and the other feels it. My body is attuned to her body, and I feel the half of me that is Kitty slipping into darkness.
I carry her to the towel beside the heating vent and nuzzle her and pet her and ignore the stench of sour fish. She has loved me so well, so faithfully, so much more than I thought anyone or anything could ever love me. She doesn’t deserve this. I kiss her. I bend over her and whisper into her ear. You are everything. You are a blessing. You are love itself, and I will always love you.
My father yells at me for it. Stop stalling. He shouts at me. She’s going outside one way or another. You’re not getting your way on this, and delaying it won’t help you.
He looks like he could hit me again. Like he wants to hit me again. And for the first time in years, I could not care less. I stand up, placing my body between him and Kitty. She is going to die tonight, I say, and he scoffs. I need to say goodbye. So you can wait. And if you cared at all, you’d let her stay inside. You’d let her die here.
He tells me to hurry it up.
After I have said goodbye, after I have nuzzled and petted and massaged her until she has closed her eyes and purred a little and had one last moment of peace, of comfort, of certain love, he carries her to the front door and drops her unceremoniously on the porch.
That night she dies the way she came to me. Alone in the snow.
I hope she knows that this time, she was not unloved.
* * *
The next night we bury her in a cardboard box beneath a cedar tree where she and I used to sit in the spring. No one has much to say about it. They didn’t love her because she didn’t love them.
After we have heaped earth over the cardboard, my parents and brother head back down to the house.
They don’t understand that love is not like that. Love is not selfish. It is not a transaction. Love leaks out of us the way trees breathe oxygen into the air. The way birds sing. Because you cannot help it. And when you are very lucky, someone loves you back. That is all. Kitty knew that. Kitty taught me that. I stand alone under the cedars and weep inconsolably in the darkness.
* * *
I still cannot make sense of the cruelty twenty-two years later. My parents took good care of Snowflake and, when the time came a few years later, they gave him a gentle death on the vet’s table. I went to see what it should have looked like for Kitty. The injection. The quieting. The stillness. In a warm room. Surrounded by those who loved him.
There had been plenty of money. The year before Kitty’s death, my father flew us to Disneyland where we stayed at the Disneyland Hotel and ate at Disney establishments, no expense spared. The year after her death, he bought himself a Ford Probe with its leather-wrapped steering wheel and surround sound system.
The truth was I had put Kitty in danger by loving her so much. We had loved each other, but we were both at the mercy of an abusive man. And it taught me to guard my feelings, to never again let my father see what I loved because he might try to take it away. To use it to hurt me.
According to the Humane Society, 71% to 83% of domestic abuse cases involve the neglect and abuse of animals. It is true what they say. Nothing new under the sun.
* * *
Now I am 37. I have my own white cat, inherited through marriage. Luna. She, too, has a history of abandonment and abuse. She distrusts people. Josh and I think she is 15 years old. We aren’t sure. She, too, follows me everywhere. She, too, crawls sometimes into my lap or onto my bed. This time it is easier. I can stand it. I smile down at her and watch her fall asleep.
I know it won’t be much longer. The fur on her face is thinning. She hardly plays anymore. She walks more slowly. Two or three years on the outside. Her kidneys aren’t good.
Death is not something we like thinking about. The permanence of it is the hardest part. We prefer avoidance. Bargaining. Delays. The now in which we exist, preferable to the tomorrow in which we will not.
But in my wallet, I carry the card of a vet who makes house calls. A vet who will euthanize a dying pet at home. So when the time comes, I can give Luna something better than Kitty had. A good death. A death surrounded by warmth and family, without undue terror or discomfort. I wish all creatures, every one of us, could have such a death. But that isn’t the way of things. Still, Luna is under my care. She is my responsibility. And if I must be responsible for a death, I will make it a good one. A better one.
A humane one.
Just a little kindness.
There is so much suffering.
So needless, so much of it.
Just a little kindness, and the world could be different. It could be a world where pets do not die out in the cold and where children are not left alone and helpless in the face of such cruelty.
It doesn’t have to be this way.