My cat died today.
Mao, daughter of Bubeleh, left this world at 6:30pm on June 15, 2005. She died in my arms, purring, as peaceful as she could be, given the circumstances. And now my heart is broken.
My girlfriend, Helene, and I adopted Mao’s mother, Bubeleh, from the animal shelter in Tallahassee, Florida. She was pregnant when we got her. We were delighted to take not just one cat but a momma with new kittens into our home. For two weeks Bubeleh grew accustomed to her new house, and on March 2, 1991 when I came home from work I found her in the closet, preparing to give birth. Mao came out first, a big beautiful kitten. She was mostly tabby striped, except for large white patches. Her face was mostly white, except for tabby stripes near the eyes and the top of her head. Her little eyes were shut tight, but they would later prove to be a gorgeous yellow-green, like some kind of glittering lichen.
About three weeks after she was born, Helene and I were getting ready to leave the house when something terrible happened. I had just put my work boots on and was trying to make my way through our tiny apartment to the front door when Mao burst out of her hiding place to leap at my foot. My other foot was already coming down, I couldn’t stop it, and I stepped on her tiny head. She immediately began having a seizure, and I panicked and screamed, at a loss for what to do, sure I had killed this wonderful creature.
Thankfully, Helene had a cooler head and scooped her up, rushing to the car, aiming for the vet’s office up the street. We spent a couple of tense hours there as the doctor did what she could, finally telling us that she had stabilized Mao, but she should be observed at least overnight as you would with anyone who suffers serious head trauma.
Mao pulled through, and came home a few days later. I knew that we had been very lucky, and I pledged then and there that Mao would have a good life, that she would always be cared for and loved as if she was my own child. I accepted a responsibilty, I knew, when we adopted her mother, and I acknowledged and affirmed it again.
A couple of years later, Helene and I broke up, and I eventually moved to Orlando, bringing Mao with me. For six months, from April to September, I lived on the porch of my aunt’s house in St. Cloud. Mao was very upset with the move, but she slept near me every night, purring like a deisel engine. When I got my own place she was again upset with the move, but happy to discover that the new house had less people living in it, and thus more room for her.
Less than two months later, I let her out one morning as I left for work. I came home well after dark, and she wasn’t at the door waiting for me. The next morning, she still wasn’t at the door, and I began to worry. When there was still no sign of her that evening, I knew something was wrong. I printed up “LOST” fliers and posted them on mailboxes, telephone poles, fences… I gave one to the guys at the Fire House down the street, to most of the neighbors, and brought one to the Kissimmee animal shelter in case she turned up there.
For more than a month I spent several hours a day after work looking for her, calling her name, hoping that she was just lost and would come to my voice, but no luck. She was gone, vanished, and I blamed myself for letting her out unsupervised before she knew our new home well. For months I checked the shelter regularly, but I never found her, and the good folks working there assured me they hadn’t had her brought in. I was beside myself for having failed in my responsibility, depressed at what I saw as somehow abandoning this poor cat because I had to go to work.
Imagine my surprise then, some 14 months later. I was jogging the same route I had used for more than a year, when in the dusky light I saw something dart across the road and into the trees. I called out and she stopped, but the noise of passing traffic scared her and she plunged into the swampy forest. I called and called, but it was soon dark and I had to give up the search. Every moment away from work was spent in the area, looking for her and calling her name. Two weeks later, I saw her again. She ran into a fenced yard, but I could plainly see her. I ran the mile or so back to the house, and got my car.
The people living in the house were a bit surprised when I knocked on the door and explained that I wanted to drive my car into their backyard in order to catch a cat, but they acquiesced and opened the gate for me. After nearly 30 minutes of cajoling, I managed to throw a towel over her, grab her, and toss her into the car. I jumped in the driver’s seat, slammed the door shut and hollered my thanks as I drove back onto the street, my precious little girl mewling painfully from the floorboards of the passenger seat. Skinny from a year of picking through garbage, she hissed and spit at me as I picked her up again, and fought to get free… lemme tell you, a 20 pound cat with a full set of claws is no picnic to carry 50 yards. It oughta be an Olympic event, but I bet no one can get proper insurance for it.
Anyway, once I had her inside with the door closed, she immediately settled down. It was as though she recognized the place, knew she was home at last, and was grateful. For months she would sit next to me wherever I was and just purr. I beamed at how very very lucky I was to have her back in my life, and decided that she needed to stay indoors for her own good. Mao never seemed inclined to go out after that, either, so I never felt like I was depriving her of anything.
When I moved to Las Vegas, she was cared for by my buddy Bill’s excellent wife, Lynda. When she was finally given to me one August night, having flown here, I could tell that she knew her long ordeal was almost over, that she was almost home again.
She loved her new house, with it’s private litterbox room and new water dish. And she came to love the desert, too, since here she never had to worry about having fleas. In Florida they were a constant terror, a daily frustration that we just had to live with as well we could. But because of the low humidity here, fleas simply cannot survive. No more combs, no more little scabs on her paws, no more flea dips. Combine that with central AC and it’s like heaven on earth for a stay-at-home cat.
There were more indignities: a brief move to Santa Cruz that didn’t work out, 3 months living with a friend and his girlfriend until I was back on my feet financially, and finally we moved into the house I live in today. Mao spent more than 7 years living here. She would wake me in the morning to feed her, tell me when to clean her litterbox, and purr nearby whenever I wasn’t moving around. She would sit on my lap and drool as I petted her, shaking her head and sending spittle flying in all directions. She shed like a champion, and if there was a trophy for it I’m sure she could have competed for the World Cup.
She loved mushrooms. She knew the sound of the plastic wrap being undone, the peculiar noise that the foam container makes, and that I would give her one or two after I finished cleaning them. She would eat them happily, making that strange noise that cat’s make when they try and purr and eat at the same time.
But what I loved most about Mao was that she was difficult. She was kind of a scaredy-cat, and would run from the room when people came over, and even when I came home. It took me years to break her of the habit, by showing her constantly that it was okay, there was no danger… I used to sit and pet her and call her name and tell her over and over “It’s okay, little girl. You’re a good girl, and nothing’s gonna hurt you.” But I always knew if a new girlfriend was gonna work out or not by Mao’s attitude. If she came out shyly and allowed some petting, I was more relaxed and happier. If she stayed away, or (worse) hissed, I knew there was gonna be trouble.
For me, though, Mao would come and greet me when I got home, demanding to know where I had been all day when I should have been home feeding and petting her. Her daily morning greetings were along the same line, a demand that I rise and feed her NOW. Although she always shared the house with other cats, she felt (and I backed her up on this) that the house was hers, and the others (including me) were merely there because it pleased her.
She made me feel, in a way, like I had met a beautiful but temperamental woman, someone that others looked at with desire in their eyes, but a gut feeling that one wrong move and she would express disdain which would cut like a knife. I was infinitely lucky that she allowed me to love her, to care for her, and that she loved me back. For all these long years we have been together, weathering the hardships and reaping the joys that life brings. She was there for me when there was no other, showed affection and caring when I thought I was alone in this world, showing acceptance of my faults, and happiness at my triumphs. She outlasted 6 girlfriends and countless friends and acquaintences.
And so, when I arrived home Monday evening to find her weak and obviously distressed, I made a frantic call to her Vet. I rushed her over, noticing that her nose was no longer the pink of a pencil eraser, it was white. She seemed to have lost weight, and was having trouble breathing. The doctor took her in and ran tests for 2 days, but I knew already that Mao would not be coming home. The tests showed that she had very little red blood cells in her body. Her body was shutting down.
I went to the vet’s and spent more than an hour in the exam room, alone with my cat. I petted her, brushed her coat out, and reveled in hearing that little diesel purr again. I told her over and over what a good girl she was, and how much I loved her. I held her in my lap, and stroked her cheeks the way she liked. She was too weak to even lift her head, or blink her eyes. She just sat and purred, and I just sat and tried to make time stop still for us.
Finally the doctor came in. She did her best to put a brave, hopeful face on it, but in the end admitted that Mao would be lucky to make it thru the night. I told her I didn’t want it to be like that, and we took care of the necessary paperwork. I held her and stroked her, sobbing, as she purred. The doctor was a perfect professional, compassionate but able to do what had to be done, and Mao passed away gently. I saw her come into this world, and more than 14 years later I watched her leave it.
I took her down to the pet cemetary in Boulder City, where she lies now next to her companion of more than 11 years, Graham. Eventually, my only other remained cat, Lucky will join them there, to rest forever under the blue desert sky. There is a lot of love in the impromptu cemetary. Hundreds of pets are interred there, and families have built monuments to the love and memories of their own. It is a good place, a place where even an atheist like myself can feel comfortable and feel that there is more present than just the dirt and rocks underneath.
What I’ve just written can in no real way express my sorrow at this loss in my life. For fourteen years, 4 months and 13 days this cat was my friend, my ward, and my responsibility. For that long she needed my care, my love, and my patience and she gave that back in spades. She is the standard by which I judge all other cats, now and forever. I only hope that I gave her the best I could, that she enjoyed her time on the planet and with me, and that given the choice, she would choose to do it all over again. My heart wants to believe she would, but right now it is broken, unable to hold anything that heavy.
Farewell, Mao, my good little girl. I miss you already.