About fourteen years ago, a skinny young female tabby cat spotted Margaret talking with her friend Annie, in Annie's back yard in a Pittsburgh neighborhood. The cat, 6 or 9 months old, ignored Annie and wrapped herself around Margaret's feet.
Annie identified this cat as a stray, a street cat, though it was a residential neighborhood of homes with lots of gardens. Margaret's two children were in the process of leaving the nest, and her house was feeling empty. She decided to give the calico a month's trial residency. That little cat was on her best behavior for those 30 days. She got into mischief later.
Margaret and I were just getting to know each other. I'd had the same three cats since they were kittens in Cambridge, Mass. They all lived past twenty, but were all gone by then. Margaret asked me about names. I advised her to choose one with lots of sibilants---"s" sounds got a cat's attention. Soon when I visited Margaret, she introduced me to Tess.
Tess lived on Worth St. in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh, and afterwards in Huntingdon, PA when Margaret taught there. I joined them for a term, although I kept my Pittsburgh apartment at the other end of Squirrel Hill. Once Margaret knew she would be coming to the North Coast of CA to teach at Humboldt State, she gave up her house and she and Tess moved in with me.
Actually it was Tess and Allie, another cat---black with some white, who Margaret adopted to keep Tess company during her long hours at school. But Tess wasn't especially interested in the company of another cat. Allie was sweet and deferential, but Tess barely tolerated her, and seemed to be getting a little neurotic about it. In the fall of 1996, Margaret flew to Arcata, and so did Tess. Tess didn't like riding in cars, let alone airplanes, but we thought she'd like riding in a Ryder truck with me for a week even less. I saw them off at the Pittsburgh airport. Everybody who saw Tess poking her nose against the cat carrier door remarked on what a pretty cat she was. (Allie stayed in PA: my sister Kathy adopted her. I saw her on visits and she was quite happy there.)
Tess had to move only once more, this time only a few blocks, from a townhouse on Hidden Creek Road in Arcata to a house on Ross Street. There she reigned over her home, and policed the perimeter of her backyard garden. Tess had a few adventures in her past by then: a mouse or two on Worth Street, and an errant bat in the house in Huntingdon. But in Arcata she was content to chase moths. A few years ago she gave up chasing anything. In her youth she played with a stuffed spider, we called Spidey. It was gray with eight red legs when she started batting it around, and was down to one pathetic limb when she finally lost interest. It was the only toy she ever liked. She disdained scratching posts as well.
She liked chewing certain blades of grass and leaves of particular plants, and for some reason she really liked drinking rainwater. But mostly she was a house cat. She'd torn up some of my furniture pretty good in Pittsburgh but here she confined herself to a few rugs. She stayed off tables, and generally out of trouble. In her maturity she was economical with her movements, but she always moved with grace. She was not exactly bold--she drew back from even a brisk breeze---but she was sweet and gentle.
She and I developed several rituals. In PA she had a brief nighttime exercise period when she would play hide and seek, and bat at string as she chased after me. But by the time we moved to Ross St., the rituals mostly had to do with feeding-with what kind of food she got at a particular hour-and her participation in our ritual behaviors, like "TV time" in the evening, and bed times. She slept on the bed, either at Margaret's feet or sprawled across my feet or legs. She would take one of those two positions for many nights in a row, and then switch. I could never figure out the pattern or a reason for the timing of the switch. She had her own language for certain communications---a little tail-twitching dance in front of the refrigerator for her evening meal, and so on.
Because Margaret and I had somewhat different schedules, Tess had separate rituals with each of us. She would get up early with Margaret, hop up on a particular chair for her attentions. Sometimes she would come back to bed with me after Margaret left, or else she would just doze on the couch until I got up, then spend a few minutes with me, before wandering back to the bedroom. She didn't react much to my comings and goings, but she always knew when it was Margaret coming to the door, and she would go to greet her. Margaret was her mother, she hardly ever took her eyes off her. At night, if I was up too late, Tess would come and get me, sometimes quite insistent that I come to bed. She'd nag at me until I followed her to the bedroom.
In early July, the seemingly minor and intermittent problems Tess was having with eating became more pronounced. Her body began to change shape severely. The vet told us that she had a large tumor, probably cancerous. For the next several weeks we treated her with medicines that improved her appetite and would have been the treatment as well for a non-cancerous tumor. Margaret took her in for hydrations, and we learned to do it ourselves.
As Tess got thinner except for where she was swelling, I spent more and more time with her. I had the night shift taking care of her, and Margaret took over in the morning. We fed her baby food from our fingers, which she licked with an expression of great pleasure. Until she stopped eating even that. Tess was an education in courage. Margaret worried about her being in pain. I was determined that as long as she was still Tess, and still showed that she wanted to be with us, that I would do everything I could for her. She had periods of distress and confusion, no expressions of acute pain, and long periods of quiet and apparent contentment. She stayed on the bed most of the time, and during the day I stayed with her, reading and writing. When Margaret was with her in the evening I did the work I needed to do on the computer.
There were a few nights I wasn't sure Tess would make it to the morning. Yet I would wake up and see her on the bed, and I was grateful for that day, and sometimes almost hopeful. One exceptionally sunny and warm Sunday afternoon, Margaret and I were both there on the bed with her, reading. When it was just Tess and I, I would talk to her, reminiscing about our past, about Spidey, the bat, and the time Allie alerted me that Tess was out on the window ledge of my second floor Pittsburgh apartment, high above the pavement. The time she and Allie and Margaret had to be rescued from a stalled car in a snowstorm.
I'd look more carefully at the swirls and blendings of browns, black stripes and patches of white. With the white on her face and chin like a beard, we were starting to look alike. Tess had amazing green eyes, and a peculiar thoughtfulness in her expression. Her fur was shiny and soft, especially her underfur. She had a slight sienna spotch on her forehead, in the third eye area. She always looked at me directly and openly.
I comforted her as best I could when she began those long helpless rattling purrs, that she seemed to use to calm herself to sleep, or near sleep. I kept my hand and my breath near her. She still liked to be petted in the ways and places she always had, and now welcomed a kind of full body massage. This contact seemed to strengthen her.
She developed some peculiar behaviors, and began staring off into the infinite at times. But she always came back. When she was still eating, she would end it abruptly by turning on her heels and walking back to the bedroom, leaving me sitting there on the floor, gooey baby food on my finger. But sometimes she would stop and wait for me to follow. When I did she would continue.
Towards the end of July, she began an especially peaceful period. We'd given up all medicines except the hydrations. She now had a little bed of her own next to ours. But then she began jumping up on the couch again with Margaret or me, or both of us. She responded to being petted, and to the sound of my voice. She began going outside again, sometimes just sitting under a chair on the porch, sometimes venturing to the perimeter of container plants, sniffing the air deliberately and eagerly, as if drinking in the world. She began to stop in the "library" and so I made another bed for her there. She seemed calm, and yet determined to gather the moment. And she was determined to be with us. She had trouble getting up on the bed, but she kept doing it nevertheless.
One afternoon when Margaret was out and Tess was on the couch, I put some Bach on the stereo, and we listened together. Every day or night now, I made a point of singing Tess her song. She usually responded to it. I used to think this was some weird thing only I did, but I read somewhere that it's quite common: many people have a special song they sing to their pet, usually a familiar melody with special words.
I talked to Tess about happy times. There was once, earlier this year, when I'd gone to bed late after writing. Tess had been sleeping on my side of the bed, so she got up, went out to the kitchen while I got settled. She left a nice warm spot. As I was beginning to doze off, Margaret turned over and was just touching against me. Then Tess jumped up on the bed, and settled across the back of my legs. That's how I fell asleep. I was aware of that being a happy moment.
But now Tess was skin and bones, except for her distentions. Her ears seemed as large as a kitten's. She was weak, and would sometimes just lie down wherever she was. But Tess was still Tess. She enjoyed being touched. She still wagged her tail. She knew us, knew we were near, and she was determined to be with us. She was also at times clearly on her own journey.
One Thursday night, the night John Kerry gave his acceptance speech, we had guests. Tess was on the couch, and I spent as much time as I could sitting beside her, stroking her as she rested. That night she went onto the bed with Margaret, but later had trouble, going to her box with no result, going to her water dish and only hovering over it, maybe getting a sip or two. She wandered back and forth, and wound up on the couch at four a.m. where she rested quietly.
In the morning I was awakened by a sound---I opened my eyes to see Tess. She'd jumped onto the bed. Margaret was up and gone. I looked at Tess sleepily. I was very happy to see her, but I thought I saw an almost pleading look in her eyes. Dozing and waking, I petted her and talked to her. Margaret came home to pick up some pills she'd forgotten, between finishing yoga and going to school. She stayed to eat something, and as we talked, we heard Tess cry . She was in her bed in the library. She was in pain and distress, having spasms.
After she'd calmed a bit, and there was clearly nothing we could do, Margaret and I retreated to the bedroom to talk over what we must do. Tess surprised us by once again getting herself up on the bed. She had more spasms. But she was determined to be with us, to show how much she wanted to be with us. She'd had to give into whatever was happening to her, but she wouldn't abandon us.
Now we had a duty to her. It was late Friday afternoon, and we could not let her suffer through a weekend with no other recourse. We bundled her in a sheet. I held her while Margaret drove to the animal hospital. Tess never liked riding in cars, she would meow a constant litany, but this time she only looked around at the world passing by. When we got there and went in, they were not ready for us. There were lots of people there with their animals, and all of the people seemed to be quite old. Despite the kind and professional people who worked there, it was not the kind of place I'd like to spend my last moments.
I took Tess out to the front lawn, talked to her, and showed her the flowers, and the blue sky. She was interested in all of it. People who passed by all said what a pretty cat she was. Her eyes were large and open and she was not distressed. I held her and told her we would have to say goodbye. I told her I'd see her in my dreams.
It seemed to all happen so fast. Did we panic? I don't know. Tessie was never going to get better. She trusted us and we did what we felt was best for her. In the end neither of us could live with allowing her to suffer any more.
But in the late afternoon I was holding her as she nuzzled under my chin. And by early evening I was digging a hole in the ground, the hardest job I've ever done. The first shovelful of dirt on that small cardboard box was like a gunshot to my heart. I'd wrapped her in my shirt, the one I'd worn most often when taking care of her those long nights, and we put some of her favorite kinds of weeds and plants in the pockets, along with some sage and a bit of Pennsylvania soil.
There's a theory that people shouldn't have pets, because it robs the animal of its wild nature. Specifically it keeps them from maturing, they are always dependent as infants, which may be the way we like them. I'm sure that's true. But it's not the worst thing that can happen to a specific animal. And given our inherited way of life in this human society, this is as close a relationship to another species as many of us get.
I've never had children. And I'm ruefully aware of our strong predilection to project onto animals. Since they can't talk (or not in our language) we do their talking for them. Perhaps it is also the relative simplicity of our relationship with pets that makes it so powerful. One can fail or please or disappoint a pet in only a few ways that are usually very obvious, and usually the same each time. With humans sometimes you never know.
Who know why I've taken Tess' death harder in an immediate sense than the deaths of humans who were quite important in my life, including my grandparents and parents? It can be somewhat explained, simply in terms of companionship. Since I work at home, Tess was my almost constant companion for the nearly eight years we've lived here. The last thing I did before leaving the house was to check on her. She would greet me---or I would greet her---whenever I returned. An empty house was never really empty: there was always a beautiful being here. Her beauty inspired me, even gave me a kind of anchor of hope.
We developed a unique relationship, and it deepened in those last weeks. It's impossible to explain, even to myself. Something simple and direct, yet complex and uncertain, as we each tried to communicate and figure out what in the world the other was trying to say. Something earnest, yet everyday, and without the defenses we learn in our encounters with humans, even those we love.
But it may be a combination of the factors I mentioned before that have channeled the experiences of death that in prior human cases were defended against, or complicated by other aspects of a relationship. So the feelings were and are quite raw. For example, for awhile I felt that she trusted me but I failed her, because I could not protect her from becoming ill and dying. I've felt this idiotic anxiety of waiting for her to return. I've felt angry that she can't be here anymore. I've regretted every moment I got annoyed with her. I've felt a lot of the meaning empty out of my daily existence. Tess was a secret reason for going on. We have only a few photos of her, for some dumb reason. But looking at them reminds me that I almost never looked at her without smiling, without feeling delight. Perhaps worst of all, I selfishly feel bereft that I will not have Tess warm on my chest as I pass away.
All of these emotions seem more seemly when applied to humans. No doubt this is a character flaw on my part. But Tess wouldn't be bothered. As long as she could jump up and be petted as she clung to my shirt, under the warm lamplight as I read. As long as she knew I would be there, making sure she was okay.
Why was this harder than losing my other cats? Perhaps because when I was younger there was an unknown future of potential growing and looking forward to blossom. Change could be sad and painful and haunting, but there were the possibilities, the mysteries and destinies. I don't have much of that sense now. Little Tess grounded me, yet her beauty and grace and maybe even the strength of a simple reciprocal relationship reassured some idealistic sense.
In the months before she got sick, Tess liked me to pick her up a lot more than she used to. She was generally friendly with people, but she didn't usually like to be picked up. I always felt honored by this, and pleased. Editors could diss me, employers ignore me, my clients not pay me, the world insult me, and people bewilder me, but held in one arm and petted by the other hand, Tess would still purr. And her warmth across my legs or sometimes in the small of my back would ease me past the anxiety to the surrender of night.
What I learned from Tess in her last weeks I have not yet entirely absorbed, but much of it will be of her courage, of her loyalty, and her love of the world, even as she seemed to be gazing into the next.
Tess, the lion-hearted. It's just not the same without you.