When Jon and I got married, we had four cats. The oldest cat was my cat, CiCi. CiCi was perfectly happy being my only cat. She was, if I am honest, completely and utterly spoiled rotten. She was delightful to me, and slow to warm (sometimes never warm) to others. Affection from CiCi was treasured because this rescue cat held it in reserve like gold. How things were mattered a great deal to her, therefore she was, although by far the smallest (but scrappiest) cat at maybe 5 lbs soaking wet, the Alpha Cat in our tribe of tiger. Her happy only status was interrupted by the arrival of Amber, who my ex found and brought home. I got permanent "custody" of her as well. So when Jon and I got married, I had two cats (free and clear), and he had two kittens. CiCi had tolerated Amber's arrival, mainly because she was such a scaredy cat who was no threat that it wasn't even funny. The kittens, however, disrupted her life and were not welcome.
Neither was Jon, in her view. He was just another Man, which we did not need, since they tend to Leave. From her perspective, life with just me and her (and okay Amber) was perfect.
I thought it was amusing and knew she'd come around (which she did) but Jon---used to being the Pied Pippert when it came to animal adoration---felt unsure about it, and it really hurt his feelings.
The kittens were his balm.
When we combined households, it was initially apparent that the kittens (called that well into their adulthood, by the way) were his and CiCi and Amber were mine. Eventually, though, we all bonded into a family. The male kitten, Bubba, didn't mind having three sisters because they pampered him. The female kitten, Francie, took the tribe for granted and of all the cats, I think she is the only one who never wanted to be an only. Of all the cats, she was the friendly one, the social one, the one who enjoyed the other cats and always wanted to keep company with one. It was usually her brother, with whom she always had a tremendous bond.
In fact, that bond is how Jon ended up with two kittens when he only intended to have one. As Jon reached into the bin of kittens to rescue the rescued Francie (had been dumped, in a garbage bag, in a commercial dumpster) Bubba let out an unholy yowl, and nearly hurt himself trying to climb out after her. To this day, we'll both swear that Bubba didn't care who we were or that we offered a home, but he was not going to lose Francie.
The two of them, from earliest kittenhood, loved one another deeply.
As they grew, the developed some independence, but there was a limit to it. After enough time or space, they needed to check in with one another. Francie would brush alongside Bubba's body in a sort of cat version of a hug, or they'd pause and do a little reciprocal grooming. He was always an anxious and spazzy cat, but one touch from her and he'd calm.
Bubba hit adolescence first, and grew a long, lanky body with enormous ears. From the largeness of his paws and ears we knew he'd be a big cat. His growth and developmental spurt made his reckless, and he frequently escaped the house to run with a pack of orange tabbies, like him. One time he vanished for three nerve-wrecking days. Francie and Jon were inconsolable. I'm not sure how I felt; I didn't allow myself to dwell on it because I felt like I needed to be the strong one who held it together.
At 2 a.m. one early morning I sat up with a jolt. "Bubba's home," I said excitedly. "Wha...? Jon muttered uncomprehending, "I didn't hear anything." I said, "Don't ask me, I just know he's home." I hopped out of bed and ran to our front door. And there was Bubba, at the bottom of the stairs. The whole family celebrated. Francie must have sniffed him for an hour, and she stuck close to him for an entire day, randomly sniffing, nudging and licking.
Francie never had a rebellious youth period, a gawky adolescence or an awkward phase. She was an adorable kitten who proportionally grew into a beautiful adult. In her early adulthood she sometimes bickered with CiCi over authority and position, but she eventually gave in, and ultimately found her own position: hunter. She was second in command and in charge of tribal hunting. And she hunted very, very well.
During one period, she went after small mammals, such as rabbits, and brought them home where she mothered them.
Our vet said some cats are simply very maternal. She had always mothered Bubba, but now, as an adult, he seemed to be pushing her mothering (if not her) away just a teeny bit. So perhaps she needed a new outlet, such as the baby rabbit. Then, one day, she came home with baby rabbit clutched in her mouth. She was yowling horribly, not a triumphant hunt yell, but a terrified, heartbroken scream.
When we investigated, her baby rabbit was dead, probably accidentally killed, possibly by her.
She was grief stricken. It took a while, but we finally were able to get her to give up the bunny. She moped. And moped. Then, she began hunting again, this time birds, preferably the large black ones. She hunted them mercilessly and vengefully, and a theory formed in my mind that perhaps one of these birds had killed the rabbit.
In time, her grief ebbed and so did her hunting. Thankfully. We were tired of defeathered corpses under the desk in the office. When she quit hunting, she quit it almost entirely. She settled from young adulthood to adulthood with a sort of bittersweet acceptance.
I recalled that period of her life when we went through infertility, and I wondered.
As the cats got old enough that referring to them as "the cats and kittens" became ridiculous, we transitioned to simply having cats. Four. A tribe. A very fond of each other tribe. Losing Amber, first, was hard, and the other three drew together. Losing CiCi was incredibly tough. Bubba and Francie lost then, I think, more of a mother than a sister. They seemed so lost for a while. We all were. But they settled because they at least had each other.
When we lost Bubba, it was no surprise to any of us. He was so old, and so sick, especially compared to Francie who was so healthy and vital still. I think at first the overwhelming emotion for us all, including Francie, was relief, because he was out of pain and suffering. His trial was over. He was at rest.
Eventually, our normal routines resumed, and that's when, I think, she began missing him horribly.
Her first sign of bone deep grief came at dinnertime. Dinnertime about two or three weeks after Bubba died. It might have been around the time I quit accidentally calling his name with hers for dinner. It might have been around the time I transitioned from the singular to the plural. It might have been around the time we all grasped that Bubba was gone.
One night, I set out the dinner treat of wet food and I called, "Francie, dinner!" Just that. Prior to that night, for nearly two years (since losing CiCi), I had called, "Francie, Bubba, dinner!"
But that night I called only, "Francie, dinner!"
She came running but then...she paused...hesitated, as if she'd forgotten something. After a minute, she yelled a meow. She waited, then yelled another one. She ran to the food dish after I called her again, more insistently. She sat next to the one bowl, and nudged the other. It had been Bubba's bowl, and we'd washed it, and set it to the side to use as a spare (one to use, one to wash). She nudged it again, and began howling. That terrible, terrified, searching yowl. That heartbroken cry that sought something to fill a void, that tried to find something lost.
She eventually ate, a little, but she spent most of the night yowling off and on.
We tried to give her more attention and affection. It didn't seem to make a difference in her constant crying, but she did eventually begin to prefer our company to walking around by herself, crying.
But she began wasting. The cat who had seemed so young and vital suddenly seemed elderly and a bit frail.
She'd been so strong for Bubba, caring for him. It was she who came to nudge me when he needed something. It was she who made sure the water bowl was full (formerly CiCi's job), that the food bowl was overflowing (formerly CiCi's job).
And when he got so ill he could no longer groom himself and baths by us were too traumatic, she began grooming him, gently, just his head, shoulders, and his tail, about which he had always been so vain.
She patiently and gently licked him, and he seemed comforted, less pained, less agitated, when she did.
It broke my heart to watch it, her grooming him as she had when they were kittens. It seemed incredible that their lifespan was near the end. Fifteen years ago seemed like only yesterday. My memories of their crazy lives and times---the time Bubba went missing, the time Francie and the cats beat up a Persian who was bullying Bubba, Francie and CiCi battling over authority, Francie and Bubba tiny kittens curled up together in one tight ball in our clematis planter, black and orange and cream and tan all blurring together in sun-glowing fuzz---all these are so vivid, I can still feel them, like they were yesterday.
When there is no memory left of a time without someone, I think in a way they become something like an arm, or leg. You simply expect they are there, and it's easy to grow so independent but carry the knowledge that any second you can turn around and touch your loved one.
I think Francie keeps turning around to touch Bubba, to care for him, and he isn't there. She must have spent her nights by him, so nights are the hardest for her. Or perhaps nights lack the frenetic energy and distraction of daytime.
Nights are when she grieves the hardest. Nights are when she cries.
Her cries are not your average kind of crying. Her cries are heartbreaking sounds of loneliness, emptiness, and most of all, seeking what has been lost.
She has begun napping on his grave during the day. There is cool dirt there still, and the shade of the golden orange hibiscus we planted to honor him. The sun shines there, in the afternoon, providing warmth. She seems comforted and happy there.
But I see her, aimless, ribs protruding more and more, and I worry. I worry she is a cat without a purpose, and that depression combined with her grief makes life seem less worth living.
Perhaps she needs a kitten. Perhaps that is too simple a solution.
But we---Jon and I---are a little cat-ed out, in our lives, mostly in our hearts.
I hope her optimistic and happy spirit will come through, just once more. I know she has good years left. I know she can find joy in being the pampered only cat, adored by the children, cosseted by us.
At least I hope so.
I just don't know how to help a cat grieve and live. Animals are not like humans. Life, and death, are different for them.
Copyright 2007 Julie Pippert
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