My cat wasn’t exactly an “earn your keep” kind of feline. She didn’t do windows or laundry. And she certainly wasn’t ever on time with her half of the rent every month.
But she was my cat. I didn’t own her, as you never really own a cat. They own you, as any car lover will be able to attest to. In so many ways. You’re their timed feeder. Their back scratcher. The thing they scratch. They remind you that you are, in essence, their puny human servant as often as possible. But she was still mine.
Nissa saw me through college, breakups, makeups .....and learning how to actually use real makeup. She was there for my highest achievements and my lowest moments over the course of the 18+ years she lived with me.
She’s seen me cry, been woken up (and annoyed) by my laughs, and definitely had to see me dancing in my underwear as I got ready for the day. Sorry, kitty.
Her constant companionship was all I could have ever asked for. When I had a house fire in my early 20s, I left that place with the few items they could save: a laptop, my camera, and Nissa. We started over alone. And I remember thinking how much emptier that new place would have been if I hadn’t had her to come home to.
Before the fire, she was more independent. After, she started sleeping next to me in bed on the other pillow. We always joked it was for her benefit. But, knowing her, it was actually for my sake. She knew I needed her. And even though that’s not the kind of cat she was - it was the kind of cat she became. For me.
When I got Nissa it was because she was being abused by my best friend’s coworker’s husband. She left. Took her kids. Took the animals and didn’t know what to do. He made a snap judgement that I can never repay him for and brought her to me.
She hated me. She hated the dog that lived there. She hated touching the ground. She was a pioneer in the “the floor is lava” game.
The first six months of our relationship she lived on top of the dryer in my laundry room. I’ll never forget the first time she wandered into the living room and we all stopped and stared. She sauntered in like she owned the place. And that’s all she wrote. She was free. Finally felt safe. And decided picking on the dog was her favorite pastime.
She ended up sick, about ten years ago and my dad met me at the vet. While they ran tests my dad attempted to comfort me. Until the vet told me it would take close to $1,000 to do an exploratory surgery to see if they could fix her. Then he said “eh, she’s not even a mouser. You should just put her down.” ....that wasn’t even an option the vet gave us. Just some unsolicited Dad advice.
Joke’s on Dad though. She even outlived him. Sucker. Told you. She’s a tough cookie.
She never became a mouser. But she did become the toughest cookie and best friend a girl could ask for. She lived for long enough to have been able to vote if she was human. And she probably would have made better choices than some of you did. She baffled the vets when she grew a weird lip growth and they sent us home 3 years ago with a shrug and a “just keep an eye on it.” And she just kept on going.
The last few weeks she suddenly slowed down. She got thin. She was tired. She had trouble jumping up as easily. And in the last week or so, it became a round the clock job to watch her, care for her, and make decisions for her.
To her credit, until the last night she could let you know she wanted something and she would wobble her way around. And she never seemed to experience pain or misery.
We set her up a little studio apartment in the bathroom for when we weren’t there. Food, bathroom, water, warm heat vent. She was basically a Jefferson. She felt like she had moved on up. To the bathroom side. To a deluxe cat condo. In the hall.
Yesterday, as I drove home to her from work I suddenly lost my shit in the car. I knew she could be gone when I got home. But that wasn’t even why I was so anxious. It was because - strangely enough - the last week to week and a half had been hard with the cat. But it also had teleported me back to a few years ago with my dad.
How could a cat make me grieve my dead father? And how could it make me grieve for the moments I should have, but couldn’t grieve, when he was alive?
The similarities are where it starts. My dad got thin. My cat was suddenly a breathing skeleton, it seemed. You wrestled with the idea if you were doing the right thing. You weigh out quality of life. You don’t sleep. You watch breaths. You celebrate the small bites of food they take.
I hadn’t realized, until then, how being so busy and consumed by getting though the next moment with my dad hadn’t left me time to grieve what was happening.
Being someone’s caretaker is hard and usually undervalued work - one of life’s less understood acts. The anxiety of leaving for work when they aren’t feeling well, the guilt of taking a few extra moments to get home, the decision of if you stop and get a drink on your way home or if you’ll miss something or be needed. No one can fully understand that until they experience it. And if you’re like us, you’re too busy to stop. To process. To appreciate the good moments as much as you’d like.
And then, a few years later, you’ll be driving home to check on your old decrepit ghoul of a cat and realize your palms are sweaty and your throat is tight. And it’s much like the feelings you’d have driving to the hospital after getting a call at work that your loved one isn’t doing well and you need to get there ASAP. And you’re driving home to an old cat. But it feels like you’re driving home to your loved one and scared.
You’ll find the exhausted feelings after not sleeping for a few days and the anxiety and the fear of the unknown are no different than when it was the man who taught you how to spiral a football. Or who taught you how to drive. Or who, after he told you your cat wasn’t worth anything because she wasn’t a mouser, held your hand and told you you were stupid for spending $1,200 on a cat - which is your life savings in your early 20s - but he understood.
I write all this not just as a tribute to my cat - even though she was a real badass - but because I hope that anyone else who has been a caretaker and finds themselves crying in their car about a still live at the time cat but really about their dad - knows they aren’t alone. That it’s normal - for lack of a better term - and so they know there’s someone there that understands. And who respects what you’ve done. What you’ve been through. And the amount of love it takes to care for other beings. Human or not.
Our grief knows no end. And sometimes doesn’t have a linear passage from start to “finish” - especially as a caretaker.
When Nissa passed this morning she did so just like my dad did. With dramatic - oh no, this is it moments. Which weren’t. But then a calm peaceful ending when your guard was down. And all I could think was I hope wherever she ended up she ran across my dad and made a smart ass comment like “oh, you’re here. I guess you weren’t a mouser either.”