Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A cat’s death

There are cat people and there are dog people. Men are not supposed to prefer cats, but I always have. In fact, I resent the implication that, as the subtitle of a self-congratulatory little book had it a few years ago, there is a mysterious connection between women and cats. Of course, men don’t have a mysterious connection to much of anything. The problem with dogs, to my mind, is that they esteem just everyone; you have to go far out of your way to earn a dog’s mistrust and fear. Besides, almost any dog is a better man than I—more loyal, more resolute, more fearless. But cats depend on no man. They go their catty way, utterly indifferent to your opinion of them; and to earn a cat’s regard, then, is to achieve something.

My patch tabby Isabel—named after the pretty and independent heroine of The Portrait of a Lady—died earlier today of kidney failure. She was eighteen years old. She first attracted my notice in a College Station pet store when she was a scrawny kitten, the runt of the litter. While her siblings clamored for attention, she hung back, aloof and self-contained. I immediately claimed her.

Although she never weighed much more than six pounds, she could be fierce when called upon. Late one night, during Christmas vacation, when the Texas A&M students had left College Station deserted, I awoke to the sound of Isabel’s snarling. I lived in a shotgun apartment in those days, and when I leaped out of bed, Isabel was backing up in the hallway outside my bedroom door, unwillingly yielding ground, inch by inch. “What the hell is going on?” I shouted, and slammed the door.

Feeling guilty about shutting her out and unable to fall back to sleep, I climbed out of bed and went looking for her in the living room. A draft of winter air chilled me, and I turned to find that my front window had been crowbarred open so violently that the latch was torn out of the frame. I had slept through a break-in. But Isabel hadn’t. And she had stood off the burglar, who was probably brandishing the crowbar, trying her fiercest to keep him at bay until I awoke and frightened him off. If I had stirred only a few seconds later I might have received the crowbar across my forehead.

In short, my life was saved by a cat. Over the next fifteen years Isabel could do little wrong. She approved my choice of a wife, and took to sleeping on Naomi’s pillow instead of mine. She decided that her favorite was three-year-old Isaac. He was infinitely tender with her from a very early age, and she responded with gratitude. My daughter Mimi, now a year-old toddler, never learned not to hit her, but Isabel never reacted with anger. She bent her head against the onslaught, and when she saw her chance, skittered away.

Cats have not inspired the amount of literature that dogs have. There is nothing like Albert Payson Terhune’s Lad (1919) or Eric Knight’s Lassie Come-Home (1940) for cats, and thank heaven there is nothing like J. R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip (1965). There is a flourishing subgenre of cat mysteries, but I doubt that I shall ever read one. The witty British poet D. J. Enright published a book called The Way of the Cat in 1992, a year after Isabel was born. I know nothing about it, but perhaps I will seek it out and read it in her memory. Requiescat in pace.

16 comments:

Jose said...

Please accept my condolences. Perhaps Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" would be good to read as well.

Thank you for the blog - keep writing!

SE Martin said...

A few months ago our cat died, only 10 years old. I didn't grow up with animals (a highly allergic mother) and it took a good amount of single-malt Scotch for my wife to convince me to allow a cat in our house. And then I became a cat person. I still miss Gazza which still amazes me.

You have my sympathies.

R. T. said...

In my six decades of experience on earth, pets are the most constant and tolerant of friends. Humans could learn much about friendship and loyalty from cats and dogs.

I am sorry to hear about the passing of your friend, and I "second" the suggestion about Eliot's collection.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

What a lovely touching post. I'm so sorry about Isabel. She sounds like a wonderful being.

Miriam said...

I'm so sorry to hear that, D.G.

Anonymous said...

Will you be getting a new cat?

Openbookblog said...

"Cats have not inspired the amount of literature that dogs have."

The first thing that came to mind when I read this was the book "I Am a Cat" by Natsume Soseki's biting satire about Meji-era Japanese society.

Mary said...

Sorry about your kitty. Great book suggestions, but the one that came to mind first was a favorite from my childhood, "The Cat Who Went to Heaven." A Newbery Medal winner.

Laura said...

Condolences from a fellow cat person. It sounds like Isabel had a wonderful life.

Lost without Her said...

I lost my 19 year old cat Smokey today. She was the best friend I ever had. She never destroyed furniture, went to the bathroom outside of the litterbox or engaged in any other undesirable behavior that some cats are known for. She wasn't aloof or standoffish. As a matter of fact, she was amazingly loving to everyone she crossed paths with and even managed to win over a few confirmed "cat haters" I know. I don't know what I am going to do without her.

Neil Verma said...

What a marvelous story about the burglar! My condolences about Isabel. Every year on New Year's I resolve to play more often with my cat Betty. I'm inspired to redouble my efforts.
Best, nv

R. T. said...

Belatedly I offer the following link to a poem by Christopher Smart, a brilliant man who understood the profound significance of his cat:
http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15798

Cindy said...

a sleek black cat, to abdominal cancer in July this year. I still think I'm going to see him at the foot of my bed every morning.

Your blog is a delight, BTW.

margaretdilloway.com said...

I'm sorry for your loss.

I just got back from a walk with my son in which the only friendly feral cat in Hawaii followed us for many houses, jumping on retaining walls to be petted. We meowed back and forth until we got to the street, where it sat and watched us go. We're not allowed pets where we live. A house doesn't feel right without a pet, I think.

panavia999 said...

My family has never liked dogs. It was always cats and horses at our house. A friend told me a dog would help me get over the death of my horse. I told her my cats consoled me. She said, "but a dog would follow you around and comfort you". I told her all my cats follow me around. (And now my chickens which I raised from bits of fluff.) Unless I wanted to go hunting, I can't see the use for a dog. Yes, there is nothing like the soft purry aloofness of cat coupled (and terrific hunting skills.)

mel u said...

I am very sorry for your lose-we recently lost our 17 year old Siamese Yoda but his brothr Charles is still with us