The Pussycats

Mamacita came to my house when my daughter promised a friend that she would take care of her (pregnant) cat. The friend had gone to New York and left, not only her cat, but a backpack of belongings in the closet in my office. Mamacita promptly shat on it. So I wasn’t too surprised when, upon the friend’s return, said friend picked up her stuff and said she’d be back for the cat. She was going to take her to the Humane Society. She didn’t even have a name.

“Uh, no,” I said. When she gave birth, I started calling her Mamacita.

Mamacita had a sweet face and an obliging disposition. She gave birth to six kittens. My daughter found homes for five of them. When I saw the last one peering out over the edge of the box, all big ears and eyes, I named him Yoda. When we took Mamacita and Yoda to be spayed, the vet called us back and suggested “fixing” Yoda. Seems she was a boy.

Yoda was a gray and white tabby; her brother, Simba, was an orange. Simba had gone to live with other friends of my daughter’s, and when they were forced to decamp (another story), Simba returned to the home of his birth. And then there were five: Razz, Elvis, Mamacita, Yoda and Simba. I signed my Christmas cards “Barbara and the Pussycats.”

We all lived happily together at the 79th Street house. Not that I was always happy, but the Pussycats made everything bearable.

Razz lay on his back with his belly of creamy soft fur an irresistible temptation, but when you gave into that temptation and plunged a hand deep into that furry nest, he closed his four paws around your hand, claws extended, and tried to nip off your fingertips. If Razz could laugh out loud, it would sound like, “Mwa hahahaha.”

Elvis made himself useful by reminding me to let the others in and out of the back door. I can still see him standing over the empty food dishes looking up at me and emitting a plaintive little “mew.” Elvis never demanded. He just made a polite enquiry.

Mamacita made herself comfortable wherever she was least likely to be disturbed. She had the leanest body of any cat I’ve ever had under my care, looking perfectly normal with her long brown with shades of gold tortoiseshell coat, but felt as brittle as a bird when petted. It was Mamacita, though, who put out the eye of my friend Kimber’s new puppy, Buckley on a day when I was puppy-sitting.

Buckley was a big rambunctious puppy and Kimber had brought over his kennel where I kept him while I was working inside. When I decided to go to the store, I thought I should let him out in the backyard for a pee or something before I left, so I let him out of the kennel and went to get his leash. Wasn’t absolutely certain he’d come back to my call, and my yard isn’t fenced. So here comes Buckley, out into the living room, a body wriggle of excitement, whereupon Mamacita, who had been napping on the couch, sprang in front of him, reared up, every strand of fur on end, and stabbed him in the eye. I don’t think it took more than one real time second, if that.

I bundled Buckley into the car and drove as fast as I could to my vet’s, who gave me the name of a dog eye doctor. The upshot from the eye doc was that the eye needed surgery and that it would cost upwards of $400. I could do it, but it would hurt. Plus I was dreading the time when Kimber came back. So I made an appointment for the surgery, and left Buckley in her care.

Kimber took it better than I could ever have imagined. He could see my distress and appreciated all I had done to try to make it better. He even said he would pay for half of it.

But when the morning came around, I got a call from the doc. Upon further examination, she saw that she would not be able to help him. Mamacita had gotten him right in the one place that she couldn’t repair. “That cat must have been fast,” she told me. “Ninja kitty we call her,” I said, thinking, “Well, now we do.” Why didn’t he blink? I asked her. Turns out dogs have to learn to blink, and they don’t do that in the first three months. So, no surgery – she didn’t even charge us for the overnight. Kimber was amazingly cool with it. He had found Buckley by the side of the road – a black lab/rottweiler mix? – to begin with, so he had already saved him once. Buckley is fine, and up until the day I left still loved to come over with Kimber and chase squirrels in my backyard.

Mamacita the Ninja Kitty, having delivered one mighty blow, never bothered him again.

Yoda pretty much prowled about minding his own business, but I do think it was he who brought in the occasional gift of mouse or nestling.

Simba, the orange kitten, grew into a medium sized short-haired orange cat with a bit of white here and there. White toes, I think. And the tip of his tail. Simba was the cat who demanded attention. He was the cat who would crawl on my lap when I was reading or working on the computer. He was the cat who whined to be picked up and held. He was the cat who knew when you were just petting him with one hand while trying to work with the other, and he didn’t like that at all. Simba was a little pest, and we loved him very much.

We lost Simba when we moved to the Blue House. Still moving in, and a window was left open. I didn’t worry so much because I knew I would get a call if he got picked up and turned in. I had had all of the cats chipped. I never got that call. Finally asked the vet – and no. All the other cats had been chipped, but Simba was the last one to come live with us and somehow I never had him done. I still slow down and look twice when I see an orange kitty with a white-tipped tail, even here in Wisconsin.

All the rest are gone now, too, so I hope that Simba is with them somewhere. Razz’s ashes are sprinkled around the magnolia tree in the back garden of the Blue House. Mamacita’s came in a nice wooden box that I never figured out how to open so it sat on the mantlepiece for a few years. She had been feeling sickly, but it wasn’t until the morning of one of Seattle’s rare snowstorms that it became evident that she should see the vet immediately. My vet was too far away, but there was one much closer, down a steep hill and up another, and I drove there very slowly through the snow holding her on my lap. She came home in that box. How didn’t I notice she was sick? Such an unassuming little cat, never demanding, most happy curled up somewhere near the fireplace in the winter or on the warm terrace pavers in the summer. Not a peep out of her.

Yoda was the last one to go. With only one cat left in the house, it was easier to keep track of him. He was also the one most likely to come to me, to insist on his fair share of attention. I remember getting on his case. “What’s with you, anyway? You’re a cat. You’re supposed to be aloof. Go be aloof somewhere.” With Yoda, I noticed when he wasn’t eating, when he seemed to lack energy, when he looked like he just didn’t feel good.

A trip to the vet concluded with a diagnosis of renal failure and dehydration. We came away with some medication, that might although probably wouldn’t help. And instructions on how to introduce moisture under his skin. That involved a needle, a hose, an enema bag, and the shower. I called it “waterboarding the cat.” Yoda hated it. I hated it. I knew he was dying anyway, and why subject him to being wrapped up in a towel and having a needle inserted under his skin while gravity feeding water to his body. Try doing that alone with an uncooperative cat. Uncooperative cat being an oxymoron of the first water. And after a few days, I gave it up. Either I was doing it wrong or it wasn’t working. Yoda certainly wasn’t getting any better. He was getting vocal about it, too. Sounds of pain. Finally, I went back to the vet and asked for painkillers. He gave me a set of three syringes. It was New Year’s Eve.

It was New Year’s Eve and my Seattle tradition was to go to St. Mark’s Cathedral to walk the labyrinth. Every NYE, this Episcopalian Cathedral moves the center pews to make room for a canvas replica of the labyrinth carved in stone on the floor of Chartres. I hated to leave Yoda alone, but I did and my walk that year was remembering him – all the pussycats, really, but especially this last one.

Yoda hung in there, and when I went to bed that night I gave him another injection, wrapped him in a soft blue blanket, and tucked him in with me. As I went to sleep I could still feel his little body moving up and down with each breath.

In the morning, he was still.

We managed to dig a hole under the magnolia tree and into that hole I placed Mamacita’s box of ashes with Yoda’s little body, still wrapped in that blue blanket, curled around her. Someone had given me a ceramic orange cat that I put there when we sprinkled Razz. Now I used it as a grave marker. I could see it from my study window and every day until I left Seattle I liked to think that they knew I was still watching out for them. I also like to think that their spirits found Simba and even Elvis, and that they all still play together in the bluebells under the magnolia.

But then, I like to think a lot of things.