In Memoriam: My Cat Helen

I am writing to honor my dear cat Helen — my companion of almost 21 years — who died yesterday after a long battle with the only illness for which there is no cure: old age. The last few years of Helen’s life were immensely difficult — more so, of course, for her than for me, though she handled the complete decay of her body with the same combination of poise and toughness with which she survived so many other things — but in the main, she lived an adventurous, thrilling life that’s worthy (I think) of being shared.

I met Helen when I was living in Boulder, CO in 1991. My then-roommate Mary — whose last name I cannot remember and with whom I have long since lost touch — brought home a pair of cats one day. A sister and brother, she named them (adorably if inaccurately) Harold and Maude. They were both completely black-furred head to toe… and because they’d both been weaned far too early, for reasons beyond Mary’s control, they were absolutely fragile little creatures, too. I took to them right away. They spent hours and hours nestled underneath my shirt, curled up on my chest, trying to stay warm, and I fed them from my hands. I want to say they imprinted on me, but I think the truth is that we imprinted on each other.

Mary, it must be said, ignored them. She was young, and she didn’t understand. She should never have been allowed to try to care for them in the first place.

My efforts weren’t enough, sadly, to save Harold, who died quietly one evening not long after he came home to live with us. Mary was glib; she changed Maude’s name to Onyx — the perfect little matched set of names she’d chosen having been shattered by death — and went about her life with a shrug of her shoulders. Onyx herself was still too busy trying to survive, I think, to take much notice. She clung to whatever body heat I could give her, day after day, until she gradually became strong enough to live on her own.

And then, a month after bringing home two poorly-weaned cats to care for, Mary abruptly decided to move home to Atlanta. Immediately. She asked me whether I might not want to keep Onyx, but we both knew her question was really just a formality. In those few weeks of care and closeness, Onyx had already become mine… as I was hers.

My first decision as acknowledged solo cat caregiver was, of course, to rename Onyx once again. (Onyx, after all, seemed merely a descriptor, not a genuine name, and she hadn’t had it for more than a few days.) I briefly considered restoring her first name, Maude, which I really did like, but I wanted to choose a name that reflected the depth of my familial feelings toward her, which had already in her short life become quite immense. The Jewish tradition calls for us to name our children after our deceased relatives, so I chose a name that (for a variety of private reasons I’d rather not share) struck me as inevitable: Helen.

We lived together in Boulder for another year, almost. She would clamber in and out of the house through a window, playing outdoors to her heart’s content all day, then nestle in the crook of my legs every evening to sleep. She chased squirrels, caught rabbits, bounded around the house with endless kitten energy, and generally seemed to love her young life. Her most difficult experience: climbing thirty feet up into a tree from which she couldn’t descend. I called the fire department, which wouldn’t come help; too many humans get hurt saving cats, evidently. I tried to borrow a ladder, but the tallest one I could find didn’t even come close. I waved cans of tuna fish in the air to no avail. I tried everything… and eventually, she just jumped. From the tree to the roof of our garage, maybe twenty feet below, then again (seconds later) from the garage roof to the ground. A few shakes of her tiny head — her cage had clearly been rattled — and she went on her way.

I brought Helen with me to Baltimore when I went off to graduate school. I think the flight was perhaps her most traumatic experience. She almost got left on the tarmac; I happened to notice the baggage handler driving his little cart away from her, having forgotten to send her up the ramp, and I had to make the airline hold the plane till he turned around, drove back, and took care of her. Then she had to endure the flight itself, which couldn’t have been pleasant. When it was over, she never willingly got into her cat carrier ever again.

In Baltimore, we settled into a little apartment across the street from a park, in the hope that she’d still get to prowl around outside during the day, but the city was far too dangerous. She had to accustom herself, for a year, to the indoor life, and she struggled. She’d run full-tilt at the walls, then jump up onto a far-too-thin window ledge at the last second, crashing into the glass, which barely held. She’d chase endlessly after whatever bits of paper she found on the floor, chewed on my socks to distraction, and dragged her toys over and dropped them at my feet, begging me to play with her when I was supposed to be reading Whitman. She made the most of it, but I always knew it wasn’t easy.

That wasn’t an easy year for me, either. The girlfriend I’d lived with in Boulder, who had promised to come join me in Baltimore, didn’t live up to her promise, breaking my heart. I was terribly lonely and sad all the time… and my greatest source of comfort, by any measure, was Helen’s constant companionship. I don’t know if cats can love, but I was certain she needed me, enjoyed my affection, and returned that affection in triplicate. She was joy and passion, light and desire, poise and presence, and she was exactly what my broken heart needed. I sometimes feel as if I spent the rest of her life trying to repay what she gave me during those twelve months.

When graduate school was over, I moved her out to my mother’s house in the suburbs for a while, where I kept an office in a spare bedroom while I continued to live in the city. I saw her every day, but in the evening, we parted. It wasn’t a perfect situation for either of us, but I knew she was happier getting to play all day outside, even at the cost of getting to sleep next to me at night. (She slept next to my mother instead.) We made the best of it that way for a while.

Being an outdoor cat, though, eventually began to take a toll on Helen. The first of two blows: she disappeared for ten long days. I held onto the slim hope that she’d moved into a neighbor’s house for at least a solid week, then accepted the fact that she must have been hit by a car. A few days later, my mother called me with the astonishing news that Helen had returned, mysteriously, looking as if she had slipped into the nearby woods and become feral the whole time. She was covered in brambles and rough patches, plus a few scrapes and scratches, but she was absolutely relaxed and happy. It took me two days to work up the courage to let her go outside again — at which point she disappeared AGAIN for 48 hours or so — but we eventually settled back into our normal routine.

The second blow was far more difficult: Helen was, in fact, actually hit by a car. When I happened to discover her, limping up my mother’s driveway, her head was gashed open badly, her leg wasn’t working right, and she was bleeding profusely. By the time I got her to the animal hospital, she wasn’t moving. The vet told me not to expect a miracle, but promised to watch her and try to make her comfortable overnight; by morning, a miracle was nonetheless beginning to occur: Helen was recovering. She would go on, in fact, to live another decade and a half — never quite the same (the hair on her head was a bit thin where she’d been hit), and never quite spending as much time out of doors, but still very happily.

The next long period of her life was relatively uneventful, though she did suffer a never-explained bout of kidney failure that almost killed her and also underwent a difficult surgery to remove three infected teeth. She moved with me to several different houses, lived with several other cats along the way, played outdoors when she could (which was less and less often), and gradually began to slow down more and more as she entered the last few years of her life.

By the time she met and moved in with my wife’s cats — much-younger litter-mates named Eliot and Alcott — she was already 16 years old and had little patience for their shenanigans. The three cats spent a few testy weeks forging a relatively civil detente, and then Helen retreated to my study to live out the rest of her life. The only exception: she spent nine months’ worth of nights sleeping beside Maura the entire time she was pregnant with our son. As soon as Porter arrived, Helen’s work — whatever mysterious work it was — was done. I like to think of it as the last great gift she gave the family.

It’s not surprising that she chose the study as her place to retire. Perhaps because of how she spent the first few impossibly-weak months of her life, Helen was always and forever at her happiest when she was sitting by my side, and I spend most of my waking hours at home in that room. When my wife and I moved into our new house, Helen plopped herself directly on the seat of my writing chair, moving to the arm when I needed to sit down to work. When winter came, she moved to a blanket we folded and set on a nearby leather couch… and made that her permanent perch for a year and a half. It was a nice, calm, contemplative space for both of us.

When Helen began to decline, though, and her body betrayed her more and more, she started curling up almost all day long in a large, blue Norwegian bowl we kept in the bay window, right beside my writing chair. I think she wanted to feel cradled, even by painted wood, or perhaps protected. She slept long hours, soaked up the sunlight, watched birds out the window, and occasionally (I would like to believe) reminisced about her years of adventure in the great outdoors. (I’m so, so glad that I thought to take her outside for a few more final visits before it became too late.) It was just about as much pleasure as an almost 21 year-old cat could manage, I expect.

And then, in her last days, she moved back to that blanket. Fall was approaching, and the air was a bit chillier, and the soft cloth was easier on her skin-and-bones body. And — I have to admit this — after a modest re-arrangement of the furniture in the room, she couldn’t actually manage to make the leap to the window sill any more. That was how I knew she was heading toward the finish line. A cat that in her youth would run full tilt at the wall, leap almost impossibly high, and land with perfect grace on the two-inch wide top of a window — the window itself, mind you, not the sill — didn’t feel like taking a short detour to get where she wanted.  Her death was oddly unlike her life. It was unrecognizable.

I will miss you, Helen, so much. You gave me great comfort and companionship for almost half my life. You taught me how to care for another creature, both when you were young and fragile (as I was then, too) and when you became older and infirm. You demonstrated joy for me when I simply couldn’t find it inside my own heart, and you endured admirably and with great strength what many other beings might have been beaten by. You have made me a better human. I may not, in the end, have been a typical cat person, but I was always your person, and always will be, with all of my heart. There will never be another like you in my life.

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