Beth Smith

February 11, 1993|By Beth Smith

I ONCE had a cat that sat on my head. She was a funny little thing, with a long, gray rat tail and a face that looked just like ET. She was a six-pound blue point Siamese, very delicate, very arrogant. She was not friendly. When strangers arrived, she would run to hide, abandoning her usual sophisticated strut for a weird little lizard hop. We laughed and called her lizard cat.

She tolerated the family, but she loved me. At night when I worked late, she would come into my office, jump on the desk, sit under the lamp, look at me with liquid blue eyes and demand that I turn off the computer.

Then after I tucked myself in and the light was out, she would climb on the bed, step gingerly over my husband and curl right around my face. Sometimes she would sleep against my cheek. Once I had a toothache, and her warm little gray body pressed against my jaw like a soft hot water bottle and soothed the pain.

My cat died last week, very suddenly. One day she seemed healthy, and we marveled when we calculated that she was 17. A week later she was dead. A virus, said the vet. Her lungs were full. And, although we dosed her with antibiotics, she wouldn't eat, and she died.

I knew she was dying. I held her and patted her, worried over her. I wrapped her in an afghan, put her on the bedroom chair and turned on the light. It shone on her tiny hairless ears, warming them like sunshine.

For a few days she sat cocooned on the chair. Her eyes never closed. Occasionally, she cried loudly in her baby-like Siamese meow. Sometimes she just sort of chirped. But the vet said she wasn't in pain.

The night before she died, I felt something tugging at my covers, and I looked and saw Samantha pulling herself up on the bed. I picked her up and put her cold, bony body beneath the quilt and warmed her.

She stayed still and quiet. She didn't sit on my head, but now and then she purred in stops and starts. In the morning, I found her behind the toilet in the bathroom, just barely breathing.

When I was little, my grandmother once told me that cats know when they are going to die, and they seek a hiding place so they won't be a bother. For a few days, Samantha looked for her hiding place. I guess she didn't want to be a bother. I found her under the bed, under the chair, under the desk. I pulled her out, warmed her, tried to coax water down her throat, a bit of food.

But independent as always, she wasn't moved by my efforts.

I wanted her to die quietly, but she didn't. She kicked and howled into the darkness. I cried, and then she was gone.

This morning my husband buried her beneath the apple tree along with the other assorted pets whose paths have crossed ours during these 28 years of marriage. He said gruffly, "No more animals. I'm getting too old." Samantha, like all the creatures who have shared our lives, had softly niched herself into his grown-up, complicated, hard-ball existence and made him laugh.

Her death left just a little empty spot in a great big life, but he felt it.

We will find a kitten sometime soon. We will take it into our living space and put up with litter boxes, torn slip covers, open cans of smelly salmon and hair balls on the sofa. Because cats, like faithful dogs, lop-earred rabbits and all the other creatures that we allow into our hurried lives, can squeeze right through the bramble bush of trouble, confusion and fret that grows around us as the years pile up.

They snuggle up close, warming our aging bodies and easing our fears. They don't demand that we be witty or smart or beautiful or rich. They don't care if we've made it or if we haven't. They say, "Touch me and you'll feel better."

$ If you do, you will.

Beth Smith writes from Hunt Valley.

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