On one of my bookshelves sits a small wooden box the size of two cupped hands, stained an unobtrusive medium brown, its top carved intricately with a three-branched trunk splashed with six-petaled flowers. It is one of my most precious possessions, but I almost never look at it. Mortise-and-tenon joinery frames the top – smooth, though I almost never touch it – and underneath is a flimsy slab of plywood marked with an ordinary mailing label. On the label, which I almost never read, is the name of my first cat. Inside the box, which I have opened only once, are her ashes. I do not want to see what I cannot possibly touch.
The box takes me back to the last time I held her on my lap, already sedated, and watched the veterinarian gently find a vein on her inner thigh with the needle. I looked down at the curl of IV tube and watched it fill with blood. “Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yes, I’m sure,” the veterinarian said. “Are you sure?”
I nodded. Calypso’s chin rested on my wrist the way it always had, her eyes closed, her fur still sleek where I stroked her, her skin loose and rubbery in a way it had never been before two days ago. Her ears were still and not listening, and her body draped over my knees like an empty backpack. The veterinarian lifted a stethoscope and then whispered, “Her heart has stopped.”
There is never a right time for this.
I had known we were near the end a few days before, when her purr vibrated lightly on my wrist as we sat on the couch and watched Obama make his election night victory speech after he won his first term. I smoothed her blue-black fur, circling my fingers around her ears and admiring her perfect, tiny feet, avoiding the jutting bones of her spine and hips. “I’m so glad you’re with me,” I said to her, not knowing that after five presidential elections together, we had only a few days left. The sounds of celebration rose from the streets to my windows. For months, I’d been giving her subcutaneous fluids at home, sticking giant needles into the loose skin of her shoulders while she watched me with huge, trusting eyes.
I remembered tucking her into a crate and carrying her with my younger cat, Tiki, then twelve years old, into Sea-Tac Airport for the redeye flight to Washington, DC where I’d moved for a new job. For the first time in five moves, she seemed afraid – and shaky, nauseated, and disoriented. I unpacked a skillet and saucepan, a wooden spoon, unrolled the air mattress that would be my only furniture for a couple of weeks, till the rest of my possessions arrived from Seattle, and, for the first time, let her slip under the covers to sleep.
I remembered the many times I’d looked into her aqua eyes as she posed on the arm of the sofa, the tip of her tail curled toward her belly to acknowledge my gaze. For my entire adulthood, through the emotional storms of my twenties and thirties, her eyes had been the calm, still center of my universe, always calling me back from wherever I had drifted. In those early years she learned to worry; in later years I tried somehow to let her know that she no longer needed to.
There is a picture of her on the bookshelves next to the ashes. In the photograph she perches on a pillow, with an older set of bookshelves behind her, a sunny window making her glossy coat shine like glass. The books are mostly from the library at the University of Washington, where I was in my second year of graduate school. The window belonged to the most wretched, sagging house on our block, truly an eyesore, where I rented the smallest room and chafed at the lack of privacy after years of having my own apartment. The first night in the house, Tiki, then a year and a half old, vanished. I cried hysterically, calling for him all over the neighborhood, while Calypso positioned herself on the bed and looked serene. In the middle of the night I woke and sobbed silently, not wanting my new housemates to hear me crying. I whispered to Calypso, furiously, You can smell him. You know where he is. How can you just sit there? Finally she tired of my misery and quietly left the room to retrieve Tee from his hiding place, probably in the basement, probably where he’d been all along.
Her gesture was particularly noble because she’d loathed Tiki as soon as I brought him home. At the time I was living in a studio apartment, and I locked him in the bathroom so Calypso could have the run of the main room and kitchen. Instead, she leapt onto the kitchen counters, screamed as though I were cutting her ear off, and attacked me every time I walked through the doorway, which because of the tiny size of the kitchen was well within reach of her claws. Finally I called the emergency vet, saying, “It’s not an emergency…but my cat has gone crazy!” The receptionist, wisely, told me to “ignore her until she was out of her snit” (advice I’ve applied in a variety of unrelated situations).
Before Tiki, we had Ocarina, whom I carried from a house a two-mile walk away. She was the most energetic and affectionate of a huge litter of tabbies that seemed oddly listless, scattered over a worn rug with fleas hopping out of it like popcorn. The momcat appeared, looking even more threadbare than the rug. “She looks emancipated,” her owner said, and I giggled, thinking she was referring to the cat’s release from motherhood. When I saw the woman’s shocked look, I realize she’d meant emaciated and turned away, shamefaced. Calypso, then nine months old and still malleable, hissed for a few days until a dreamy look passed across her face and suddenly they were friends. I called them The Paisleys, because the two of them were always wrapped around each other. She had a meow that sounded like “Me? Me?” and a love of cuddling, something Calypso did not permit until she was much older. When Ocarina was just a year and a half old, I discovered she had advanced feline leukemia – legacy of her sickly mother and siblings – and, with Calypso waiting at home I had her put to sleep, holding her in my arms as the weight of her body fell into my hands.
Before Ocarina, though, there was Calypso. She was born in a warehouse a few blocks from my first lousy lowest-rung insurance company job, and I carried her back to the office in a copy box a few days before Christmas my first dreadful year in Seattle. She kept nosing out of the box as I dodged the holiday pedestrian traffic on the sidewalks, but a coworker had offered to drive me to pick up supplies and then drop me at home. The next day was the office Christmas potluck. I plopped down on the futon, cradling my new kitten, who climbed onto my chest and went to sleep. When she woke, she followed me into the cavernous kitchen in my attic apartment, watching me as I cooked for the next day. Finally she curled herself into a tennis-ball sized mound of black fluff on my right foot, and as she quietly breathed and purred, I fell in love with the kitten who would be my guardian angel for seventeen years.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Coincidentally, it is also the four-year anniversary of adopting my current pair of cats, Ziggy and Stardust, just a week after Calypso died. I did not feel ready to see her go, and I did not feel ready for new kittens, but now that they are so much a part of my life, my initial unreadiness doesn’t matter much. Just as there is no good time to let a pet go, there is also no good time to let a new one into our home. If I am thankful for anything, it’s that despite everything, we still do, and that the days with a pet are doubly precious because I am so aware that they are so transient.
It has been four years since I said goodbye to Calypso, three since Tiki dropped dead without warning on Halloween, almost twenty since Ocarina died. With pets, love is always bookended by loss; the lightness of a kitten, now, reminds me of the heaviness of the lifeless bodies I’ve held at the end. And yet it’s the nature of loving animals that we love and love and love again, knowing how the story will end, but unable to stop beginning.