Sympathy for the Chirping Hellbeast, Part 2

Continuing the tale of Lilith, in which a little black kitten rocked harder than any boy band.

May 1998. We adopted and took her home early on a Saturday. Lilith was tough, but in bad shape when we got her.

Her black fur was dry and brittle. Strands fell and broke like twigs. She had parasites, a wide array of them, so many that the thought makes me itch to this day.

The animal shelter folks suggested that we limit our exposure to her until she got a check-up. We had to keep Lilith isolated from the other cats in residence (more on them in a second), so we kept her in the bedroom with the door shut.

Limit our exposure? Were they talking about the same supposedly feral kitten who had just glommed onto me? Tiny Lilith pounced on me, purring and kneading her paws into my torso, at every opportunity without failure or mercy. I washed up a lot and brushed her fragile splinters of hair off me every chance I got, all the while thanking God for not making me a hemophiliac.

Our regular vet wasn’t available till Monday. But she did do house calls. A little more pricey, but really convenient when you have temperamental kittens. Or just one with a hell of a right hook.

The vet ran a full battery of tests. Lilith was fairly cooperative until the very end. When the vet drew some blood, Lilith threw the hypodermic out of her leg, clear across the room, bounced it off a wall. Thump. The vet and her assistant scrambled for it. The vet found the hypo… with a 90-degree bend in the needle.

“Did we get enough?” the vet assistant asked.

The vet stared at the bent needle, either horrified or impressed. “I think we have enough.”

Ph33r the kitteh.

Now if that wasn’t funny enough, let’s cut to the cats already in residence, Mina and Nita. Their first encounter with Lilith was priceless.

Mina was the blue-eyed mom cat, a stern and downright aloof Birman and self-appointed queen of the household.

Nita was her retiring daughter, a flashy-looking dilute tortie with a long, long tail and a shy personality which was in total contrast to her eye-catching paint job.

At first Jamie was looking forward to introducing them to one another. The more we talked about it, all the science and behavioral stuff, the more nervous we got. Cats that don’t get along can respond two possible ways. They establish a pecking order and enforce it brutally, with one terrified weakling become the pariah of the litter. Or they could simply tear each other apart. Or both.

All through the weekend, little Nita kept howling and hissing at the bedroom door.

On the following Monday, the vet gave us the all-clear to introduce Lilith to the others. We shoved squirming Lilith in the pet carrier and let the other cats enter the bedroom, holding our collective breath.

The resident felines approached the strange new cat in the pet carrier. Nita came in slow and close to the box, chancing a sniff. A warning hiss. Then she walked out.

Don’t mess with me. A typical cat greeting. Sort of Klingon, in a way. Nuqneh.

Mina sauntered to the carrier. She took a dainty sniff. Then shrugged. Her fluffy grey shoulders went up a fraction and went right back down, lacking any tension whatsoever. An actual shrug. Not impressed, still in charge. Mina usually didn’t care about intruders anyway. I’ve seen cats full of confidence, but never like this. Regardless of the threat, she could take ’em. She was the queen and she knew it. So for Mina, after motherhood and her own adventures out in the mean streets, a new kitten was strictly small fry. Completing her aloof tour of the outer marches, Mina went on with her royal day.

Wow. Lilith was officially in.

And yes, they all got along very well. They were the Three Who Ruled. Mina, She Who Must Be Obeyed, had executive power. Nita was the heir apparent. And Lilith was in charge of security.

No, really. Lilith did regular patrols of the perimeter, namely the edges of our apartment. She took positions at every other window in the place, watching for intruders. Once in a while, she would make a quizzical squeak (presumable catspeak for “How long have you had these ‘droids.”) A rare facedown with an outdoor intruder (usually some other curious feline) ended in Lilith baring teeth and emitting an ominous hiss. Kids were welcome… though watching them play got Lilith riled up.

And she was tough. Can’t be stressed enough. The strength of her “rejection” of the vet’s hypo wasn’t a fluke. Lilith was built like a tank, bearing a musculature that often made even professional cat show judges wonder about her gender. And she had grace as well as power.

She just didn’t use it climbing on our shelves and counters, that’s all. It became a running gag. She traveled through our place just like Godzilla stomping through Tokyo…. only not as many fires.

That was how she earned one of her many names. (Being a cat, obviously she had several.) I’m a little embarrassed by this one. But it’s my fault. I started calling her “Godzilla-head.” I’d pet her and talk to her, calling her names. And in my head, I heard the goofy baby-talk of Elmyra from “Tiny Toon Adventures.” It sounded like the sort of thing Elmyra would’ve said.

But that wasn’t the only reason. Through all her patrols and furniture stompings, she still liked to pounce into my lap and knead her front paws on me. Lilith and I often found ourselves face to face, especially when I was in bed. Hell of a wake-up, let me tell ya — staring up at her dark feline countenance which was wrought with concentration, loudly purring, head low. Lying down and looking up at her like that — often — I noticed a resemblance to the 1970’s Godzilla.

She had the tail too. I can feel her whacking me in the face with it, whenever she insisted on quality time with me, kneading her paws, turning around (whack) three (whack) or four (whack) times. Then she’d sit down in my lap, piling herself up my front until we were face to face again. Maybe she’d sit there and purr for a while. Sometimes she’d nap.

So yeah. Godzilla-head.

The other names? More on that later.

Sympathy for the Chirping Hellbeast, Part 1

I’ve been putting this posting off for a while, waiting for a better time that’ll never come… for bite-sized memories that deserve more scope.

Thus begins the story of Lilith. Not the mythological figure, any of them. Or the uptight, but strangely cuddly psychiatrist from Cheers. Those things figure into the story, but the dark, warm enigmatic presence at the heart of it eclipses them all.

Lilith was a cat.

Let’s set the Tardis flight computer for May 1998. My wife Jamie had been haunting a local animal shelter, pining away at the various cats in lock-up.

“Haunting?” Does that sounds bad? To be fair, we were both coping with a slight case of empty nest syndrome. We’d just given away a litter of kittens which we’d had for months. But we’d just moved into some new digs. A whole litter of bouncy, wacky kittens was more than we could manage, even in a two-bedroom apartment. So we found homes for them. But going from five kittens to one with one mom cat, sometimes the place felt empty. Most of the time, it felt like peace and quiet, but I understood the other feeling too.

Like I said, Jamie had taken to visiting the neighborhood animal shelter. One day, she came home with great things to say about a particular cat she found there. I tried talking her out of it. And if I had succeeded, we’d have never met Lilith.

We went down to the pet shelter to check out the other cat, but he’d already been adopted. Amused at the irony, we figured we might as well look around. The shelter had a lot of kittens that day.

One of them was a loud, squeaky-voiced black domestic shorthair. She couldn’t have been more than five or six months old. I checked her out, reminded how I’d always thought black cats were cool, feeling sorry for the little one in the cage in front of me. I wanted to make that one feel better.

In cat body language, the right blink can be a friendly gesture. It could mean anything from “don’t hurt me” to “lemme be yer pal.” I met the kitten’s gold-green eyes and gave it a careful blink.

The kitten freaked out. She started yowling, screaming bloody murder. Locked in a wall of cages full of noisy kittens, that kitten managed to outcry the rest. Jamie came over. I pointed the loud one out, telling her what happened. And I felt like a jerk. Duh, I thought I was helping.

Curious, Jamie got the story from the folks at the shelter. Apparently someone had skipped out on their rent weeks or even months earlier. The landlord went to the abandoned apartment and found the apartment full of cats — an entire litter of over fifteen starved, half-feral, sickly kittens. By the time the shelter picked them up, five were DOA. The shelter took the surviving ten, who were now caged up in the wall before us, including the dark-haired little screamer.

We really felt for them. And Jamie could tell I was interested. We decided to take the screaming kitten into a visiting room. (Some room. It was a transparent walk-in closet made of Plexiglas.)

Anyway, the shelter folks sat us down in the visiting room. Then they put the kitten in with us. She scanned the room, gaping. The little thing crawled to Jamie’s feet, sniffed with deliberation, and rubbed herself about her ankles. When the kitten was done, she turned around and looked at me.

Hm, pretty friendly reception. Maybe she wasn’t so feral, I thought to my SHIT!!!!

I wasn’t sure I still had a face. The kitten suddenly launched herself, running up my outstretched legs, bounding onto my left shoulder, and started kneading her paws — hard like fuel-injected pistons — into my upper chest. Purring. Loud. I tried not to move.

Jamie watched, clearly amused. “So what do you think?” she said.

Out of the corner of my eye, I peered at the black kitten loving me to death. “Well, I don’t know about the cat. But I’ve been adopted.”

When a pet shelter person came to check on us, she found the drowsy black kitten purring and resting inside the crook of my arm. She was about as stunned as I was. This cat was feral? Maybe someone said “furry” and misheard? Either way, the only damage I’d gotten from the kitten’s attentions were minor perforations.

Gladly we filled out the forms and paid the fees. Then we took her home… before she could drag us there.

On the drive home, Jamie and I are asking each other what to call our new kitten. We were at a loss. Scary names didn’t really fit her any more than cutesy names did. This little black cat was a mystery. Finally I suggested Lilith.

I was aware of the various mythological permutations. And the Lilith Fair concert tours were in high gear at the time, of course. But more than anything, I was struck by the figure in Jewish folklore.

Adam’s apocryphal first wife wouldn’t submit to him. Truth be told, she wasn’t “bad” until she declared herself his equal. Well, that and she wanted to be on top once in a while. Uh oh. Suddenly she was storm demon, baby strangler, and part-time crank caller. I’d always felt that she wouldn’t have been so bad in that legend if someone had given her a chance.

Now that fit our new cat. Fiercely independent. Loving, but clearly on her terms. Down on her luck, in need of a friend.

I addressed the silent black cat behind us, in a pet carrier nestled in the backseat of our car. “What do you think, Lilith?”

Instantly she let out a telltale squeak.

So her name was Lilith.

Ten years ago. And so help me, she’s got a big piece of my heart even now. Even though she’s gone.

More on that later.

Somebody Holds The Key

This weekend is a hard one. I don’t want to dwell on it or drag anyone else through it, but…. Well, here goes.

One of our cats has passed away. We called her Nita. I knew we’d lose her one day, but this isn’t at all the way I wanted it to happen.

Nita was a dilute tortie, basically a calico where all the colors in her coat came out in smears instead of patches. It was as if God had painted her in a fit of passion– slapping handfuls of red, black, and white on her–and let the colors run. She was with us, demure and loving, for over 5 years.

She was born practically in my lap, on the floor of what was then my home office. Seeing it happen right in front of me changed my world. Dragged down in the drudgery of moving to a new place, I watched a kind of magic. Mina, her mother, chose to give birth close to me and Jamie when she could’ve run for cover. She shared that moment and her newborn children with us. I had never been invited to share a miracle before.

After several days, Jamie and I picked out names for Mina’s kittens. Nita was named after Nita Van Sloan, the tough girlfriend of a pulp hero called the Spider. Like her namesake she was loyal and cautious, guarding her secrets very closely.

She didn’t talk much, but when she did, oh man. What a wail. It sounded like she’d taken some lessons from Jimi Hendrix and got herself a twang bar. Her voice had range.

Unlike the Spider’s main squeeze, she wasn’t a social butterfly. At the first sight of strangers, she’d run for cover. Her siblings liked to scrap and play around, but not her. She’d have sooner slipped off to a far corner, sought out a warm lap, or snuggled close to someone she knew (often her mom, sometimes me or Jamie).

So you can imagine how thrilled she was to go to cat shows. We tried it for a while, but she was downright terrified. The slightest change in her lifestyle made her nervous. And when that happened, she got sick. She just couldn’t handle stress.

It became a real problem when we brought Kyouju and the other Japanese bobtails into the mix. Before she knew it, she was a token introvert in a house of feline extroverts. They loved her. She hated getting picked on.

A year ago, Jamie and I decided to put her in my home office. As long as we kept the door shut, she could eat or sleep without getting pounced on. It did help her mood, but it triggered a new batch of problems. She couldn’t get as much exercise in the office, so we got fat really quick. We switched her to diet kibble, and that worked a little. And if the smell of her litter box wasn’t enough to put me off my work, Nita would sit on my hands. She wanted affection and lots of it. Maybe she got lonely in there.

Nita became more talkative, more demonstrative. If I leaned back too far in my chair, she’d jump onto my lap or my chest and sleep. (Bloody catnaps….) And when she wanted attention, she learned quickly that if she turned up the kcat talk, she’d get plenty.

That all changed Friday morning. I walked into the office and found her spitting up and drooling, tense and miserable, but not moving much. Jamie and I discussed it on the phone. We didn’t have a lot of cash, but we had to take her to the vet. That was how we got the bad news. Fatty liver disease. She hadn’t been eating, so her liver was going into overtime. Our vets kept her overnight to work on the problem, but they were upfront. Nita’s condition was severe. They weren’t sure if she’d even survive the night. Jamie and I sweated bullets. It took us a while to sleep.

Saturday morning, Jamie got the call from the vets. Nita had died in her sleep. There was another infection, possibly the reason why her liver failed. She was responding to preliminary treatment, but she just didn’t have the strength to keep fighting. The vets reassured us we had done everything we could’ve done. Nita hid her ailment very well, as most cats do, so there were no warning signs for us to catch.

But I keep going over it in my head, even now. Did I do enough? Why didn’t I see this coming? Maybe the warning signs were right in front of me the whole time. Or I could’ve found more time to spend with her–played with her, held her for just a minute–instead jumping right into work.

You can see how easy it is to button up the little things and tuck ’em away.

Jamie and I have decided to cremate her. I don’t know if we’ll keep her in a funeral urn (the thought of which feels a little weird for me) or bury her ashes in our garden.

Nita’s death was completely the opposite of what I wanted. I had set my hopes on her dying fat, happy, and with us at her side. She had lost at least 5 pounds. In unspeakable pain. And alone.

Every time I walk into a room, part of me wants to tear it all down. Another part makes me weep when I don’t want to. I want to move on. I don’t want to carry this. But it’s like a halo of sadness right above my head. Just when I think I’ve got a handle on my emotions, I shed some tears and feel some despair.

Jamie and I are coping with the loss. Or trying to. Every once in a while, we start to talking about it, comparing notes on what happened. Then we’re back where we started.

On our way out to get some breakfast somewhere, a song came on the radio. I couldn’t bear it. Jamie couldn’t either. One day I’ll hear again and it won’t hurt as much.

One day, losing Nita won’t hurt as much.

Come down on your own and leave your body alone.
Somebody must change.
You are the reason I’ve been waiting all these years.
Somebody holds the key.

But I’m near the end and I just ain’t got the time
And I’m wasted and I can’t find my way home.

Steve Winwood
“Can’t Find My Way Home”