I’m not a religious person, and yet I believe in heaven. Since I was a teenager, I’ve envisioned my arrival in heaven in minute detail, complete with a welcoming committee made up of loved ones who have gone before me: There! My paternal grandparents, who both died just months before I was born. There! My wonderful high school friend Christy, who died tragically in 1987. And there, there and there…each and every pet I’ve loved and lost, including Marmalade, my very first cat; Daisy, my little loyal West Highland terrier; and Celeste, a sweet little black kitty who I held on the hearth while she died at the ripe old age of 21.
As of a week and a half ago, my fantasy is further refined: My grandmother will be holding my beloved kitty Elizabeth. She will greet me with a kiss, promise me that we’ll have chicken paprikash for dinner, and say, “And look who else has been waiting for you…” She’ll hand over my dear furry girl, and I will, once again, nuzzle into Elizabeth’s rabbit-soft fur.
Probably 20 years ago, I saw the body of a white cat on the side of I-95. It looked like it had been thrown from a car window — an image I’ve never forgotten. Subconsciously, I think I decided then that someday I would make up for the brutality of that cat’s death by adopting another white cat. In 2002, I went to the Berkeley Humane Society to look for my white cat whose name, I had already decided, would be Elizabeth (after Queen Elizabeth I). And there she was: a slim, elegant, mostly white calico cat with a very Tudor shock of red tabby on her head. I knew the moment I saw her that she was the Elizabeth I was looking for, but how could I have known that she would become the feline love of my life.
What was so special about Liza-Lou
Elizabeth had a subtle beauty that crept up on you — a kind of beauty that I can only compare to, say, the Mad Men character played by the actress Elizabeth Moss. She was also both delicate and feisty. One of the few times she managed to slip outside, she took on a pit bull (that initial vet bill to repair a gash in her leg was a sign of things to come). But she also was very sensitive — it turned out that every time we moved to a new home, she stopped eating and developed a liver condition called hepatic lipidosis— “fatty liver disease.” Then there were the times she went on a hunger strike for reasons I could only guess, like because she’d busted me feeding a stray cat at the back door, and the times when I couldn’t even hazard a guess as to what had triggered it. At least three times she had to have surgery to have a tube put in her stomach so I could feed her by syringe for months on end until she recovered. Other times I caught it early enough that just a few days of supplemental force feeding could turn her around. It was as if whenever I got distracted, she went on a hunger strike, just to test me. Over the course of her life, I probably spent at least $10,000 dollars on tests and surgery. Over and over, I’d bring her from the brink, nursing her back, feeding her by hand, for months and months. Needless to say, this very intimate care only deepened our bond and manifested itself in all sorts of ways, including her determination to only drink from a glass on my bedside table.
But there was more to it than that: Elizabeth took care of me as much as I took care of her.
When my longtime boyfriend and I split up in 2005, Elizabeth immediately took to not just sleeping on what had been his side of the bed, but spooning. She’d flop on her side with her spine against my face, and I’d pull her down to my chest, slip my arm up along her tummy. My hand became her pillow. She’d purr and softly stroke my arm with her tail. Pets don’t crowd your grief with their own tales of woe or suggestions that you “get back in the saddle.” Their comfort is silent but unfettered.
My friend Cerissa once observed that Elizabeth reflected a part of me — the discerning, slightly aloof part, the part that reserves her secret self for only the select few. I think no truer words about me have ever been spoken. I truly have felt like my heart has broken with the loss of her, like part of me has gone.
I know that I’ll never have another relationship with a pet like I had with Elizabeth, and that hurts exquisitely. I wailed with grief when we had to have our vet put her to sleep a week and a half ago, and I will never forget the pain of watching her gorgeous pale green eyes darken as she drifted off. Even the vet, who tended to Elizabeth through her many illnesses, cried and grasped my hand — that’s how special Elizabeth was. I still cry over her every day, and I call to her, “Liza-Lou!” just to hear the words that always made her come running. We buried her in my mother-in-law’s beautiful garden, and whenever I’m there, I go visit her little grave and tell her how much I love and miss her.
I’m not yet ready to fall in love with another cat, but I am willing to bring other cats into my life, if only fleetingly. This past weekend, I went to the Humane Society to see if there were any cats that needed fostering. I watched as one lovely young couple clearly had a love-at-first-sight experience with an adorable three-month-old black kitten. “You have to take her! She’s clearly meant to be yours,” I told them. Luca and Isabella both shook their heads sadly. No, they couldn’t take her because they wouldn’t be able to take a cat home for another few weeks, and it was clear that this charismatic kitty would long gone by then. But a solution was immediately clear to me: Isabella and Luca should go ahead and adopt her, and she’d live with me until they moved into their apartment in a few weeks time.
They didn’t need much convincing, and now the little black kitty, whom Isabella and Luca named “Eba,” is playing, purring, and cuddling at my house. At the end of the month, she’ll go to live with her wonderful new family. Luca told me that he’d had a dream about a black female kitty and was convinced he needed to find her, and there she was, in much the same way I had a vision about Elizabeth and recognized her the moment I saw her. I will probably never again have a connection with a cat like I did with Elizabeth, but at least I could help someone else have theirs.
Just as the thought of facilitating someone else’s once-in-a-lifetime pet connection bring me some comfort, so do the details of my vision for an afterlife with my girl. I will once again run my fingers through her snow white fur, and when night falls, we will spoon. She will stroke my arm with her calico tail, just as she did on Earth.