Friday, December 16, 2005

Ashes to Ashes

I had a jolt today when my colleague April said my vet was on hold. For a moment I forgot Lancie was gone. Then I realized she was calling to tell me I could pick up his ashes.

After I learned Lancelot was terminally ill, I struggled for weeks over whether to keep his ashes. I didn't like the idea of his spirit being trapped in a box. How would he feel, I wondered, if I stuck his box in a closet or under the bed? Should his ashes be placed high on the bookshelf, so he could spend eternity looking down upon lesser souls, as most cats prefer? I considered spreading his ashes in Rockport, but that wouldn't work: cats don't like water. And he never spent time outside, so releasing his ashes in a park or athletic field didn't make sense either.

I'm thinking I will put his ashes on a bookshelf near where his litter box used to be and hang some pictures above it. My friend John Maki, who runs a wonderful graphic design firm called Acquire, blew up Lancelot's photograph for me. Michael also sketched Lancelot just a few nights before his death. You can see how well Michael knew him by the way he captured Lancelot's features.

In the days and weeks before his death, Lancelot no longer looked like himself. Once a gut-busting 25 pounds, he had lost nearly 75 percent of his body weight. Still, he continued to do the things that gave him pleasure: curling up on my periwinkle chair, sneaking into the bathroom (he was never allowed there before—I called it my "cat-free zone"), sitting next to me in the kitchen while I paid my bills or talked on the phone. I filled his cat scratcher with fresh catnip, hoping to numb his pain with the feline equivalent of medical marijuana.

Lancelot became so small that I could put him on my shoulder and carry him around the apartment. In those last few weeks, I'd scoop him up and hold him like a baby, then put him on my shoulder while I went about my business. He purred when I rubbed his chin, even during those last days when he could barely move. When I took him to the vet for the last time, I wrapped him in a pink blanket and held his face close to mine. I told him I loved him and asked him for a "cat kiss." He made an attempt but was too weak.

There's something peaceful about the moment a soul passes from the world, whether human or animal. There is a sense of relief, an inaudible sigh; then they're gone, and the anguish begins for those left behind.

If Heaven exists, I imagine my Grandfather and his dog, Musetta, are up there hanging out with Lancelot. I imagine them with all the other loved ones we've lost—grandparents, uncles, friends, and many, many animals. They probably look down at us and think we're fools for spending time grieving when we should be living. But I think grief is a part of life, and we miss out if we don't experience that pain too.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Ghost Cat

Today marks one week since Lancelot's death. It seems so much longer.

Right after Lancelot passed away, I left for a business trip. I was relieved to be away from home. My friend Michael suggested I bring a keepsake on the road. I tucked a small photo of Lancelot and Santa into a frame. (Yes, he is wearing a Philadelphia Eagles jersey.)

The three nights I was away, I was pretty proud of myself. This isn't so bad, I thought. I'm not crying that much. I don't miss his big, black, furry body against my feet at night, and I don't miss the 6 a.m. breakfast "cat call."

Then I came back. I started dreading it the moment I got on the plane in San Antonio. When I walked in the door, no one would be there to greet me. By the time I got in the taxi in Philadelphia, I was crying. I called Michael so he could listen to me babble. He said, "Lancelot's spirit will always be with you. He's probably looking down at you right now. But it's daytime, so he's sleeping. He'll get up tonight while you're asleep."

I turned off the phone and looked at the driver's mirror. He was, of course, staring blankly at me. He looked to be about 75 years old, and he asked me if the radio bothered me. I blathered no. I don't think he knew what to do. So he said, "In my 50 years of driving taxis, you're the nicest lady I ever drove. Just the nicest." Then he regaled me with stories about his life and his family and their pets.

But when I got home I felt empty. The apartment never looked so lonely. All my careful decorating did little to hide the empty spaces, the spot where his food dish used to be, the indentation in the down comforter where he'd lain all day. I picked up his collar and rang the bell. I was inconsolable.

I was sitting at home watching TV a few nights later when I heard a clang. I looked up and saw a fork on the floor. Somehow it had gotten dislodged from the dish drainer. Later I heard other unfamiliar sounds—quiet shuffling and squeaking, little movements from corner to corner. I checked, but there was nothing there. I started to wonder whether Lancelot's spirit was there, trying to get my attention. It's OK with me, as long as he's happy where he is. His spirit is welcome to stay in the apartment; after all, it is his home.

In the meantime, I'm learning not to get up during the TV commercials so I can give him a kiss and a scratch on the chin. I'm getting into the habit of curling myself around a pillow at night instead of spooning with a big mound of fur. And I'm trying to train myself not to look at my feet as I enter and exit the apartment, blocking a ghost cat from sneaking through my legs and out into the world.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Welcome to lancieblog

If you would like to help save other animals like Lancelot, please make a donation in his name to the Washington Humane Society.

On Tuesday night, I lost my little kitty.

I never knew it was possible to love a pet so deeply and completely until I met Lancelot. We always had "used" dogs when I was growing up—animals from local shelters, or from families that lost interest in their pets. I fawned over them all. But I never had a cat, and I'd certainly never been solely responsible for the feeding, caring, cleaning and pooper-scooping of any animal.

In November 1995 I was living in Washington, DC, in my first apartment. I'd moved out of a group house with my friends a couple months earlier. I wanted a dog but knew I could never handle one with my lifestyle. So I'd "settle" for a cat.

I visualized myself curling up with a tabby kitten. And when I went to the New York Avenue branch of the Washington (DC) Humane Society, that's exactly what I picked: a tiny tabby with big eyes, tiny white paws and a clumsy gate. I filled out the paperwork and paid the application fee. I dusted and scrubbed my small apartment for the in-home interview so I'd pass inspection. When the adoption officer visited, she gave me a warm smile. My kitten was on the way, she said.

I was devastated when she called the next day to say the kitten had gone to another family. How would I ever find a cat as cute as that one? The woman invited me down again: plenty of abandoned, lonely cats here, she said. She was sure I'd find one I liked.

The shelter was a pretty depressing place. The cats sat in rows and stacks of cages, some alone and some in pairs. I saw newborn kittens and very old cats. Some had been there for weeks, and I learned they might not be there much longer. I remembered a few cats from my first visit, including a white cat with one eye. I also remembered a funny-looking black cat that hadn't been of much interest to me.

"Kitty," a 10-month old black cat, was a victim of neglect. His former owners had put on his flea collar so tightly it had grown into his skin. After Kitty was removed from his home, the shelter surgically removed his collar. He had been in the shelter for almost three months; I was told the Humane Society would not adopt out black cats before Halloween. Kitty had enormous black and yellow eyes. Unlike many of the other cats, when I went to his cage he sat up and looked me square in the eye. He had an inordinately large head, and when he sat far enough away and moved his head around, he resembled a bobblehead doll. I noticed he also had pretty big paws, so I figured he might turn out big.

I was reticent to adopt a black cat. I thought a black cat might bring bad luck or, at the least, mess up my apartment with his black hair. But Kitty kept staring at me, and every time I visited I was a little more charmed. Then one day the woman at the shelter asked if I'd like to pet him. She opened the cage. When I awkwardly put out my hands—I had no clue how to hold a cat!—Kitty jumped into my arms. He put a giant paw on either side of my neck, like he was hugging a long lost friend, and started to purr. Deeply, evenly, with strong conviction. I felt my heart fill with warmth, and the longer he purred, the warmer I felt. I was hooked.