My daughter has a cat named Pookie. When she was 18, living by herself in a Pittsburgh apartment, the girls in the apartment next door asked if she could watch their kitten while they went home for spring break. The girls never came back, and Pookie never left.
Pookie is a large, white cat, placid, a breathing objet d’art in Rachel’s décor, incapable of fast movement, or much movement at all, until she hears the can opener grinding on a tin of cat food. She is a good cat to have a conversation with, or to confide your hopes and dreams to, because she doesn’t argue, or walk away; she just listens and purrs.
Rachel’s first cat was not like that. My husband and I referred to her as the Kitty From Hell. Small, absolutely beautiful, she was a tortoise-shell colored schizophrenic. Chloe heard voices, saw things that were not visible, perceived enemies everywhere. We had a floor-to-ceiling window in our dining room, with a patio outside. Neighbors’ cats would sit on the patio, and Chloe would throw herself against the window, again and again, howling, outraged that those cats were sitting there, mocking her. When we took her to the vet, she would hiss and howl from inside her carrier. Large dogs would whimper and back away. The vet had five black stars next to Chloe’s name on her record card; the vet finally suggested that since Chloe was an inside cat, we didn’t really have to bring her in for annual check-ups. Our furniture and drapes were scratching posts, and when her invisible enemies stalked her, territory that she freely marked. Chloe’s way of indicating that she didn’t want you to pet her any more was to bite – literally, the hands that fed her.
But she adored Rachel, and Rachel adored her. Rachel would walk around the house with Chloe draped around her neck, like a fur piece. They would sleep curled together, forming an S-shape, hard to tell where Rachel ended, and Chloe began. Rachel somehow soothed Chloe’s terrors.
Chloe died shortly before Rachel went to Pittsburgh to school, so she was catless for a year or so, before Pookie would appear in her life. Those years weren’t easy for Rachel. School problems, apartment problems, job problems, crazy boyfriend problems, made for a rough transition to adulthood. Pookie was there, not judging, not angry, just there, a steady presence, something to count on, something to come home to.
That was important. No matter how bad it was on the outside, how lonely it must have been, how scary sometimes, there was a reason to come home, someone who needed her. Pookie could count on Rachel. More important, Rachel could count on Pookie.
Pookie’s dying. Pets die, of course, and it never seems fair. Their lives are so short, and they can’t understand what is happening, or why. It is hard to tell how much pain a pet is in, to make the terrible decision that the pain is too much and should end. Rachel is keeping Pookie comfortable, knowing that the day will soon come when she can’t. At that moment, part of Rachel’s youth will die, too; the scared girl who made mistakes, whose judgment wasn’t always the best, and the girl who learned, who persevered, and who became a mature adult. Pookie loved them both.