Today my heart, my muse, my friend left this world. Carmela, my first cat, came to me during the bemol Ardiente that inspired this blog in the first place. I was a lonely mess and she was a desolate, abandoned kitten. We kept each other company, and after all this time with her, I just finished the first draft of a novelette – one in which Carmela is the protagonist.
This morning before I went to work I stopped by Carmela's patch of grass. Barry has let it grow because Carmela, having lived outside for the past few months, had taken a liking to the soft grass bed. I'm not certain why she chose to live outside. Something called to her. I've always let my cats out in the mornings and evenings to sniff around and frolic, but a few months ago I couldn't keep her inside. And when she was indoors, she just sat by the door looking out, waiting for it to open so she could escape. She'd always loved to watch through windows, but this was different. I could feel that she needed to be out there, and she wasn't willingly going to spend another minute inside.
So, I began taking food to her on the back step, and Barry soon followed suit. We fell into this routine fairly easily. Every time she saw me or Barry, she'd come trotting up and we'd give her food. She had her choice of canned food and kibble; she would nibble on each in turn. She still liked me well enough; she just knew how she wanted to live. She even let me pet her more. (She was never really one for physical contact.) I didn't understand her need to change, but I understood that this was truly what she wanted, so we accommodated. I worried, but she didn't. She was happy.
A couple of months ago, after a rainy spell, the grass in the back yard began to grow and she found her heaven lying in its thick bed. Because she like it, Barry didn't cut that spot of grass (the prime spot in the shade) when he mowed the back yard and it got longer and thicker. Throughout the day she'd come to the steps to eat and then go lie back down in her bed. Periodically she would stand up and move a few inches to lie on fresh grass, leaving the place where she had lain exposed all the way to the roots, and allowing it to fill in again. She stayed under the house during the hottest part of the day. I was concerned, but seeing her so happy made me happy. She had enough sense to get out of the heat, she came to the back door when she wanted food and she'd lie around the yard the rest of the time, mostly in her grass. What more could an old lady cat ask for?
When she was much younger, though already a grown cat, I thought she was lonely so I adopted another kitten. I couldn't have been more wrong if I'd tried. Popular opinion is that people should let their pets choose them, rather than us trying to choose our pets. I can see how allowing providence to handle that part of our lives could be the better choice. Situations like what I went through would sort themselves out before we had a chance to mess them up. But, what was done was done, so Carmela and I lived with Anastasia from then on. At first they hated each other; eventually a truce of sorts settled among them. I don't know quite how to describe it, it was like having two separate cats... there was no interaction between them. They each pretended that the other didn't exist, and if they stumbled upon one another while wandering around the house, they were shocked and hissy. So, rather than having two cats, I had one cat and one cat.
Last week I noticed that Carmela hadn't appeared at the back step so I took food to her at her grassy bed. I had to stand there with her while she ate and then take the bowl away, because if we left the bowl there it would be invaded by ants, and we didn't want ants all over Carmela. So I stood in attendance while she sniffed and lapped up the gravy from the canned food, and when she finished and began to turn in circles to lie back down I would collect the bowl, pet her on the head and neck and then walk away, leaving her to her soft place in the shade. Petting her hurt my heart a little because she was thin – very very thin. I could feel her back bones, and she kind of loved it when I rubbed them. But, she was content, more than I'd ever seen her in her life. The other cats that live in the back yard benefited greatly from this feeding arrangement because they got to eat the actual food from the can.
Carmela didn't always like canned food. For years she would only eat kibble. When she first came to live with me she was so young that her claws were still soft and wouldn't penetrate skin. She had the attitude and the instinct of self-preservation, though. If I even tried to add more food to her bowl she'd let out an adorable little growl and her tiny little paw with its itty bitty soft claws would slap my hand away, guarding her food. But, only the dry cat food. She might sniff the canned food, but then she'd walk away.
She learned to trust me with her food dish, but years would go by before she showed any interest in canned food.
When I adopted Raku, the tension in the home calmed down a bit. Carmela still acted like she was the only cat in the house, but Anastasia had her hands full of kitten and didn't have time to passively-aggressively make another cat's life difficult. Carmela didn't even mind accidentally coming face-to-face with Anastasia as she walked around the side of the sofa. It was as if this were no longer her problem.
This afternoon when I arrived home from work, about the same time as Barry, we saw her next to the house. She was lying on her side and Barry confirmed that she had died. It was as if she had been coming out from under the house toward her bed of grass when she finally breathed her last. Seeing her like that broke my heart, but from everything I can see, she had been happy. I remember thinking that it should be illegal for a cat to be as happy as she was lying in her grass. Plus she got food at the back door any time she wanted to walk by. When she became too weak she even received room service from the two of us. Barry told me that at lunch she had not gotten up to eat. I knew that she was getting weaker and clearly skinnier. She resembled a fox the last few days. One is never happy finding a loved one has died, and a pang of guilt and sadness hit my stomach. She hadn't made it to her happy place in the grass. Maybe I should have taken her to the vet and had her pumped full of fluids, even though that would have made her miserable. These were things I thought of when I saw her lying pitifully on the ground.
Barry gave me an old towel to wrap her in and asked me to lay her on the floor in the studio - out of the heat. Then he took me to the cemetery where all of his cats have been buried. (And my betta fish named Ella Minnow Pea.) He let me pick out a spot for Carmela and then asked me to pour a couple of buckets of water on the ground there so that we'd be able to dig later. After I did that, I went into the studio and sat with Carmela and shared a drink with her. I tried to clear my mind and ask her if she had been happy. I still felt a little guilty for not rushing her to the vet every week for fluids and medicine. But, the feeling I got in that moment was not guilt or regret. The image of her sleeping in her grass kept coming to my mind, and her eating when she wanted, what she wanted and where she wanted. Nobody got on her nerves in the back yard, nobody challenged her or tried to take her spot.
Finally, the evening cooled and Barry and I started working on her grave. The ground was still a little hard and it was still a little warm. Tall grass had grown over the cemetery and we had to cut it back where we wanted to dig. We even had to snip back some saplings. We took turns digging, trying to get deep enough and wide enough to fit a small animal. Finally it looked like we had gone deep enough. (That or we got tired of digging the ground that was rock-hard from the Central Texas summer heat. The water I put on the ground only soaked in so much.)
I went to the studio and gathered Carmela up in her terry cloth shroud and picked up her favorite toy - the one she's had her entire life. Holding her in my arms like a small child, I carried her to the field behind the house, behind the storage shed, to the place were animals here come to their final rest. I bent down and got on my knees, and the smell of earth greeted my face like a cool breeze. It was much darker now and I could only see shapes and silhouettes. The moon wasn't bright enough this time to illuminate our work. Gently, I laid her in the ground and tucked her toy in with her. She used to carry that funky mouse around all over the house, especially at night. Right before she moved outside she would take her toy to the door and meow loudly. Maybe she wanted to play with the cats outside; I don't know. But, I know she loved her little toy stuffed with cat nip, so I tucked it in with her and we covered her with earth. We stacked cinder blocks on top of her to keep anything from trying to dig her out. She was laid to rest in the family cemetery, next to Butterbean.
Now, my life continues. My father passed away about a year ago and he had been adamant for years that he didn't want to be in the hospital. He died in my sister's home, in his own bed, surrounded by family. That's what I thought of when Carmela moved outside. It's what I continued to think of as she grew skinnier and more frail. Yes, I could have taken her to the doctor and she might have lived a few more months, or even years. Who knows? But, she wouldn't have been so very happy. She wouldn't have had the charmed existence that she so deserved after a long life of putting up with me and two other cats. She loved me in her way. It wasn't a touchy-feely kind of way, but she loved me and thanked me daily for her back yard, for her grass and her food. And, I loved her, and thanked her for showing me what true happiness looks like.