THE BEST CAT EVER
Aretha died this morning. She was 20 years old. 19 years ago she decided to adopt me. I had moved back to California from New York and was renting a small apartment on the beach. She lived next door; the man who owned her was busy and gone a lot, so she started coming to me. She made her intentions perfectly clear — we belonged together and she would not take no for an answer. The humans would simply have to accept her will…so we did. She came to me as a cat who knew how to navigate the outside world safely, with her own boundaries, a cat who wanted to come in at night and be held. At first she would sleep curled around my neck, just in case I hadn’t gotten the message that I belonged to her now. Once she decided I understood, she gave me a little more room.
The first gift she brought me was on Mother’s Day — a large already-dead rat which she hauled through the newly installed pet door. I came in to find her sitting proudly beside it, announcing her gift with loud meows. The second gift will forever remain a mystery. Somehow, she dragged a large dead seagull up the stairs, through the pet door, and through the living room into the bedroom without leaving a trace. I came home, walked into the bedroom and screamed in shock, which was a very ungracious way to treat a gift. The bird was as big as she was, and I will never know how she accomplished her mission.
She was my savior in so many ways. I was divorced, I had gotten into an abusive relationship following my divorce, fled to the east coast, and then returned to California after my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I felt broken and alone. I didn’t feel as if anyone would want me. But then a small eight pound cat chose me and made it very clear that she loved me. In 19 years, we went through so much together, and always her green eyes watched me intently, reminding me that we had each other. When I brought Gracie home — a tiny Pug smaller than Aretha — she calmly accepted the little newbie after letting Gracie know that she was the boss and always would be. Gracie is convinced that cats are at the top of the evolutionary ladder.
I have marveled at Aretha’s dignity the past few weeks as her health declined. Walking was difficult, but she insisted on walking out to the yard on her own to lie in the sun. Until yesterday, when she looked at me and wanted to be carried. I made an appointment to send her home to God today, midday, and I told her I was going to help her, that it would be okay, she’d be free soon. I will always believe she understood me because at 5:30 this morning when I got up, she was undertaking the journey herself. She was limp, barely breathing; when the vet’s office opened at 7:30 we were there. She tried to make it easier for me, but there is nothing easy about losing a companion of 19 years —a determined little tiger who chose me, followed me around, slept beside me, and even at the end when her breath was faint and barely audible, purred one last time.
My father believed in filling up the space left by the death of a pet sooner rather than later. He used to say that you will still miss the animal who is gone, but your heart will be filled up by the new animal you’ve brought into your life. I will get another cat, even though I know there will never be another Aretha. She was bossy and loving and wise, and I will miss her forever.