The life and legacy of a 7-pound cat

Filed in Gather Family Essential by on April 23, 2009 0 Comments

As we knelt to get a better look at the two kittens on the floor, one of them scrambled to the edge of a battered couch, looked us in the eyes, and meowed loudly.  Only six-weeks-old, she had short, black-and-white fur and a black nose.  Her sister, who had a pink nose and who I thought was more attractive, had hidden under the couch out-of-reach.  But the feisty "catonality" of the black-nosed kitten won us over.  We took her home, fleas and all.

Our cat, a few weeks after she came to live with us, alertly surveys our yard from her picnic-table perch.  Summer 1975.

It was Father's Day 1975 and our family had gone looking to adopt a kitten.  Having cared for cats in the neighborhood when their owners were gone, my two children Pam and David, ages 12 and 10, had been begging me for a long time to get a cat.  Since I had not grown up with animals or pets, I had demurred at undertaking responsibility for something I didn't know anything about.  But remembering a neighbor telling me how therapeutic having a dog had been for her children after their father died, I changed my mind about getting a pet when I learned my husband planned to leave the family. We would get a cat.

At the time animal shelters were rare in our area, but give-away cats were not.  We scanned the ads in our local paper looking for those that offered to give away kittens and jotted down a few addresses.  Since I liked the looks of the calico and tabby cats our neighbors had, we went to the house that advertised calico kittens first.  Located in an unincorporated area about five miles from where we lived, the house was somewhat shabby.  The two kittens we were shown were not calico, but after we gazed on the black-and-white, fine-boned kitten staring us in the face, we never thought of calico again.  When we brought her home, my children thought she was so beautiful that we named her Belle, which is French for beautiful.

Belle and Dave in our yard.  To satisfy Belle's curiosity about the outdoors but keep her from running loose, we put a chain on her collar and attached the chain to a lawn chair outside.  We either were outside with her or kept a close eye on her when she was tethered. She was able to pull her head through the collar and did so several times. Summer 1975.

While we were at Belle's birthplace, we glimpsed her mother–a sleek, fine-boned black cat.  Her owner told us that Belle was half Siamese and half Burmese.  Given the calico misrepresentation in the newspaper ad, I didn't know how much to believe him, but she did seem to have characteristics of a Siamese cat, including the fine bones, long legs, and loud and interactive vocalization of a Siamese.  Although at the time I had never heard of a Tuxedo cat, black-and-white as Belle was, perhaps she might now be considered a Tuxedo cat.

Life with Belle
Unfortunately, both Pam and Dave developed allergies to Belle's dander.  Despite the sniffles and sneezing that her presence caused them, both children were adamant about keeping her.  The allergist suggested several things we could do to minimize exposure to cat dander and be able to keep the cat.  We closed the doors to the children's rooms when they were gone so Belle wouldn't nap on their beds.  We also moved her food, bed, and litter box to the utility room in the basement and closed the basement door at night.  She had water both upstairs and downstairs.  During the day, aside from Pam and Dave's rooms, she had free run of the house and usually slept on my bed or in a spot of sun coming through a window. When Pam and Dave played with her and petted her, they washed their hands afterward.  Because the cat allergies precluded the children doing much for her care, I became Belle's chief caretaker.

Being allergic to Belle never kept Dave from playing with her. Dave and Belle nap on the couch.  1975.

My husband left the family the following October, and Belle was a tremendous help in taking our minds off the horrible family experience we were undergoing.  She was always doing something to delight us, to amuse us, to draw us out of ourselves, to give us something to talk about, and to exclaim over.

Pam watches Belle play in the autumn leaves. 1975.

At Christmas, Belle found new sources she could explore and test.  She climbed our tree, batted the ornaments off, and chewed the ribbons on the presents.

Belle claims the felt Christmas stockings I had made for Pam and Dave when they were born as her own.  Belle seemed to feel that she had captured something when she was on top of it.  Christmas 1975.

Belle liked to talk to us.  If I was working in the kitchen or at my desk and she walked in, she would greet me loudly and continue her vocalizations when I responded.  We would have a kind of conversation.  I often talked baby talk to her and am a little embarrassed to admit I called her Belle Bovely (rhymes with lovely) Wovely Sandborg.  She never complained about me calling her that.

Like many cats, she liked warm places and often sat with her head under the lampshade of a table lamp while it was on.  In the winter when the heat from the floor register blew the lining and drapery fabric of the floor-length window drape apart, Belle perched on the register with her head inside the opening of the drape.  We said she was sitting under a hair dryer.  In the summer when windows were open, Belle would wedge herself into the space between the screen and window and either watch the world go by or, if it was sunny, stretch out and sleep.

Belle surveys the front yard of her kingdom from the window in Dave's room.

Belle had a high aptitude for spotting places where she could comfortably curl up and sleep.  Laps, open suitcases, unfolded clean laundry–all ended up sprinkled with cat fur after a visit from Belle, as my dad found out when he left his suitcase open while staying with us one weekend.

Having snuggled her body into the crack between the two pillows on my bed, Belle naps contentedly.  I wonder how she would deal with the pillow shams that are currently in fashion.

After Pam and David left home for college, I began working on my master's degree.  Between work and classes, I was away from home a lot, but Belle and I grew even closer.  As she and I aged together, I penned some of my thoughts about Belle in a poem I wrote in April 1989, two weeks before her 14th birthday.

To my cat Belle

This winter
The thought
Weighed on me
That you are old
And probably
The day is coming
When I
Will have to choose
Your death.
I don’t want that choice!

For you have been
My mentor in play, 
My seer in awe
My healer, too.
Your agile, fine-boned body
With its soft
Black and white fur
And alert
Pointed ears,
The delicate face
With large green eyes
Brought out
The silliness
In me,
Coaxed me
To forget myself,
To wonder
At the marvel
Of your seven pounds of life,
To delight
In your glorious cat antics.
It was
Your spectacular feats,
The graceful leaps,
Daredevil climbs,
And energetic dashes.
It was
Your creative curiosity
What was new
In the room
And exploring
Its possibilities.
It was
Your astonishing nesting ability
That could
Make a cozy niche
Out of the meager resources
Of any place.
It was
Your expressive sounds
To my deeper levels,
The loud purr
That defies description,
The vocalizations
That border speech.
It was your intelligence,
Intuitively knowing patterns
After one or two times,
Responding to me
Before I knew
My new habit.
It was your faithfulness
Accepting me
I couldn’t
Even accept myself.
It was your persistence
At pushing
Away obstacles
To climb into
My lap,
Nosing away
Fat books
And rustling papers
And the hard wall
Of my distracted mind
Anxious thoughts,
To push your soft body
Against my cheek
Gently persuading me
To let go
And enjoy you.

I carry the guilt
That I’m the one
Who made
The choices
For your life
And I’m not sure
That I have given you
The best life
You could have had–
So much
Was for my convenience.
And I think
That I projected
On you
What I felt
About myself.
And now
I miss your claws, too
And chafe
At being
A house cat
With no imprint
In the larger world.

Belle supervising me in the kitchen.

Over the years and especially after Pam and Dave went to college, I began to see as I observed Belle that animals are much more than we think they are.   I saw Belle had intelligence, emotions, and communication ability.  She knew how to evoke guilt in me by giving me a cold shoulder for several hours when I returned from a trip.  I began to realize that animals suffer and that my use of animals for food and clothing caused animals to suffer.

Coinciding with these thoughts were questions that troubled me as I worked on a master's degree in the mid 1980s.  What impact had I had on life?  What could I concretely do to contribute to life, to time, to evolution?  From my relationship with Belle, I came to think that if I could spare animals some of their suffering, I could cut down on the amount of suffering that the universe undergoes as it evolves.  The death of my previous assumptions about animals could bring more life to the universe.  I could help build a larger field of love and peace in the universe.

And so through Belle’s influence, around 1988 I chose to become a vegetarian.  At first, I was a closet vegetarian, not wanting to make an issue of it because I had heard derogatory comments about vegetarians while lunching with co-workers and friends.  I told a few people, but didn’t say much at work. 

With my job responsibilities and travel growing, I increasingly found it difficult to manage a house, and in November 1991 I moved to a second-floor villa about seven miles from the little house where I had lived for 28 years.  Not quite as peppy as she had been, Belle nevertheless seemed to adjust to the new residence well even though she no longer had a yard in her territory.

Belle enjoys the warmth of a fire on the day I had an open house in my new residence.  March 7, 1992.

In 1992, my travels for work took me to Puerto Rico, Washington, DC, Toronto, Brussels, Seattle, North Carolina (twice), Miami and Southern California and to New York City with Pam and Dave.  I felt bad that I had to leave Belle in the hands of a sitter during these trips.

The cat sitter took this photo of a lonely Belle greeting her at the entryway to my villa while I was on a business trip.

Belle gets sick

Belle had always thrown up a lot, but during August 1992, she began to throw up more than usual.  Yet, she didn’t act sick when I was home.  Pam and Dave visited Labor Day weekend, and aside from sleeping more, Belle didn’t seem sick then.  A week later, I noticed she had trouble urinating and I took her to the vet.  He ruled out a tumor and took a blood test.  At the animal hospital, Belle was perky and alert.  I have a memory of seeing the doctor carry her under his arm from one room to the next.  Her ears were alert and she was surveying everything.  I felt proud of her.  I realized that in many ways she had developed on the feline level attributes I admire–curiosity, sensitivity, affection, and spirit. 

On Monday, September 21, I returned to the vet who told me her kidneys were failing.  He gave me steroids and vitamins to give her and showed me how to use them.  Belle was shaking in the carrier while we waited to get in.

During the next few days, I worked half days at home writing a speech for my company's general counsel to present at the company's environmental conference the following week.  I was able to be with her more than usual and observe her.  I had the impression that a lot of the time when I was coming home, she was putting on a good face for me.  She didn’t respond to the steroids.  She wasn’t urinating or eating.  I was torn up inside–not wanting her to suffer, but also not wanting to have to choose euthanasia for her.  She seemed especially affectionate during this time.  On Wednesday, I noticed her eyes were becoming discolored.  They had an irregularly shaped brownish border around the pupil.  It hurt me terribly to look into her eyes and see her sick.

When I went to get Belle from the utility room on Thursday morning, September 24, she was huddled on the carpeted stairway instead of inside her basket.  I wondered if she had slept.  She didn’t jump up to bask in the warmth of the light on the dresser in my bedroom as she usually did.  Instead she went to the light in the office that was on a low chest.  I suspected she could no longer jump high. 

Later while jogging, I decided that the best course was euthanasia.  I was concerned about her being really sick while I was away at the conference the following week with no one to take care of her.  This wasn't something the cat sitter could or should handle.  I called the doctor as soon as the office opened to set up an appointment.  He said we could come in at 4:30 that afternoon.  He also indicated that he felt I was making the right decision.  If I waited longer, she might have had convulsions.

I was home with her that afternoon working on conference issues in my office.  Belle dozed under the lamp.  But as I had noticed on the previous days I had worked at home, her sleep was not sound.  Each time I walked out of the study, she immediately followed me.  About 3:30, I finished and went to get ready to go.  She came into my room and rolled for me, and I burst into tears.  She had rolled a lot for Pam since Pam couldn’t pick her up because of her allergies, but she had never rolled much for me.  She had demonstrated her affection in other ways.  I went to the couch and spent the time before leaving brushing her and talking to her and crying.  She purred loudly in her inimitable style.

We lose Belle
I carried Belle into the vet’s office without the carrier.  I couldn’t bear to think of walking out with it empty, and I wanted to hold her close.  At the vet’s office, I signed a form.  We were admitted almost immediately into the surgery room.  There, two attendants held Belle.  The doctor shaved a place on her front leg.  After this, he had me stand so I could see her from the front, and then he administered the injection.  Belle was making moaning noises, but not as strong and vigorous as usual.  The attendant holding her head comforted her with words.  The first injection didn’t hit the vein.  Belle was quiet, but didn’t expire as fast as she would have.  The doctor gave her another injection in the hind leg, and she immediately drooped.  The attendants let go of her and let me come to her.  I stroked her head and neck, bent down to her, nuzzled her for the last time, talked a bit to her, and kissed her.  It was over.  I left her body to be cremated.  I indicated that I didn't want her ashes because I felt I had no special place like a yard to put them.  Later I regretted this–I probably could have found a place where I could have buried them.

After leaving the vet's office, I drove to Dominick’s supermarket and bought a lavender chrysanthemum plant.  In the evening I called Pam to tell her the news.  She and I sobbed together. 

Remembering Belle
“Belle, if I could have, I would have made you live forever.”  Those were the words I cried to myself in those first few days after her death.  And as soon as I thought it, I understood why the human had to have a concept of heaven, why, if there were no heaven we knew of, we had to invent a heaven.  We want what we love to live forever.

Shortly after Belle's death, I noticed one of Belle's hairs had wedged itself between the glass on the dresser and the dresser near where Belle sat under the lamp.  I left it there until I moved ten years later.

A few weeks after her death, I wrote the following in my journal:

Belle, I miss you.  I miss your presence as I putter and work around the house.  So often since our parting, I finish a thought or project at home and turn to see what you are doing, and you’re not there.  I miss you more than I did my parents when they died.  My parents were not around me in everything I did at home as you were. You were there batting the water when I took a shower.  You were there when I studied, worked at the computer, changed the sheets on my bed, ran the water in the kitchen sink, watched television, or read. I miss the softness of your body against my cheek, relieving me of stress.  I miss your loud purrs.  I miss your voice.  I miss your welcoming me when I come home.  I miss the unconditional love you gave me.

Belle's legacy
After Belle’s death, in her honor I went public about being a vegetarian.  Over my lifetime, many people, events, experiences, classes, and books have helped shape who I am.  Belle gently led me to choose to become a vegetarian.

About the Author ()

I am a retired environmental, health and safety manager who has done some work in communications. I have a knowledge of and passion for sustainability issues. In temperament I am a peculiar mix of stable soul and free spirit.

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