It is at times like this that I wish I had paid greater attention to my professor when he taught 18th century poetry. I want to celebrate the life and mourn the death of my cat, California. When I moved from the west coast to the east coast, I thought I might just die from culture shock. I was unhappy and lonely. Someone suggested that I go to a local pet store to see if I might find a pet to keep me company. So, I did.
As I walked the aisles of the pet store, I saw two extremely small kittens in a cage. One was black and white and was taking as big a bite of the hard food in the tray as his tiny mouth would allow; he would chew the food and then spit it back out onto the plate. At once the other tiny, black creature in the cage would scarf up the food as fast as she could. I watched them do this for about 10 minutes wondering what was wrong and which one of them had the problem.
The woman at the counter noticed me watching and offered a good price for the black and white. The black one, she said, was a runt and not expected to live much longer. Well, I thought to myself, not if I take away the black and white one. So, I bought both for the price of one.
I knew exactly what to name the black and white, Q, jr. The cat I had just before leaving the west coast had been named Q. He was a rescued cat who, by the time he hit age two, was riddled with cancer from drinking the contaminated water in the Los Angeles river basin. For some reason that black and white cat was spitting out food for the other cat to eat and I thought it was an ingenious act and worthy of the name of the amorphous being of Star Trek fame, Q (also the name given to the first cat we had, by my son).
Both cats were so small I could hold one each in the palms of each hand. The black cat was female and while she was a true cat, stand offish and aloof, I named her California. She was my California girl. When I took Q, jr. and California to their first Vet visit, I learned that California had a cleft palate and was unable to eat solid food. It was, the vet said, a symptom of a congenital abnormality that indicated with some certainty that she would not live much longer than a month. He offered to put her down at no charge. I thank him and left, with both cats. I had the answer to my question. Q was keeping California alive by pre-chewing the food that her small and ill-shaped mouth could not accommodate.
California had some trouble with regular cat behavior. Aside from her difficulty eating hard food, which I remedied immediately by buying soft food and feeding them both breakfast and dinner each day - a decision I would rue about 10 year later, I noticed that Q would clean himself and then clean California after each meal. It wasn't for want of trying. California just could not synchronize her tongue and her paw. Out would shoot her tongue and swipe would go her paw only there was about a 10 second delay in the paw movement and a gap of something like 3 inches between it and her tongue. She looked more like a sad frog shooting out her tongue but catching no flies. She just could not get the paw to meet the tongue. This did not seem to bother her. She would simply try to rub the dry paw across her face, like she saw Q do, but this, too, was difficult because she just could not seem to find her face. She might accidently connect with the side of her head or hit herself in the nose, all the while darting out her long tongue that licked air.
Once finished with his own preening, Q would saunter over and groom California. She would sit very still until his cleaning got a little to zealous and she would topple over. Figuring that was enough of that, California would go back to hiding under the couch while Q investigated every square inch of his new home. Part of his research required him to jump up on things like tables and chairs; kitchen counters came next. This happened only a few times after Q met Mr. spray bottle.
It didn't seem like California would ever do much else than eat and sleep under the couch but one day I caught her watching. Q would jump onto the chair and from there up on the table where he could "protect" the papers I would be grading by laying on top of them. California was a runt. She was undersized, underweight, and she had very short front legs. She watched and watched until one day, about three months later, I heard someone jump up on the table and went out to yell at Q only to find California blinking her black eyes set wide apart in her very black head looking around the room as if trying to locate the person who had picked her up and set her in the middle of the table. For a minute, I, too, wondered who had set her on the table but it was just us cats in the apartment, so I knew she had learned how to jump.
And so our lives together began. Q had a three-month lead on learning but California doggedly followed him in each new skill. She was also a savant. California could open any kind of door. I often watched Q figuratively scratch his head, as he would watch California open a door that I would immediately close. Q would then try to follow her technique. It took Q a decade to figure out how to open an already open door by pulling it toward him with his claws. If the door swung in the opposite direction -too bad for Q, he would have to enlist California who would walk over, sit down, study the door for a few seconds and then with a flip of her paw swing the door wide open.
Early this morning after a difficult week of going back and forth to the Vet's office, California passed away, quietly as she did most things. She simply did not wake up. I knew she was in pain and tried to make her comfortable. I held vigil all night to help her stand or move to rearrange herself. She finally fell into the deepest sleep she has had in months and I waited. She did not wake up.
Thank you for allowing me to share this off topic but critical passage. I do remember when my son was a baby I believed that cats would suffocate him in an attempt to lick the milk from his mouth, so we did not have a cat as a pet until my son was ready for college. I just wanted to make sure. Over the years we have come to love these furry, funny, fanatics. Just add Catnip and there is no holding back a great big belly laugh. The sound of California snoring was a sound I could listen to forever, and the sound of her breakfast cry "Neoww" while just as adorable made me crazy.
This is not the poem I wanted to write, a poem as smooth and graceful as Miss California Kitten Cat, herself. She was well loved and she loved us well.