His spirit and appetite intact, I somehow convinced myself that he was only walking funny because he strained his leg. So when the vet told me and my husband yesterday that Heath had a tumor and that she thought he should be put down then and there, I went from thinking I had several more years of his antics to contemplating how to say goodbye.
I had to confront the fact that he would no longer pounce into the bathroom and stick his head in the shower, craving affection so much he didn’t mind my wet fingers along the backs of his ears. He wouldn’t glide under the covers next to me at night or roll about as I rubbed his tummy. He wouldn’t get excited as I pulled out his brush for a grooming session. He wouldn’t walk under me while I was in downward dog, his upside-down face sniffing at my nose.
And he would no longer be there while I wrote.
When my husband and I were in the “goodbye” vet room—him strong and stoic, me bawling like a crazy lady—we told Heath how much we loved him, that we’d miss him, and that he was a good boy (despite that fact that he viewed litter boxes as only an occasional option for his defecation). Then I pressed my forehead to his little kitty forehead, curled my fingers under his chin, and asked, “How am I supposed to write this novel without you?”
I will still finish out Nano. I will keep writing. But a part of me feels like I am continuing on with a man down.
I realize that there are many worse things in life than losing a cat and that non-animal people may find me downright melodramatic (which I completely concede I am at the moment). However, I still think there’s a connection between writers and their cats. Three years ago I even wrote an essay on that connection, with Heath as my muse.
It seems like a fitting day to share it.
Feline Lessons in Writing
“If you want to write, keep cats.”
Many writers, from the Brontë sisters to T.S. Eliot, have expressed an appreciation for cats. Are cats just comfortable companions to people in an often lonely profession, or is there more to this bond between authors and felines? Mark Twain, for example, may have been inspired by cats, as he once attributed eloquence to felines, saying, “If animals could speak, the dog would be a blundering outspoken fellow, but the cat would have the rare grace of never saying a word too much.”
I assure you Twain was not talking about my sixteen-pound ball of orange and white fluff named Heath. Aside from the space/time impossibilities of that, Heath is not gifted with the ability to stop at just one meow and has never heard of vocal restraint when it comes to tuna. Still, I wondered, what was this connection between writers and their cats, between me and Heath? He helps me in many ways, supplying a smooth and steady purr as I type on my bed and soft fur to comfort my bare feet as they rub his belly while I work at my desk. While I work on the floor, with articles, revisions, and other papers strewn around me, he ensures I never forget what is truly important in life — him — as he literally rolls his large, round body playfully over my writing. If he could talk, perhaps he would remind me that, as the French novelist Colette said, “Time spent with cats is never wasted.” But maybe cats are more than just good companions to writers. Maybe interacting with Heath, understanding his strange ways, is helping me to better understand the often equally mysterious, elusive, intelligent, curious, and playful — yet demanding — reader. Here is what I’ve discovered:
They See Things that You Can’t
“I wish I could write as mysterious as a cat.” ~ Edgar Allan Poe
Heath is not the best guard cat, as he is more likely to prance up to the deliveryman or service worker looking for a pat or a treat than to growl a ferocious meow, but he does alert me to the ghosts that surround me. Sometimes, as I gaze across the red sheets into his content easy eyes, his purring suddenly stops, his shoulder blades tighten under my palm, and his head shifts to the top, northeast corner of the bedroom I share with my husband, staring intently. I look and see no fly buzzing, no light trail from the dark outdoors vanishing around the corner, nothing. Yet he stares. It takes several moments of me smoothing his fiery fur before he can relinquish his concentration and return to purring.
Heath, along with his fellow felines, seems to have a knack for sensing things we humans cannot. Eleanor Farjeon, a writer of children’s stories, once captured this feeling saying, “It always gives me a shiver when I see a cat seeing what I can't see.”
Cats see a hidden world that is too dark for us to perceive. Their eyes glow like the moon and have vertical, oval slits instead of the round pupils most other mammals share. These attributes aren’t just cosmetically mysterious; they allow cats to see in dim light. The luminous effect comes from a reflective layer of cells behind the retina, which bounces light back onto the retina a second time. Because their retinas get two doses of light when we get only one, cats need pupils that can more efficiently protect them in changes of light — hence the ovals.
While my words that cross the parchment — ok, the word processor — belong to me, I am often reminded that, once they pass to a reader, he or she will bring his or her own way of seeing those words I created. They may even see things I didn’t realize were there.
They Appreciate Honesty
“A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.” ~ Ernest Hemingway
Heath doesn’t have much to hide, except for the poop he leaves every morning on the linoleum right next to — but of course not in — the litter box in our bathroom. And clearly, even with that, he’s pretty transparent. Similarly, when he is looking for some extra pats and attention, he is not afraid to show it by forcefully pushing his head into my palm. His moods, whether anxious, loving, excited, or hungry, are as easy to read as any book. In a similar way, I must remember that readers are usually open to an honest connection, but it will never materialize if I don’t bring truthful, brave thoughts to the page.
Sometimes They Want Too Much of a Good Thing
“A cat pours his body on the floor like water. It is restful just to see him.” ~ William Lyon Phelps
Heath loves basking in our closed-in apartment balcony, especially on ninety-degree days. As humans, we find any temperature above 112 degrees Fahrenheit to be pretty painful, but cats don’t reach the same feeling until 126 degrees. However, this is often to Heath’s detriment. Before my husband and I knew better, we gave Heath some water and figured he would let us know when he had had enough outdoor time, scratching on the exterior glass sliding door with a powerful paw. After all, if he liked being outside so much, why not let him be there as much as he wanted? But after one especially hot day had passed, he still lay like a lazy lion on the Astroturf before we scooped his tired body up and made him sit in air-conditioning. Then we noticed two red spots on his skin, which didn’t quite look like bug bites, and gathered, after a little research, that they were probably heat blisters. Now, to his dismay, we shuffle him back inside every couple of hours on hot days.
I have been fortunate enough to receive some positive feedback on my work. But even as a reader might praise something I did, and ask for more, I know that I need to keep a balance, and take some short breathers from the things I do best, otherwise the reader may finish my pieces feeling a little dizzy.
They are Listening, But Will only Pay Attention if you Have Something Worthwhile to Say
“Dogs come when they're called; cats take a message and get back to you.” ~ Mary Bly (Pen Name: Eloisa James)
Heath has amazing hearing and, like all cats, can hear sounds even higher than a dog can, sounds that do not even exist in our human world. Heath also has thirty muscles in his ear, as opposed to my measly six, which he can use to pivot his ear 180 degrees, funneling sound right to his eardrum. This helps him hear a rabbit crossing a field, or, more likely, my husband opening the fridge. When I call him, he often pretends to ignore me, but I know he heard by the way his ear flinches in my direction just ever so slightly. He is not quite as clever as he thinks.
As the rest of his body stays put, stretching on the carpet or curled up on a pillow, I realize I need something more than his name to entice him, so I shake the treats tin or open the sliding door to the balcony. These sounds spring his muscles into action in a way that adequately earns them the phrase “cat-like reflexes.”
I have written a lot of things I wanted to say, and I learned often that I failed to consider what was in it for the reader. Heath is not interested in what I have to say unless it benefits him; he’s looking for food, a belly rub, or some positive attention, just as a reader might need food for thought or comfort.
They Don’t Like Getting Stuck
“I believe cats to be spirits come to earth. A cat, I am sure, could walk on a cloud without coming through.” ~ Jules Verne
Cats’ bodies lack a collar-bone to allow for enhanced maneuvering in small spaces, and their senses help them always land on their feet. These assets provide them with the ability to gambol and meander with poise in otherwise restrictive places. However, despite his feline agility, Heath has a tendency to get in some tight spots that he can’t always get out of: in the bathroom cabinet, in the closet, even in between my bottom dresser drawer and the wall. His banging white paws and yelps will tell us that he is not cool where he is and needs some assistance! I cannot tame his curiosity, but I can shut drawers and doors, allowing for smooth adventuring around the apartment.
Similarly, I must guide readers through my stories carefully. Not so safely as to be boring, but safely enough so that the reader can glide back to the main room, or main thread, after a diversion.
They Often Surprise You
“The soul of another is a mystery, and a cat's soul is even more so.” ~ Anton Chekov
One very gross episode in the history of our apartment concerns a fly infestation. Beady little flies hung out on our ceiling and buzzed around our kitchen sink. As I cautiously crept to each fly, red-Solo-cup-turned-death-trap in hand, the flies were too quick for me. My husband was much more adept, but we also had help from a surprising source.
As a kid, my family had a cat who looked like a cheetah as she gracefully ran across the yard and left birds almost the same size as her on our front stoop. Heath, with his protruding belly and lackadaisical spirit, is the complete opposite. Yet, perhaps sensing his duty to help us combat the fly takeover, he adeptly smacked one dead against the glass door, reaching his paw to the exact spot in a matter of nanoseconds. A few minutes later, he leapt up awkwardly, exposing his large, white belly, as he clapped his paws over a fly mid-air.
Perhaps I should not underestimate the reader’s ability to “get it,” like I underestimated my house cat’s hunting prowess.
You Can Connect and Sync with Them
“Cats can be very funny and have the oddest way of showing they're glad to see you.” ~ W. H. Auden
Heath is always ready to predict our arrival home, meeting us at the door, eagerly meowing what we assume translates to: “Where have you been!” The writer Alexandre Dumas also appreciated the way cats seem to be in tune with us. He claimed that his cat, Mysouff, would meet him at the end of his street on his walk home every day. This would not be so remarkable if Dumas had been very punctual, but even if Dumas was running late, his cat would somehow know not to leave his comfy, cat cushion just yet. Instead, he would pounce down at times that seemed random to those in the house and would always walk toward Dumas at the moment he approached his home street.
This kind of mystical syncing between myself and a reader would be amazing. Through taking in my words, readers may even come to know parts of me better than I know myself. They may see my subconscious come to light on the page and observe intentions I had not even been aware of. That said, Heath also thinks he knows that we should really wake up about thirty minutes before our alarm clocks says we should, so you might want to take this theory with a smidge of salt.
When all is Said and Done, It Belongs to Them
“When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is not amusing herself with me more than I with her.” ~ Michel de Montaigne
When Heath takes a break from being a tuna connoisseur or outdoorsman, his favorite thing to do is follow the erratic, continual movement of a neon green feather controlled by yours truly. It flies, it slithers, it bounces, it soars, until the game is over. Heath catches it and holds the toy securely between his paws. Likewise, when a piece is relinquished once it is published, the toy now belongs to the reader.