Conversation with my Dead Cat – Kelly Harwood

One of Kelly Harwood's cat portraits.

Kelly Harwood

In late September, Rosie visits me in a dream. Maybe she is on my mind because a year has passed since we buried her under a lilac bush in the backyard, or because the last days of summer will always remind me of her short life. In the dream, the sky is just as ethereal as it was the night Rosie died. With the sun setting behind her, my dead cat appears before me as if lit from within, her pale peach fur glowing in a halo of orange light.

We sit together in the metal rockers on the front porch and look out at the bloodstain in the street where Rosie was hit by a car a year ago. In reality, the stain has long since disappeared, but in the dream it is as bright and wet as it was the day we found her lifeless body in a cardboard box. I feel the same rush of dread in seeing the blood this time: it’s evidence of a painful death, of suffering that I did not want my kids to see.

Sensing my dark thoughts, Rosie interrupts the silence. She tells me that her Buddhist faith allowed her to withstand the torment of wearing doll clothes and riding down the sidewalk in a baby carriage. Lucy and Stella did this to Rosie when she was only a kitten and it never occurred to me that she wasn’t enjoying the playtime ritual as much as my daughters.

It’s all about non-attachment, Rosie says, looking out to the sidewalk as if she were caught in reminiscing. Buddhists believe that attachment is the cause of all suffering. When we attach to things, a certain outcome, people, pride— we suffer. She pulls out a pack of cigarettes and offers me one before lighting her own.

You’re a Buddhist cat? And a smoker? I accept her offering and grab her tail, which momentarily functions as a lighter.

Actually, all cats are Buddhists.

But that look of serenity on your face when they put you in the stroller? Surrender. Not serenity.

The gentle purring, half-closed eyes?

Deep meditation.

So you have mastered the art of non-attachment?

I wouldn’t say mastered, but when you wake up one day and realize you are a fucking cat dressed in doll clothes, you get pretty good at letting go of expectations.

Are Buddhists allowed to swear? I ask, a little surprised by Rosie’s lack of reverence. She doesn’t sound as squeaky or cheerful as I assumed she would when I imagined us talking like this. Her voice is raspy and haggard for such a little cat, perhaps due to the smoking.

Buddhists don’t subscribe to the idea of sinful words or sin, Rosie says, only karma and suffering. She is lying on her back now with her legs falling to each side, a stick of ash dangles from the tip of her cigarette. And you know, God lives within each of us, so when I swear, it’s just God swearing. She laughs then, a throaty smoker’s laugh.

So do all animals swear and smoke? I ask her. What about dogs?

If you ask me, dogs are idiots, Rosie says. Like that Bassett hound next door— what a disaster. Too needy and he laughs at his own jokes.

Charlie tells jokes? Let me hear one?

You know, the usual. How many cats does it take to screw in a light bulb? That sort of thing: nothing original.

The long ash from Rosie’s cigarette finally falls. She rubs the filter into the floorboards of the porch, then leans forward to lick her belly and lower regions.

What are you doing? I ask. We’re in the middle of something here, a conversation, and you’re licking your crotch.

Rosie ignores me and continues to groom the pink skin of her underbelly. When my own cigarette dies, I light another to distract myself until Rosie looks up, content in her defiance.

Okay, what do you want to know?

Well for starters, how many cats does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Cats don’t change light bulbs.

That’s the punchline?

Something like that. But let’s move on. What else do you want to know?

Suddenly I am tongue-tied. After a pause, I ask, Why did you have to die?

We don’t really have a choice when we die. Or what form we take when we are born again obviously — it’s the law of karma, the energy of the universe. Bad things happen to everyone.

But I don’t get it. You come in to our lives like you own the place, save the day, make everybody fall in love with you and then BAM! Just when it looks like things are turning around for us, you run out in front of the first car you see.

This isn’t about me, is it? What do you really want to know?

The kids were devastated — destroyed. First the divorce, the bankruptcy, this tiny rental house; I can’t afford groceries! And then the one silver lining in all of it disappears. So I guess what I really want to know is what the fucking point of all this is? Why give us hope and then take it away?

The point, Rosie says slowly. The point. That’s a good question; let me know when you figure that out.

Aren’t you supposed to tell me? Isn’t that why you’re here?

No, I’m just a cat, not the Buddha. Besides, that’s not the question either.

That is the question.

I don’t think so.

That is the fucking question.

Meooooow, Rosie says, mocking me with her best cat imitation. Look who’s swearing now.

Sensing my frustration, she lights another cigarette, perhaps waiting for me to change the subject. When I don’t, she sits up a bit straighter and clears her throat. But this reminds me, she says, leaning forward. I met this spider when I was alive, in your downstairs bathroom, which by the way, is infested with spiders.

I know, I need to do something about that. The kids are afraid to use the toilet down there.

Well, I came in to drink some toilet water, and this spider was just sitting beside the drain in the sink — begging me, just begging me — to swallow him or turn on the faucet or claw him to bits. Of course I refused, being a Buddhist, but we got to talking.

It turns out that in his past life, the spider was a human, a very wealthy and handsome man. But he never appreciated what he had and he spent his whole life — forty years — cheating on his wife and squandering their fortune. He embezzled from his business partners and fell from grace in his community and by the time his own children were grown they wanted nothing to do with him.

Years and years went by, and when the man was very old, divorced, and alone, his daughter reached out to him, hoping that perhaps he would be willing to take tests to determine whether or not he was a bone marrow match for her son who had been diagnosed with leukemia. The boy was only twenty, the youngest of this man’s eleven grandchildren. But the man had never met him, or any of his grandchildren.

What did he do?

Well his life was coming to an end anyway; he was lonely and ill. So he agreed to take the tests, which were very painful, or so he said, but the pain made him happy, relieved him of a small piece of his guilt.

Really?

But it also killed him, and so he never knew whether the boy lived, or if his marrow was even a match.

Rosie took a long drag of her cigarette. Then she looked at me expectantly.

Why are you telling me this?

Well it’s a good story and I just thought, sitting here, well, it could be worse. It could always be worse.

Because there’s a spider living in my basement, begging to die.

Yes.

Rosie, I don’t find that story particularly sad. This man, this spider man, he seemed to get what he deserved.

I reach for another cigarette but it is the last one in the pack.

Take it, Rosie says, and when I look up, she is sitting next to me her, magic tail lighter burning at the tip of the cigarette. Let me ask you one more time, Kelly: what do you really want to know?

For the first time, I see that Rosie’s fur is caked with dried blood, gravel, and crumpled leaves. I smell the bitterness of her blood, feel the hollowness of the day she died. Suddenly, I am crying, sobbing really, and the tears fall faster than I can wipe them away, like some kind of seam has torn and all the suffering of the world is rushing through me all at once.

I am not crying for the sad little spider in the downstairs bathroom, but for the homeless man I pass out the greenbelt every morning, the one who drapes himself with newspapers at night and smiles at me as he digs through the trash can at the library for scraps of food.

I cry for the old Congolese man who came to the English as a Second Language Forum I led a few years ago. The one who wore an old and tattered but lovingly cleaned brown suit and brought with him a resume and a belief in the fresh start he would most likely never find.

I am crying for Dan Polaski, whose cooties we gave to each other on the playground in grade school and whose clothes were dirty and whose house was in a trailer park. And whose life I made worse all the times I joined in the teasing and all the times I did nothing to stop it.

I cry for my sister-in-law whose baby boy Benjamin lived only five weeks and died in her arms. I cry for the courage it took her to speak at Ben’s funeral without falling to the ground and I cry out of guilt for my own healthy daughter whose head rested on my shoulder as Ben’s tiny casket was lowered to the ground.

And I cry for Lucy, Sam and Stella, for all the ways I have failed them as a mother, and all the ways I cannot save the day. I cry for our hundred drawings of Rosie, the tokens of our grief. Mostly for the ugly drawings, which despite their flaws, the lopsided ears and crooked tails, are spared from the trash and hang lovingly with the rest.

The world so full of suffering, so full of struggle, and yet the saddest part of life is not the suffering, but the fading light of courage and hope that exists before we close our eyes to that inevitable moment of surrender. I look up, but then Rosie is gone, the bloodstain in the street only a memory. The sun, too, has disappeared below the horizon. In its wake, echoes of purple, red, and a soft pale peach reverberate throughout the sky.

 

[Online version edited by author’s request. Ed.]

Kelly Harwood is a writer and artist living in Boise, Idaho. She received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts in January of this year and is currently at work on a collection of experimental essays linked to one hundred cat drawings she made with her children in between cigarettes and too many glasses of wine.

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