The Modern Mind

The impact of culture on human experience

The Death of a Cat

One can strike a meaningful relationship with an animal who is not one's pet

Apparently, Beauty died. She must have been 12, the oldest of my mother’s current colony of alley cats. Mother has not seen her for some ten days. Mas’ka, Beauty’s daughter, who is also coming on in years, is there, as well as Enemy – her long-time rival for the dominant position. But she is gone, and mother thinks gone.

I talked to her only once: usually, if I went out with mother to feed the cats, I could not distinguish her from among the others – they all have the same coloring. But that one time she addressed me, looking straight into my eyes, and I understood immediately why mother called her “Beauty”: she had a very beautiful, animated face. She was waiting for mother at the entrance to the building, when I came out one morning, approached me, instead of running away as any of the others would do, and, looking at me, very clearly said to me something specific. I did not understand, of course, what exactly she said, but it was so unmistakably addressed to me because I was I, a person closely connected to mother, and because I had the information she was seeking, that I felt the need to apologize for going out on my own business, instead of accompanying mother on her feeding mission, for not thinking about the waiting cats outside, as I was descending the stairs, for not having food with me. Truly embarrassed, as I would be encountering a person to whom I owed something and whose expectations of me I disappointed, I spontaneously answered her interrogation with “I’m sorry; I did not bring anything with me. My mother is going to feed you soon – perhaps, in ten minutes…” and she listened attentively, keeping her eyes on my face, and then stepped aside and let me go. She was a human cat.

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During her long life – very long by alley cats’ standards – she developed a special relationship with mother. She was one of the very few cats with a name and knew it. Mother talked to her in particular, had personal intonations for her, and Beauty responded in kind, brushing against mother’s legs and allowing mother to pet her. This relationship was more like a friendship, than a simple dependency. Beauty cared for mother, rather than regarding her only as a source of food. While Kus’ka was alive, that is, for the first ten years or so of Beauty’s life, Beauty knew that she could do very little for mother. She knew her place; she accepted the difference between a pet and a homeless animal; and she understood that mother loved Kus’ka but only condescended to her. In fact, she had a special relationship with Kus’ka as well. Kus’ka, herself a foundling, saved from the life of homelessness and brutal struggle for survival on the streets as a still blind kitten, was not jealous of mother’s alley protégées. She showed great interest in how they were fed, watching the daily ritual from her comfy but not very secure perch on the window-sill with such rapt attention that once she fell out of the window and had to be scooped from under a parked car, shaking in every cell of her small light-weight body and shaken to the innermost depth of her moral being – she did not leave the apartment since the day of her adoption and the fall itself, though it did not physically hurt her, added to the shock. Being brought face to face with the harsh reality of the street all of a sudden, however, if anything, made her interest in the unlucky creatures, who were condemned to stay there, even stronger and turned into a sense of duty. Her window-sill now equipped with a protective net, she would mediate between the cats outside and mother, exchanging comments with them and making certain that mother prepared their meals and fed them every day in time. Beauty was the leader and representative of the street community and sometimes would come the whole way up the stairs to the door of mother’s apartment and talk to Kus’ka in private – from behind the closed door: mother was afraid her pet, vigilantly kept away from every street influence, might be contaminated by an actual tete-a-tete.

The last several weeks of her life Kus’ka was ill – apparently, she had cancer of the mouth. Of course, mother tended her as she would her own child, and watching Kus’ka die was as hard on her.  She hoped, I’m sure, they would die together. Kus’ka’s death was a catastrophic loss; mother’s health, already poor, deteriorated; and, despite the very fortunate fact that, when it happened, my sister Anna happened to be in Israel, she felt she was left completely alone. Beauty understood that, even though, throughout this time mother continued preparing her street cats’ meals and feeding them. When Anna left, she waited for mother at the usual feeding time behind the apartment door and, when it opened, entered – she never did that before – quickly crossed the living room, jumped on the sofa, and curled against the pillows. She seemed to say, don’t worry: I shall live with you now.  This must have been too early for mother, she was not ready for another to replace the creature with whom she lived for eighteen years – ten of these years also with father – and who was her sole constant company for the eight years of her widowhood. She said, No. She could not sleep, when there was no one in the house. So, after she told me about Beauty’s offer, I urged her to take her on it. “I cannot,” she said, “She has fleas. I cannot deal with it now.”

Beauty accepted mother’s rejection as she accepted everything in her tough life. She would wait for mother downstairs, as before, at the entrance to the building, would brush against her legs, respond with a gentle meowing, when called by her name. Mother’s health continued to deteriorate. One day last November she could not get up. Outside, the cats waited. After several hours Beauty and Mas’ka, her grown daughter, went upstairs and began wailing. They wailed, until neighbors paid attention, opened the door, found mama in bed. Elvira took her to the hospital, where she stayed for about two weeks and was put back on her feet. While she was away, the cats were fed by mother’s delegates, Elvira or Nelly, from mother’s stores of cat provisions, prepared according to mother’s recipes. Elvira and Nelly also took care of them after mother returned from the hospital but was still too weak to go downstairs to feed them herself. They did not go hungry and there was no change in their daily schedule. But one of these days after their meal Beauty and Mas’ka followed Elvira upstairs. When she opened the door to the apartment, they stayed on the threshold. From there they looked at mother, sitting on the sofa in the living room. Then turned and went down.

Mother gave me a terrible scare in November. Since then, however, her condition has been stable. Elvira does all her shopping, and she leaves her apartment only to go feed her cats; “this is a sacred duty,” she says.  Apart from these daily trips down and back up the stairs, she has hardly left home two or three times in the last nine months – once with me, in March, to walk two blocks to the library.  It was in March that I had my conversation with Beauty. We shall never talk again. Her little sweet voice and the clever, interrogating look of her eyes stay with me.

Liah Greenfeld is the author of Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience

Facebook: LiahGreenfeld

Liah Greenfeld, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology, political science, and anthropology at Boston University.

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