"My Mother's Cat
In my family we took our cats seriously. The first cat I remember, growing up in the nineteen-fifties, was a white Persian my father named Omar Khayyam, after the famous Persian poet and astronomer. I’m sure The Rubaiyat included many lovely poems, but Omar the cat was mean as a snake, making me wonder how I grew to love cats so much.
At one point when my younger brother and I were teenagers, we had four Siamese cats—one cat per person. We didn’t set out to have four. We already had two, one seal point and one lilac point, Thai and Ping Pong. We all loved how vocal they were. Then we inherited two more from a gay couple my mother worked with who were about to be evicted if they didn’t get rid of the pair. They were Nicky and David, admittedly odd names for cats.
My favorite memory from those years was the time some of those cats, all of whom had claws and went outside, got into the garden of the neighbors whose backyard abutted ours. An ancient couple lived there whose last name was Hickish. In their eighties, they grew all manner of vegetables in an enormous garden that ended at the property line with a thicket of raspberry bushes. They were vegetarian, which we thought exotic.
One day, Gus Hickish called my dad. “Mr. Carlson, we’re having a problem with your cats.”
“Really? What kind of problem?”
“They’re eating all our raspberries. By the way, how many cats do you have?”
“Your raspberries?" Dad tried not to laugh.
Our cats did have interesting food preferences. For example, they ate raisins out of a jar, picked out one by one with their claws, and Oreos, picked apart to access the green mint filling. But raspberries?
“How many have you seen?” Dad asked.
“Uh, three or four?”
“That’s how many we have.”
Dad promised to try to keep them away from the raspberries. Ha, fat chance. At dinner that night, we chortled at the vision of our beloved Siamese cats munching on fresh raspberries right off of our neighbor’s bushes.
Dad’s favorite was Ping Pong, who would await Dad’s arrival home from work on top of the refrigerator. When Dad walked in, Ping Pong would hop onto his shoulders and purr like a slow-moving freight train. The only time I ever witnessed my dad cry was when that sweet cat passed away.
So, it was with that cat history that I inherited my mother’s cat when Mom passed away. COPD and cardiac problems challenged her during the last few years of her life. The product of tough New England stock, she refused to ask for help. Hell, she was so self-reliant that she struggled to accept desperately needed help even when she hadn’t asked for it.
As her health deteriorated, my notoriously fastidious mother began to slack off on housecleaning. I didn’t live in the same state, so it was challenging to visit as often as I liked. But every couple of months I’d drive to southern Connecticut from Albany, New York, and do what I could to clean and help her out.
One time, I tried to talk her into hiring someone to clean—even offered to pay for it, though Mom would have had no trouble affording it herself. She resisted, outraged at the prospect of paying someone to do something she could—theoretically—do herself. She relented and tried it once. But seeing a stranger, even one she paid, clean up all her messes made her squirm.
On my visits I noticed that her cat Jasmine, a long-haired Siamese breed called Balinese, did not consistently use her litter box. Mom kept the box in the basement. Cleaning out the box and changing the litter meant climbing down and then up those basement stairs, a hardship for someone with her medical conditions. The house stunk of cat pee, and I’d find hard little bullets of cat poop around the house.
Finally, after several hospitalizations, Mom succumbed to her illnesses.
Mom had appointed me as the executor of her estate. That meant, among other things, that I had to get her house ready to sell, a monumental undertaking considering its condition. Like many who had grown up during the Great Depression, Mom had difficulty discarding anything that might possibly be of use to her at some point in the future. That’s why her basement was lined with shelves of small, clean glass jars that once stored things like olives and pickles. You never knew when you might need a couple hundred mustard jars.
Although I could postpone some aspects of the executor job, figuring out what to do with Jasmine required immediate attention. A nice cat, Jas was sweet and affectionate. But my husband and I already had two. Cats are notoriously difficult to combine in a household if you don’t introduce them as kittens.
So, I expected fireworks when I brought her home. Those three cats did not disappoint. Lots of screaming and fighting between Jasmine, accustomed to being an only cat with Mom, and my cats. I should have been prepared for Jasmine’s not-going-to-use-your-damned-litterbox business, but I wasn’t. No way was I going to tolerate her pooping and peeing all over our house.
I consulted our veterinarian. He told me about a litter-training procedure that works—sometimes. I would bring Jasmine to his animal hospital where they would put her in a small crate, half of which was a litterbox. The cat had little choice but to use the box. The bad news was that it took some weeks.
But it did work. When I brought Jasmine home a month later, she began to use her own personal litterbox. Hooray! Still lots of fighting with the other cats, but at least Jas wasn’t pooping and peeing all over the house.
But then she started again.
Cat fights continued to wake us up at night. Every day I had to inspect the whole house to figure out where Jasmine had done her business. Meanwhile I had a busy full-time job as a college professor. Between getting Mom’s house in Connecticut ready to sell and other estate settlement tasks, I didn’t have a moment to myself. The whole gestalt made me crazy. Who could grieve with all that happening?
The vet suggested another round of litter training. I agreed, but the same thing happened. I anguished about it all the time. He suggested we consider finding her another home, but Jasmine was old and refused to use a litterbox. Who would want a cat like that? Still, he felt confident he could find her a home.
I agonized over whether to do that. The thought of it tore my heart out. It seemed so disloyal to Mom. After all, Jasmine was the last living remnant of my mother. How could I give her away? I discussed it with my husband and was moving toward being able to let her go. What quality of life did Jasmine have? Accustomed as she was to being alone with my mother 24/7, she was miserable now with both of us working all day, and having to fend off my two cats.
A couple of nights later I returned home late, nearly eleven o’clock, my husband already asleep. Jasmine acted strange, not herself, although I couldn’t say how. Was she ill? I wrung my hands and vowed to take her back to the vet the next morning. After mentally reviewing my schedule I realized I’d have to rearrange my day’s commitments and groaned.
The next morning my husband woke me up. “I’m sorry to say that Jasmine died last night.”
“What? Oh no,” I moaned. Was he sure? Of all the cats I’d had over the decades, none had died at home of natural causes. I leapt out of bed.
“I knew something was wrong last night when I got home.” I started to weep. “I planned to take her to the vet in the morning. I feel so guilty.”
I called our vet and told him what happened. He surmised that an underlying cardiac condition had caused her death, which probably could not have been treated anyhow. I had given Jasmine to Mom as a gift, purchased from what I came to learn was a backyard breeder who was turning out inbred cats with cardiac problems.
He offered to perform an autopsy.
I considered it. “What’s the point? No, let her be. The poor thing’s been miserable since I brought her here. As far as I’m concerned, she died of a broken heart.”
So sorry, Mom. Let’s hope she’s at peace in cat heaven.
Then I said goodbye to the last living bit of my mother. Until Jasmine died, I hadn’t once cried about the loss of Mom. Now the floodgates opened. Only in retrospect did I realize I felt so overwhelmed with all things to do that I couldn’t afford to get in touch with the sadness I felt about losing my mother.
About the Author: Bonnie E. Carlson is a retired professor of social work who lives in Scottsdale, AZ with her husband, dog and too many cats. Her work has published in magazines such as The Normal School, Foliate Oak, Across the Margin, Broadkill Review, and Fewer Than 500. Her novel, Radical Acceptance, is forthcoming.
Note: Author's adorable cats are in the other photo on this page.
Note: Author's adorable cats are in the other photo on this page.