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« Off Line Again | Main | Failed Dreams »

An Empty Lap

When I first saw her, she was small enough to hold in my hand.

My lover of the past seven years had just moved out, and taken custody of the cat (only fair, since it was originally hers). In sudden need of feline companionship (generally easier and faster to replace than the feminine variety--at least a satisfactory replacement), I responded to an ad on the bulletin board in the local grocery in El Segundo, and went to a house a few blocks from mine that was dispensing kittens from a recent litter.

They were standard-issue tabbies, though a claim was made that they had a Siamese grandmother. There were four of them, playing with each other. That is, three of them were playing, and one was standing back, more aloof. It was a grayish color, with just a hint of brown stripes. It was a little smaller than the others, and looked to be the runt.

I reached over and scratched between its outsized ears. It didn't seem afraid.

"Her name is Francesca," one of the girls of the household offered helpfully. I opined that it was a pretty big moniker for such a little cat.

I picked it up to inspect the nether regions, in order to verify the gender, and allow it to be henceforth described by a slightly more specific pronoun. After the inspection, she (as it indeed turned out to be) curled up in my hand, and promptly fell asleep.

I realized that my choice was to either wake her up, or take her with me. She seemed to have adopted me, and it was the beginning of a long relationship in which she would, whenever possible, seek (and generally find, at least for a while) slothful slumber on various temporarily horizontal parts of my body.

I think that she left her mother too soon--she wasn't properly weaned (perhaps partly because she was the runt of the litter, and could never get enough). For years after I got her, she would suck my finger with gusto if I offered it to her. It also took her a while to learn to, in Garrison Keillor's immortal words, work up the courage to do what needs to be done.

When I first got her home, Stella (as I subsequently renamed her) hid under various articles of furniture for the first couple days. I gradually coaxed her out with bowls of food and milk.

At first, she wouldn't go outside. Gradually, she started to adventure out the door, but she would only go as far as the extent of the shade of the house, stopping at the terminator drawn by the sun. She was like a little groundhog, fearing her own shadow.

But eventually, she worked up the grit and gumption to explore the whole yard, and after a few weeks, she would come in only for food and to sleep on me, two passions in which she indulged herself almost to the end of her days.

It turned out that the aloofness toward her siblings at our first meeting was not out of character--Stella hated cats with a fierce passion (again, perhaps a symptom of having to fight for her place at the dairy, and often losing). I'm not sure what she thought she was.

Accordingly, when Patricia brought Jessica into the house a few years later, she didn't take well to the interloper, growling at her whenever in her presence (other than at dinner time, when she was too busy stuffing her jowls to notice the other cat next door).

Taking her away from her mother early didn't seem to have damaged her other natural instincts--she was a great ratter, one time cleaning out the garage from an infestation. But she'd been slowing down in recent years, as she approached her fifteenth birthday.

I dropped her off at the vet on Thursday evening for a follow-up visit from her hospital stay last week. She'd been eating all right for the past couple days, but I didn't get a chance to feed her before I took her in, because I had been working late and had to get her there before the office closed. I boarded her there for the weekend because I was going away, and there was no one else who could get the pills into her twice daily. I planned to pick her up on Monday morning before work.

On Friday, I got a call from the vet. She told me that her blood count was back down as low as it was when I first brought her in the previous week, and that she was extremely weak again, with a lowered temperature. She was afraid that there was more going on than just the blood parasite that had been diagnosed, and for which she was being treated. She thought that without another transfusion, she would not last long.

Unfortunately, even with another transfusion, the prognosis was poor, and it would be very expensive, because this time she would have to go to an emergency clinic to have the blood typed, and a battery of tests to determine what the problem was. She feared that it was perhaps a previously undiagnosed cancer.

The choices were to spend thousands of dollars to keep her alive a while longer, or to see if she could fight her way back again, and hope for the best. She didn't seem to be suffering, other than being very weak, so there was no consideration of euthanizing her. I was torn because I was two thousand miles away, and didn't want her to die alone, in a strange place, but I was helpless, short of spending a lot of money that I didn't have, probably in futility.

We decided to give her one more chance to fight her way through, as she had the previous weekend, but with little hope.

On Saturday, the doctor called to tell me that the fierce little flame had finally flickered out in the night. No more clawing furniture, or catching rats, or sitting on laps, unless she's gone to a place where all those feline recreations are available in abundance, and perpetuity. Jessica now has no one to annoy by batting her tail, or leaping from heights.

She'll be cremated, and I'll scatter the ashes in the yard in which she spent so many contented hours playing and sunning.

How do these little creatures insinuate themselves so deeply, so inextricably into our lives and hearts? We've bred them for certain traits over the millennia, but in some ways, just as they adopt us now (as Stella adopted me), perhaps they've bred us as well, in a coevolution. It's hard to know, but I suspect that when we spread our consciousness into the universe, theirs will go with us. And if I go myself, I think I'll save a few of the carbon atoms from her corporeal existence to take along as well.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 23, 2004 12:47 PM
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Excerpt: How do these little creatures insinuate themselves so deeply, so inextricably into our lives and hearts? We've bred them for certain traits over the millenia, but in some ways, just as they adopt us now (as Stella adopted me), perhaps...
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Excerpt: Growing up, my family had a black cat we called Pharaoh, he was a mean bastard, and weighed what seemed like 20 lbs. All black, with a tuft of white on his neck, his reputation and demeanor was that of...
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Sympathies, Rand. Very eloquent. I've avoided having pets for the last several years because I've been hesitant to allow another creature to insinuate itself into my life and heart as you say. Sometimes I forget what I'm missing.

Ad Astra, Stella.

Posted by JAM at February 23, 2004 01:30 PM

I'm so sorry. Crying over this. I'm so sorry for you. It must be awful.

Posted by Janessa Ravenwood at February 23, 2004 01:45 PM

My sympathies to you.

--Fred ( a fellow cat person )

Posted by Fred K at February 23, 2004 01:45 PM

Rand, that's terrible. You have both my and my wife's sympathies.

Posted by McGehee at February 23, 2004 02:14 PM

"It seems to me possible that certain animals may have an immortality, not in themselves, but in the immortality of their masters... very few animals indeed, in their wild state, attain to a 'self' or ego. But if any do, and if it is agreeable to the goodness of God that they should live again, their immortality would also be related to man -- not this time to individual masters, but to humanity."" [C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain]

I sympathize. God puts these animals here for some good reason, I am sure, so look for the good in this sad event, and may your grief be quickly soothed.

Posted by bchan at February 23, 2004 03:05 PM

Oh, Rand, I'm so sorry. This hurts my heart. I'm just in tears for you and your beloved cat. I know what you're going through - I went through something similar myself with my precious Mischief.

Wherever we go after death, if there aren't any cats, I'm not going.

Posted by Barbara Skolaut at February 23, 2004 03:33 PM

I've been following the story of your poor sick cat. I'm sorry it ended like this for you, and her. Please accept my sympathy. If there is a good, just God in this universe (and I believe that there is), then you will see each other again.

Ad Astra Per Aspera,

Posted by Tom Schafer at February 23, 2004 03:45 PM


Don't worry about your friend. My dog Nigel let me know the two of them are hanging out. He always liked cats in his day, and evidently she gets a kick out of an Old English Sheepdog wearing depends held on with masking tape.

They make a fine pair and are keeping each other company. And, trust me, the ache in your heart will mend in a time. The moisture in the corners of your eyes will eventually comfort a new pet as much in need of your love as you are in need of a friend.

My condolences.

Posted by joe at February 23, 2004 06:21 PM

My condolences, Rand. As a fellow cat lover I can well imagine the gap she's left. Sounds like she was an excellent cat.

"Wherever we go after death, if there aren't any cats, I'm not going."


Posted by Andrew Case at February 23, 2004 07:07 PM

In March of 1995 we had to put our dog of 12 years to "sleep" as she had very extensive lung cancer.

We did what we could to keep her around, but one day she put her head in my lap with a look of "please help me end this".

Every year on March 11, I cry again. I know it was the right thing to do. But knowing that has not made it easy to accept.

This comment can be made of cats...

"Do dogs have souls? Maybe not in the sense we reserve for ourselves, but in other sense: memory. That's where they go, and it's good enough for them...I thought of some other dogs I've known, and how it's necessary to recollect them from time to time, and thank them for the honor of holding their ghosts until you relinguish your own."

--James Lileks (

Then there is this, of one of C.S. Lewis' own inspirations:

"I know of no reason why I should not look for the animals to rise again, in the same sense in which I hope myself to rise again--which is, to reappear, clothed with another and better form of life than before. If the Father will raise His children, why should He not also raise those whom He has taught His little ones to love?

"Love is the one bond of the universe, the heart of God, the life of His children: if animals can be loved, they are lovable; if they can love, they are yet more plainly lovable: love is eternal; how then should its object perish? Must the love live on forever without its object? or, worse still, must the love die with its object, and be eternal no more than it?

"Is not our love to the animals a precious variety of love? And if God gave the creatures to us, that a new phase of love might be born in us toward another kind of life from the same fountain, why should the new life be more perishing than the new love?

"Can you imagine that, if, hereafter, one of God's little ones were to ask Him to give again one of the earth's old loves--kitten, or pony, or squirrel, or dog, which He had taken from him, the Father would say no? If the thing was so good that God made it for and gave it to the child at first who never asked for it, why should He not give it again to the child who prays for it because the Father had made him love it? What a child may ask for, the Father will keep ready."

--George MacDonald

Posted by Fred Kiesche at February 23, 2004 08:17 PM

My sympathies, Rand. I, too, have been following the saga of Stella and hoping for a better ending.

Cats are wonderful creatures. Their very independence and aloofness makes the love they give you all the more valuable. Be glad for the years you had. Our Harry died of cancer at too young of an age, two years ago. I know what you mean about the empty lap.

Posted by John Lanius at February 23, 2004 08:45 PM

Terribly sorry to hear this. I understand how you must feel. Cats can be such reliable sources of comfort and love in times of stress that it's hard to know how to handle the stress of losing one.

Posted by Kyle Jelle at February 23, 2004 09:40 PM

My condolances upon the death of your feline friend. I have never been a pet owner myself, but know many who are, so I know how terrible the loss must be.

Posted by Mark R. Whittington at February 23, 2004 09:49 PM

I recently lost both of my cats Rand, one to old age and one I think to coyotes, and you have my sympathies.

I didn't know you lived in El Segundo though. I was just out there today. It is definitely a nice place to live.

Posted by Mark Oakley at February 23, 2004 10:00 PM

Allow me add my sincere condolences to the chorus.

I for one would still like to see a picture of Stella if you can find time to post one.

Posted by Ron Garret at February 23, 2004 11:21 PM

> How do these little creatures insinuate
> themselves so deeply, so inextricably into our
> lives and hearts? We've bred them for certain
> traits over the millenia, but in some ways,
> just as they adopt us now (as Stella adopted
> me), perhaps they've bred us as well, in a
> coevolution.

Pretty touching words, Rand...I love cats myself so I sympathize with your situation. Fortunately, my experience is one soon forgets as soon as the new feline companion moves in.

By the way -- if you want to have fun with your new cat, by a miniature radio controlled car! Our cat seems to think it's a mouse and keeps chasing it around the flat.


Posted by Marcus Lindroos at February 24, 2004 12:48 AM

My condolences.

Posted by Ted at February 24, 2004 05:17 AM

Even a short-timer can worm it's way in. We had a kitten, about a year old, that was attacked the night before a family trip by something outside the house. We took the kitten with us and my wife did her best to nurse it but when we got back after a week the vet said that a couple hundred dollars would get us at best maybe a 10% chance of survival, which was a couple hundred dollars more than we had, had to put her to sleep.

Talk about long names for small critters, try on Scaredy Cat Tuxedo, last in a long line of Scaredy Cats, none of whom made it to old age...

Posted by John S Allison at February 24, 2004 06:55 AM

My wife and I still mourn the loss of our neighbor's cat who for years traveled a rural suburban block every day to spend the day with her (not an original cat lover like myself) while his co-resident humans were away at work. I don't know how they insinuate themselves so deeply in our lives but I do know that I really miss that cat in particular.
My sincere sympathies.

Posted by philw at February 24, 2004 08:18 AM

Oh, Rand, I am so sorry at your loss. I had hoped for better news, and can understand how you feel at not having been with her. I like very much your idea of taking some of her ashes with you when you go to space. Even without them, she will be there with you.

Posted by Laughing Wolf at February 24, 2004 08:36 AM

I'm sorry I don't have any pics (and not just because I can't post them). I haven't taken any recently, and what I do have would have to be scanned from years past. I was going to take some after she was feeling and looking better, but...

I guess there's a lesson there.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 24, 2004 09:59 AM

So sorry to hear about your cat. My cat is 20 years old, and we've already had several close calls - four years ago she stopped eating when we were on vacation, requiring a week in the hospital and three weeks of tube feeding at home, last year she snuck out, got hit by a car and got a compound fracture of her leg. Both times the vet advised us to put her down, but we couldn't. She's still hanging in there, but she doesn't groom herself, and she often misses the box (hell, it's like she doesn't even try). It's tough to lose your kitty.

Posted by david at February 24, 2004 10:23 AM

Poor Stella. It's never easy to loose a cat - or any pet for that matter. Even when they live a good long time and you come to expect they won't be around much longer, it's still hard. Speaking as a cat lover myself, I know I won't let their fleeting existances keep me from bringing them into my life - even if I'm lucky enough to make it to Mars someday.

Posted by Patrick Banks at February 24, 2004 11:32 AM

Id like to think this means that now Stella can walk through walls, just like pixel.

Even so, you have my condolences.

Posted by Nathan Horsley at February 24, 2004 12:29 PM

My condolences, Rand. I know how much it hurts to lose a longtime pet.

Posted by Dave Trowbridge at February 24, 2004 02:39 PM

Sorry to hear it, Rand.

We put our family dog down in August 2001, and it was just damn hard.

Her suffering is over, at least. And, I've learned that grief doesn't last, and love does. In time, you'll look back and remember only the good things.

Jon Acheson

Posted by Jon Acheson at February 24, 2004 03:31 PM

Very sorry to hear the news. In can understand the loss. Lost 7 cats and a dog I grew up with - one by one. The two cats we have now are our surrogate children.

Both cats (Tip and Biner) spent some time in my lap today. One during a press event I was covering via webcast (EVA issues) Biner slept on one arm which made typing problematical.

The other cat (Tip) hopped up into my lap later as as some annoying person called - and, as a true 'heater cat' - allowed me to calm down.

Later, Biner decided to push coins down the wooden stairs - one by one - and then make "I wanna kill" noises when the squirrels showed up to raid the bird feeder.

Later, both cats (they are brothers) decided to fight over one particular cat toy (they have hundreds to chose from). And of course when the sun came out briefly today they crashed in the sun to charge their batteries.

Typical day - except no one barfed - at least as far as I can tell.


Posted by Keith Cowing at February 24, 2004 09:02 PM

Thanks, Keith (and everyone else). That's one thing I didn't mention in the bio--Stella was a barfer (think that it was hairballs--she had a very thick coat), too.

I won't miss that, but I'd be happy to do a lot of cleanup to have her back.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 24, 2004 09:12 PM

I'm not a cat person but I do understand the loss of your close friend. We recently had to send our 15 year old dog to a better place. He was old and mostly deaf. He was partly blind and no longer guarded the house like he once did. 500 times, I've stepped over the place where he used to sleep in the hall since he's been gone, and I still miss seeing him there.

My christian upbrining tells me they have no soul so they don't gain heaven. However, I hope you are relieved, as I am, by the thought that these faithful friend are somewhere, alive, younger, healthy with chair legs to claw and chew, shoes to drag around and an unlimited supply of rabbits and rats to chase.

To, Stella and Grunt Dog, we surely love and miss you!!

Posted by Steve at February 25, 2004 06:40 AM

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