Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Grieving for Fidget, the Yowlingest Kitty

When I was three or four, we lived on a farm.  Many cats lived in the barn.  I would chase them, and when I caught one, I would grab it around its middle and pick it up from behind, the kitty butt pointing right at my face.  Then I would walk around holding the kitty until it got away.  My mom likes to tell this story, and now that I have five cats, it's apt.  

Growing up, all of our cats were barn cats, and as such, they were treated well, but they weren't pets.  Our horses, cows, dogs, and ponies were all of use in some way, and since they served a purpose, they were treated well, but they weren't considered to have agency.  They weren't people.  They had personalities, but they were supposed to do as they were told, and if they didn't, they were punished.  I never liked the punishing part, but for years I never questioned it.  It's what you did.  That's how you treat animals.

When we rescued our first cat, Camille, some of my barn cat treatment behaviors came to the surface, and my husband asked me some questions and got me thinking about how I was treating her.  I began to think about what she wanted.  Camille would put up with some shenanigans, but mostly bide her time until she could make a break for it, or just hold it against me without telling me why.  She regarded my changing behavior with suspicion.

Camille, being princessy
We named our second cat Fidget, because she used to sit in the middle of the floor, get up, turn around, sit back down, then repeat the procedure.  I was on the phone with my husband when I came up with that name, and I asked him, "But what if that's not the right name for her?  What if she stops doing that?"  "Well, then she'll be a lazy layabout cat, and her name will be ironic."  Perfect.  (Years later, we realized that her behavior is typical of any animal that's been caged for long periods of time, so we were glad to have rescued her.)

Fidget was a lot more direct than Camille.   If you did something she didn't like, Fidget would start yowling almost immediately.  She never bit or scratched us, ever, just let out this plaintive "meow" that told you what you needed to know.  Living with Fidget was like having instant feedback on everything I was doing, like a biofeedback machine or shock treatment.  If she didn't like it, you heard about it.  She taught me to really watch where my head was, to stay aware and make sure the kitty was enjoying what was happening before I continued with my behavior.  I started considering her more carefully, more thoroughly, as an entity.  As someone to consider, not just a mouth to feed and an animal to serve my needs.  

Fidget, snuggled into James' jacket
Fidget also took care of us.  Somewhere along the line, she appointed herself Guardian of the Household.  Anyone who came into the house was inspected and regarded with suspicion until she decided all was well.  A friend knocked on our window once, and reported that Fidget ran up to the window and smacked her front paws against the glass until they backed off.  If one of the other cats was gone, she paced the house, restless, until they returned.  During any of our moves, she would pace around the inside of the car for an hour, yowling, until she got tired and sat still.  She made her preferences known, and if you didn't follow them, you heard about it.

Fidget was with us for nine years.  She died unexpectedly last April, and when I found her, I fell completely apart.  I kept telling her that if she would just get up, everything would be fine.  And I cried for hours.  James came home and we went to pieces together.  We buried her on a hill, in the sun, where she would have liked to be, basking.  

When I was five or six, my dad bought two goats, one dark brown and one a light beige color.  I milked those goats every morning and every night.  I don't think they had names, but I loved those goats.  My dad was really proud of me.  He wanted animals, and my mom didn't.  After a few years, my dad decided to have the goats bred, probably so that I'd have the experience of raising kids to grow into goats.  My brown goat had three kids, and the beige one had two (if I remember correctly).  We had just moved to a new house in the country, and my dad had to go on a business trip not long after the goats gave birth.

Me with my dark brown goats

I came home from school one day and one of the kids had died.  I don't remember a lot about what happened next, but I know that one by one, all of the goats and their kids died.  All of them.  (I found out much later that they needed a vaccination that they didn't get.)  My dad was out of town, and I remember we put the bodies in the garbage cans.  I'm sure I was sad, but I don't remember.  My mom didn't want animals.  She was irritated if one of the animals got out of their fence, let alone got sick.  She always said, "Your dad wants those animals, so you're going to have to deal with them."  It was our job to feed them and take care of them, and I knew when the goats died that I had to make sure I was as small as possible, that I couldn't have any feelings about it.  She didn't want them in the first place, so this inconvenience was just going to make her angry.  I had to take care of them, had to take care of the whole situation.  

I'm 30 years older than I was when my goats died.  But Fidget's death let me really feel that grief for the first time.  I know I loved those goats dearly.  But I didn't have time or space to mourn for them.  I was old enough to know instinctively what was and wasn't okay, and I wanted desperately to be loved.  So I didn't feel anything; I just put their bodies in the garbage and walked away.  Nobody talked about them anymore until years later.  They might never have existed in the first place.

Fidget was such a huge part of our household, living in six different places with us, keeping us honest with her yowling commentary, and keeping our other cats in line when that was necessary.  I realized after James and I stood by her headstone and cried for the 20th time or so, that I was truly mourning for the first time in my life.  No one needed me to take care of them.  I wasn't going to be punished for crying.  My husband's love would not disappear if I cried longer than he did.  I could delay getting back to my regularly scheduled work day until I felt better.  I could take all the time and space that I needed, and no one was going to criticize me or tell me I was too sensitive if I cried some more.  I could have everything I needed.  I could have as much as I wanted.

I know that Fidget had a great time living with us.  She loved sitting on James' lap, stretching out and eventually drooling on his leg as she purred away.  She loved getting brushed, and I often scritched her between the eyebrows and under her chin.  Sometimes she would "punk out", jumping around the kitchen like she was possessed, and then immediately start grooming herself, with that "I wasn't doing anything" expression on her face.  She loved chasing reflective surfaces, which I discovered when making a mix tape - the light reflected off the cds onto the ceiling as I moved them around, and she just about climbed up the wall to get at the lights.  

I didn't write this to tell a sad story.  I wrote this to talk about what I learned.  Fidget taught me so much when she was around, and couldn't stop teaching when she was gone.  I learned that grieving takes time and space.  You have to let yourself feel just as bad as you really feel, and express that in whatever way feels best for you.  In my childhood, I learned to just get on with it, to push it down and walk away, quickly coping with whatever's next on the agenda.  That won't work forever.  You have to let yourself be sad to truly feel better.

Fidget in her spot on the kitchen table, in the middle of everything
These days, we still miss Fidget.  But we can tell stories now without breaking down.  We remember her fondly, and with no regrets.  I miss her, but that's okay.  She will always be a presence for us, keeping me honest and the other cats in line.