A Letter To My Cat, By Paris Lees

To my wee Kitten,
You will never read this. We never even communicated with words while you were alive, but I think you understood the most important message a person can send: I love you. I told you daily. It gives me hope we can all be heard, in the end.
One of my earliest memories is of wanting a sleek and special creature like you. When I was little I thought cats were girls and dogs were boys. Dogs may be man’s best friend but you were my familiar. We’ve been through thick and thin together. I’ve lived my entire adult life, to date, with you by my side.
You were the last one. No one wanted you, which is the reason I did. I guess I projected myself onto you from the start. You were black, all over, like the cats witches kept in my childhood storybooks. I could hold you in one hand back then. My palm became something of your own personal Speakers' Corner: a platform from which you could broadcast your manifesto of squeaks. What were you saying? I don’t know, but I do know you were a little ball of fur. I remember, back then, wondering who I would be all those years in the future when you died before me, as I knew – barring an accident – you would. We are so insecure as teenagers. We have so much ahead of us. We don’t know what life will be.
Your adolescence, though much shorter than mine, did, for a while, coincide with it. I soon realised that you were quite the social butterfly, becoming a firm fixture on Nottingham’s after-party scene. You were used to beds full of intoxicated people and truly it’s a wonder none of us ever squashed a wee thing like you. You learned to have your wits about you. A girl has to, in this dangerous world. You must have used up at least one of your lives during those early, hedonistic days.
You know how many people I have slept with these past 10 years. At least the ones I brought back to ours. You never once slut-shamed me.
My Grandma Josie loved you, as she loved all her family. And, as I recall, you were rather fond of her tights and put more than one snag in them. She’d have called you a “little bogger” but she wouldn’t have minded, not really. ‘Mama Joe’ raised me, as I would go on to raise you. She always seemed to have a hole in her tights; she carried a bottle of clear nail varnish in her handbag to stop the ladders from rising. She died soon after you came on the scene.
I didn’t feel like I could live with other people when I went to university because I was so insecure about myself, so we got our own place. You slept in my bed every night and made sure that no seagulls came through the window. Thanks for that. I see now that you kept all sorts of demons at bay during those difficult years at university. I was dangerously isolated and would often not leave the house for weeks at a time, but I was never alone with you there for a cuddle.
Of course, you never chose to be my friend. I hope you were happy. You seemed to like me, but I suppose it could have just been Stockholm Syndrome.
When I started to get better, I tried to build a nice life for us in London and threw regular dinner parties but you turned your nose up at the fingers that reached out to pet you. You were cool in the face of celebrity. I don’t think anyone could accuse you of being particularly friendly with strangers, although if someone had a stash of weed in their bag you could become rather charming. Not to mention the mere hint of a tin of tuna being opened. I simply could not make a tuna sandwich without offering you some. I’d never have heard the end of it.
The truth is, you were fickle, aggressive, paranoid and selfish – but also a big softy underneath that thick layer of bitch. You were, in short, my cat.
I don’t know why you liked to fall asleep with your head nuzzled into my housemate’s armpit, or sit outside the bathroom whenever I took a bath, as though I were Cleopatra bathing in milk and you a Roman guard. Or why you liked to lie on newspapers or chew the corner of other people’s Arcade Fire records, and couldn’t stand to see two people cuddling without demanding to be included, but you did.
I may have been harsh on you at times. I showed you clips of cats on the internet doing all sorts of amazing things and openly lamented what a disappointment you had been. I was wrong. If you never learned to surf it was only because I never took the time to teach you. I’m sorry.
I projected so much onto you. But you were just you, in the end. I wonder what you thought of me. I suspect I was just your Tuna Lady.
Two years ago, you became seriously ill. I think you understood that we were trying to help you, even if you resented going to the vet. For a year, I had to force pills down your neck every night before bed. I tried to crush them up and hide them in your food but you were having none of it. You clearly thought I was the devil, forcing your jaw open. Well, I thought your breath stunk of cat food.
Eventually we took you for an operation so that you wouldn’t have to take tablets anymore. The day after, you were in pain and looked so fragile it broke my heart. Later that night my heart was really broken. My relationship with the man I loved ended in horrendous circumstances. I’m sorry you had to see that.
I couldn’t sleep in my bedroom. It was just too painful. I couldn’t lie in the bed I’d shared with him so I came into the living room with you. That’s how much you meant to me. Having you by my side made me feel less alone. It always has.
After a month, I tried to go back into my room but I lay there, wide awake, 'til 6.30am before crawling into my housemate’s bed after he left for work. When I woke up a few hours later, I hauled my mattress back into the living room and you jumped up onto it.
I didn’t know it, but supporting me through this would be your final act of love.
I was away for your last weekend, and I feel terrible about it. I’d taken you to the vet the week before and they said you were fine. I’ve been distracted and doing anything to keep myself busy and ward off depression these past few months. Maybe if I’d been more on the ball, I’d have seen how ill you were sooner, and you’d have survived. But I know that 'what ifs' won’t change anything now.
On Wednesday you went into my bedroom and lay down. I think you wanted to be alone and sensed it had become the loneliest place in the house, where something else had died. You had a knack for knowing where you should be. You always seemed to be able to locate the most luxurious spot to take a nap: you had an almost sixth sense for when fresh sheets were about to go on and would hover around my bed before the tumble dryer had even finished.
This time you crawled behind my bookshelf and hid your face. You were unresponsive to affection or food. I knew you were dying.
The vet didn’t ask “Do you want to say goodbye now, just in case?” but she must have known it wasn’t looking good. She put a thermometer up your bum and you didn’t even try to fight her. I’m sorry you had to go through this and die alone in a strange place. I’m really, really sorry.
I used to judge people who talked to their pets. And here I am writing you a letter – look how silly you’ve made me! Thank you for teaching me to be responsible and put someone else’s needs before my own, to love and not expect anything in return. For the warmth, laughter and affection. I know my housemate is grateful to you, too. You were there for him when his mum died and he just couldn't talk to anyone else.
I was close to Mama Jo so I know what grief is. We don’t take the death of pets seriously and I’m as much to blame as anyone else. I’m sorry to anyone I’ve dismissed when they have been mourning a pet. I didn’t understand. It is not just the animal and friendship we miss but the life we lived with them. You were my youth, Tyra. I cannot live those years again, just as you cannot live your life again. We are trapped in time as all living things are, pinned by fate to the here and now.
I thought your death was going to tip the balance and push me into a deep depression but to my surprise it has had the opposite effect: I am irrepressibly happy to be alive again. That may also have something to do with the new meds I’m taking but the point is, Wee Kitten, life is short and full of loss. We don’t have time to lose. And I find, thank God, that I am fairly happy with the person I became. I think the teenager who brought you back all those years ago would be impressed with the woman who buried you last month. Or at least I hope so. I can’t ask her.
I’m still in the living room. I don’t care what people think. I’m writing this in your favourite spot. I wish you were here, you Wee Thing.
Paris x

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