“How many cats did you have?” It turns out this is a loaded question when asked by your 11-year-old. And this is not the first time she’s asked me this. Each time I have to pause to search my memory banks, counting each cat in order on my fingers. This time the question came out of the blue as we were cuddling on her bed in the soft morning sunlight beaming in through her sheer curtains before it was time to get up and get ready for school.
“I’m sorry for being grouchy last night,” I said. She had wanted to cuddle with me the night before in my bed as I went to bed early, mentally exhausted from a long day. I had told her no, in no uncertain terms, instructing her to sleep in her own bed, which she did as she slinked her way out of my room, disappointed and hurt by my rejection. I was so tired. I didn’t have the energy to protect her feelings.
“It hurt my feelings,” she said in her typically self-aware direct communication style.
“I know,” I responded as I pulled her closer to spoon her warm little cuddle-bug body. “Sometimes I just need to be left alone, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t always still love you more than anything.”
There was a soft pause as we squeezed into each other.
“So how many cats did you have?”
“Again?” We giggled as I had to start all over again, like I do every time, trying to remember them all in order.
“Let’s see, first was Cinnamon. Then Slippers and Mikey.”
She stopped me, “What happened to Cinnamon?”
“She was old. I had her from the time I was 2 until I was 15. She just disappeared one day. She wasn’t in good health.” I left out the part that she was there when I was put into rehab at 15 years old, then when I got out, she was gone. My mom said she just disappeared, but with all that my mom was going through as a single working mom between my challenging angry youth, my younger brother’s mental health issues, and my cat being flea infested and old, her disappearance was more likely a removal from the situation.
“Ok, so after Cinnamon, there was Slippers and Mikey. But Slippers was more my brother’s cat, and Mikey got hit by a car. I found him dead on the side of the road and had to put him in a trash bag, carry him up the street with a shovel to a mountainside, and bury him.” I remembered how heavy his dead body was. I explained that he was already a thick, white, muscular cat, but dead he felt heavier. The soil near my house was clay, hard and compact. Trying to dig a hole by myself as an angry teenager after hiking up a trail-less mountainside with a heavy dead cat and a shovel, I did a pretty half-assed job. His trash-bag-covered body ended up being half in, half out of the grave. It wasn’t emotional. By that time, I had done a really good job distancing myself from emotions.
“Wow, mom.” I loved how her tone was surprised and slightly disapproving. It occurred to me that this cat was during a time when I had basically been abandoned by both of my parents. My daughter knows I grew up without my father, that my mom left when I was 17, and that my mom and I still have a difficult relationship to this day, but the details are still mine to keep.
“I was kind of on my own, so that’s just the kind of stuff I had to do.”
“I don’t want to have a grandma that isn’t good to my mom.”
“Don’t say that. She’s a good grandma to you, even though she didn’t really have the tools or support to be the best mom to me. She loves you.”
I looked in her eyes, still cuddling, “My mom and I just don’t have the same kind of relationship like you and me have.” She smiled with that familiar love in her eyes. It’s true. This cuddle-bug and I have a deep and honest bond – for now.
“I don’t ever want us to get that way with each other,” I continued. “I know you are going to be a teenager soon and we will start to have hard times, but through it all, I want you to know that I will always love you, unconditionally.”
“I know,” she smiled. “I promise I won’t be that bad.”
“Oh, we’ll see about that,” I said knowing full well the shit will be hitting the fan as she starts middle school next year. “You are your mother’s daughter.”
We each lingered on that fearful thought for a quick second, knowing it’s close, then I continued, “So, let’s see. After that I got Floyd.”
“Floyd is a great cat name.”
“I know. He was named after the band I loved at time, Pink Floyd. That cat was awesome. We had a great relationship. He drove with me across country twice as I attempted to move to Omaha to live with my mom when I was 18, hated it, then drove back to San Diego. He peed in my lap on the drive.”
“He ended up dying from some kind of internal infection. I laid with him all night on the bathroom floor of my Aunt’s house, where I was living at the time, then had to take him to the vet to have him put to sleep. It was going to cost thousands of dollars to try to treat him and I didn’t have that kind of money.”
“Then there was Cheeto. He was real jerk.” She laughed. He was an orange cat that was mean as hell. I explained that he used to swipe at me, claws out, as I would simply walk past him. He was more my boyfriend’s cat at the time than mine – and my boyfriend was mean, so naturally, the cat was mean. We used to get in the most awful, physical, fights. He would be verbally abusive, yell in my face, push me, pull me and at one point kicked me in the stomach after he pushed me down. I used to describe it as getting “rag-dolled.” But that part of the story I kept to myself.
“After that there was Sassy, Buster and Sully.” She knew who Buster and Sully were. We had both of them when she was born. She knew that we had to get rid of Sully because that cat kept peeing all over Ava’s things and scratched her a couple times. What she doesn’t know is that after having Ava, I had a bout of postpartum depression, was mentally maxed out, a bit out of my mind, and one day I let Sully – who was an indoor cat – outside, and never saw her again. Any time I remember that moment, I cringe at how weak and scared I was in that moment. I still carry that guilt.
Ava was also there when Buster died. That was another bizarre situation. My estranged dad and I were attempting to reconnect. He happened to be staying with us on a visit – only the second time I had seen him in about 20 years – when he walked out of our extra bedroom where he was staying and said, “I think there’s something wrong with your cat.”
I walked in to find Buster on the floor in complete rigor mortis. Not only were my emotions heightened by this understandably stressful visit with my dad, I was now stunned and heartbroken staring at my sweet dead cat on the floor. I still have no idea why that cat suddenly died right there, at that time, but it seems fitting under the circumstances.
I immediately suppressed any emotions about the sudden loss of my cat, despite being completely broken up about it. After having Ava, I had gotten back in touch with the lifetime of emotions and tears that I had successfully suppressed until she was born, but being around my dad again was like erecting that brick wall back up to protect them. It wasn’t until that evening, after looking at my dead cat’s body in a trash bag in the garage, noticing that the bag was filling up with his body fluids, and speaking to the vet about whether I wanted my cat in a mass cat grave or cremated, that my drunk father decided to reminisce about what little part of my childhood he was involved in. As we all stood in the kitchen while I was busily cleaning up after dinner that night, he laughed as he told that infamous story.
On one of the rare visits with my father after the divorce, I was staying at a hotel with him somewhere. I want to say it was in Pasadena, but it’s all a blur at this point. It could have been anywhere. Regardless, it was yet another night that he took me to the bar with him where he proceeded to get drunk. At 9-years-old, I thought it was cool that I got to go. It made me feel like a grown up. I also thought it was cool that I got to drive the car back to our hotel that night.
“You should have seen the face of the valet when they opened the driver’s door and there was a 9-year-old in the driver’s seat,” he said as he laughed that quick-breathed nasal laugh I remember.
There in my kitchen now, heartbroken about my dead cat and with my two-year-old daughter tucked safely in bed, visiting with my dad for the second time in 20 years, any suppression abilities I could muster were futile.
Not laughing, making quick eye contact with my wide-eyed husband who knew what was about to be unleashed, I lost it.
“I can’t believe you think that story is funny,” I yelled, pointing to the next room. “My cat just died and I have a two-year-old sleeping in there right now that I would never in a million years put in that situation!”
Jolting me out of this random long-forgotten memory of the night Buster died, which was not a part of the story I shared with my little cuddle-bug, she circled back to the other cat I mentioned.
“What about Sassy?”
“Sassy, she was a little bitch,” I blurted out as we both laughed. “She was also more of my other boyfriend’s cat. That boyfriend was mean, too, so she was mean.”
“Why were your boyfriends mean?”
“They just didn’t treat me the way I deserved to be treated.”
“Give me an example.”
This kid. Ever since she was two-years-old, she’s been more alert, more intuitive, more mature. Now at 11, she’s like a mini-adult ready to get her own apartment and start paying bills.
“No examples,” I quickly replied as I crawled out of this little cat-counting, memory-lane, cuddle session. It was time to get ready for school.
“Come on, just give me one example,” she persisted.
“Nope,” I said, instantly reverting back to my no-nonsense mom voice. “Those stories are for when you are older.” Or not. At what point is it appropriate to tell your daughter about your physically and emotionally abusive relationships before you were lucky enough to meet her father?
Standing at the foot of her bed adjusting the covers, it was time to carry on with the day, “Chime chicken up.”
A long time ago, I had said “time to get up” one morning and she said it sounded like “chime chicken up,” so that’s how we’ve said it ever since.
She moaned with a knowing by my tone that this was not a battle she could even start as she slowly rolled out from under the covers.
“You had a lot of cats,” she said.
“Yes,” I said in unspoken reflection. “I had a lot of cats.”