Queen Sophie

Twenty years ago, my niece gave me a kitten. The cat had been my roommate since then.

Small, spirited, at times haughty, and quite social, with beautiful gray and black stripes highlighted by hints of orange, Sophie knew most of the people in my set of old garden apartments in Pasadena.

They sometimes used a broom to get her out of their places. I remember a fit, young black man from Seattle, a gym trainer for boot camps who left for his job every morning at a regular time.

For some reason, Sophie would wait at the wooden gate outside his ground-level apartment and miaow loudly when he opened it to leave.

To illustrate, he tapped his wrist as though the cat were saying, you are late!

He returned to Seattle and in leaving said that he was now considering getting a cat.

Sophie made quite a few converts. One woman and her husband honorably asked if they could take her with them when they got married and moved, arguing nicely that the woman came home at lunch time every day and would give her more attention than my wayward schedule allowed.

I declined.

A young Indian engineer from JPL and his wife received daily visits from Sophie who would hang out in their apartment for hours before coming back to my place.

He explained to me that the Indian culture considers that animals are embodied with a spirit and he thought hers was pretty special.

He gave me a framed picture of Sophie when he moved to Texas to work for Chevron as an environmental engineer. Returning a good year later to visit friends, the couple came by my place, not to see me, to see the cat.

And on her last visit, my mom, her mind going, was excited to tell me that Sophie had spent the night next to her.

She seemed to depend on human contact. When I left on vacation for two weeks, I returned to find a zombie cat. She made no noise and seemed absent, almost comatose.

It took two days before she started to wake up and return to her normal animation. As time went by, she still seemed a bit lost when I came back from a trip but rebounded more quickly.

Friends and neighbors were I think a bit shocked that I left my front door ajar when I went to work, so that Sophie could come and go. My apartment had an old TV and a radio, and nothing to steal.

Allowing a cat outdoors so regularly is a recipe for death by car, or other misfortune, but she survived all that. One of the conditions at the apartments had been that any animals be neutered, so that was her lot.

And she “talked,” as it was put by the woman who wanted to take her. She did, in a range of tones that expressed greeting, objection, pain, fighting anger when another cat came around, a tone from way back in the throat of deep, almost sensual contentment that I rarely heard, and others that made my head turn towards her in surprise, and sometimes in the morning a deep, vibrating purr.

And in a sense I talked back.

“Yo-day Sophie!” I would say when I came home after work, not sure why.

Late in the evening, to let her know I was closing the door, I too would drop down deep in the throat for a call meant to vibrate through the night air, “Soaghhh-pheeee.” Most of the time, she came running. Sometimes, she stayed out.

Time went along and Sophie grew old. She did not go out any longer, and some time ago, stopped grooming herself, which I think was the first sign of the end.

But she endured, regularly brushed by the housekeeper and others and sometimes by me.

She also became skinnier and skinnier. A week ago, I knew that something was up when she staggered slightly in walking, something I had never seen the sure-footed cat do.

I didn’t do anything about it, in dread I think of what I knew was coming my way.

And last weekend, I returned from a visit to my dad’s old farm, and she was no longer able to walk. Still talking but plaintive now, not demanding so much.

I had seen it before in a dog my friend had in college, when the kidneys shut down.

I was sure, but took her to the vet, a kindly and direct person, and he confirmed, saying in essence that she was being poisoned internally, the acid blistering her insides.

So I knew I had to help her go, but I had to get myself there. I was so naïve as to how hard it would be. I stayed home a couple days to keep her company, and then called the vet to make the latest appointment I could make.

So just before 6:00, up close to the San Gabriel Mountains outlined in twilight, I stroked her for a few minutes in the dark parking lot, with traffic lights from Lake Street streaming by.

I finally went in. She was so quiet.

I said goodbye to her as the doc put a deep purple liquid into her vein, and quickly her head drooped. I held her in my arms and felt something give. The doc said he could not find a heartbeat. He told me there would be a nervous convulsion, but she simply sneezed into my sleeve. Once, twice, three times.

And her eyes, I could see, so dark and luminous in life, had turned pale and lightless.

I was sure I had helped her but I cried uncontrollably as I drove home.

The next morning, as I left for work, I involuntarily turned my head to check for Sophie.  And the next night, watching the news on the couch, I heard a sound and unconsciously thought it was her footfall.

It was sinking in that Sophie had been engrained in my life for twenty years. And now the apartment held no other soul.

Days of short-sleep nights later I dreamt that I was carrying a black wire cage holding an infant with a huge head. I set it on a high table next to a man. The infant fell out of the cage, but on the floor, it became a white kitten. As it was trying to escape into the dark and trees and bushes, I caught the kitten in my hand.

And I knew what the unconscious was telling me: it was time to open my hand.

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