Writing Without Madeleine

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Today is the day I realize how much I talk to Madeleine. I have lots of names for her: Mad Catter, Kittylicious, Maddie-Cat, Maddiecatscar, Maddietat, Cattertack, Madalina Catalina, Kitteous of Kat, Alarm Cat (AC), Sink-O de Kitty, Chucky, Fuzzy, Ball o’ Cat, SweetieCat, and just plain Maddie. She generally responds with purrs and snores, green eyes that know what I’m talking about, and with meows if she wants to change the subject back to something like “more pâté, please”.


Two days ago I found Madeleine in her newest favorite Amazon box—the one that delivered her last litter shipment—looking like she was asleep. It wasn’t unexpected that she wasn’t ‘just asleep’, but that didn’t keep me from melting into a puddle onto the floor beside her. Ray and I sat down on the rug beside the box (the box tipped on its side because she liked to lay half-in/half-out upon the little ‘porch’ that the bottom flap made), and we pet her for awhile, trying to talk, choking out favorite memories. We scratched the soft fur between her ears and under her chin the way she liked. We stroked the fur over her little rib cage. We hooked her claws around our fingers and played with the pads of her feet. Our fingers ran into the clumps of frizzy fur tangled on her hindquarters and underbelly that she never liked to let us groom well enough. We looked through our tears into her still-open eyes and hoped that her last seconds during the night were easy ones.


We left her there in her comfy spot and went about making breakfast as usual—it was Saturday, so poached eggs with smoked salmon and avocado. She was still there every time we glanced over, and it was easy to make ourselves believe if only for a little while longer that she was still with us, just asleep. Missing was that she didn’t come into the kitchen to twist under our feet at the first whiff of salmon.


It was a Day of Action, with sorrow and sadness certainly, but it served as a day of texting family, texting my BFF Beth who always understands, and taking care of the practicalities. Knowing this was coming—Madeleine was 15 and had been slowing down—I had researched pet cremation and set money aside for it. I cleaned out a drawer of the freezer, and Ray and I placed her into four plastic bags, one inside the other. I couldn’t bring myself to put her in random CVS bags that we had under the kitchen sink, so I chose four bags with perhaps a little more meaning: a bright green one that I’d had to use at Massachusetts General for my belongings when I’d broken my hip (from which Madeleine helped me recover), two Trader Joe’s bags (because what’s cooler than Trader Joe’s?), and a giant Ziploc with a label on it saying “On Writing Suspense” (a leftover from The Muse and the Marketplace, best writing conference ever that I was lucky enough to work for earlier this year). Her tiny body didn’t take up much of the drawer, and I was able to refreeze in the same drawer some Italian cookies from Bova’s in Boston’s North End.


I emptied and scrubbed out her litter box one last time and put it in the hallway where people in our building leave no-longer-needed items. (Management doesn’t like this, but we do it anyway, an unspoken tenants’ bartering exchange. One could furnish an entire apartment in under a year this way.) A friend with cats took the new box of litter and our last three cans of Whole Paws. I vacuumed up dust from between the planks of the floor where her litter box had been, I threw away the toys that she hadn’t played with for the last month, and emptied and washed all of her bowls of Meow Mix and water scattered throughout the apartment.


The Day of Action kept me whole. There was stuff to do. But the next morning Ray flew out to attend the funeral of a beloved uncle, and I was alone with only the absence of Madeleine. I catch myself opening my mouth to say something to her, call her, run something by her, or I expect her to materialize in the kitchen right as I’m about to make myself something to eat—she always wanted to eat at the same time, usually preferring that we give her some of ours or at least let her sniff and lick it before she decided she didn’t want it. Her spark of life has left our walls, and the emptiness is uncanny. How had I been previously so unaware that she had projected her essence into every cubic inch of our living space? It’s like a silence, but the void is more than an absence of sound. I can’t feel her think anymore. Or rather, she’s not sensing me anymore, like how she would know when I needed companionship or cheering up or a paw laid on my hand or a bump of her nose on my nose.


Two days ago Madeleine slept on the floor beside my writing table (a month ago it was up on the table beside my laptop in the jet of warm air blowing out from the power supply fan), listening to music while I wrote. Like me, she leaned toward French classical piano, permitting the occasional composition for organ by César Franck. A master meditator, she was always there to help us with yoga, especially with final relaxation. And, she could get into some amazing poses. Madeleine spent her first ten years as an outdoor cat at our farm in South Dakota, gradually moving herself in (her plot all along), until riding along with us in a U-Haul to Boston to become a full-time indoor cat. She put up with a leash and harness to do some touring about the city—a hit on the T and in the Public Garden—and even humored us by starring in a 48-hour video we made. (It’s pretty goofy, but still on YouTube.)


Life will be easier in a practical sense without Madeleine. We won’t have to rush to make the bed in the morning to keep her out of the sheets, I won’t have to keep my laptop closed so she won’t throw up on it again, we can set the table without worrying about whether she’ll jump up and help herself to anything salty or buttery or with bones, there will no longer be cat hair to unstick from everything, there won’t be paw prints all over the bathroom sink and toilet lid, I won’t need to arrange for cat sitters when we travel, and I won’t have to worry about her when we’re gone, worry that she’s sad because we left her alone, worry that she’s not eating enough or being played with or pet enough. When we pack for trips, we won’t find her sleeping in our suitcases. She won’t be sniffing and tickling our faces with her whiskers at 5:30 in the morning.


Life will be simpler without Madeleine, but a little less wonderful. We have been a family of three with her for more than a quarter of our lives, and today I must try to celebrate that she chose to be our cat way back in the fall of 2003, adopting us, deciding to stay when we gave her tuna fish. It’s probably more like she chose us to be her staff, but it’s been a pleasure to serve her. In a few days, I will rent a car and drive with her remains to the crematorium near Plymouth, and while I have the car, take the time for some meditative hours along the beach gazing out over Cape Cod Bay, remembering the sweet, gentle being that gave us nothing but love for so many years.