Originally published: December 30, 2000
I am on my knees, genuflecting to my washing machine. It is a trim little front loader, into which I am cramming darks until no more will fit. Perhaps it is the flash of white I see amid the black as I wrestle the portal shut, or just the act of packing a very large quantity into a very small space that suddenly conjures up my life of nine years ago. How strange that at this moment in time, as we begin this much anticipated year that arrives positively soggy with significance, here on the edge of this Kubrickian abyss, I find myself thinking of… my cat.
Isaac was a willful, self-serving animal who had in full measure the insanity of his Siamese heritage. Affectionate when it suited him, his ardor would die without warning. He would end a session of caresses with his teeth or claws. We inherited him already full grown into an awesome beast - a massive, black brute with a white chest and paws. Of “mixed” breed, he had a special intelligence, a radar for those people who disliked cats. He would settle himself in a lap with a sensuous, proprietary grunt and a threatening kneading of his claws. He once held a friend captive on a chair in front of the TV during an entire documentary on Russia. The friend, later rescued, said afterward he couldn’t make up his mind who was the more evil, Josef Stalin or Isaac.
The cat was very well traveled, flying back and forth with us from California, where my family lived, to Colombia, where we lived. My family always sounded disappointed and alarmed to find that Isaac was yet again, joining us for a visit to their home. The only people who saw the good in Isaac were myself, my husband Adolfo, and our vet, who undoubtedly, had seen worse. Isaac was our first child, and we loved him.
Our second child, a human, was born in December of 1991. Sebastian was an immediate sensation, a golden child who elicited cries of delight from all who saw him. He had his own room, a crib, toys, and most of our attention. If there was ever a time for sibling rivalry, Isaac would have been thoroughly justified to wallow in it.
But that was another thing about Isaac. He was never predictable. He turned out to be a patient, if somewhat aloof older brother. Rather than try to sleep on Sebastian’s face, as we feared he might, he waited until the baby was up for the day and then curled up in the still warm crib, in a fat ray of sunshine, content for the morning. He shared me with Sebastian during impromptu naps, when I would have the baby on my chest, and Isaac would stretch down my leg, claws retracted, purr thrumming. When Sebastian began to move about, began to crawl and make loud, unpredictable baby noises, Isaac showed resigned leniency and never once lashed out at the pudgy hand that roughed his tail. I always kept a nervous watch, but Isaac never even hissed at this disruption to his life.
During this first year of Sebastian’s life, and incidentally, the last year of Isaac’s, it was a hard time to be living in Colombia. Apart from the chronic kidnappings, murders and civil rights abuses that filled the papers, we had entered a terrible drought. The reservoirs outside Bogotá were down to 26% of normal. As most of Bogota’s electricity is generated by hydroelectric power, there was a sudden, acute shortage of energy, compelling the city’s government to impose strict electricity rationing for the city of some 7 million. Up in our apartment, with Adolfo at work downtown, Isaac, Sebastian and I, like the rest of the people in our rationing district, were without power 6-7 days per week, 8 hours per day. This they broke into two four hour blocks: 6-10 AM and again from 5-9 PM, although a new schedule would materialize frequently without warning, leaving the apartment suddenly dark and quiet. I learned how to change diapers by candle and flashlight, Sebastian learned to appreciate the dancing shadows of the candles, and Isaac learned how to tuck himself around my feet in the darkened living room as I stood by the window, rocking Sebastian and singing any song that came to mind, just to fill the silence. My memory of those days and evenings is dim, but I remember the crackling of the candles, Sebastian’s baby smell and damp soft hair, Isaac’s thick presence in the room, and an unabiding loneliness. My frustration at my own helplessness was softened by writing long letters by candlelight. This is an excerpt from a letter to my sister. The original is blotchy with wax drippings.
October 15, 1992
Baby’s asleep, no electricity. A generator is droning in the background, a faint whiff of gasoline emanating from it and the million other generators that are grinding along at this moment all over the city. Looks like rain but probably isn’t going to-- just gray and oppressive. Across the narrow street, a maid is scrubbing the sidewalk and brick steps with soapy water. Her red scrubby broom makes a scritch scritch scritching sound as she rhythmically sweeps the soapy water back and forth over the bricks. The doorman of the building leans his back against the doorway and smokes a cigarette, watching her under his bored lids. Now she hoses down the brick, moving the sea of foam evenly back toward the sidewalk and eventually over the curb. I can smell the detergent faintly through my partially opened window as it cascades down the steps, four stories below. Wouldn’t guess there was a serious water shortage, would you? People still wash their cars and their sidewalks every day, wasting gallons of water in pointless pursuits… As you can see, my attitude hasn’t improved too much.
Isaac was already sick by this time. He had a recurring tumor in his hind leg that each of our vets, the one in Colombia and the one in California, had removed twice. There was now no skin left to close over the area, making another attempt to remove the aggressive thing that was ensnaring his flexor tendons impossible. It would be amputation of the leg, or euthanasia. Our vet in California told us that cats do very well on three legs, that in general, animals do not sit around feeling sorry for themselves, as do humans. Our Colombian vet said, gently, that he himself would not perform an amputation, that to him it was better to put an animal down than to mutilate it. But he would be willing to recommend another vet, should we decide to proceed…
It was mid November when the surgeon called to say Isaac had come thorough the amputation fine, and that we could expect to pick him up next afternoon. The next morning, however, he called back, and in a solemn voice, said that Isaac’s kidneys had failed during the night-- that he had died. He was very sorry and what did we want to do with the body? Did we want to see him?
I did. I needed to touch the big black beast. When we arrived at the clinic, it turned out that our desire to see Isaac had never been passed on. There was a scramble behind the scenes for a moment, then we were led to a table that had on it a sealed cardboard box. They slit the top with a razor, and there was Isaac in a jumble inside, the thick, luxurious fur looking dusty and unkempt. There was no mistaking this for sleep. I touched his head lightly, scratched the unresponsive ears and said my good-bye. We later received a very sincere computer-generated form letter from the Clínica Veterinaria Dover, expressing their deepest sympathy for the loss of (fill in the blank) and their conviction that he was surely in pet heaven. They offered continuing service, not only to help us fill the vacancy left by (fill in the blank), but to provide loving, long-term care for his replacement as well. It was signed with a rubber stamp.
We returned to the US for good the following month. I went on ahead with Sebastian, because a job awaited me in California. Adolfo stayed behind for a few weeks and sold off all our stuff. Among the things he sold was Isaac’s carrying case, the one I used to have to coax him into before a trip, the one that was marked with scuffed decals and half-removed customs tags. I thought of the paper work we always had to do to fly with him, the drugs we had to force down his stubborn throat, the scratches on my arms, and the guilty amusement a stoned Isaac would give us. Traveling with a baby was so much easier than traveling with a cat. The simplicity of it was horrible. I hated leaving Isaac in Colombia.
Isaac, it turns out, never did leave our family. Sebastian later developed chronic asthma, and after extensive testing it revealed one of his primary triggers to be - cats. We can never get another one. Ever. Isaac’s odd brand of nobility- and his dander- will stand alone. Sebastian has twin brothers now, wild boys, affectionate but unpredictable, one of whom bears the proud middle name of “Isaac”.
So I am crying now, as I wrestle this damn portal closed on my front loader. Nine years ago I would have been wrestling Isaac into his cage, pushing his big furry rump with one hand while scrabbling with the other to swing the door shut behind him. He would turn and glare at me through the bars of the door, but would rub his big head against it and purr when I scratched him behind the ear. Maybe I should be thinking grander thoughts than this, at the changing of the year. I should be thinking about the transition of the presidency, wondering if there can be peace in the Middle East, hoping for medical advances and an end to world hunger. Maybe it’s alright, though, to be missing an old friend right now, a big, cranky black cat who was our first child.