A Letter to Cleo

Today I said goodbye to a bright light, my beloved cat Cleo.

I found her in the garbage. More accurately, she found me—near the garbage.

Four months after the sudden loss of my cat Marzipan, a scraggly grey and white tabby showed up near my trash cans, mewling and demanding attention.

I had decided to wait at least a year, probably more, before getting another cat. It was too painful, too much of a betrayal to adopt something so soon. I’d heard stories of cats “finding” you and always dismissed them as nonsense. I’m not a believer in fate or god or signs or mysticism. As much as I loved watching Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, I’d long given up on magic of any kind. Although I’ll yield to luck.

It was luck that I left work early for an interview. It was luck that someone pulled the emergency brake on the A train and I had to reschedule said interview. And it was luck that I checked my mail at the moment this cat was lurking by my trash can and looked up at me, desperate to be acknowledged.

I could tell she’d been on the street. There are distinct qualities to a stray cat: scruff, dirty paws, an aura of abandonment.

It was near 90 degrees that day. I bought cat food and filled the water dish I’d still not brought myself to throw away. The next morning, she was there, having wandered up the steps to my apartment entrance, hoping, I assume, to catch her unknown benefactor on her way to work. I fed her again. When I returned home, I found the dish I’d used in the garbage. An unfriendly neighbor had thrown the ceramic food bowl in the garbage.

She was still there the next evening. I made a plan to take her to the vet and look into foster programs, to find her a home that might have more room in their heart for her. 

I brought her to the vet where they asked for a name. They said I could make one up. As I watched her roam the exam room floor, I grasped for a name. She was small and inquisitive and immediately lovable. I called her Cleo, a name for a queen.

I know what happens when you name something. 

I paid her vet bills and gave her flea medicine and brought her into my room, a sanctuary from the deadly heat. She slept on my pillow for three nights. I was in love with her the first morning I woke up with her next to me. My words took a few days to catch up with my gut, to finally accept that she was mine now, whether I thought I was ready or not. 

Only two years later, her health suddenly and dramatically declined. I canceled a work trip to South Africa to be with her. A team of doctors fought for her. I’m not sure anyone has had better cheerleaders than Cleo. Because she was a stray, we had no way to know her age, but after a string of health discoveries, the final estimate is that she was at least 14.

There was no flashing light, no declaration that she must go. It was a gentle fade of the brightness in her eyes, her steady weight loss even with a feeding tube, her waning interest in pizza and other human delights that I absorbed, like mercury seeping into my veins. For a week, I found myself wanting the vets to nudge me toward the decision. They were willing to keep fighting, but there are only so many morning you can wake at 4:00 a.m. and rustle your cat from underneath the bed to feed her through a tube. After her last visit to the vet, the doctor left me with a muted optimism. It wasn’t necessarily time to stop fighting, if I wanted to continue. Watching Cleo at home those last few days, I could see a glimmer in her, but I realized the question wasn’t whether or not I wanted to continue to fight for her, it was whether I should let her stop fighting.

The next morning I woke up having fully accepted my decision to put her down, regardless of the vet’s follow up phone call might have confirmed. This morning, I had Cleo put to sleep in my arms. In the last moments I spent saying goodbye, I could see she wasn’t completely defeated. She was, as always, curious and sweet, excited by the faucet and the goings-on of the waiting room. It is hard to let go of that—to remember that a glimmer is not a spark, it is not about to ignited into hope—but I like to think she passed with her dignity mostly intact, with my sweaty t-shirt beneath her head and the rest of her draped in a purple velour blanket. Purple was a color long-reserved for royalty; Cleo was indeed a queen.

She broke my heart open and I am lucky to have had her, even briefly.