The Story of Tom and Monica:
A San Francisco Serial Memoir
Part 15, 1st of 2 sections
(The Story of Hissy and Monica)
This story is written as a series: you can start here
Sometimes the shifts are almost imperceptible, little quivers deep below the surface. When friends ask me how I am, I pause. I need to take inventory before I cautiously answer . At other times the jolts are sudden, closer to the skin and I am forced into an immediate evaluation of my life: I am alive. I am here. But also, I am fragile and temporal. Things are changing too quickly, the very ground I stand on is shaky and unpredictable.
One of my cats died very suddenly on Sunday. Hissy Fit showed up at our front door a few years ago meowing and hissing frantically. Against everyone’s better judgment I gave her a bowl of food, which she consumed in minutes. Of course, in no time she was back again and for over a year that was pretty much the extent of our relationship. Sometimes, when it was cold or rainy, I would make little shelter beds for her to sleep in, but I was scared of her. She would come up to me, she didn’t seem afraid of me, but she would suddenly lash out with hisses and claws. Our dynamic reminded me of the Joni Mitchell song ‘Oh, Canada’: “I’m frightened by the devil and I’m drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid…..Go to him, stay with him if you can, but be prepared to bleed.”
During a particularly cold winter-snap a few years ago I opened the front door and let her in. I kept her away from Rosie in case she had any street diseases. The next day, with the help of a thick blanket and a box, I managed to get her to the vet where she was checked over and vaccinated for everything and suddenly Rosie had a stepsister: an evil stepsister, as far as she was concerned.
Tom and Rosie were allies. They occupied the purple couch by day — Tom listening to his records and Rosie curled up on his lap or outstretched legs. Hissy would prowl around, looking for her own place to land. Often it was the piano bench. She liked to play the piano sometimes. From time to time I would try to get her to sit with me but she was still unpredictable, so I learned to mostly not touch her.
For many months, maybe even years, she had this twitching thing that would happen along her spine. I imagined it was from the stress of living on the street for so long. I could relate. I remember coming home after grueling weeks on the road with Blame Sally and feeling the adrenaline off-gas from my body as I lay still in bed for days on end.
Hissy was hard to love, but I loved that about her. She was the underdog, (or cat, as the case may be). Sometimes I called her Hissy-cliff, after Heathcliff, the poor and moody adopted step-child in Wuthering Heights, beset upon and blamed for everything, but never cowed or submissive. Though Hissy Fit was the antagonist in Rosie’s story, she was the classic anti-hero of her own story.
When Tom moved back to San Francisco Hissy, like the Genghis Kahn of felines, sensed a vacuum of power . She took over the purple couch and soon after, the living room, dining room, kitchen and backyard. No matter how hard I tried to stay on top of it, her hair was everywhere. Several friends couldn’t hang out at my house anymore because of cat allergies and my brother and sister-in-law couldn’t stay with me when they came down from Seattle for visits .
Rosie mostly stayed in the bedroom and had to be strategic about her forays to the litter box. Hissy would try to pounce on her as she exited the little outhouse and I would run screaming into the room to stop the fracas. I’m pretty sure Rosie was an occasional instigator but somehow she always came out smelling like….Rosie. Hissy, on the other hand, would still be snarling and swinging her fists, occasionally landing a swipe at the referee for good measure.
How did I not realize she was so sick? I’ve been beating myself up about that for the last couple of days. It hadn’t been a good week. I was under the weather myself: pain in my gut, my energy low and my spirits a little depressed. It was reminiscent of the days before I had been diagnosed with Celiac Disease. A futile visit to a skeptical Kaiser doctor on Monday triggered a lot of old memories of the many years I was sick but treated like a neurotic person. An experience that was relived through Tom for two years before he was diagnosed with MS. Nobody could connect the dots so they suggested he see a psychiatrist because his symptoms didn’t make sense.
So I guess that’s my excuse, I was looking inward, not outward. When I went to feed Hissy on Saturday night I saw that her food from the day before was untouched, and then realized that it was her second day of not eating. I thought it was just two days, but maybe it was even more, my brain felt foggy. When I found her on the purple couch she was subdued. I picked her up and she let me hold her and stroke her for half an hour or so. I thought ‘if she’s not feeling better I’ll take her to the vet tomorrow’.
I woke up in the middle of the night to check on her but she was gone. In the morning when she wasn’t back I had a terrible feeling that she had gone away to die. I called and called for her and looked in all her hiding places in the garden and next door but to no avail.
At about 11:30 in the morning she came in through the cat door and walked into my bedroom — Rosie’s room, not hers — and lay down at my feet. I could tell it was dire so I grabbed her and put her in a box and drove as fast as I could to the vet. She was frightened and complained but by the time I raced to the desk to tell them my cat was dying her tongue was already turning blue.
They took her away and led me to an exam room. Ten minutes later they told me she had died and then asked if I wanted to see her again. The very kind doctor brought her into the exam room and placed her on my lap, she was nestled in a blanket and I sat there crying and crying for 45 minutes or so, convinced from time to time that I could still feel breath and movement in her warm little body.
That evening I was at the Bat Mitzvah party of Eliza, a girl I’ve known since she was born. A celebration of life if ever there was one. At dinner, sitting next to my friend Naomi, I told her about Hissy and the tears started coming again. We talked about how big, how visceral love for our pets can be, how it’s a different kind of love than that from human to human. She said ‘It’s not true that we’re looking for unconditional love from them, it’s that we’re looking for someone, something that we can love unconditionally” … a being that won’t freak out, run screaming or take advantage of our most pure outpouring of feeling.
Part B of Chapter 15 still coming.
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