Pet Therapy Notes
Published in

Pet Therapy Notes

Collateral Damage

After Decades Have Passed, I Still Grieve

Sierra, Queen of Echo Park

Just thinking about writing this makes me feel sick. My stomach is tying up in knots. I am certain that at any moment I will stop typing and leave the room. I’ve never had greater resistance to writing about anything and that’s saying a lot because I’m always hounded by resistance. In the pursuit of coming to terms or closure or whatever it is that’s supposed to happen when you try to resolve something, I’ll try to keep typing and untie the knots.

After moving into the apartment of my dreams in my early twenties, I soon discovered something was missing. Something furry to share my home and snuggle up with. Having heard that a friend’s cat had recently had kittens, I went to her house to find my new roommate. The stars aligned that day and helped me choose the pick of the litter. “She loves people. She’ll sit in your lap and gaze adoringly into your eyes,” my friend promised me. I took the tiny Maine Coon kitten home and sure enough, we fell in love. It took me awhile to name her, but finally decided she would henceforth be known as Sierra.

Sierra and I lived in an old Victorian House in the Echo Park district of Los Angeles. As in most quirky apartments cut out of an old house it had its share of unusual features. One day I heard Sierra meowing and it sounded like she was outside the house. I found her in the front yard which completely flummoxed me because I hadn’t let her out. I combed through the apartment and finally discovered what Sierra had discovered. There was a hole in the wall next to the water heater that was just big enough for a cat to squeeze through. This led to the underbelly of the house where Sierra then discovered yet another opening that led to the outdoors. This was more than ideal since it meant no litter box was needed and she was free to come and go as she pleased.

Although Sierra was definitely a cat she acted more like a dog. Most cats set very clear boundaries to let you know what you can and can’t do to them. Sierra was blissfully happy-go-lucky. I could rub her belly, toss her in the air, squeeze her in bear hugs and she never once resisted or tried to scratch my eyes out. In a gesture of complete trust Sierra slept on her back with her paws delicately poised in the air. There were no strangers in her life and she gave everyone a chance to be her friend. Often when I was away she would make her way to the neighbors for visits and I’m sure she knew them better than I ever did.

My favorite part of the day was coming home to her. Our house was perched up on a hill so while parking my car in the street below (and because Sierra was smart and knew what my car looked like), she would wait for me on a ledge as I made my way up the stairs. It was a welcome respite just to see her. She would then ask me how my day was, I would make a groaning sound, she’d look at me sympathetically with her bejeweled eyes, then we’d gossip about the neighbors as we climbed the rest of the stairs together.

For several years we bonded true blue and soul to soul. It came to a gradual end after the unfortunate meeting of my ex-husband. He seemed normal and trustworthy in the beginning but, of course, he was on his best behavior. At first he loved Sierra. How could he not? But as time went on I realized my trust was devastatingly misplaced.

If he and Sierra and I were a Venn diagram, the overlapping part would be this. For a while he was fine with having her in our apartment. Two years later we bought our first home, and for awhile he allowed her indoors but that changed once we began having kids. I don’t remember what it was like to put her outside and not let her back in. Maybe I’ve blocked it out. I’m sure for her it was exceedingly traumatic since she grew up choosing to be in or out and for a while after that she was indoors exclusively. Now she was on the outside forlornly looking in.

After several years of being outdoors on her own Sierra became unrecognizably afraid of everything and almost feral. When I attempted to corral her to take her to the second house that she would never be allowed into, she hissed and fought me as I tried to get her into the carrier. She no longer trusted me, which fair play, I totally understood.

Once we moved to the new house, the ex put her in the garage where eventually we were going to decide whether she would be allowed in the house or not. He apparently decided she was not and facilitated this by opening the garage door while I was at work. He said he went out there to get something and forgot to close the door.

That is how Sierra escaped. I went up and down streets calling her name but it felt hopeless. It had been hours since the door was opened, the area was completely unknown to her and all the houses looked alike. There were hills around us where coyotes lived. I am ashamed to say I didn’t exhaust myself and all my resources to find her. Finding her, I believed in a very small part of myself, would cause more problems than it would solve. I stopped looking. I turned away from wherever it was she was and walked home.

It wasn’t much of a home. Sans kids, I would have been better off going on the run with Sierra. Our house was a battle zone masquerading as a home. Even if she had returned and lived inside it, she would have been carefully treading on that minefield hidden in the floorboards just like the rest of us. I was harmed, my children were harmed and if Sierra were there she too would have suffered.

And that man I married? It turns out he was, and probably still is, bipolar. Upon hearing that he wasn’t possessed by a demon but had an actual psychological disorder, I was way too exhausted and battle scarred to feel that his diagnosis excused or justified anything he had done. I thought, great, now he has a clinical excuse for being an asshole. He always had excuses, always pointed his finger at everybody but himself because in his mind he was never at fault. Sierra and I never had a chance. At least that’s what I tell myself. It’s easier to blame the madman than to recognize and accept my own complicity in what had transpired.

Those years remain a roiling black cauldron of toil and trouble. I am still angry at the ex but also at myself for allowing him to call all the shots. Sierra was caught in the crossfire of the battles I could never win. I couldn’t protect her, my kids, myself. I still feel guilty, even after his diagnosis and decades have passed, for not doing so.

I don’t like to think about the hills or cars or anything else that may have been the fate she didn’t deserve. I hope that someone saw her alone and afraid and took her in. And after a time of patient reassurance, she was able to return to the perfect companion that made my twenties bearable. She was the gentlest, friendliest, kindest big ball of fur I have ever been privileged to know.

My dog passed away not long ago. Before she left I requested two things of her: to come back for visits and if in her travels she ever came across a Maine Coon cat named Sierra, tell her I’m sorry.

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Sharon Pillai

Sharon Pillai

Learning how to live. Writing helps.