On Commitment and… Cats?

For my Eliza Jane, and all my feline loves, on Pet Memorial Day

ElizaChristmas2I’ve been missing my big kitty Eliza Jane, whom I lost back in February due to complications from diabetes and what was likely kidney cancer. As fiancé Steve and I get closer to the wedding, and thus to moving to a new home together, I’ve grown wistful thinking about leaving behind my little purple house and all the memories it holds.

When I moved to Virginia, I arrived first with two of my cats in tow, Roscoe (also dearly departed in 2013) and Eliza Jane. My big girl had had a tough road trip, complete with car-sickness that earned her Roscoe’s usual spot in the front passenger seat. As I set her carrier down in the foyer of our new home, she let out a plaintive wail that echoed through the whole empty house. She calmed quickly once our (her) furniture and things arrived, with their familiar smells and textures. She was only three years old then, so most of the memories we made together are bound up with this place.

Eliza 2Eliza wasn’t an easy cat. Neither was she, by traditional standards, a beautiful cat: she was overweight for much of her life, though her head and legs remained tiny, rendering her proportions out of balance. Her short fur was coarse, her tail average, neither long nor particularly expressive. With asymmetrical coloring and a lopsided mustache, she sported a perpetually wide-eyed, startled expression (the cat equivalent, maybe, of resting-bitch-face?) and rarely exhibited the zen-like contentment many cats do. After a cancerous growth returned the third time on one of her back legs, we had it amputated, and she became a 21-pound tripod.

And though a sweet (at least to me) kitty who grew ever more cuddly and expressive as she aged, she was always reserved if not aloof, and, if we’re honest, inconvenient. As she got older, she had increasing trouble managing the hop into the litter box, and she struggled to keep herself clean. There were butt baths, lots of cat-bed washings, almost daily mopping. Sometimes I felt like the house always smelled vaguely of kitty accident. And it grew expensive, buying special food to manage her diabetes, boxes of extra-large pee pads, syringes and vials of insulin.

But I loved my Liza Belle. And when I adopted her, I’d made a commitment to care for her and love her for life.

Elizaonshoulder3Love, commitment, devotion: it’s not always convenient, not always pleasant. Sometimes love is hard, annoying, even smelly. It’s real. It’s being glad to do tough things, put up with inconvenience, because the love outweighs the irritation. Because that is the love, the practice of love: being there, being of service, being as much a constant as possible even in the face of fear, failure, decline. Being a constant presence, a constant heart.

In the last years of her life, Eliza was hard to fall in love with, and she and Steve did not bond as deeply as he has with my other two cats. I understood: he hadn’t known her as I did. When I looked at Eliza, I didn’t just see her matted belly and her kitty dander, experience her cool reserve. I saw the kitten who used to ride on my shoulder around the kitchen. The cat who played fetch and chased the laser light under the closet door, where she thought it lived. I saw the kitty who loved to cuddle her big brother, the kitty who’d warned me of an intruder by hissing in the middle of the night. I saw the—yes, beautiful—cat who’d borne up under so much and brought me so much joy.

Elizakitten2Eliza was some-kinda-cute as a kitten, for sure, but “cute” was all I really knew when I committed to adopting her back then. I didn’t know then whether she’d be cuddly or cool, how she might grow and change, what pleasures and pains and challenges would come. Once I said yes, though, my commitment didn’t depend on her staying cute, or being a perfect cat, or an easy one. Once I committed to her, we were in it, for life, together.

The truth is, the longer I loved her, the more beautiful she became to me, the more of her beauty I could see. It was only through committing to the long haul that I was blessed to get to know her fully and deeply, and the more I knew, the more I saw how beautiful she truly was. When I looked at her, I saw all the shared history, all the love; I saw her young and old, healthy and ill, cuddly and cranky. It was all there, and the layers made me love her all the more.

Even now, after she’s gone from this world, she keeps teaching me. Cheers, my lovely Eliza. And thank you for showing me the wonder, complexity, and meaning of real beauty and commitment.

Eliza and me: one of our last pictures together

Eliza and me: one of our last pictures together

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