Saying Good-bye

Friday, March 16, 1990


She curls in my lap, purring, as always, this pretty cat whose life will end at ten o'clock tomorrow morning. I focus on my words as I wade through a flood of memories.

Gitane LaConner. Love kitty.

Our frame is gilt-edged and ornate, our canvas as vast as a dawn sky in the desert at that magic moment when the sun, like a mad painter with a fistful of broad brushes, splashes peach, apricot and plum in a wide arc, more than the eye can drink in.

Scottie and I found her early one summer morning in the fishing and tourist village of LaConner, Washington, clawing her way up the steep, uncarpeted stairs of the Nordic Inn, paw over paw, so helpless in the face of such a formidable task, yet so fiercely determined. We marveled at her will.

She became a symbol of our own lives apart, before we met. Here we were, wishing for a small furry creature what we had wished for ourselves, a little certainty, a little warmth.

She goes the way my mother went, her breath labored, her eyes wild, searching for a sign that all will be well. Only in my lap does her breathing ease.

I wasn't there when Mom died, crying out in the dark from her bleak room in a care facility. If only I had known what Gitane is teaching me now, I would have stayed at her side night and day, holding her, stroking her hair, sharing memories of happy times.

I have no answer for Mom's parting words to me: "Why is it so damned hard to die?"

This death will be quick. We are letting Gitane go before pain becomes her only reality, while she can still purr and close her eyes with a smile as my fingers smooth her fur.

When I look down, I see a bright star in my firmament, a fifteen-year collection of memorable moments, a chronicle of my growth with Scottie from tentative friend to lover and husband.

I will see Gitane always, her eyes the dazzling green of fire opals ringing cabochons of jet, her nose the red-ocher tone of ancient coral, carved to a ram's-head mask dark with age at its fringe.

I will see the white rings circling her eyes as they close against the late light, the eyes of a kabuki dancer at rest, whiskers bright as crystals set in dots on a matrix mysterious in its hues, ears the soft velvet beige of a doe's.

We called her "Trollop" whenever she sashayed toward us, fresh from roaming the neighboring woods and fields, ready for a little love. Or when she stretched out in all her glory to bask in sunlight bathing the picnic table on a summer afternoon.

The name might have derived from the tall white boots on her long hind legs, the white scallops, like painted toenails, on her front feet, the flashes of underfur, a blend of coffee, cocoa and cream when she waved her tail like a banner in the breeze.

It drew more from her saucy manner, the dainty way she walked, the come-hither toss of her head, her melodic voice prancing up and down the scale, always ending with a question mark.

We called her other names when she expressed her independent nature in unacceptable ways — when she'd spring to the kitchen counter to forage, or march up and drop a dead bird at our feet. We always laughed after the fact, but our list of spontaneous expletives is long and colorful.

I call her "Pussycat" now, with the reverent tone Peter O'Toole reserved for every beautiful women he met in that wonderfully funny film, What's New, Pussycat?

Returning to the fold after years of wildhood, she has spent most of the past six months snoozing on a rug by the refrigerator door, by the spill where the heat escapes.

Until this week, she would leap to her feet at my approach, eyes bright, nose in the air, head bobbing in the language of our love. Now, she needs to be held.

I oblige. This day is hers.

Our decision last fall to "domesticate" Gitane, to keep her indoors for the first winter of her life, comes back to comfort us. Much to our surprise at the time, she settled right in, assuming the dual role of lap cat and dog tamer.

Our three Scottish deerhounds spend winter nights in the living room, close to the wood stove, curled up on their separate beds. As an outdoor cat, Gitane steered clear of the dogs unless we were close by, an act of self-preservation, owing to a deerhound's love of the chase. As an indoor cat, she became fast friends with them.

Her routine began with a sprinkling of love. She'd pass under Lightfoot's chin, wrap her magnificent tail around his muzzle, continue on until the tail slipped free, then dart in for a quick kiss before moving to Rose for a repeat performance, and to Abi.

When the dogs bedded down, she would pick the one presenting the best crook or hollow, and curl up in a ball. Many were the mornings we arose to find Gitane alone on a bed, a mortified dog parked on the rug by the door.

We were fresh off the divorce boat when Gitane appeared, I for just over a year and Scottie for a year and a half, two sailors home from storm-tossed voyages, trying to regain our land legs.

Gitane was a scrawny little thing, but her purr rumbled up and down the hollow stairwell as we cupped her in our four hands and talked to her, asking where her mama was. Downstairs, in the doorway to the restaurant, we held her out and queried the locals, but no one recognized her.

One person thought she might have been brought into town from the Swinomish Indian Reservation, tossed into the last pot by a gambler down on his luck, then abandoned by her new owner. A second opinion cast her as a stowaway in a tourist's motor home.

However it happened, she fell in with good company. Since she was footloose, about to take off on a journey of some distance, we dubbed her Gitane, for the Gypsy in her soul, and LaConner, for the town we found her in.

Around the Olympic Peninsula, down the Washington coastline, our love kitty purred like a fine-tuned engine, born for the road. She made us laugh with her antics. She was a gift from heaven.

Gitane held my mother's spirit for a time, easing me through the turbulence of that loss. When I gazed at her, my mother gazed back, something about the tilt of her head, the look in her eyes.

Perhaps I wanted to see my mother there. Perhaps Gitane simply responded to my grief, making herself available in a time of need. If that's the case, I am now returning the favor.

New leaves pop like green stars from the bushes just outside the window where we sit, spending our last full day together. Today, for the first time, she refuses food and water, and wobbles when she walks. She no longer is able to jump from the chair.

I remind myself: We are not playing God by setting the hour and date of Gitane's death; we are keeping her from my mother's fate.

She falls into a deep sleep. Time slows to a standstill. I'll save my good-byes for tomorrow.

Saturday, March 17, St. Patrick's Day

Gitane does not "go gentle into that good night." Dr. Matthews and her assistant fight to hold her down, but she squirms and flails, bites and scratches, hisses and yowls.

I am torn apart, thrilled to see the feisty farm cat, the survivor, surface for a last fight, horrified that I would put her through this awful ordeal. Scottie and I catch each other's tear-filled eyes and break the tension with a burst of laughter.

There has been enough sorrow. First, the dwindling appetite, the difficulty swallowing. Then all those trips to the animal clinic, the X-rays, the blood test, the biopsy. Finally, the dreaded diagnosis: Inoperable tumors in her thyroid gland.

Dr. Matthews tells us she will sedate Gitane. We wander about in the warm spring air, holding hands, sharing our grief. Neither of us speaks.

Despite the sedative, Gitane struggles wildly before the needle finds her vein. In an instant, she is gone. Dr. Matthews checks her heart, then slips from the room. We kneel there for a long time, gazing at the still form through our tears, stroking the soft fur.

She looks so peaceful, just as my mother did when I stepped into the room at the funeral home to say my last good-bye, to make up for not being there at the end. I marveled at how young Mom looked, the lines gone from her brow, her lips turned up at the corners, a bemused expression, as if she had a secret to share.

Scottie drives home, up over the rolling Rosemont hills and down Wisteria Road, where we pass a tiny girl in a bright green sweater selling flowers from a stand in front of her house, under the eyes of her smiling mother.

Pulling over and walking back, Scottie returns with two small bouquets, dark, velvety violets and bright yellow daffodils with orange ruffles. The short stems are ragged at the ends.

There is a large, flat rock in our side yard, close to where the grass ends and the slope to the winter stream begins. Once, watching Scottie maneuver the riding mower back and forth in a tightening circle, I offered to move the rock. She wouldn't hear of it.

It is now Gitane's rock, visible from the side window in the dining room, its blanket of moss topped by a clear glass cup spilling over with yellow, violet, orange, and green.

An occasional cars passes. People on horseback. The old neighbor who doesn't miss a day's walk, rain or shine. Yet nothing looks the same to me. Not the trees in our yard, not the sky. The world has lost a free spirit. There is no way to measure such a loss.

Good-bye, Gitane. I will love you forever.


Comments (4):

David !!! I loved this one – my Mother died from Altzheimers and I have a “stray” ferrel cat who has become very tame – we share him with neighbors across the street – he a black/gray tiger stripped – was wilder than all get out when he first hung around – but I’ve won his trust – however he still has 2 homes, especially when my new “bunny rabbit” is allowed to run around the deck (which Kitty Boy considers his!) Will be sure to read the rest of your work – I wouldn’t have a clue how to build a web site.
Keep up the beautiful work – JoAnn (from LOHS!)
Posted by: JoAnn Link Olsson | Email | June 18, 2005

David, I came here looking for a better photo of you that I could use at Writers Faire for the Win an Hour With an Author raffle. I didn’t find a better photo, but I did fine this, which I am going to save and send to my neighbor, Linda whose Abisinian of 15 years has either thyroid or kidney problems. He’s gotten so thin, and when I saw her in front of her house yesterday, she was holding him. “I’ve had a longer relationship with him than with any human,” she said, tearfully. I knew exactly how she felt, having lost my Siamese brothers, Bonzai at 16 and Pierre at 17. This touched my heart as I know it will comfort hers when the time comes. Thank you.
Posted by: Sue Bronson | Email | Web | September 10, 2005

Grandpa David, This is the first time i have been able to read your poetry and actually understand what i am reading. I think you have a real talent the way you write. I’m going to go up the stairs and ask Uncle Mike for your books, and I am going to read every one of them. Keep it up.
Posted by: Jessica Hedges | Email | December 26, 2006

This is amazing, I have never been brought to tears so strongly as I have reading this. I felt as though I was living this whole moment in your life while reading it. Astounding. Your word selection, pacing imagery all of it spot on. i hope some day I can describe things half as well as you.. Thank you for sharing, Gitane sounds like she was a splendid companion.
Posted by: Alluscion | Email | August 30, 2008