Death is a point so finite I cannot separate it into before and after. My mind searches for a precise moment; I want to understand, to hold on, to prepare. But it is too boundless, too smooth, too raw to name. It belongs to the wild and only in my heart do I truly know.
Lala was alive, bright eyed with a loving purr, and then she was silent, the light in her eyes gone. In some intangible moment she dissolved into the whole of life. All that is left for the living is the sunshine that warmed her fur, the soft grass that cooled her feet and the memories that fill a heart with longing and joy.
Megan and I were saving money to buy a sailboat and go cruising. It had been a dream of ours since we met. To help we moved into a house on the west side of Santa Cruz with a couple housemates. When one of the housemates moved out Vishal moved in. Vishal moved to Los Angeles from India to attend USC. From there he moved in with us. In LA he lived with Indians, ate Indian food and lived a mostly Indian lifestyle. When he moved in with us he took a huge leap towards Americanization. Many of the things we did where firsts for him. It was his first time living with non-Indians, first time listening to Led Zeppelin, first time drinking an IPA and his first time petting a cat.
I was in the backyard enjoying the last bit of the day’s sun when I heard the front door close. I went inside because I figured Colleen arrived to feed me. She wasn’t in the kitchen but I heard voices in the back bedroom. I sat in the hallway and waited. The bedroom door opened and some guy I’d never seen walked out. “Hello!” I said. He looked at me wide eyed and disappeared back into the bedroom. Odd. He talked to someone for a moment. The door opened and someone else popped his head out. I tried being more specific, “Hi, I’m hungry!” He looked at me in disbelief and ducked back in the room. The other guy stuck his head out again. I was more forceful this time, “My food is in the kitchen!” No luck. He looked terrified. I wasn’t sure who they were and why they were so scared. Maybe there’s a coyote behind me? I quickly looked behind me, no coyotes. Odd. “Hello, I’m hungry!”
It was Sunday and a friend and I had driven my stuff up from LA. Jonah and Megan were out of town so we let ourselves into the house and began moving into my bedroom. When I stepped out of the bedroom to get another load there was a cat in the hallway and it screamed at me! I jumped back into the bedroom startling my friend. “What was that?” He asked. “There’s a cat out there!” I replied. “What do you mean?” “There’s a cat in the hallway!” He poked his head out and the cat screamed in a loud raspy voice. “Shoot! What do we do? Do you know that cat?” He asked. “No! I forgot there is a cat.” “Do you think it’ll attack us?” he asked. “I think they would have warned me if it attacks, but I don’t know.” I looked back out. With big wide eyes it screamed even louder and longer, stood up, did a circle and just stared at me. I flinched back into the room. “What!?!” My friend asked. “It got up when it saw me.” “Oh, man. We’re stuck.”
I thought they wanted to play the peek-a-boo game but I was not in the mood, I was hungry. I sat in the hallway and when one of them stuck their head out I tried to explain myself. “Could you just…!” Nope. “Won’t take but a minute!” Nothing. “Feed me!!!”
Thank goodness Colleen showed up. We weren’t sure how to get out of there. We felt silly once Colleen picked the cat up and explained that her name is Lala and she screams like that when she’s hungry. She showed us how to pet her. Neither of us had touched a cat before, in India people don’t keep cats as pets. She was so soft. I knew then this house was going to be good for me.
A year later when Jonah and Megan moved onto their sailboat they needed someone to care for Lala, they felt she was too old to go sailing. I volunteered. I was happy to care for her; I had grown to love her company and friendship. It was hard for them to leave her behind, especially for Jonah, he lived with her for nineteen years.
I was eighteen when Lala showed up on the morning news. The anchorwomen brought cats and dogs onto the show from animal shelters to help them find homes. Lala was one of those cats, a scrawny little longhaired calico kitten with extra toes from downtown LA. For all the right reasons we got up, drove downtown and brought her home to live with us in Topanga Canyon.
The first name we gave her was Winky Do. I can’t tell you how we came up with the name or why we used it because we didn’t know, it just happened. It clearly didn’t fit, it was more of a place saver. After a couple months we renamed her Whimsy after her long whimsies, you know, the tufts of hair that come off the sides of a cat’s ears. But that wasn’t quite right either. In time Whimsy morphed to Whimmey Co, that jumped to Fairy Berry, then Olala Berry, Olala and finally, some two years later, she became Lala.
They kept changing my name, which made sense because the ones they came up with were ridiculous. Winky Do? Fairy Berry? Finally they hit on Lala. It was the best they came up with. It didn’t fit too well at the time, too sweet and cute and not enough independence, but I grew into it.
I remember my early days in Topanga fondly, just the three girls – Big Mommy, Hushey Koo, Aunt Becky – and me. The house had an open door policy, we came and went as we pleased and Jonah and Marsha gave us all the attention we could want. But for some reason we weren’t enough, they wanted more cats so in came Magic and then Wonderful. They had kids and their kids had kids and soon there were ten of us, me, the older girls and the new Black and White Gang. What a clicky group the Black and White Gang was. I never felt comfortable with them and after I got back from the hospital they picked on me even more, a bunch of black and white jerks if you ask me.
I spent most days outside, wandering in the yard and laying in the sun, chasing lizards and gophers and staying away from the Black and White Gang, they weren’t allowed outside. I often wandered across the creek that ran through the yard to explore and poop in the soft dirt under the oak trees. I loved sitting in the filtered sunlight, listening to the birds and the wind move through the trees, hidden just enough to see but not be seen. I watched coyotes there before but they never saw me, they just passed by on their way to the watering hole down creek. I figured that was how it was, I lay quietly and they trot on by. But on that day I heard something behind me, something big, I turned to run and everything went black.
Marsha yelled to me, “Jonah, a coyote has Lala! It’s running down creek!!” I took off down the hillside to head it off but I was too late, the coyote slipped under the fence just ten feet in front of me and continued down creek without a pause, a piece of my heart going with it. “Jonah she’s here!” Marsha exclaimed. After she initially yelled, Marsha threw her pruning sheers at the coyote, they hit a rock hard enough and close enough to scare it into dropping Lala. When I got there she was in Marsha’s arms, covered in saliva, dirt and leaves but she was alive.
When I woke up I was wrapped in a towel in Jonah’s arms. He had tears in his eyes. We were in the car and Marsha was driving, she was crying too. I couldn’t hear much or see well and my jaw hurt. It was hard to stay awake.
After the coyote the Black and White Gang were so mean to me. They kept at me, continually picking fights and saying nasty things. They thought I was cursed or possessed… they never understood the world outside of the house. To avoid them I spent most of my time under the bed. Jonah and Marsha made sure I had food and attention, spending time with me every morning and evening. Even so, I was sad. I missed roaming the yard and sleeping in the sun, the incident was too much for Jonah and Marsha, they couldn’t let me go outside. I sat in the window when I could, that helped.
Lala is one of the few cats that have been in the mouth of a coyote and lived to tell about it. She was scraped up, had a punctured eardrum, a broken jaw and, as I learned many years later, lost the vision in her right eye. It was a defining moment for both of us, without the coyote attack Lala would not have escaped her tormentors and we would not have shared all these years of life.
I was miserable in that house. Jonah moved out and the older girls passed away. It was just Marsha and I… and that horrible Black and White Gang. Then one day Jonah came, put me in a carrier and we walked out of the house, up the driveway and out the front gate. I remember hearing the slow squeak of the hinges and the click of the latch as the gate closed behind us. Everything had changed.
For a while we moved a lot. I didn’t mind, I was relieved to have my own place away from the Black and White Gang, a place where I could lay wherever I wanted for as long as I pleased. We lived in a silver trailer for a bit then I lived with Jonah’s mom for a couple months, I yelled at her cat Mo. I don’t like cats.
From there Jonah and I moved into a house with an old lady that liked to sit in the sun as much as I do. She said sweet things to me and I let her pet me.
I found Mary in the UC Santa Cruz classifieds. She was in her seventies and rented her master bedroom at a super low price to UCSC students for three months stints. I was not a UCSC student and I was hoping to stay for five months. She eyed me dubiously but gave me the room when I mentioned Lala. Mary loved cats. But her son wouldn’t let her have one, he thought she was too old to care for an animal. Her workaround was Lala, and I could stay too. The rental agreement was for one semester, when that was up it was time to find a new place.
We moved to a house in the hills. Our room was huge with sliding glass doors that opened over a field I could sit in and dissolve into the smell of grass and flowers and dirt. What a place.
On hot summer days I sat under the tree by Jonah’s truck. In the afternoon the canyon drew a cool breeze up from the valley below. It blew down the driveway and whispered stories in my ears and nose. It moved over my whiskers and through my hair, cooling my skin. I love that spot, the smells, the rustling of leaves, the cry of hawks circling overhead. Sometimes when a day is slow I go back there to listen to the breeze and smell the day go by.
Jonah had a big chair he sat in. It was so big I could sit on top of the backrest right next to his head. We spent hours there. He’d pet me and I’d doze off to the smell of his hair. In winter the heater cocooned us in warmth. And in summer, with the doors and windows open, it was fresh and cool. But the best part was we were together for hours and hours.
I was lying under my tree waiting for the afternoon breeze when some black and white cat went walking by the other side of the truck. Then it stopped, sat down and started washing!
This was not okay.
As I rounded the truck he noticed me and sprung up, his eyes wide, his body tense. I screamed at him, “Get Out!!” But he didn’t move. He just looked at me wide eyed and confused like he didn’t understand. I screamed again, “Leave!!” But he just looked at me. I turned sideways to show him how mad I was, how mean I can be, and moved a little closer to him, “LEAVE!!” That seemed to work because he slowly backed up. He looked worried but he didn’t run. I wanted him to run. “Now!?!” Finally, he turned and walked away, pausing to look back every once in a while with bewildered wide eyes. I watched to make sure he didn’t come back.
Otis was a friendly jovial cat. Whenever he saw me on the property, no matter where I was, he’d come trotting over, flop down at my feet and roll in the dirt while I pet his belly. But Lala would have nothing to do with him. She’d puff up in a tiff and yell at him till he walked back to his house at the top of the driveway. He never stopped coming over though; he seemed to like her.
That cat would not take a hint. I’d tell him to leave and not to come back but he wouldn’t listen. He didn’t say anything mean or get riled up or anything! He’d just walk away with his bewildered sad look and a day later be right back in my driveway. He was so passive. It was annoying.
Finally I gave up on the guy, he wouldn’t leave me alone. I didn’t have a reason to dislike him. I just don’t like cats, the Black and White Gang ruined them for me. Despite my harassment, Otis never threatened me or raised his fur or even said a mean word to me. He was just… nice. So I decided he could lay in my driveway. But that was it. I was clear about the rules, he could not lie anywhere close to me and he had to leave if I told him to. He was happy with that and came down to lie in the driveway on most days. I almost liked him.
Otis is the only cat that Lala ever tolerated, after Big Mommy he was probably the closest thing to a cat friend she ever had. I never saw her and Otis closer than ten feet to each other but they lay together all the time. I’ve wondered, given more time, if Lala would have let go of her hatred for cats. If any cat was patient enough to help her do it, Otis was the guy.
Of all the places Jonah and I lived the house in the hills was my favorite. I love how familiar everything became over the years, the shade tree in summer, the smell of damp soil in winter, the fresh grass and flowers in spring. I even enjoyed lying with Otis in the driveway. His bewildered looks changed to sweet starry eyes that made me feel good inside. I think he loved me.
Under the house there was a room I liked to visit, a big room that became smaller and smaller the further back it went. There were mice in there. It was a hoot to catch them but I never ate them, they tasted bad. Instead, I brought them to our room to chase at night. Jonah didn’t like that. But they were loose so we’d try to catch them, the two of us dashing around the room, furniture thrown aside, skidding on the rugs, my water bowl upside down, what fun!
Sometimes when I chased mice under the house I heard sounds above me that freaked me out. They were that gaping mouth closing down on me, darkness all around, my heart pounding. I’d hide deep in the back until Jonah crawled in and brought me safely to our room. He always saves me. I love him.
At twenty-seven I had an emotional breakdown; a reboot of what was real and true in my life. There were events that led up to the moment but the actual breakdown happened in the blink of an eye, one second I was whole and the next I was in pieces, all the stories and ideas of who I was scattered all over the ground. That night as I lay in bed, bits and pieces of me floating off into nothing, Lala curled up on my chest and handed me a strand of love to hold on to in the darkness. She was always there to hold on to, always grounded and available. I am so grateful for her in my life.
Jonah seemed to be floating off somewhere, he was transparent, a few times he even disappeared. It scared me, what if he vanished? I couldn’t lose him. He was all I had. So I went and laid on him, that way he couldn’t leave without me. I didn’t like laps, too confining. But when I saw him drifting away I needed to be with him, on him. We slept like that, holding on to each other in the darkness and when I woke up in the morning I was relieved we were still there.
I never wanted to leave the house in the hills; I was sad when Jonah began packing up our things. Otis and I sat outside all day, feeling the cool breeze on our whiskers and raising our heads to its sweet smells. We dozed and washed and listened to the day. Now and then Otis looked at me in his sweet way. Now and then we slept not too far apart. It was the last time I saw him. I miss him.
Megan, Lala and I moved into a small two-bedroom house in Pacific Grove. It was on a quiet street and had a fenced backyard that was safe for Lala. I was always worried for her safety. In Corralitos it was coyotes and in Pacific Grove it was cars. My heart ached to think of her being carried off by another coyote or hit by a car but I couldn’t confine her indoors, her spirit demanded the freedom to roam, even if it was in a thirty-by-thirty fenced in yard.
I don’t remember where we lived before one place and after another, my timelines are not as straight as Jonah’s. I remember the brick yard. It had just enough dirt along the edges to poop, I like pooping in the dirt. It was a cold in the mornings and foggy. When the sun came out it brought a cold wind with it. Not like the wind at the house in the hills, this was wet and salty. But the back yard was protected from it and the bricks were warm in the afternoon. They felt good on my feet.
With Megan in the house there was a lot more talking. I liked it, the talking warmed the house, livened it up. There was a lot of extra love floating around too, I had all the attention I wanted.
Then we lived in a place with a dog next door, right next door. It walked by our door everyday. It was short with big bug eyes that stuck out and gave worried inquisitive looks. One time it came in my house, I was furious. I screamed and wacked it like crazy. Megan thought I popped one of its bug eyes. I didn’t, but I told it I would if it ever came back.
In the evenings I sat on the warm concrete at the bottom of the steps and ate grass from the side yard. The only wildlife I had seen were birds so I was startled when a pack of raccoons surround me. I screamed, “Go away!” They hissed. I screamed louder, they came closer. Then they became coyotes and I freaked! I yelled for help over and over. Then Megan was there running down the stairs shouting, they parted and I ran into the house. It was terrible.
One time a bird flew in our door and slammed into a window knocking itself out. I was so shocked I couldn’t remember what to do. By the time I thought to grab it Megan had picked it up. We took it outside and laid it on the driveway. As I got close it made a sound. Then ten birds were dive-bombing us. They squawked and chattered coming within inches of our heads. As we ran back to the house the hurt bird woke up and they all flew away. That was the closest I ever came to catching a bird.
In 2009 we moved back to Santa Cruz. Lala was fifteen. We began giving her glucosamine for her stiff joints. Her kidneys were showing their age too. We put her on Azydol and a natural kidney support supplement; the combination brought her blood work back into the normal range. But more than getting old her personality was shifting.
I felt lazier; chasing lizards and birds seemed like work. It was easy to sleep in the sun until a shadow forced me to find another sun spot. In the evening, instead of hunting, I preferred sitting on the porch smelling the scents drift in from around the neighborhood. I even began lying on laps, instead of confining they were comforting and cozy. It was easy for days and weeks to go by simply moving from sun spot to sun spot by day and from the couch to a lap and back by night.
Sometimes, on the couch, I would nestle into the crook of Megan’s arm. We’d lie with the sliding door open, the sound of doves in the trees and a cool breeze drifting over us. It was soft and easy. In those moments everything went slower and slower and slower – the ray of sun sliding across the floor, the fluttering of leaves, Megan’s breath – until we became a moment in time that has never changed.
One day I was really hungry. Super hungry. I’d never been so hungry. I ate all the food in my bowl and I was okay. But over the next couple weeks I became hungrier and hungrier. I was hungry all the time. No matter how much I ate I was still hungry. It made me grumpy. I woke up in the middle of the night hungry and with an empty bowl. That was even more frustrating. So I’d wake up Jonah or Megan, which was annoying for everyone. I’d stand on the bed and say, “Hey, pleaseeee get up and feed me!” If that didn’t work I’d run back and forth across them. Sometimes they’d throw pillows at me, but eventually one of them fed me. Everyday I was hungrier and hungrier. It was maddening.
I took Lala to the vet because something was up. Her blood work hinted at hyperthyroidism. The vet confirmed it with an x-ray showing her heart was enlarged, a sign of hyperthyroidism. Hyperthyroidism is a disease in which some of the thyroid cells over-produce the hormone thyroxine. In turn this increases metabolism, which, among other symptoms, makes the heart pump faster. If nothing is done the cycle progresses until something fails, often the heart. Fortunately, Lala was a candidate for hyperthyroid radiation therapy in which the overactive thyroid cells are killed with radioactive iodine leaving only the healthy cells behind. What’s amazing is it is a cure. The down side was that Lala had to live at the vet’s office for a week without any visitors while the radiation was doing its thing. It was hard on all of us to leave her for a week but it was the only way she was going to survive.
At the vet I was taken to a room and put in a cage with my blanket. It was an odd place, the people wore weird clothes but they said nice things. My blanket felt safe, it smelled like home, which was helpful because I was there for a long time. At first I was so hungry because they didn’t feed me as much as I wanted, but over time my stomach growled less and I relaxed. That part was relieving, it had been a long time since I felt full, but I had been there too long and I was ready to leave.
Finally, Jonah brought me home. I love home, my scratching post, my couch, my people. I was not going anywhere for a long time.
We were relieved the treatment cured Lala. Her appetite went back to normal and she could relax. She stopped darting back and forth across us in the middle of the night and her five AM screams for food stopped. Unfortunately, she was semi-quarantined for a week. We weren’t supposed to hold her for more than fifteen minutes a day because the radioactive iodine was still emitting low levels of radioactivity. We moved her upstairs and visited with her a couple times a day. We were sad we couldn’t cuddle her up because we had all missed each other a lot.
After a while the fence blocking the stairs went away. I wanted to go outside to sit in the grass and lay in the sun. But every time I looked down the stairs I thought of the front door, and then the car and that horrible place in that cage and the people in weird suits and the coyote and those raccoons that became coyotes and that horrible dog that chased me up the tree and all the other bad things that were down those stairs… So I stayed upstairs. Megan had her office upstairs, my food and box were there, and in the morning the sun came through the window, I was good, downstairs was not worth the risk.
Lala didn’t come downstairs for three months. Then one day she did. She trotted down the stairs, looked at us in the kitchen and went out onto the porch. Whatever her fears they weren’t strong enough to overrun the joy of basking in the sun.
Sometimes Jonah or Megan play peek-a-boo with me. They peek their head around a corner and say, “Hi Lala.” “Oh, Hi!” I reply. Then they duck back out of sight, then peak out again, “Hi.” Oh, there they are again, “Hi!” Then they go away and come back again. “I love you!” I exclaim as loud as I can. And they do it again with big wide eyes. “I love you!!” I scream back with big wide eyes. And we go on and on like that for a long time. I love that game.
I love playing with wads of paper too. The sound they make bouncing along the floor and the feel as I whack them makes my insides jump with excitement. Flying across the room it’s a mouse! No, a wiley lizard! Bam! Pounce! Bat it off to the other side of the room. Zoom, pounce, kick, kick, kick and bam! Off it goes. What good times we have with that game.
Dad, with you I feel adored and safe and loved. I can’t imagine my life without you; I don’t think I’d be alive without you. You comb me and pet me, clean my box and bring me bouquets of grass… you shower me with affection. You heal me when I am ill and play with me when I am spunky, you give me soft beds to lie on and a post to scratch, you feed me chicken and shrimp, you let me roam outside and find me before the coyotes come out at night. You crawl under houses and up trees to save me, you whisper sweet lovelies in my ear… you worship the sun with me. You have given me your all and you have given me your heart too.
Please, know deep in your heart,
I am in love with you.
Jonah and Megan moved out. I was confused because I didn’t go with them. Instead I moved into Vishal’s room, he takes care of me now. For a time Jonah and Megan visited every couple days but then I didn’t see them for a while. I miss them.
Leaving Lala was the hardest part of moving onto the boat. For years we struggled with what to do when the time came to move. I know I made the right decision, but sometimes my blaming, shameful, judgmental voices are loud.
The voices in my head:
Lala could have come with us, why didn’t I try?
Lala did not want to live on a moving boat. She loved to lie safely on her couch all day long, that’s what she wanted.
I abandoned her, left her behind when she needed me most.
I left her in a loving home where she was comfortable, safe and warm in her old age.
I could have cared for her better.
Lala had everything she needed, she was well cared for and deeply loved by Vishal and Colleen and all the other people that love her.
Usually my compassionate stories tip the balance and I find peace. But sometimes my heart aches with a regret that only time and understanding will heal.
Vishal and I moved to our own place. He thoughtful and caring and gives me lots of love. The yard feels safe from coyotes and has sun and grass. But I’m tired and stiff so I don’t go outside much. Even getting up on my couch to sleep hurts. Vishal made a soft bed for me by my food so I don’t have to walk far. My box is on the other side of the room but I can still make it over to there. Mostly I love to lie on my bed and sleep, that’s what feels good.
I received an email last week from Vishal explaining that Lala’s health has been declining and he thinks it’s time to help her move on. I have been thinking about Lala a lot recently and had a feeling something had shifted. We are flying to Santa Cruz to be with her. She has been in my life for twenty-one years. Year after year she filled our home with spirit and love, time and time again she curled up on my lap to comfort my sadness, or soak in my joy. We know each other’s hearts and we know each other’s love, that is what I am holding on to, that is eternal.
I am honored to help my friend pass, to help her skirt suffering and journey into death. It is also the most difficult decision life presents us. We ask: is this being experiencing more joy than suffering? In my experience when I am certain of the answer, I have waited too long. So a decision must be made when its certainty is questionable. And in the end, after all the facets are examined, the scenarios run, and my heart consulted, there is still no certainty in the answer, one side just outweighs the other. It is a heart wrenching process.
I was overjoyed when you showed up last night. To hear your voices and feel your touch, it made my heart jump. To lie around with you and rest on your lap, to sleep next to you is love. The words you whispered as we dozed in bed carried away my age.
Oh, this is perfect.
We are timeless, connected at the heart. We have shared life, and always cared for each other in good ways. I am old and failing but I am filled with love.
We spent two days together at Vishal’s. He put a fold out bed in his living room and we all laid around loving on Lala. People that love her came to see her, we fed her all her favorite foods – shrimp, crab, scallops, chicken – and told her all the things one needs to tell a best friend before they pass.
When she walked around she was little and frail, stiff and off balance, a little old lady having a hard time with life, on the verge of deep suffering. But when she was lying with us she was so happy, purring and wiggling on her side till she was comfortably upside down, her eyes bright, taking it all in. She felt alive with life and love, her joy far outshining her suffering. It was beautiful and confusing. It made an impossible decision even harder.
I asked Lala what she wanted and this is what I heard:
Dad, I want to lie here with you forever, just like this, our faces a breath apart, your soft voice in my ears, your tender touch caressing me, your sweet love filling my heart with joy. I want to lie here with you forever. Can we do that? That is what I want.
So we lay on the sheets, our faces a breath apart. Her eyes were soft with love and contentment, her purr as strong as ever. I pet her soft fur and whispered to her, “Lala, I love you. Lala, Lala, I love you. I love you, Lala. Lala…” Until her purring slowed… and stopped and the light left her eyes.