The Cat from St. Petersburg
Shoelace was probably born in a thriving feral cat colony living in the courtyard of some old brick apartment blocks on the East side of Pilutova Street in the farthest Southwest corner of St. Petersburg. It was the beginning of July, 1994, and I had just arrived in Russia. I was taking a year’s leave from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where I work as the costume designer and a professor of theatre. I landed at the home of my friend, Milla an artist, who happened to live on the West side of Pilutova street, at what would be (in American size blocks), about a half a block distance from the “Courtyard of Cats”.
I planned on staying with Milla for a few days `till I found an apartment. I ended up renting a room from her for the whole year, and we became constant sidekicks. As we returned home one night at the end of the month, a tiny one month old tabby cat, liberally coated with fleas, halted our entrance to the building by placing her claws in the bottom of my jeans, yowling, and refusing to let me budge. I was never a “cat person” but one would need to be an audio-animatronic dummy at Disney to be oblivious to such a plea. On the ground around her was a shoe box, crudely made into a sort of home-made doll bed out of grass and leaves, and next to it was a bowl like a cat dish—also filled with grass. It was immediately obvious what had happened:
We had a sort of feral-child colony in our own building yard, a bunch of 2-4 year old kids with shaved heads and torn clothes who had alcoholic parents who ignored them all day. These kids played together with the toys they could pick up from the dumpster, they wandered the neighborhood throwing sticks for the stray dogs, and mucked about in the “park” next to the building making mudpies. Clearly the tiny cat got separated from her mother, meowed, as cats do to give mom a sonic bearing on her location, and the tots intercepted her, “rescuing” a lost cat. So they tried to make her a little bed, and to feed her (they’d obviously seen cats chewing grass), and left her outside the building door, since the drunken parental units were unwelcoming.
So we found her. Milla, who, being a “cat person” took charge, brought her up with us, cooked her an omelet, determined her sex, and then, when the cat had decided to sleep in the shoe-rack, named her Shoelace. Two days later the cat was sleeping in my bed, not the shoe-rack, and I was in love. Like most non-“cat people” I had no clue how the little furry beasts manage to work their way into your heart. So, Milla and I made her cat toys, and Designed More, beyond our means to make, and the cat learned useful tricks like climbing the drapes, climbing me, and sitting on my head to play with the “chandelier”.
In August I made the cat a special hat for head climbing, and wore it down to the street, whereupon the feral-children pointed and said “It’s our cat!” And were much amused to see that the crazy American lady with the painted clothes had the missing cat, alive and well, on her head.
The cat, however, was not amused at either the outdoors or the children, so I cut her visit short.
Shoelace’s only scars from her difficult kittenhood experiences were a slight limp and a strong agoraphobia, the latter of which we attempted to alleviate in September by a weekend visit for a Mushroom Hunt at a friend’s dacha. Shoelace learned to step out of doors in the three days there, and would go as far as 15 feet in any direction from the cabin to hunt bugs.
Click Image to see Shoelace’s window bag of screening, which I devised so she could sit on Milla’s 8th floor balcony without danger of falling. Years before, Milla had a cat that fell from the balcony and lived!
Shoelace and I stayed in Russia for a year. She got neutered at a nice Russian clinic where she was later also immunized and given medical papers for travel by Finnair, (and for Russian customs regulations.) Russian customs gave her a brief and friendly examination to ensure she was not an endangered species being smuggled out for nefarious purposes then gave us a big official looking form for export with lots of stamps and signatures, that was the delight of all the customs officials for the duration of our trip.
After a night’s stopover in Finland we flew to San Francisco. European airlines are much more decent than U.S. ones in their treatment of cats: Shoelace was assigned her own seat, and got to sit in it, or in my lap, for all but takeoff and landing. Attentive stewardi brought her milk.
In California she was not even required to leave her carrier for import to the U.S.; minutes after customs we were being driven by my Dad to Terra Linda in the family Pickup truck. In California, Shoelace immediately overcame her agoraphobia in her eagerness to climb trees. For a month in Terra Linda she imitated Tarzan to my Mom’s panic and my amazement. She was so addicted to the outdoors that when we moved to an apartment in Alaska I learned how to take her on Trips to the woods, so she could get her thrills in while I mushroomed in the forest.
When the snow fell, Shoelace had to be an indoor cat again, and so she trained me to play with her in an assortment of cat aerobics: bead hockey, rubber band retrieval, fling the mousie, cat tag, spin the kitty, sunbeam chasing, etc….
Shoelace commutes (with Tara in her van) to the UAF costume shop some days. She still hates driving, but tolerates it to get to work or the woods.
Shoelace’s favorite hangout at work is in the fur scrap box on a high shelf, where she often naps in the late afternoon.
Shoelace has died. We just yesterday got the bad news from the vet who thought at most she had a month or two to live from a fast-growing inoperable tumor. Today she died at home in my arms, “From complications of surgery” as they say, about an hour after coming home. Although between tests, X-rays, and surgery, we have had a little over a week to prepare for this awful news, the blow is still hitting just as hard as I’d always feared it would.
The last photo of Shoelace, the night before her surgery, 3/14/05
Shoelace came into my life at a point where I was so rock-bottom in my emotional life I had actually decided to take a year off from work, go to Russia, and live like a hippie till I figured out how to not be depressed all the time. The year in Russia did in fact pull me up and out of my funk, largely due to Shoelace adopting me when I had been there a month. I wrote my play “Kiosk Man” two days after she adopted me, and I’ve had a pretty steady stream of inspiration and mental health since she entered my life nearly 11 years ago. I am justifiably petrified that I’m about to be flung back into the pit, most especially since I’ve been pretty much fighting an uphill battle for staying cheerful this last year between my own case of cancer, another family cancer, my (possible but never able to be pinned down) heart problems, the onset of menopause, and of course, the election.
Keeping a smile pasted on my face has been hard, yet Shoelace has unquestionably been my shield against unhappiness taking over my life, as she has been for over 10 years now. When I went to Russia my life was so alone and loveless I could barely cope to get through the semester preceding my trip. I tried to make a bargain with the universe and myself: I wanted to love someone and finally have him (or even her) love me back. I told myself I wouldn’t quibble over who it was, whether he was good looking, financially secure, willing to be faithful, even not a he, etc. No limitations, just accepting it if I found it. Instead it found me one night as I walked home and consisted of about 8 oz of flea ridden starving street kitten with an attitude like a spoiled princess. I thought it ironic, as it became apparent that it was what it was, that my “true love” should turn out to be a cat, but I accepted it. However knowing her life was likely to be shorter than mine, every loving glance, every play session, every good moment, was slightly shadowed with the fear of this horrible moment when it should come to knowing it was her end.
And now it has come. I felt last night as though I wanted to grab her and run away, away from this awful thing that would hurt and kill her. I wished there was an afterlife so we could go there together. All night while she was recovering from her surgery at the vet I missed her physical presence the same way I’ve missed it any time I’ve had to travel away from her—yet ten times worse, knowing that soon I would never hold her again. Now, with her death, I feel like love has truly left my life for good. Shoelace’s expressive face, her adventurous attitude, her demanding personality and high intelligence all made her more human-like than cat like. It is like having a S.O. die, not a pet. I speak from experience, I’ve buried many birds, fish, rats, mice, and the great dog I grew up with, and even he never came close to being an emotionally equal partner like this tiny (7 lbs) cat has.
I want to tell you stories to illustrate how wonderful she was, but they are all inadequate. There is the fact that she would jump through the air through a hoop in the costume shop for the fun of showing off, or that she figured out how to escape from our original plastic-fencing enclosed cat porch by climbing it, hooking her limbs through the holes, like a marine climbing cargo netting, or when she saved my neck by alerting me to a kitchen fire like a feline “Lassie”, or how she liked as a kitten to be swung gently in a pillowcase, or climb and balance on the top of my head. But those are all parlor-tricks. The real thing is her clear-eyed stare at you from across a room that said “I love watching you”, and the loud purr she makes when you picked her up and cradled her on her back like a baby, staring at one with loving and intelligent eyes. Her love rescued me from the lonely sadness that plagued me a decade ago, and now I don’t know what I will do without her.
Just two nights ago, before her surgery I coaxed her into playing with the “bed mouse” (my toes wiggling under the covers) and she seemed so much her usual happy self. People are always telling me how lucky Shoelace was to have found me, yet I always object when they do. I’ve always known that the luck was mostly on my side. She was love and happiness incarnate, her gaze all unconditional love, her purr the most instantly heartwarming thing I’ve ever heard.
Please don’t send condolences, I can’t handle it. Just find someone you love and remember since you won’t have them forever you need to tell them now, and every day you have them, how much you love them. I did this with Shoelace and it is the only thing making all this bearable.
A letter to a friend (sent in reply to a letter of concern) one week later:
Please don’t panic. I did, after all, write that letter the night my Shoelace died. In the world I live in (theatre people, artists, etc.) the necessity of being able to share and clearly articulate matters of emotional importance is a major part of what we do. Shoelace was the official mascot of our theatre, and known to most of the older students very well. Her passing, and any unusual behavior on my part such as crying at odd moments (I’m considered one of the most unflappable folks where I work) or snapping at anyone, requires explanation. Hence my sharing the bad news was the sort of thing that barely caused a ripple among our set.
I routinely get verbal monologues of angst (and other emotions) from my fellow faculty, and the students, at normal group occasions like dept meetings, birthday parties, post mortems (post show analysis meetings), in classes, while passing in the hall, etc. This is not to say there is weeping or hysterics, rather there is clear, heartfelt, articulation of one’s feelings and ideas, and discussion and analysis about where these feelings fit into one’s sense of self, of one’s system of belief, and in one’s life choices. One’s deepest most intense feelings are, after all, the raw material from which we all work to make art, so taking these feelings and bringing them up for discussion, in my experience, is not only a great way to get a grip on things and bond, but also a great way for us all to make better art. This sounds more cold-blooded than it is, but it is perfectly true that any artist in theatre who actually is an artist will take whatever pain life gives them and try to find a way to use it to create something more constructive.
So, as a result of my sending this letter out to our students, and by my being open in my classes this week about my feelings, I’ve had several good discussions with students I’ve had little emotional contact with previously who connected with me on this matter because of also going through similar feelings themselves with pets and/or people. A former student wrote to tell me he had spent his evening following my instructions and spent hours hugging and bonding with his wife, baby son, and two cats, then went on to say I should write a book or play on my story with Shoelace. Far from being alienated from my fellow humans because of my feelings, expressing them in this manner gives me the chance to connect to others who have similar feelings. I can also, by articulating these feelings in a sincere way and sharing them, help others who have these feelings, yet who can’t easily find words to express what they feel. They read it and think, “That is just how I felt when my dog died” or whatever, and it is comforting to know that there are others who understand, who have felt the same pain, and who ultimately heal.
I feel that I have healed a good deal in the week since she died (even though there is far to go yet) since today I was able to view a video I’d taken of her 2 days before she died (I needed to advance the video so I could tape record something without taping over that clip) not only without crying, but with fondness, and even a bit of joy. It called to mind her as a living being, who was wonderful, and who I was lucky to know, rather than the image I had of her at the very end where she was suffering from her surgery. I could speak of her calmly and fondly to a class of students and be left only with a warm feeling to be thinking of her. I not only find that I can look at pictures of her (and other cats) without pain, but that looking at these things helps lessen the pain. Soon, very soon I think, there won’t be pain at all, just remembered happiness at her incredibly positive effect on my life.
I probably will end up writing a book about the year she adopted me in Russia (I’ve always thought I would, I am just waiting for the perspective of time to make sense of it) since it was such an artistic and emotional re-birth for me with long-reaching consequences. I also kept a detailed daily diary at the time, which I have been rereading as a method of coping. What I’d never noticed before in the chronology was how much her actions towards me had a tendency to generate art. While Kiosk Man (my play) was largely inspired by my friend Andrei, I actually wrote it 2 days after she entered my life, while she slept in my overall breast pocket over my heart. My diary entries for the year all go like “played with the cat for an hour, then wrote a new chapter for The Costumer’s Manifesto” or “Cold today so I sat in the kitchen and wrote a Press article with the cat in my lap”. Nearly every output except for photos taken at sites away from my apt is tied to a cat “nudge” of affection. I worry a bit that with my furry “muse” gone that I’ll find it harder to create for a while, but ultimately I know that the change she made in me was permanent.
I am very far from closing my heart to others over this; on the contrary I’m hoping to keep a bit of a rein on my actions in the next few months so I don’t either get a boyfriend or another cat “on the rebound”. I am hoping I can wait for this to happen naturally once I don’t still feel a dull pain when I come home and she isn’t at the door or when I wake up and realize she’s not at the foot of my bed. It would be colossally unfair to whoever follows in my life to start up a new relationship before I’ve had time to mourn the loss of this old one.
I definitely don’t believe in any excess of feeling sorry for one’s self. It is a stupid, helpless, whiny way of dealing with the world. It is also, in this instance, wholly inappropriate. I was so flipping LUCKY to have had her as long as I did. In fact I told her every day “I am the most fortunate of humans to have such a princess of kittyness who has chosen me as her handmaiden. Woodgie, woodgie, woodgie…” and similar nonsense sounding phrases. The thing is, I never really thought of it as nonsense. I meant every bit of it. I still do. Every crumb of love we get in the world is a feast. Only idiots nitpick and want it perfect. (Of course the world is filled with idiots who do exactly that).
In my “perfect” universe I will someday find someone to love best who will do as Shoelace did: stretch me as a person, convince me to do things I did not think possible, introduce me to new ways of feeling, thinking, etc. I honestly don’t care if he is well off, sober, faithful or fits into some sort of mold. Indeed it is better if he is as unusual and surprising as possible, warts and all. A fun female friend is worth loving too. And as for cats…
There will never be another Shoelace. She was unique. But I certainly do not believe she will forever be the only cat to make my life better. Her tremendous force of personality was an appropriate thing to pull my life into focus at the time, at other ages and other times perhaps another cat will demand of me something similar, or different, but that will be her/his choice. In Russia they say “You do not adopt a cat, a cat adopts you”. I believe it. I’m just so glad she did adopt me, did help me through so many rough emotional times, did love me and let me love her back. And in over 10 years together we were never bored with each other. Love, in addition to being patient, kind, un-envious, un-jealous, protective, etc, is by its nature not boring. We can never grow tired of telling those who we love that we love them, and we can never grow tired of hearing it.
Our stage director lately keeps telling us about how Chekhov’s wife, actress Olga Knipper, (who because of living in a different city from her husband spent most of her marriage writing him each day,) continued to write him daily for two months after learning he had died. I find myself saying “I love you” to Shoelace’s photos around the house the way I would to her when she was alive, because it still feels good to say it. If, as one of my friends put it “She is hacking up hairballs in heaven” she might like it, and if not, it does no harm.
Thanks by the way for writing with such concern for what may seem to be such a small matter as the death of a cat. I do appreciate the concern, and your sentiments, and always have. I enjoy all your letters and do in fact think we have much in common.
Shoelace in 1996 at about 2 years old, relaxing after a “household” (non-purebred) cat show with her prizes.
Kitty’s decorated box for the show, done in the style of a star’s dressing room c.1900, with mirror, bouquets, “makeup box” of cat treats, and electrified chandelier.
Gilded wall photos in the box were a subtle UAF advertisement showing scenes from The Mystery of Edwin Drood, our musical playing the same weekend as the cat show.