After Dante died last year, Chaucer became an only-kitty. I briefly entertained the idea of adopting another cat or two so he would have a friend…but he seemed to expand to fill up all the spaces in the house that were empty. He was already a champion reading buddy and upped his game by plastering himself down my front whenever I sat down to read. He kept up a vigorous schedule of garnering people food, doing his tricks for treats, and napping.
He napped a lot.
In April, I came home from work and found Chaucer behind the bed. He was asleep. And wouldn’t come out when I refilled his food bowl (strangely, he hadn’t eaten anything). He would purr, if I reached behind the bed to pet him, but he wouldn’t come out. It was Good Friday.
Saturday morning, he was still behind the bed. He wouldn’t come out to eat, or eat a treat, or cheese, or bit of tuna fish I put down there with him. When I finally dragged him out and blocked up behind the headboard Chaucer just sat and cried and cried and cried until I let him get back behind the bed. He was still there when I came back from work. His food hadn’t been touched and he hadn’t used the litter box.
I called the emergency vet in tears and they told me to bring him in immediately. He peed in the carrier in the car – a very foul-smelling urine. On examination, the vet found a significant heart murmur, where Chaucer had never had one before, and a mass in his belly.
I knew, when I called the vet, that it was unlikely that I would be able to keep my Chaucer any longer. He was clearly in pain and trying to tell me it was time. This was it. The veterinary service at Bright Eyes and Bushy Tails was once again the absolute best I could wish for. They let me sit with Chaucer until I was ready for them to start the infusion, then it only took seconds for my Chaucer to be gone. The vet and his assistant sat with me while I held his little body, and his woobie, and let me tell them about the night I brought Chaucer and Dante home. Where Chaucer got his name, from a secondary character’s horrible cat in Elizabeth Bevarly’s The Wedding. That he had to have abdominal surgery to remove a blockage when he was 18 months old because he’d eaten a thread and many other things (including the spare wire for the cheese slicer – that’s radiopaque, luckily) and then got a wound infection because he wouldn’t take his antibiotics. That he would sit in the bedroom window of our old condo and watch for me to come home and if the window was open I could hear him meow down at me as I walked from the car. That he was the chattiest cat and would “talk” to you or at you. That he would pat the pantry door and meow when I asked him where the treats lived then do a trick to get his treats. That he thought the treat dispenser was the meanest trick of ever. That he would loudly haunt the kitchen while I cooked. That he thought he was a people and liked to sit at the table during mealtimes. That he ate Golden Grahams like they were going out of style. That he was obsessed with Clean Sheet day. That he had a love affair with my desk lamp. That one of his main objectives was to sneak into the closet and hide in the laundry hamper. That he hid whenever I had handymen into do work in the house while Dante would try and make friends with them, the reverse of what happened with friends. That he made excellent blanket nests. That he was the loudest barfer on earth. That he was an absolute stoner on catnip. That he was the best snuggler. That he was the best cat I could have ever wished for. They were so kind.
It was very early on Easter Sunday when I paid the bill and drove home to a house that was miserably empty. It was too quiet – not the quiet of “the cat is sleeping” or “the cat is silently getting into trouble.” This was a quiet that was stark and empty and eerily silent. I hated it. Nobody yelled at me to feed him when I opened the door. Nobody talked shit to the birds and squirrels in the backyard. Nobody yowled at the top of his lungs while dragging his woobie around the house (his woobie was a ratty blue puffball on a spring that he liberated from a toy when he was a kitten). Nobody tried to drink out of my coffee mug at breakfast (or water glass or wine glass or beer, etc etc etc).
And I couldn’t write about it. Every time I opened this draft I would start sobbing and have to stop. It has taken months to get it all written down, to give Chaucer a tribute that he deserves because he really was the best cat. A snuggly weirdo who photographed well in the social media era. I loved how much he made people smile. I have thousands of pictures of my silly goofball. The outpouring of good wishes carried me through the first weeks. And I felt guilty, that grieving Chaucer was almost paralyzing. It hurt more than grieving Dante and that didn’t seem fair. It just…sucked…on a spiritual level, that I only got to have my Chaucer Stinky-pants for fifteen and a half years, that I couldn’t keep him forever.
These are two of my favorite pictures of Chaucer, both printed and framed on the mantel.
When I came back from vacation at the end of May, I started looking at the kittens and young cats available for adoption in various rescues and shelters. No one really stood out to me (plus it was hard to tell from the sites which cats could be adopted as pairs, since I wanted two cats again). Then I heard from a mutual friend that a former co-worker had a family member with kittens just ready to adopt. So I DM’d Lily, and we texted back and forth a bit, and yes, there were still three kittens in that litter who needed a home. I chose two of the kittens based on the pictures she sent – a fluffy beige tabby and a mottled gray fuzzball without a tail who looked to be a budding tortie. I was originally going to pick them up on Memorial Day, but it turned out they weren’t weaned, yet, so we decided to wait a few more weeks. Another gal who was also adopting two kittens from the litter offered to pick mine up as well in mid-June.
And so, on June 10 – a day when I miraculously didn’t get scheduled to work at the store – I drove over to her apartment and met my not-quite-seven-weeks-old babies. I indeed had a beige tabby – a boy – and a gorgeous gray-and-cream tortie girl, without a tail so someone has some Manx or something in her. They are both gloriously fluffy, so I get to try my hand with long-haired cats. The boy had (unfortunately) just finished a bath when I got there bc one of the kittens had done an oopsie in the carrier and he got into it. My girl had not (atta girl). So my new boy got to ride home wrapped in a towel and tucked down the front of my hoodie – he shivered for a while, but by the time we pulled into the garage he was purring and making biscuits. The girl napped for a bit then made peeping noises the rest of the way home. They were both a little apprehensive when I let them loose in the basement but after a visit to the litter box and a full belly of kitten chow they both passed out.
I had been musing on names for a few days, not sure if I had boys or girls or one of each. I went back to a back-up name I had when I adopted Chaucer and Dante, in case one of them had turned out female. One of the first women to write for the English stage – and make a career out of it – was Aphra Behn in the seventeenth century, author of The Rover and Oroonoko (and also probably a spy for Charles II). So my tortie girl, with her tiny torti-tude and pugnacious off-center chin patch, would be Aphra. What name would match her? I thought about other Restoration playwrights – Etheredge, Dryden, Congreve, Farquhar (yikes) – but kept coming back to the most famous playwright of all, a little earlier in the century, William Shakespeare. Strangely, it seemed to fit. So Aphra and Shakespeare came to stay (I had planned to nickname him Bard, since Shakespeare seemed like a mouthful, but that didn’t stick.)
My house is filled with purring and squeaking again. Aphra and Shakespeare turn three months old today, July 19. I had forgotten how curious and stubborn kittens are. They jail-broke out of the downstairs bathroom about 24 hours after they arrived home, forcing me to find a better solution than the baby gate I borrowed from a neighbor (I bought a 6’x3′ sheet of plexiglass that I could put across the bathroom doorway or move back to barricade the hallway and let them have the run of the basement). I had to put no-chew spray on the electrical cords and no-pee spray in a few corners (Shakespeare had an incident of stress-peeing in inappropriate places after a few too many visitors one day). When they sit still long enough, they are the softest kittens I’ve ever petted; Shakespeare especially feels like you’re petting a fluffy cloud. They purr the loudest, rumbliest purrs for two-pound kittens. Shakespeare is a loud-mouthed goofball who gets hyper-stoned on catnip and likes to comfort-nurse on my shirt when he’s tired. Aphra is an independent little mite with the tiniest meow, freckled toe beans, and her funny little puff-ball bunny butt (she turned out to be a “stumpy” not a “rumpy”) who likes to sit on the headrest behind me and “groom” my hair. They quickly caught onto the routine of human comes home and feeds them, goes up and changes clothes, then comes back down to sit on the couch and read or watch a movie with the foot-rest up (they love lounging on the foot-rest between my knees). They come by for scratchies in between rounds of Kitten Wrestlemania, Zoomies, and naps and have been finding toys (and years-old containers of basil) Chaucer and Dante had hidden under the furniture.
They are collectively known as the Murder Mittens! Kittens are very spiky – razor-sharp baby claws and sharp, sharp, sharp baby teeth – and at one point I tried to say “you’re such murdery kittens!” but it came out “You are murder mittens!” And it stuck. Apparently, “murder mittens” is a thing – there’s a hashtag on Instagram for cats’ paws – I didn’t invent it but it’s so apt!
I hadn’t realized how sad I was after Chaucer died (I knew I was sad but this was a new level of sad, bordering a bit on depression). Once the kittens arrived I started feeling lighter and less alone and more relaxed. Even if I traded my snoozy snuggle-bug for two anarchists who are bent on setting the house on fire. There’s a lot of “Aphra, no!” and “Shakespeare, stop that!” but I love it.
I miss my boys. They were my first pets and solely in my care from the time they were eight weeks old. I turned into an adult with them – I started my job, bought my condo, adopted my boys, and graduated with my Master’s degree all between August and December of 2003. I will always miss my kitty-boys but now I think the jagged edges of that missing feeling are starting to smooth over. In a strange cosmic sense of balance, the Murder Mittens were born as my Chaucer was leaving this world. It feels like fate that they came to me.
Chaucer – mama loves you and misses you like crazy every day. Thank you for being my Chaucer-kitteh for so many years. Be at peace, my very best boy. Dante is waiting for you.
In memoriam, Chaucer Ward, September 1 (?), 2003 – April 20, 2019