One summer evening after I ate dinner with my college boyfriend Alex and his parents, Alex's father pulled him aside and said, "Alex, when you start getting really serious about a girl, take a good look at the mother. 'Cause that's what you're in for. It may not look like it today, but eventually every girl turns into her mother. And I think Kristina's mother is insane."
His assessment of my mother was a little inaccurate. She's not anywhere near insane. However, she is very enthusiastic. And emotional. Let's just call her passionate. His comment came after I'd related what I considered to be a flattering portrait of my mother, a story that revealed her endless love and devotion. The story involved my mother, a cat named Muffin and a flower bed on a rainy spring night the year before.
I was a freshman in college when I got the call: "Kristina, it's time. We have to put Muffin down. She's starting to feel the pain." My mother stifled a sob and then was silent. Muffin had given us both years of faithful affection and was one of the few beings in life that had never let us down. After blowing her nose and clearing her throat, she remembered, "Oh, by the way, your father's tuition check bounced again. You'll have to go beg the dean to let you stay this semester."
Reports on my father's financial irresponsibility generally sent me into histrionic fits, ending with my roommate sticking a large purple bong into my mouth. But after this call, I was completely still: Muffin had to go down.
Every night as I was growing up, Muffin slept with me. She was the cat to end all cats, the cat by which all future cats would be judged, the Marilyn Monroe of cats. She had come from nothing, just a street mutt from a broken home. She was a pure-white long-hair with a fluffy, expressive tail that moved like a belly dancer when she entered the room. She wasn't an ambivalent cat -- I've met that kind and I don't like them. No, Muffin loved and she loved hard. If you sat down in my house you were fair game for some kitty lovin' from Muffin. Often my mother and I would delay whatever we had to do for a few minutes if Muffin was on our laps because it pained us so to disturb that sweet, serene moment.
So I was sad when my mother told me the news. But if it was bad for me it was going to be a nightmare for her. She could not go through this alone and I knew I had to go home. A lot had been going on in my mom's life the past three years. She'd gotten divorced from my dad after he'd taken a second mortgage on the house, forging her signature, to save his failing business. The business failed anyway and the bank took our house. At about the same time, my dad announced that he didn't love her anymore and was leaving. And I, the last of her three children, had just left the nest for college.
A few years later she remarried, and her new husband did not like cats. Jack is a very large man with a lot of hair. He's basically wall-to-wall alpha male. But he's afraid of cats. Any time sweet little Muffin came near him he'd start screaming like a girl. I think he may have had a bad feline experience as a child. Some feral, evil cat may have backed him into a dark alley and scratched him to shreds, or at least I like to think so. In any case, it was clear that when Muffin died, there would be no more cats. At this point, Muffin was the only vestige of my mother's previous life. Her first husband was gone; her house was gone; her children were gone. That cat could always be counted on. When Jack would have a heart attack because my mother put the mustard back on the wrong shelf in the refrigerator (I kid you not), my mother would sneak away with a book and a cup of tea and sit with Muffin. All would be right with the world.
I came home over spring break to say goodbye to Muffin, and to help my mom get through it. Despite all my mother had been through, she'd kept up a good front, trying to stay optimistic and enthusiastic, saying that everything would be OK. But the prospect of losing Muffin was the last straw. She could not hold back. Every time Muffin walked into the room those few days before her last vet appointment, my mother and I would sob uncontrollably. Muffin would climb up on our laps and lick the tears as they rolled down our cheeks.
We got into the car at the appointed time with Muffin wrapped in a towel, mewing softly. My mother and I were sobbing, sobbing. We were a half-hour late getting to the vet because we couldn't stop sobbing long enough to drive. We pulled into the vet's parking lot, sobbing, sobbing. In the waiting room, my mother announced one last request for Muffin's last few moments. She wanted us to hold her when the vet gave the shot. "I'll be goddamned if Muffin is going to die in the hands of a stranger," she said. "OK, Mom," I replied, "you're right." And I knew she was. I suppose normal people say their goodbyes to their beloved pet in the waiting room and leave the death work to the professionals. Not my mother.
In the examining room, we held Muffin and were hysterical. That poor vet. He was always a very quiet man, clearly more comfortable around animals than people. Given how my mother and I were behaving at this point, it's obvious why. But, bless his heart, he understood us. He didn't say a word. He just silently prepared to do his job. He held out the needle and looked to us to signal when we were ready.
It is a very strange thing to hold something in your arms and feel the life go out of it. The minute that needle touched Muffin's paw, she was completely gone. Dead weight. God only knows how many hours it took us to get into the car, much less home. It's all a teary-eyed blur.
My mother had an entire funeral plan laid out. I'm sure she had thought about it for weeks. She decided to entomb Muffin like a Pharaoh and lay her to rest in her favorite flower bed in the backyard. In grief, my mother was very detail-oriented. All of Muffin's favorite toys, her favorite food and her favorite pillow were to be laid to rest with her. As we dug the hole, my Mother said, "Oh, Christ. I just want to hear her say she understands, to hear her say, 'I love you Karen, and I'll be waiting for you in heaven. Have a good life.'"
"You know she loves you and, in her own Muffin way, she does understand. It's OK, Mom."
That night, I lay awake in my bed. I would never share this bed with Muffin again. I was numb with the feeling that her death represented a much larger loss for my mother, and I could do little to help her. It started to rain. I heard a noise downstairs and then in the backyard. I looked out my window and saw my mother in her nightgown in the rain digging up Muffin's grave. I ran out to her.
"Mom, what are you doing?"
"I forgot to wrap Muffin in plastic and she's going to get wet."
We stood there silent for a moment, my mother with a shovel in her hand, the rain and tears pouring down her face, her wet nightgown clinging to her body. She looked at me, pleading to let her have this moment and not to question her grief. I obeyed. We pulled the box from the ground and made the necessary arrangements to protect Muffin from the elements, if only for a short time. When we returned her to the ground I realized we were not just burying the cat, but rather the last remnants of my mother's old life. The last bond of continuity was broken and she was really alone to start over again. Now there was no one to give her an endless supply of unconditional love. That was currently reserved for children and pets and neither would ever share her home again.
My mother has never had another cat, but she still goes nuts over them -- other people's cats, neighborhood cats. She calls out to them and hangs with them for a while, if they're the right kind of cat. The nonambivalent kind. I do that, too. Over the years my mother has sent me numerous cards and knickknacks with pictures of white cats on them, cats that bear some resemblance to Muffin. Not one of those cats is as beautiful as Muffin. They're more Jayne Mansfield than Marilyn Monroe, cheap imitations of Muffin's perfection. My mother writes little notes to me recalling Muffin's charm, and how she still misses her to this day.
I've always had cats. I can't live without them and I wouldn't want to. I have two long-haired tabbies, Earl and Selma, brother and sister. They sleep with me every night. Unfortunately, I live 3,000 miles from my mother so she hasn't had the chance to spoil them rotten as is her grandmotherly right. But I'm insane for those cats. I live for those cats. I miss them when I'm gone. I wish they were on e-mail so we could keep in touch. ("How was your day?" "Slept, ate, stretched." "So, it was a good day?"). My friends are tired of hearing me yell, "Oh, my God, you've got to come here and look at this!" only to discover me standing over my cats, who have struck some adorable pose. "Is that the cutest thing you've ever seen in your life?" I exclaim. "I love them so much I want to squeeze them to death." My friend Mitchell thinks that I display a dangerously obsessive attachment to my cats, but he doesn't understand. I don't want to squeeze them so that they die; I want to squeeze them every day of their lives until they die. That's not obsessive. That's just passionate.