Cat in an Empty Apartment

August 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

You’re right. I stole that title from the poem of the same name by Wislawa Szymborska, which you can read here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1993/oct/21/cat-in-an-empty-apartment/?pagination=false.

I heard this poem for the first time Tuesday, at our school’s Poetry Hour, at which faculty usually outnumber the students. It stunned me and made me think about my mother’s cat, Powder Puff (named after an air race, not the beauty tool). I know the poem is about our human sense of loss, our animal sense of loss, but for me, it is also literally about Powder Puff. The Internet’s full of cats and cat stories, so why not one more?

Powder Puff watched over my mother’s body as she lay face down, motionless on her living room floor. He didn’t tell anyone; how could he? But he cried and hid way under the bed in the back bedroom when we came to retrieve him. He didn’t want to leave. Jeff and Leigh Ann finally coaxed him out. Jeff wiggled on his belly under the bed to try to reach him. The cat was in shock, and that was shocking. He must have seen something awful. I had to wait in the car. The place smelled horrible, even though she was gone. Because she was gone. Who knows what he smelled? Can you smell what’s missing? Can cats really smell death coming? They have a sixth sense and nine lives; it’s all in the numbers. He should have called mine. Or she should have.

I have wondered many times what he knows. I have looked into his cat eyes and tried to discern the story of my mother’s death, but it never comes. Leigh Ann brought him home, and has mothered him, much as she mothered my mother. He will now come out from under her couch sometimes when I visit. He is not trusting, but why should he be? One minute, he was living with my mother, comforting her in her new widowhood, the next he was in a rented mini-van on the way to North Carolina. And we were talking about him and to him at the same time. Poor thing, we said to him in baby voices. He doesn’t understand what’s going on. Where is she? I don’t like driving in this car. I’m scared. We gave him all kinds of words, simple sentences we couldn’t say ourselves, but felt so deeply. He growled, a low painful moan, at least until we got out of West Virginia.

Maybe he was trying to tell us what we wanted to know, trying to explain what will never be explained. He contains those last moments, holds them in his tiny cat brain and heart. He’s adopted Leigh Ann, and he’s coming around with me, slowly, slowly, as time proves he is not going to be alone again. That smell is just a memory, even on days when it comes back strong and pungent.

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