In August I moved to Montana, with a partner, a dog, and five Siamese cats.
I drove away from the house in the Montclair District of Oakland that had been my home for 18 of the 23 years I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area in California. I had decided with great joy to move to Montana, to the city of Helena my partner Mira and I had just discovered and fallen in love with. Mira followed in her SUV, loaded with everything I couldn’t fit in my car. The day that we arrived in Montana, we first met my parents at a rest stop in Idaho, where we all watched a total solar eclipse—the once in a lifetime event that signaled to me somehow I had made the right decision, coming back to the Rocky Mountains, my beloved Missouri river, my homeland.
I finally moved into my new house here at the end of October, after three months of living in my parents’ basement in Butte along with my blind chocolate labrador retriever, Kjersten Kjøttkaker, and five Siamese cats. I spent the first few weeks camping out in my empty new house alone. After movers delivered my stuff, I brought Kjersti up from Butte and she camped with me a few more weeks. After we returned from a roadtrip in December to play some concerts in California, I finally packed up the cats and their stuff and we drove the final leg of our long, slow journey to a new home in Helena.
When we arrived that afternoon, I brought the cats in their carriers into the master bathroom of our new house, set up their litter boxes, set up a little dining room for them on the tile bathtub surround, put their favorite cushions on the bench between my sinks, opened the doors to their crates, and shut the bathroom door.
At bedtime I closed the bedroom door and opened the door to the bathroom. Slowly the cats wandered out, sniffed around, and settled down for the night on the bed and bedding that none of us had seen for over three months. For the first time since the movers had taken our bed, my senior cat, Sigrid Syltetøy, took up her customary position in the valley between two pillows, near my head, and I slipped one hand under her and my other arm around her, and she purred and squirmed until we both fell asleep.
The next day, when I opened the bedroom door, several of the microkitties darted out between Kjersti’s legs, so I didn’t close the door again—clearly they were ready to take on more of the new house. Those younger cats didn’t make it far before darting back into the familiar safety of the bedroom, but by the time I had brewed my morning coffee, Sigrid, the shyest and most skittish of my cats, had padded into the kitchen and was looking around for Kjersti’s water bowl, where she had a long drink before starting to explore.
The other cats didn’t emerge until the sun had begun setting. By that time, Sigrid had found her way around, tried out several napping spots, and seemed to be comfortable in her new home.
Sigrid, my shyest and most skittish cat, was also the first to emerge as new friends started dropping by for a meal, or a drink, or to do me favors involving trucks, extra hands, strong backs, patience, humor. She was the first to start napping on the dining table in its new location resplendent with morning sun. She was the first to start napping on the tall back of the living room couch, gazing out the picture windows at our view of the Helena Valley. She was the first to wander into my office and nap on the desk while I was hooking up computers.
Unfortunately she was also the first to start peeing in places other than her litter box. The only cat to do so, I hope, although that can be hard to work out. At first it was the cushions I placed in the bathroom for their comfort—I’d see a damp spot, do a smell check, and sigh in resignation.
Sigrid had begun peeing on furniture—the most expensive available, naturally—several years ago, back in Oakland, when her older sister Gudrun Gjetost began her decline into late-stage kidney disease. When I finally had to put Gjetost to sleep, there was a giant Gjetost-shaped hole in the house, but the stress levels dropped almost as fast as I cleaned up the last of her messes and put away the many extra litter boxes I had placed everywhere. I hauled some ruined furniture down for trash pickup, and the household was at peace. But the peace didn’t last. Before long, I found damp spots, then I caught her in the act. I was back to stacking ottomans on recliners when they weren’t in use. Covering sofas in yards of foil. Removing dog beds and other tempting cushions. Using a lot of Nature’s Miracle and those yellow microfiber towels that you buy by the bale at Costco. Adding litter boxes. Experimenting with different litters. More urinalyses, more inconclusive results, more antibiotics just in case, more months in between intermittent accidents. Hormone sprays. Hormone infusers. More Nature’s Miracle.
As much special attention as I could ever manage—almost always snuggling for a long time in bed at night at the very least. She would purr as I snored. I’d wake up, arms numb, Sigrid still curled up on my hands. Things would calm down. For a while.
Before the movers came to gather up our stuff last August, I hauled several more pee-ruined couches and chairs down to the trash. In Montana, I bought new furniture.
The thing about Sigrid is, and I’ve already said this despite evidence thus far to the contrary, she was my shyest and most skittish cat.
Her whole life.
I picked her up from her foster home and had to wrestle her out of the crate she was hiding in—her foster mom couldn’t get her out, but I managed to, barely. I held her in my lap as I drove us home to Oakland, and she squirmed but mostly allowed me to hold and pet her the whole way home. That was one of the last times she put up with that, though, for a long time.
Sigrid joined my household before Kjersti, when I had a black lab named Candy. Sigrid came to us with an ear infection, and when I went to clean her ears out with Epiotic for the first time, Candy came running to her rescue. She’d had ear infections her whole life and knew that smell. Epiotic. Her job was to lick it up. She licked Syltetøy’s head. Syltetøy flinched, then relaxed under Candy’s maternal tongue. And from then on, they trusted each other.
When Candy grew too creaky to walk far, I’d bring her back inside and then take Kjersti the rambunctious new puppy on a longer walk. Candy would climb dejected onto the sofa to await our return, and most days Kjersti and I would get back to find Sigrid curled up in Candy’s chest, consoling her big black friend. Sigrid was skittish, but she trusted Candy, and when Candy needed her most, Sigrid showed up.
Sigrid mourned the day I brought home only Candy’s collar from the vet. Kjersti carried that collar around like a teddy bear for weeks.
Sigrid was sweet, fun, goofy, curious; all the usual cat things. Silky and beautiful. The most beautiful cat I have ever known.
But she wouldn’t curl up on my lap. Wouldn’t let me pick her up, carry her around, even hold her. She would only occasionally hop up on the arm of my chair and pet herself by squirming underneath my hand—if I tried to do the petting, she’d hop back down. Petting was always on her terms. For her first five years with me, she was this way.
Then Mira came along. Mira and I got to know each other over the course of launching this “kaddish in two-part harmnony” project, as my marriage was falling apart. It wasn’t long after my divorce was underway that Mira and I realized we’d fallen in love. So Mira started being a frequent presence around the house, and one evening to my astonishment I saw Mira carrying Sigrid down the stairs. Sigrid looked every bit as blissed out lying on Mira’s chest, in her arms, as Mira looked carrying her.
Mira had paused to rub Sigrid where she was napping in the bedroom, and after a long while rubbing away at her (something nobody else had ever been allowed to do), Sigrid let herself be picked up and carried. And then Sigrid napped in Mira’s lap—the first time she had ever napped on any lap.
In coming weeks, Sigrid Syltetøy began allowing me to pet her, too. Then she took the briefest of naps on my lap. Then longer naps. Eventually she would even let me walk up to her and start petting her.
A few years ago, after Mira came with me to the vet to say goodbye to Gudrun Gjetost, Sigrid Syltetøy became the senior cat. She had always been the “jam” to Gjetost’s “goat cheese,” and now their “crispbread,” Kaja Knekkebrød, was junior. Gjetost had slept most of her last year’s worth of nights on my pillow, curled around my head, and now Syltetøy began taking up her own nighttime post as close to my head as her skittish self could manage: in that “pillow valley.” At first if I reached out a hand to pet her there, she’d flee, but eventually she began to allow gentle petting, and after a few months, she’d allow me to hold her, purring sometimes even—as long as I didn’t move her, or twitch any muscle in a way that suggested I meant to move her or pick her up.
Most of my cats have been equal opportunity snuggle-puppies. They were raised by Labrador retrievers, and by me, also raised by a Labrador retriever. They have been happy, cuddly goofballs. Not Sigrid. Sigrid has always been a loner, skittish, particular. A one-person cat. Her person was Mira—another skittish loner, particular, raised by Siamese cats and German shepherds.
I was Sigrid’s second.
My longtime housemate in Oakland, Audrey, lived with the critters perhaps more than she lived with me, even. My work often took me overseas for weeks at a time, and Audrey assumed responsibility for all of their meals, litter-scooping, meds, and attention. Over time Audrey became at least as attached to the pack as I was. Every time I had returned from one of those trips, she’d report on her adventures with Kjersti at the dog park, her many wonderful cuddles with most of the cats, and then inevitably a despairing comment along lines of “Siggyboo almost let me touch her one night, but then she bolted.” Audrey felt rejected, and so had I for so many years, but over time she came to realize it wasn’t personal. She just wasn’t Sigrid’s person, Mira—nor her distant second person, Erin. Sigrid only had one and a half people.
During our time in Butte, my mom managed to break through Sigrid’s shell. Every time Mom saw her, she’d slowly bend over and hold her hand out for Sigrid to sniff. Sigrid would usually bolt, but after a few weeks, she began to allow Mom to pet her a little bit. I don’t think she ever quite brought herself to nap on Mom’s lap, but she trusted Mom enough that during my several weeks of business travel in October and then the six weeks that Kjersti and I lived alone in Helena, she managed to get enough attention that she only peed on the expensive furniture a few times. But Mom worried about her. She seemed sad, uncomfortable, unable to get warm.
Sigrid was at one time a burly twelve pounds. I can scarcely remember that time, she’s been thinning for so long. Eleven pounds. Ten. Nine. Eight and something. Seven. She became svelte, then thin, then frail.
Kjersti’s giant water bowl had long been the most important fixture in gaunt Sigrid’s world. A multitude of tests have not managed to reveal what’s been wrong with her, but something has been. She drank water constantly. She peed anyplace but her box. She huddled up to anything warm. She’d have a greasy coat for days, then suddenly be back to her silky beautiful self, only to get greasy and be a urinary recidivist. But her wonderful vets could never find anything in particular wrong with her.
Last night, yet another accident, yet another reagent strip that revealed nothing in particular, and finally the conversation I’ve never wanted to have, with Sigrid’s people: Mira and Mom. I think she’s uncomfortable. The destruction is escalating. I worry that she’s unhappy, and it’s not a kindness to continue being patient. Is there something I’m missing?
Sadly, reluctantly, uncertainly, we all agreed. Our beloved Sigrid Syltetøy has not been having enough fun.
And so this afternoon, with nothing resembling certainty, I called and made the appointment. Come at 3:45. I put her in a harness, and we drove to our new vet, who had pronounced her labs all perfect only a month ago, but who also knew something was wrong. At her office, I spent a long hour cuddling with Sigrid, waiting. Waiting when a tech took her in back to insert a catheter and bring her back to my arms. Waiting for Dr Brenda to bring the syringe. Cuddling with Sigrid when Dr Brenda came in, rested one hand on my thigh and another hand on Sigrid while she quietly murmured loving things to both of us, then connected a syringe full of phenobarbital to Sigrid’s catheter and continued murmuring to us both while she pushed the relief.
I mumbled, I hope it’s the right time. Thank you for giving her a smooth exit. I hope someone will do this for you and me someday.
Dr Brenda fixed me with a long, sad look, and said, I hope so too.
“Take all the time you need. I’ll be right outside.”
Eventually I lifted her from my lap, set her warm, soft, silky body down on the table. Arranged her as she’d always arranged herself for her final nap. Gave her one last belly rub with my face. Nuzzled her cheeks. Sniffed her forehead and kissed her nose for Mira, as Mira would have done.
Got up. Wadded the pile of wet Kleenexes into my pocket. Gathered up her harness into my pocket, slipped her yellow tiger-striped collar over my wrist, crept to the door, and stepped outside.
Dr Brenda, despite what I could tell was a busy day, was standing nearby. She fixed me with another long, sorry look. I stepped toward her, put my arms around her, and said thank you. She held me tighter and longer than I can remember anyone doing. Another thank you, another long, sad look.
I went out to my car and fell apart. I texted Mira, again. She had been with us in the room, by text, by texted photos. I knew she was suffering at least as much as I had been. She wrote, “Farewell, little soft complicated one…I’ve always loved you best.”
And Sigrid always loved Mira best. Mira, big soft complicated one.
Mira and I parted in December. We have been in love with each other for eight years. We could never figure out how to live together. We had been breaking up in slow painful motion for years. Finally we admitted that we didn’t know how to be partners. Since then, we’ve been healing, coming back to the things we love, letting go of the things we couldn’t figure out. Falling apart. Talking, talking, talking.
When is it time?
It must be one of life’s most difficult uncertainties. I hope my timing was right for Sigrid.
Sigrid was always my most complicated cat, and she trusted very few people. Mira was her favorite, I was her second. And she liked my mom.
Mira was always my most complicated love, and she trusted very few people. Mira was my favorite, I was her second. And she liked my mom.
I am living in Montana now, with a dog and only four Siamese cats, and a yellow tiger-striped cat collar on my wrist.
A Kaddish for Sigrid Syltetøy. Rest in peace, sweet jam kitty, beautiful silky toy.