Some words about losing my cat, Astro, who taught me so much about love and joy during the short time he spent with us.
I write in an attempt to put words to the heartbreak. It feels as though if I can only get the words right, something will be released, eased. But maybe the words just help wall off the feelings, create a distance from the rawness of grief? I’m actually not sure. It just feels necessary; like the alternatives — denial, distraction or drinking it away – lead me only into a rut of guilt and sorrow, around and around.
“Heartbreak has its own way of inhabiting time and its own beautiful and trying patience in coming and going….” (David Whyte, Consolations)
Karine brought the kitten home one day in September 2013 with the idea to rescue him from his mother, a feral and prolific campus cat whose litters tended to end up drowning or starving, but what actually happened is that he rescued me. My dream job and love affair with the Osa Peninsula had fallen apart a few months earlier and when I look back I see that I was still drowning in sorrow and arguably unfit to care for myself, never mind another living thing.
We were going to give him away – we already had three cats in the house. But this tiny little mewling ball of love slept in my room for two nights and I woke up the third morning and couldn’t come up with any reason not to keep him, other than a tremendous fear of commitment. Where will I be and what will I do over the next 15 years? How can I take on an animal? And the ridiculous clarity of my preemptive anxiety over a possible future in which I might have to include responsibility for another living thing in my decision making, in any way, suddenly seemed like not the way I wanted to live. (Also, he was So.Damn.Cute.)
This was the first time that Astro provoked (perhaps blindingly obvious) insights and helped me make better decisions. Not the last. See: when I moved into San José in late 2015 and my housing search consisted of looking for places with nice open green space, “so Astro could go outside and be happy”. Or, when I thought extra hard about whether various work trips were necessary, because “Astro misses me”.
Sometimes it’s easier to be good to the people or pets who depend on us than to ourselves. Sometimes those are the same thing.
I named him Astro inspired by the pattern in his patches – stripes and ripples like the beautiful grain of a wood I had seen on a recent trip to sawmills in Petén, Guatemala. The wood of the Astronium graveolens tree – it fit the bill of historically nerdy pet names in the Johnson family (“Ulysses”, “Benedict”, “Hotspur”) while feeling true to my context. I knew it was perfect when someone reminded me that in Costa Rica, the local name for this species is “ron ron”…like ronronear, the Spanish verb for “purr”. Yes: My kitten was named after the purring tree.
Meanwhile, his poor housemates shrunk as he honed his strategies for maximizing food intake. Momo, Bodoquette, Pato: I would like to retroactively apologize for Astro’s commandeering of your bowls. I am happy to pay that apology in Fancy Feast.
Every time I looked at Astro I thought: you are the most beautiful cat ever. I know many people have these thoughts about their pets, just like we do about our own children and nieces and nephews. But in this case, I was right.
He was rescued from a potted plant but somewhere in his lineage there was angora. Long, impossibly soft white hairs disheveled my black clothing and formed sagebrushy balls that rolled across our floors. The cleaning woman nonetheless was charmed (“Este gato es de raza” she liked to say).
That tail! Mi mapache, mi pizote, mi peluche…tail thick as a raccoon, held high and waving like a coati as he pranced away with his mincing model-on-the-catwalk gate.
Okay, so he wasn’t supermodel svelte…As an adult, lying in his favored position placidly lengthwise on the floor with his big soft white paunch spreading before him, one friend remarked that he looked rather like a heifer. Mi ternero. I never once failed to delight in the sight of him.
On every trip I’ve taken in the last 2.5 years, I’d get to a point five or six days in when I start to look at Astro photos and videos before going to bed. I would legitimately miss and crave him. When I finally arrived home he would run before me into the bedroom meowing, anticipating the love-fest I was going to lie back and bestow (god help me if I was wearing black).
Such a simple and perfect thing, a warm, purring cat next to you. I half-joke to my girlfriends: of all the beings who have passed through my bed, he may well be the one who’s given me the most pleasure.
Now, the prospect of coming home to an Astro-less house forms a small knot in my heart as I approach the end of each new trip.
Astro idiosyncracies I loved:
How he would always insist on you petting his cheeks, hard, pushing his head into your fingers or even your chin, alternating sides: marking his mama and his tias Karine and Dani as “his”.
His penchant for coming and lying under me right as I went into the first downward dog of my yoga session.
What a big old scaredy cat he was. He was huge, and he liked to bully Pato in particular, but he was the first to hide behind the pots and pans when the lawnmowers came calling. He lost a stare-off with an iguana once. When we moved to a new house, it took him a week to swallow his terror of the metal door frame and step outside.
How he welcomed his “hermano” Pato as a temporary resident in our new home in Escazú. (Maybe he was just excited about the prospect of once again having other food bowls to pillage, but I truly believe they enjoyed each other. Pato hasn’t been the same since Astro disappeared.)
How I set up a whole area of my desk with cat-friendly fabric just for him to lie on, and instead he would jump up on the OTHER side and lie on top of my work receipts and notebooks. Or keyboard.
How he gnawed on wrists. Okay, maybe I didn’t totally love that, but I was the one who let him do it as a kitten, when it was some way of giving affection, so I reaped what I sewed. (unfortunately so did everyone else who met him….)
His bizarre, slightly sexual patitas. At night before bed, he would often take up a piece of comforter or clothing in his mouth and pull it tight while kneading and walking backing in circles, sometimes for minutes at a time, and would be in this trance where he didn’t want you to touch him. When he finally let go he would hide under the bed for a while. Um….
How I would find him in the bathtub, meowing for running water, and I would give in every time. And every time he would be surprised when the tap turned on and got his tail wet.
How he would always want to go outside and then come back inside again like 10 minutes later in Turrialba, and never go more than 10 meters but be so happy about it and want to do it again half an hour later after recouping his energy by stealing more food.
How when I would sleep with the door closed and he needed to get out for food and litterbox, he would sometimes wake me up with just his stare.
How he could always tell when I was leaving on a trip. He would attempt to distract me by installing himself in the luggage or on top of my packing system, and sometimes in the morning he would hide out and refuse to give me a goodbye snuggle.
How he loved me first and best, but hell, if mama was gone, he was in Karine’s bed or warming Dani’s feet (and chewing on her ankles)…or giving ‘panzaterapia’ to guests or sidling up to small children or sneaking up into my landlady Pipa’s apartment to get some lovin´. Once when I was out of town Pipa wrote me… ‘mae, does Astro, um, give besos? Is that a thing? Cuz I could swear he just kissed me.’ (I guess I smooched him a lot on his little nose, he learned to return the favor.) In three months he managed to charm Pipa into liking cats.
There was a morning in Turrialba when I awoke, early sun streaming into my bedroom, and Astro was against my legs, watching me quietly, waiting for me to get up and feed him, and I felt this incredible sense of love. Just pure and unqualified, not because he was a particularly clever or gorgeous animal, or doing anything adorable in that moment. Just because he was Astro, the whole package, his gentleness and his warmth, his silky tail, but also his food-stealing and his wrist-gnawing, his early morning meowing, his incessant shedding, his bullying of poor Pato, his inability to remember where the back door was once he went around the corner of the house. All of it and none of it. Unconditional: just him being him. For a moment I understood that idea so purely, and what it might be like to feel that all of us, including me, are worthy of the same.
Astro’s belly was pure white and fluffy and the most delicious thing in the world to snuggle my face into several times a day. I swear I have never felt such gratitude on a regular basis.
When we were brought to his body, lying in a roadside ditch on the way to Pico Blanco miles from my house, the maggots were already getting at him and his eyes were gone (oh god my poor pookie what happened?) but his belly was still white and fluffy. How is that even possible? He took the time to clean himself even in his fear or panic or whatever it was that he went through in his final days. The image breaks me every time.
Grief. Regret. Guilt.
What the hell happened to him?
How did he end up so far away? He’s never wandered more than 20 meters from the house…
Did they poison him and dump his body up there where no one would see?
Was he kidnapped? Who does that? They say it’s a thing here…
What could I have done differently?
If only he had still been wearing the red collar that fell off…
If I had been there…..? If I had been there. If I had been there.
Guilt. Regret. Grief.
As the most immediate pain ends, a duller ache sets in, punctured often by a sharp blade of guilt. This blade is shiny and it’s got a word on it: travel. I left my Astro too much. I was trying to change that but I didn’t do it in time. I travelled much of January, I went off to Peru and left him with Pato and a twice-daily check-in from the neighbor. I project: he was upset about my being gone. He was confused, he was lonely. If I had been there, he would never have disappeared. (What happened? What the fuck happened? It’s crazy-making.) Or maybe he would have, but I would have started searching sooner. I would have gone further afield, I would have found him in time. (He hadn’t been dead long when we found him…he must have been alive for days after going missing.) I invent hypotheses: Other animals got into the house and chased him away; he was stolen by someone who found him handsome and easy to attract with food, mi comelón, and then escaped and was trying to get home to me.
The woulds and coulds and shoulds are a torture, a particular form of torture that I find myself extremely talented at performing and even do with a certain masochistic relish. The Bush administration could have hired me. But I will never know what happened. He disappeared, and I tried to find him, but I failed. I have much to forgive.
Thank you, my friends. Karine, sacrificing hours during a critical deadline to come stay at the apartment and rove the streets calling Astrouuu in the proper Andrea-accent. Dani, calling immediately with all the right things to say. Yuki and Brad, Jade and Laura and Kate, checking in from afar and often. Frank, knowing that hearing a voice matters. My brother, sending that poem. All the dear people who said beautiful things on Facebook about his loss, who made me feel like it wasn’t silly to get so wrought up about a cat.
Thank you above all, Pipa, for bringing your fighting spirit and local knowledge to the search, accompanying me half-drunk to Office Depot to print out fliers, convincing me to stand in the middle of the market handing them out like a religious wingnut, spinning amusing conspiracy theories about our neighbors, playing along gamely while Don Guillermo the egg vendor drove his shitty pickup around for hours and I called “Astro” into a megaphone. “Se busca gato blanco, grande, manchas grises…hay buena recompensa…” I announced your phone number to half of San José. I will never hear “El Perdón” the same way again. We tried hard.
Thank you, the woman who got my flier in the market, and whose dogs found my Astro’s body in the ditch, and who decided to call me even though you knew it would hurt. It did, so much. But you gave me an end to the uncertainty, and the time to say goodbye before he was beyond recognition or I was in another country. Both of those things are priceless.
I don’t want to stop thinking about Astro. I don’t want him to fade. My eyes well up each time I see a picture of mi gordaso, or allow myself to remember anything much, but I do it anyways, poking at the images like a loose tooth. The happy memories of him curled up against me or facing off against squirrels. Coming meowing around the corner demanding food as soon as I open a kitchen drawer. Sprawling himself on the floor in the middle of dozens of guests at my housewarming party and hanging out, as if to say, this is my house people.
Also the memory of his body in the ditch where he was found, February 14th, of the picture those kind ladies out for their Sunday walk sent us where I didn’t want to recognize that fluffy tail and that big white belly, but oh god I did. Of sitting on the road in the hot sun alone with his body and the buzzing of flies, a road high above town and miles from home, crying and looking out over the valley and calling a friend who loved Astro too, in hopes that she might have some wisdom to hold together my breaking heart.
The remembering gets a tiny bit easier each day, less tearful. This in itself is somehow painful. Javier Marias writes of the real goodbye, “the second and definitive one, the one which is purely in the mind and piques our conscience because it seems that we are letting the dead one loose; so it seems and so it is.” [“la segunda y definitiva, de la que es sólo mental y nos trae mala consciencia porque parece que nos descargamos del muerto, lo parece y así es…Los muertos sólo tienen la fuerza que los vivos les dan…” Los Enamoramientos]
No, please don’t ask, I don’t want another cat, not yet.
Dear universe: you are so unfair*! What the fuck? I truly had abandoned, at 39, the idea that my life was going to be “perfect” in any identifiable sense of that term. I didn’t want perfect. I just wanted my beautiful cat, my little dose of daily joy, to accompany me through my 40s, cat lady jokes be damned, to live until he was old and slow and to die peacefully at home. Was that really asking too much?
*yes, fair is worth fuck-all as a term to describe the machinations of the universe. And yes, if it were worth something, the balance ledgers would show me as having been massively blessed with more than my fair share. Shut up brain. Shut up. I just want Astro back.
I know he’s “only” a cat. I have to keep things in perspective. People disappear and die and that is much harder and much worse. It is. I understand that. I do not wish to make more of my grief than is necessary, nor to equate losing a pet with losing a parent or sibling or child. But in kind if not scale, the heartbreak of losing a living being who you loved and who gave you love is shared, universal. I feel connected to the whole wide world around me right now though grief and sorrow. I tear up ordering coffee and the woman behind the counter takes my hand and holds up the line to relate how her dog died in her arms. Within the same weeks that I am panicking, then grieving, two friends lose mothers to cancer.
I feel incredulous, thunderstruck by the bravery and strength of people all around me in the airport, on the streets, in my life, loving and losing and hurting and crying and then somehow breathing deeply and going back into the world. It must be the common denominator of being human.
Recently the author David Whyte defined “heartbreak” like this:
“Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot, in other words, it colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day; heartbreak is not a visitation, but a path that human beings follow through even the most average life. Heartbreak is an indication of our sincerity: in a love relationship, in a life’s work, in trying to learn a musical instrument, in the attempt to shape a better more generous self. Heartbreak is the beautifully helpless side of love and affection and is [an] essence and emblem of care… Heartbreak has its own way of inhabiting time and its own beautiful and trying patience in coming and going…. There is almost no path a human being can follow that does not lead to heartbreak.”
On the plane to London, re-reading Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, plucked from the shelf as I packed while the fire was still smoldering behind the house where we cremated Astro’s body.
“What She Said:
The only cure
is a good ceremony,
that’s what she said.”
I will plant a tree in his honor on my farm. I will try not to think of his dead body in the ditch every Valentine’s Day and I will plant an Astronium graveolens and fertilize it with his ashes and I will set myself to remembering how much love and joy he brought to my life and I to his. They tell me that in the end this is what matters. I will try very hard to believe that.