Today, on a more personal note, I’d like to write about my beloved cat, Delilah, who died several weeks ago at the ripe old age of 18. We had a very special bond, and Delilah was a reminder of just how big a role bonding with animals plays in human well-being. If you’re not a big cat enthusiast, this post might not be for you – but feel free to read on, and if you start to lose patience, I won’t hold it against you. I flatter myself that the piece will still be enjoyed beyond the tiny circle of family members, friends, and exes on my “Squeeee!” mailing list.
Delilah was many things to many people. She was nominally a twelfth-birthday present for my sister Sarah, but ended up choosing me as her main human very soon. (Cat fanatic and dousing-rod that she is, Sarah found “her” true cat soon after in the form of a stray kitten at our high school). At any rate, it’s clear that Delilah had something to offer the whole family, whatever the individual terms might have been. She was really a pretty neurotic, standoffish cat who managed to get relatively relaxed around me. In fact, she could be distinctly unpleasant to everyone else, though she had plenty of great moments with my “nuclears” and singled out certain houseguests for instant, fulsome affection with little apparent rhyme or reason. (She did this once in apparent approval of an early girlfriend of mine).
My mother had a love-exasperation, but never really a love-hate, relationship with the cat. At one time or another, she declared of Delilah, “Her corset’s too tight.” “I love the Egyptoid shape of her snout with the large ears.” “She’s so devious… she always manages to sneak into some room where I don’t want her and pish on something. It’s like she was designed by someone who hates cats.” “She’s the Emily Dickinson cat.” “She’s the grouchy cat.” “She’s the best.” To me: “She a-DORES you.” When I asked why Delilah was lying down and writhing flirtatiously right in the middle of our street: “Because Delilah – is – BBBBATshit.”
My father was less sticky-goopy sentimental, but he could certainly show affection, and I can think of at least three distinct inflections of “Oh, Delilah” in Dad’s utterances, ranging from genuine warmth and relishing to the fulsomely melodramatic “OH – DEE – LIE – LAHHH!” of his “What are we going to do with you?!” moments. He also spoke, from time to time, of her near-impossible leaps and bounds, escapades in the almond tree, and considerable hunting prowess, with a kind of admiring fascination: “She’s certainly the most… agile cat,” and “The thing about… DeLLLLIlah is….” My dad paid hard dues, of course, to be graced with her presence: I distinctly remember his calmly, steadily carrying Delilah down the stairs, in the wee hours of the morning, to be booted outdoors after her yowling had woken him up for the fifth time that night, and his eyes were so far closed that he almost seemed to be sleeping right through his errand.
Sarah, as I mentioned, got pretty involved with “her” cat, Fur Elise (nyawk nyawk!) soon after Delilah appeared, but she still managed to singingsong her own sweet nothings; coin the nickname “Schm’gilah”; opine that the cat was “crafty” (she’s a children’s librarian and can humanize animals with the best of them); and physically try to arrange Delilah to cuddle with another cat she felt Delilah had grown too distant from. Indeed, it was Sarah’s quirky esthetics that set all of this in motion: she picked the scrawniest, runtiest kitten out of a littler of conventionally cute specimens at the adoption agency. The future Delilah already had a dense network of flames over her eyes – some of which seemed to form two terrified eyebrows and some of which seemed to form two infuriated eyebrows – and when a worker there gently washed her, and the wet fur lay dark and flat on the already-thin limbs, our new pet looked about as alarmed and aggrieved as I’ve ever seen any animal. We were all instantly in love.
As for me, I was so goofy about this cat that I wondered, when writing this post, how many of my own natterings I should put up for public view. To give you a rough idea of Delilah’s influence, I wrote an instrumental inspired by my pet during high school, and when I taught it to my first band in college, it became one of their favorites – and some random student who liked our show got my blessing to add lyrics to it for an independent-study project. Multiple pen or pencil sketches of Delilah’s angsty face still exist, somewhere, in multiple corners of my archives. My own patented “DDDUH-lie-lah” was described as sounding like smitten gratitude, the kind once expresses when one gets a wonderful present from a friend and follows the friend’s name with, “You shouldn’t have.” To this observation, I replied, in essence, that I more or less felt that kind of gratitude toward the cat for being in my life.
Whatever of Delilah’s lopsided affections, she was beautiful enough that she elevated my whole family’s experience just like a fine painting or sculpture would. I got rhapsodic multiple times about her complex coloring – the caramel-hued candy-stripes on one side of her tail that stopped right at the line of symmetry; the mottled brown tortoiseshell back; the blotchy calico stomach; the one solid-tan leg; the sharp tan-black split behind her head, again right down the middle; the short tan-caramel bib on her chest; and the broad spectrum of bewildered/melancholy/indignant/cautiously-contented attitudes the cat could strike, or at least suggest, depending upon a combination of visible flames, posture, and pupil dilation.
I still have plenty of great memories that float in and out in no particular order. I’ll always remember feeling Delilah become more fluid and yielding as I came by and stroked her back or nuzzled her soft, spiky, sweet-smelling face. I’ll remember the tiny, mournful boat with her legs tucked neatly under her, all alone somewhere on the staircase or the rug. I’ll especially remember her sleeping on my bed, complete with cute little rituals that changed slightly over the years with her habits. She was always small and spare, and having that very slight weight on my chest, warm and vibrating with a steady purr like a tranquil pot of tea boiling in a corner, was an excellent sleep aid. Beyond the physical waves Delilah emanated, I knew I could also feel something of the intense affection of this little creature, radiating into me on an emotional wavelength. There was Delilah the Nest-Maker, hunkering over whatever clothing I had left around bearing my musk. There was Delilah the Crack Addict (Sarah’s term), perennially perched on a favorite indentation we had created by pushing together a matching couch and overstuffed chair. There was Delilah the Predator, with a large grey bird vainly flapping its wings from inside her jaws in front of our brunch guests, or a trophy mouse she had misguidedly borne through my window. Most touchingly, perhaps, there was Delilah the Nurse Cat, who sat guard on our beds when we were sick – even those she didn’t hang out with normally. In short, she covered about as many bases as a family cat can cover.
When Delilah was about sixteen or seventeen, it hit me that every time I saw her might be the final one, and I bid each goodbye with tender loving care accordingly. The last time I did see her, this past Christmas, we’re pretty sure she was deaf, and by her last few weeks she may have been blind too. I remember her looking gnarlier and lumpier than usual, especially around her face – and my first thought wasn’t of a gnarly, lumpy old human, but of one of those magnificent redwoods that shrinks down and gets twisty and full of burls toward the end of its life cycle of a few thousand years. I think I had this reaction because there was always something otherworldly or timeless for me about Delilah’s understated little magnificence, and it remained even as I watched the physical Delilah fade away.
She ended up dying shortly before I visited Los Angeles for my recent birthday. My mother’s current beau was nice enough to dig a special grave in the backyard and write Delilah’s name and dates on it with an expertly-wielded power tool. I sat by it and tried to grasp the finality of the cat’s disappearance from earth. She really was one of those pets who span multiple formative eras of one’s life, and I knew I was saying goodbye to much more than a cat. One of my exes, with whom I still keep in touch, left a condolence on my voicemail, saying, “I know you guys were really close.” Though I’ll grant that the ex is, herself, a certified cat loony like me, I think the remark was yet more evidence of the nearly-human dimension Delilah occupied.
I love you, Delilah. Rest in peace.