Good bye, sweet Isabelle

Our cat died today. Not Hermione, my writing companion but Isabelle. She was the darling of the whole house, especially my youngest son, who is heartbroken. She was a sweet cat who would come when called, always responded to a pet or scratch, was never demanding, and was always happy to see us. She used to sleep in my son’s top bunk and leap on to the secretary, probably to keep away from Hermione who is often cranky and can’t make the jump.

This morning, after I feed the boys breakfast, I was checking work email when my youngest son rushed downstairs. “I think something’s wrong with Isabelle.”

He’s dramatic at times. I figured it was nothing but I went up with him to check on her. She was atop the secretary, out of sight.

“I’m worried about her,” he said. “She gasped and then was breathing very hard.”

I heard her sneeze. Sounded like a nice, healthy sneeze.

I reached up to pet her, found her soft, warm fur. No response. She always pressed back to the touch, she was eager for it. I went for a chair. She was limp. I brought her to the carpet.

“What’s wrong?” my sons asked. They must have seen the worry on my face.

No pulse. No breath. No blinks. I tried chest compressions. No response.

“I think she’s dead.”

I really miss Isabelle. I have a lump in my throat as I write this. But the worst part was seeing my children wail. Especially my youngest. My wife ran to comfort him but he was inconsolable. If Hermione is my cat, Isabelle was his. “I’m lonely,” he said before bed tonight.

We let him stay home from school and his classmates all wrote him very thoughtful cards. He set them out in the secretary below where she died.

We’ve had many pets over the years  but this passing was the first sudden one. She was about seven, as far as we know. She was one of the nicest cats we ever shared a house with. This is the hardest pet loss. All but one of the others lived to old age and the other one, the second sweetest cat we ever had, had cancer so his passing was expected.

None of us can remember anything unusual in her behavior the night before. I think it was a heart attack but we decided not to do the autopsy so we will never know. We’ll get some paw prints and keep her ashes with a book of our memories of her.

We’ll miss you Isabelle.

Cats and Characterization

Who knew a house cat who sleeps most of the time could have so much to offer the author?

Hermione is my constant writing companion who makes a surprisingly good character illustration. Perhaps it says more about being able to extract writing observations from any source, even a fat, black cat who sleeps on my desk. Characterization aside, it’s nice to have a (usually) appreciative cat to pet and give me the encouraging purr or chirp. Or to admonish me with screechy-chatter when I sneeze (what’s the deal with that anyway, although it is funny. Me: <sneeze>, Hermione: <eh-eh-eh-eck> complete with scolding expression. Guess that is cat for “don’t interrupt my nap.”)

For one thing she’s neurotic: clingy, temperamental, sometimes demanding of attention, sometimes unforgiving of a touch. I was going to say not much like her Harry Potter namesake but I guess she could be moody, too. And, unlike most female domestic cats, this one seems to have forgotten about the flight part of “fight or flight”. My wife can scare her off, and anything else in the house, but Hermione has been known to chase my 10 year old up the stairs, in tears. Our other black cat lives in terror of Hermione. (My wife still can’t tell our two black cats apart even though she picked them out of the shelter. My boys and I figure when its time for a new cat, we’ll get another black one. My wife will never even notice the addition: “Is that Hermione or Isabelle?” “It’s Hermibelle.”)

A few months ago my son was screaming at the top of his lungs. I came running from my office. My wife rushed downstairs expecting to find someone dead (that’s wives: you can always trust them to identify the worst case scenario. Good to know as a baseline, I suppose). Turns out the cat had him cornered on the couch. It was hard not laugh but the poor boy was terrified. Our advice to him: kick the cat next time she does that. Then she’ll know who’s boss. We don’t mean for him to hurt the cat, maybe just yelling at her and throwing a pillow would be better, but she obviously thinks he’s a pushover. This might harken back to when he sat on her when he was five years old. I don’t think she still remembers that but there’s probably an echo of an echo in her little cat brain (“Michael: bad”).

My cat is even good at illuminating character traits in the rest of us, namely me. It’s a good thing we only have boys because judging by how Hermione manipulates me, if I had a daughter she’d have me wrapped around her proverbial little finger. Hermione still gets me with her sudden displays of affection: she hops into my lap, purrs, demands to have her head rubbed, and so on. I’ll think “aw, she’s being so sweet.” Then I’ll get up and she’ll trot to her water or food bowl throwing sad-eye glances over her shoulder as she goes. “Do’h, she just wanted some water.”

She gets me almost every time. No doubt another example of evolutionary programming in human males. My wife  always rolls her eyes and says “You men are so easy” but then I threaten to make her fetch her own water at night and she remembers this is a good thing, for women anyway.

As amusing as my cat is, there’s some useful characterization here. I may yet transplant Hermione’s personality into a female character, a manipulative one who still has her endearing moments. Come to think of it, she’s a lot like my last heroine/antagonist although that wasn’t conscious; maybe I was just channeling my cat as I wrote. Hermione might make a good dragon, too, although I see dragons more as autistic, in the sense that they don’t have human socialization skills.

In the end, there’s more value in how she illustrates individual traits that can be used, exaggerated, and shaped to fit various characters as needed than using her as a character. More fundamentally, this is a key part of the writer’s toolkit: observe the world and find ways to map what goes on around you into your writing.

Happy scribbling.