All cats are graceful, careful, and independent, but none more than Cleopatra. Always dignified, my tuxedoed aristocrat often sat halfway up the open staircase in deep thought, undisturbed by any commotion, staring out the front door I kept ajar. She earned the respect not only of my friends and family but of her animal neighbors that moved on past her, offering no challenge. I wondered what messages she sent out that kept order around her and what she contemplated.
We had found each other at the animal shelter when I stopped “just to look.” She was the one that stood out, front and center in a cage, mewing the loudest, as if saying, “Look, I am here! Take me with you.” She was the most insistent, expressive kitty in the shop that day, annoyed with having to stay in a cage. The sign next to the door read: “a year-old female, all vaccinated, chipped, and ‘fixed.”
“You are loud!” I responded, and she answered right back, looking directly at me. I liked her spunky spirit and decided to take her home right then and there. Once she found her bearings at her new abode, she talked a lot; we had conversations.
“What is your name?” I asked, but she knew that was my job. It took a few days. Then the name came to me when I saw her posing on the staircase. She was queenly, mysterious, and contemplative; she would be none other than “Cleopatra.” She liked her name, surely recognized it, and soon claimed the house.
Our morning communication centered on food. Sometimes the wake-up signal was an extended paw gently touching my cheek when I was slow to get up: Good morning; I am ready to go; purr. Get up. Get my treats. Our conversations were short exchanges of meows that I thoroughly enjoyed.
She greeted our visitors, flirting with each by rubbing on their feet and jumping onto laps when she sensed they were cat-friendly. How did she know? If and when she especially liked a visitor, she would surprise him by lacing her soft cuddly body and white paws around his neck when he sat on the couch. That was high praise for special humans, and I took her opinion under advisement.
Every winter, she would test the first snowfall by moving out beyond the front door to consider examining the white, pure blanket of snow. Reluctantly, delicately, she would take a step then vigorously shake her front legs in disbelief. Rarely and ever so carefully she moved down the steps to the backyard for a short test and quickly turned around to reenter the house once she was rid of every clinging drop.
On snowless days, Cleopatra was a frequent visitor to the cat door, and busy in her outside realm. She had fought all the good fights to establish her territory, terrorized intruders, captured prey, and made friends and enemies. When she returned to the house to check for food, she would often follow her meal with a good cuddle and nap. Of course, she chose the warmest spot in each room and favored her wool bed by the second-story bedroom window, a vantage point that allowed her to keep watch over the neighborhood.
She liked her kibble available at all times and would take a few bites as she went by her dish. Hinting that she needed refills, she would come meowing her reminders when she saw me going by her food and water dishes on the kitchen floor. She liked to spoon her kibble out of her dish with her front paws and appeared to relish every bite.
When I was home, she would not jump onto the tables or the kitchen counter, but footprints on the piano revealed she could not resist outside views in my absence. Her habit of jumping on the rim of the shower and walking around it when I was taking a shower was her most concerning, gravity-defying act. I admired her exquisite acrobatics; she never faltered, and I learned to trust her.
My loyal friend was with me for 15 years, an only child. During her declining months, she slowed down, slept more. Cleopatra fiercely fought against swallowing her pills, as if she had already decided it was her time to leave. She ate little and lost weight fast. Leukemia. But she never lost her will to purr and always appreciated a good cuddle. Eventually, she stopped going outside, likely realizing her vulnerabilities, refusing to accept defeat to dogs and cats that took over her territory.
Close to the end of her days, I held her gently on her soft wool bed one morning and carried her to the backyard before going to work. It was an unusually warm spring that year. At first, she was lethargic, too weak to move. Soon her eyes brightened; she sniffed the air and looked around with a spark, renewed energy, curiosity. She had loved and patrolled that piece of land around the fig tree and flower beds faithfully for many years. I did not realize that she was saying her goodbyes.
When I returned home that afternoon, I found her in her bed, rigid, lying on her side, stretched and reaching out. In her old age, she elected to release her last breath alone, in privacy. But in the empty house she left behind, I still felt her presence, grace, and independence. For days to come my eyes would water when I looked at her empty dish. Final goodbyes with fine friends come hard and last long.
One day she was sitting on the couch and the next she was dust in a cardboard box. I believe she had contemplated this business of death. It was a mysterious world, beyond her but one she wanted to explore, stretching to enter it, not unlike her investigation of all corners of the house and each neighborhood nook and cranny when she was alive.
I have not heard a meow in the house for the past six months, her absence weighing on me. The canned food sits stacked in the cupboard and her wool bed stays by the windowsill undisturbed. Her ashes sit still in the box the vet returned, behind a couple of her pictures. I still don’t have the heart to release them to the sea, just as I hold on to her memory.
Today I sit in the parking lot of the animal shelter hesitating, for there could be no other Cleopatra. Soon, I drive away empty-handed, knowing I will return in time to look for another companion.
Born in Greece, Sophia Kouidou-Giles lives in the Pacific Northwest. Her chapbook, Transitions and Passages, was published in 2003. Return to Thessaloniki, a memoir published in Greek in 2019, is forthcoming in the USA in 2021. Other work appears in “Voices,” “Persimmon Tree,” “Assay,” and the anthology The Time Collection.