Ode to a former cat
I have always wanted to be able to play the piano. When I was a little girl, I gave it a bit of a crack, by which I mean a man came to my house every week and I made excuses for why I hadn’t practised, not even for one minute, and my mum became grossly embarrassed and gave him his money, and all I can remember is “Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit”.
But what I actually wanted to do was not learn how to play the piano, but to sit in front of the piano and run my fingers along the keys in an effortless expression of emotion. To bang and clang and glide and tap and kiss the keys in a way that communicated how I was feeling at that moment. And not just that, but in a way that drew the feeling out of me and flung it somewhere else. I wanted to be able to have an emotion, then sit at the piano and touch the notes that told the emotion.
Yesterday I wanted to do that. I couldn’t, because I can play exactly half of one song (Moonlight Sonata, of course) and half of one other song (obviously Fur Elise), but I wanted to so badly that my arms ached. I wanted to sit at my piano (I have one, because I am still pretending, twenty-five years later) and play the song that felt like “My cat has died and I am going to be sad forever”. If I play my emotions they sound like someone has dropped a second piano on top of my piano, and yet it feels completely strange to me that this is not an ability I possess. My body wants to do it.
I didn’t expect to find my cat, yesterday. He wasn’t in the backyard with the other cat, so I went to look for him, knowing that I wouldn’t find him and he would just come home the next morning. I was going to get lunch, actually, and planning to have a casual glance for my cat.
I didn’t even see him, on the side of the road. I saw the space around him. I saw the curve of his belly. I didn’t see him, my cat, dead on the side of the road; I just saw the shape he occupied in the corner of my eye, when he wasn’t supposed to be on the kitchen bench, asleep on my leg, hiding under my doona. I saw that shape there on the nature strip, the shape he took in his everydayness in my life.
As soon as I saw that shape, I cried. I have had a lot of cats, but when I didn’t see my cat on the side of the road I felt it between my ribs, and I cried before I had even registered what I had or hadn’t seen. I caught a minute glimpse of the colour of his fur (a kind of milky dirt) and I knew it was him as well as I have ever known anything, and I cried in a wretched and injured way, from my throat. I had parked in a man’s driveway, and he asked me to move, so I pointed at the shape on the road and said, “That’s my cat!”, though I don’t know what I expected him to do about it. Hug me, man on the road, I thought. That is my cat there, that shape, I haven’t had a good look but I am almost positive that is my cat and what are you going to do about it? Then a family came along the road–a woman with her three children–and I wanted to stop them, to shout out to the mother not to come any closer, because the children did what I expected they would, which was to point at the shape on the side of the road that had once been my cat, and to scream: “That cat is dead!” Because before then, maybe he hadn’t been dead. Once the children screamed, I would know for certain, and they did, and I did.
When I was a little girl, not playing the piano, my dad had six cats. He taught me what it meant to love a cat, to have the kind of cat who would sit next to you all day long. He taught me what it meant to lose a cat, to miss the shadow of a cat, to miss the darkness of a cat, to miss the hissing, spitting, howling, pure hatred of a cat. He taught me how to miss not the physicality of the cat but the way one small cat could fill a whole house, the way you could be so certain that the cat didn’t care for you except that there it was, on the arm of the couch, not touching you but near you, with its pupils changing shape as it blinked and looked at you, and the motoring in its chest because it turns out it did care for you after all. My dad and his cats taught me all of that.
Which is probably why, yesterday, my dad cancelled his meeting and came in his hybrid car, with suit pants on, and stood on the side of the road and looked at the shape that had once been my cat, and asked me if I had looked at him. I said, “Not really,” and he said, “Maybe you shouldn’t.” I told him I didn’t have anything to take him home in, and my dad stood there in his work clothes and his polished shoes, and took a new shirt from his car, and wrapped my former cat in it. Then he took him home in his car, in the front seat, and dug a hole for him in the 36-degree morning, and took my bloodied, broken, former cat and buried him with his head facing south, towards the sea.
And I didn’t play the piano, because I don’t know how. But I did write this, and it felt kind of the same.