26 November 2012

The story of Beatrice

In 1998, there was a cat named Hazel living in my back yard. She was the third generation in the family tree of Fraidy (a feral cat who had adopted me), and was the meanest cat I ever met, before or since--at least to humans. She was apparently not mean to her fellow cats, since every three to six months she was producing yet another litter of kittens. It took me two years (she was smart and wary, in addition to being mean), but I finally sequestered Hazel in my garage, trapped her, and had her spayed. I made my best effort to find homes for all those many kittens, but she left a legacy of about a dozen unclaimed, who I fed and cosseted in my back yard until they either died of old age, found another home, or disappeared in less pleasant ways (coyote or hawk).

Since she was an outdoor cat with no medical advantages, and since she seemed to produce kittens without regard to the season, some of the kittens in her litters were less than healthy. One morning in January, I came outside to discover a two-week-old black kitten lying all by itself on the sidewalk, gasping for breath. Hazel had apparently carried her there, banishing her from the litter, because she had a severe upper respiratory infection. I took the poor little thing to the vet, but was told that she was too young to handle antibiotics, and that I could either euthanize her or try to raise her with a bottle if the mama cat wouldn't take her back. I knew better than to even broach the subject with Hazel, so I bought a doll bottle, some formula, and a cat carrier, and thus started Beatrice's daily treks to work with me. She had to be fed every two hours, so there was really no other solution but to take her along. Once she got over the respiratory infection, she quickly charmed everyone at my office, including Harold Adler, a talented calligrapher and a lovely man in his 80s who rented an office from Cinema Research Corporation, where I worked as a movie title artist. He wrote this tag and taped it to a cat toy he left on my desk for her:

He perfectly captured her sweet expression in just a few strokes.

After a couple of months, Beatrice was able to stay at home, where she was joined soon after by two others of Hazel's kittens--Miniver, who was actually born in the litter before her, but who had stayed outside until a severe injury made it necessary to bring her inside to recuperate; and Dante, from Hazel's last litter, who was invited indoors because he was just too charming and cheeky not to make into a special pet.

Beatrice was quite the personality. She wasn't exactly an affectionate cat--not a lap sitter, not a bed sleeper, and she let you know with a growl within about 30 seconds of you picking her up that this was not her idea of a good time. She showed her love in more unusual ways. When I sat in my chair to read (said chair being a Mission rocker with open slat sides), I would suddenly feel claws scratching gently at my thigh, and look down to see
On her back for a belly rub--this was the "crazy eye."
Beatrice poking at me through the slats. I would hold out my hand to her, and she would flop down on her back, grab my hand with her front paws, and kick it with her back feet--never digging in her claws, never hurting me in the slightest--and then gnaw on my fingers for a bit, never biting hard enough to break the skin. She did this from a very young age (a friend of mine suggested that I change her name to Vampira) until almost the end of her life.

The other way to get Beatrice to pay attention to you was to sing or whistle. I never figured out if she loved it and wanted to encourage me to continue, or hated it and hoped she could make me stop, but if I sang to her (she preferred "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" but also responded to "Frere Jacques"), she would run into the room, jump up on my chest, and start "knitting" and purring like crazy.

My model, on the patio.
Although, as I said, she wasn't overtly affectionate, she was attentive. She didn't openly follow me around, but whatever room I ended up in--bedroom, office, kitchen, patio--she would soon be there, usually sitting across the room so she could keep an eye on me. She was also johnny on the spot whenever she heard anything that might be associated with food or a handout--paper rustling, plastic lids peeling back, the opening of the refrigerator door. She was a big fan of cheese in particular, but didn't turn up her nose at sour cream, yogurt, or scrambled eggs. And having been weaned off her formula with baby food meat from jars, the seal-breaking pop of a lid could bring her running from the opposite end of the house.

Because she was ever-present somewhere nearby, once I took up drawing and painting she made a good model, and was the only cat I have ever drawn or painted from life rather than from photos, because she would get into a pose and hold it as long as she wasn't distracted or surprised. I wish so much that I had painted more of her while I had her.

Josephine and Beatrice come to dinner.
Because of her tenuous beginnings, Beatrice had many health issues throughout her life. She was prone to respiratory infections and suffered through quite a few of them. She had a touch of congestive heart failure, and between this and the respiratory issues, she had slowed down considerably during the past few years. Two years ago, however, I took her to a specialist who suggested she have a procedure to open up her nasal passages, and this made a huge difference in her quality of life for a few years. But then, six months ago, a huge buboe appeared above her right hip.

At first, the vet thought she had suffered some trauma from a fall, as it appeared to be a hematoma, but more investigation revealed that it was hemangiosarcoma, a cancer arising from blood vessels that is considered very rare in cats (much more common in dogs). There are two forms, with the cutaneous version being operable. This was the form Beatrice's took, so the vet surgically removed the tumor, with clean margins, and we hoped that would be the end of it; but two months later she had recurrence both at the site and internally. She waxed and waned over the next few months, but she was a stubborn and determined little cat, and every time I thought we were near the end, she would rally. She met me at the front door every night, and was happiest on the nights when I showed up with El Pollo Loco just for her. She loved to hang out on the patio, sitting in the sun and smelling the breeze, and curled up on the sofa every night with Miniver beside her.

She was alert and in good spirits until Thanksgiving Day, when she seemed lethargic and didn't purr or knit when I put her on my chest. I decided to stay home from the family festivities to be with her, and she died at 4:30 that afternoon, after a brief struggle to breathe.

She is going back out to the yard where she was born, and her ashes will rest under a lavender bush just like the one from which she emerged to grace my life almost 15 years ago. She is missed already--I and the other cats keep thinking we catch sight of her, out of the corner of our eyes, and when I sit in my chair to read, I hang my hand down hoping to feel her grab it. I have had many cats in my life, and have loved them all, but Beatrice was special. Hail to you, Queen Bea.