Turtle

I was back to mindlessly breezing through Facebook tonight, when I saw the picture above (posted on Jackson Galaxy’s page). He tagged it as #sweetcaroline. And within seconds I welled up and cried.

Woah. That was an unexpectedly powerful response.

I think it’s just the fact that she’s a tortoiseshell kitty with a little smudge of colour on her cheek. Turtle had that too. And I saw her in the photo for a second.

It’s been 14 years since Turtle died. She was only on this earth for 14 years in the first place, but I obviously still carry her deep within me.

But the cat in the picture isn’t Turtle. This is Turtle:

I was about 11 years old in that photo. She was 1 and a half.

My parents would complain that they couldn’t understand what I could see in that cat. When I wasn’t home, all she did was sit in the hallway and howl insistently. If they went to pet her or comfort her, she would swat at them and run off. Everyone in my family got scars from Turtle.

Yet I knew what nobody else did. When I was there she just stayed with me in my room and didn’t bother going into the rest of the house. She was wonderfully affectionate with me – climbing inside my t-shirts, licking my hair, eating off my plate, and tolerating all of my never-ending hugs. She loved it when I practiced my French lessons on her. “Ah, ma belle tortue. Tu est faim?” And she would purr gently, with that little, wispy voice of hers, and stand by her bowl. At night, she would climb under the blanket with me and poke her head out to rest on my shoulder. Sometimes I would talk softly to her about my day – but if she wanted to just sleep, she’d put a paw over my mouth to make me shut up. And I would kiss it, which annoyed her. We just had that kind of relationship.

She was my first cat. My brother wanted a kitten, and my parents always had to be fair, so they told us that we could both have one. They took us to the local cat shelter, and my brother was quickly having trouble picking between all the frisky, rolling little balls of fur who wanted to play with him. But I didn’t have any trouble picking one. I just sat quietly in the cage and watched all kittens play. But one little tortoiseshell kitten held back and just watched the others with her big, shy eyes. After a little while, she plucked up the courage to take a few steps towards me and sniff my hand. She let me scratch behind her ears. She purred, but she still seemed wary. I knew that this was the kitten I needed. She was just like me – and we both seemed to instinctively understand each other’s shyness.

Eventually, in every aspect, we seemed to become one in the same. We were both prickly to the outside world, but enormously sweet and silly with each other. We talked a lot – she even made fun of my meows and kept correcting me. I knew just what she was saying – whether she wanted more food, or to go out, or just wanted the dog to die. Turtle was the only living being who I could say knew me inside and out and loved me anyway. If you find that kind of relationship with a human being, people think that you’re blessed – but I don’t think you’re any less blessed if you’re loved by a cat instead. As she got older, sometimes I’d find that I’d pick her up and just bury my face in her fur. She had the most lovely, warm, dusty scent. Sometimes the smell of her would make my heart ache so much that I thought it would break. I knew I wouldn’t have her forever, but I just couldn’t get enough of her smell… Sometimes I would cry, and she would butt her head against my temple and complain because I was getting her wet.

One day, when my then-boyfriend turned up unexpectedly with his dogs, they chased her up a tree. And I drove them off with a stick, then climbed that tree, soothed her in her fluffed-up state, and carried her down by gripping the scruff of her neck in my teeth. She didn’t so much as wiggle. She knew she was safe with me.

I tried to explain this relationship to my diary. The only thing I could say was: “You have to understand that I’m just head-over-heels in love. It’s like she’s my wife!”

A few months after I wrote that, she had a stroke. She struggled on for about three weeks, determined not to give up even though her back legs didn’t work right anymore. But in the end, it became too much even for her. She lay in bed with me one night – as we had every night since we came into each other’s life – purring softly but clearly not comfortable. Eventually, she dragged herself up and under all of the pillows behind me. She’d never done that before. I don’t know how I knew it, but I knew she was looking for somewhere hidden where she could die…

 

And I’m finding less of your hair
in the carpet …
under the couch …
in my mouth …

Your food is rotting in the back of
the fridge.
And, sometimes, I start to talk to you,
before I remember …

The silence sits on me like a mountain
of velvet.
and I cannot
breathe.

But I roll over restless at night
and touch your empty place.
And I catch that faint scent again:
your urine in the mattress,
Heavy with hormones from that hard last day.

And I don’t roll away.

I breathe.

For months afterward, my house was just silent. I didn’t put the radio on, I didn’t turn on the TV… I lost 8 kilos. Some days I just couldn’t bring myself to eat. At night, I really would actually seek out the spot in the bed where she’d lain before she died. That scent was the only part of her that I had left…

And how I wanted that sweet, warm, dusty smell back! I wanted to remember every part of her…

The grief just emptied me.

But losing Turtle is not what having Turtle was all about. She accepted me. She changed me, in the same way that I changed her. She let me know that I could be loved just the way I was… and I did the same for her…

It sounds like a small thing, but, really, it’s not.

It’s not…

 

I used to sing this to her as a lullaby. It’s still her song…

 

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