Sepia Cat (2004-2021)

Today is National Pet Day. Well, actually, if you are fortunate enough to have a pet, every day is National Pet Day! Even if pets are sometimes messy or obstreperous, I have gotten more joy from my animal friends then from all of the status-seeking human pursuits, endeavors, pastimes, and professions combined (and that includes the things that I love like art and literature, not just pointless busy work like finance or real estate designed only to make other people rich). Anyway, suffice to say that pets are the people we love without all of the infuriating dominance/hierarchy games of other humans (although pack/herd animals like dogs and horses understand hierarchical relationships very well indeed and will readily participate in such hijinks if you let them). There is only one truly bad part of life with pets, but it is exraordinarily bad: they are mortal and, unless you have a pet ocean quahog, their lifespans are much shorter than ours.

This is a long way of saying that my beloved feline best friend Sepia died last March (2021). I did not write about her then because I was sad and depressed. I was going to properly memorialize her in the year-end obituaries column, but Grandpa’s obituary took all of my bandwidth. Sepia was a very private cat, so I did not blog about her during her life, but I miss her terribly and it does not strike me as fair that she has no obituary. Plus as time passes, I am forgetting all of her adorable tricks and amazing traits and she was so beautiful and so loving that I have to try to hold onto those moments, even if they are slipping away already.

I love pets with all of my heart, but back in my twenties when I was starting my adult life I did not want my own pet because my living circumstances were so cramped and chaotic (with roommates, 4th floor flats, 24 hour days, out and suchlike). However, even if a pet could not find their way into my apartment back then, the mice did. They showed up to the old bachelor digs with endless voracity and started multiplying. At first I thought I could stop them by cleaning house and putting all dried goods in tight containers, but the mice scoffed at such efforts and my roommates thought I was trying to dominate the space with rules. So I bought a live trap and trapped some of the rodents…but they ran up the walls back into the apartment before I could even get back up the stairs. Then I got snap traps and killed off some of the littlest and most naive mice by means of sinister guile and human mechanical contrivance–however, by winnowing the population I only pushed the remaining mice to become smarter and craftier. At night I could hear them scampering around snickering, and maybe even reading my books (or at least nibbling on them). It was intolerable, and the only solutions left were glue traps (and if you have ever seen a mouse pulling off his own feet and dying of dehydration in one of those, perhaps you will concur that they are unacceptable) or a cat. A friend of mine in Manhattan wanted a single male cat for her apartment, but the rescue organization would not give her only one rescue cat, so I agreed to take the spare female rescue cat.

Thus, after a long day of grueling busy work, my friend passed off a cardboard carton with holes in it to me when I headed home. My grandfather got too into cats as he entered his dotage, and so I told the carton that I would take care of it, but it would be a strictly professional relationship–like a lord with his hired mercenaries. I was thinking I had a professional assassin in a box, but it would not be like with Pawsie cat or Lily Cat (beloved cats from youth whose early exit left big holes in my heart). Then I got home and opened the box and Sepia Cat popped out. She was about 9 or 10 months old with big ears and huge green anime eyes. She had all of the beauty of an adult cat, but with most of the playful winsomeness of a kitten too. Actually, her rescue name was “Sally” but I rechristened her because her tabby stripes, white bib, and long, swift grabber paws reminded me of the Mediterranean cuttlefish which artists have used for ink since time immemorial. She looked at me and said “purrr” and jumped up in my lap and I said “Whose got beautiful whiskers?” and all talk of mercenaries and hirelings was forgotten forevermore. I loved Sepia with my whole heart as soon as I saw her. Oh, and also she committed terrible war crimes against the mice. We found one of two which had all of their bones broken into splinters (she liked to hurl them against the wall again and again and again) and after that the mice wrote “a dark entity dwells here: do not enter!” in their hobo script and we never saw them again.

Despite her prowess as a hunter, Sepia was perfectly happy living in the apartment with bachelors. She did not mind the strange hours, or even care unduly if her kitty cat dinner was not on time. Her feline curiosity only got her in trouble twice, once when she accidentally slipped into my roommate’s closet (we were all running around the apartment shouting her name when we started hearing muffled meows from behind the closed doors) and once when she got out of the apartment entirely. That time I discovered her down on the second floor hiding in an alcove with desperate panic in her eyes and she literally jumped up into my arms.

Sepia moved with me as I moved from place to place in Park Slope and finally out to Flatbush. She had some roommate cats whom she hated (Simba) and some roommate cats whom she loved (Luster and Sumi). Her favorite foods were turkey and any sort of cheese. In fact, she almost knocked over a bookcase once trying to get some blue cheese which I thought I had hidden from her by placing up on the very top shelf.

When Sepia was young she had a North African desert cat’s preternatural agility and she could jump up on top of the kitchen cabinets from a flat-footed start. She enjoyed cat toys made of real rabbit fur, but her favorite game was “boxy cat” where she would shadow box with the shadow of my paintbrush. Speaking of painting, our most disastrous incident was when she unexpectedly jumped up onto my palette, which I was holding on my lap and which was covered in toxic oil paints. Because of the dangerous pigments she had to have a bath and she shrank from her normal elegant self (Sepia normally looked like a street tabby crossed with Lady Aster’s Somalian cat) into a sad little wet gollum-type creature. After the palette incident, she was much more circumspect about leaping into my art projects!

Even when she was an older cat she could move with shocking speed and dexterity (yet also with silent ballet-like grace). Only once the cancer got into her head did she start to truly slow down.

Sepia’s true favorite thing was to curl up on my legs or next to me when I was reading science fiction space operas or epic literature. We would read for hours and hours and hours lying together as she purred softly. Sometimes I would just stare into her gorgeous green eyes as she blinked slowly. Oh also she enjoyed being combed! But only her stripey bits, she would only uncurl her white ruff and belly if she was very relaxed.

Sepia was always hungry (a legacy from her mysterious street era, when she was a stray kitten), however when she was about 16 she got ravenously hungry and would eat can after can of food (if allowed), but then throw it all up. The vet thought it might be a thyroid disorder, but poor Sepia became more and more desperately hungry and her poor face started to distort and ooze. I tried palliate her cancer with prednisolone, which worked for a little while but then started hurting her. On her last day, she woke up in bed with me with a look of absolute suffering on her face and with no interests in drinking or eating or anything. I took her to the vet and held her while she died and now I have her ashes in a little plastic funerary box with a silly label which I am meant to fill out (though I never have).

I suppose these details strike you as banal or perhaps as approximately familiar to all cats, yet thinking of them has me wiping away tears. She was so beautiful and she was a great hunter, a great athlete, and great at hiding (it took me so long to find her secure undisclosed location) but Sepia’s greatest strength was her sweet heart. I can still almost feel her curled in my lap as I type away at the computer…but that is not Sepia, it is Sumi Cat, Sepia’s little black sister (by adoption). Sumi is sitting my lap bathing her ears with her paws as I write this, and now she is looking at me curiously as emotionally I hug her and kiss the top of her head.

“Pet Day” hardly explains that our animal friends are one of the few transcendent things in life. Neither does this incomplete essay about my best friend during all of those years. Undoubtedly if someone asks me about the period between 2004 and 2021 I will talk about art, or the great recession, or urbanism, or Trumpism or something. But I should talk about a little white bib and moustache and big green eyes. That was the best part.

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