Today is the twenty-fourth anniversary of Princess Diana’s death. The date has enormous meaning for The Fabulous Wife and me, but not because of Princess Di.
Our first cat, Darryl, died the same day.
While co-author Adrienne Miller, The Fabulous Wife, and I proofread galleys of The Hamlet Syndrome one warm afternoon in 1988, I opened our South Berkeley apartment’s exterior French doors to let in air. A skinny gray kitten trotted in as if he belonged there.
I’m allergic to cats, but we let him stick around. Sensing my ambivalence, he waited for me to lie on a nearby futon and then, for the only time in his life, climbed on my chest, curled up, and went to sleep: “See? I’m hypo-allergenic!” he was saying. I was smitten. I called him Darryl, after Darryl Strawberry, the New York Mets’ star outfielder, and if no one came to claim him, he was ours.
He was claimed, though, by a neighbor The Fabulous Wife called The Frowsy Dingbat. “There you are, Little Guy!” she screeched, to Darryl’s terror. He’d escaped her apartment while she was out. The Frowsy Dingbat told us he was four months old, was found in the San Francisco Presidio by a friend, and she took him in despite having her hands full with a dog. Against our better judgment, we surrendered him.
A month or two later Darryl escaped again. He came straight to our French doors, ribs showing through a dull, flea-ridden coat. Our hearts broke when he refused to eat without us standing over him for fear a larger animal would steal his food. Without telling the Dingbat, we took charge of him.
Eventually The Frowsy Dingbat complained she so seldom saw “Little Guy” that she preferred to euthanize him than continue paying his bills. I told her we’d take him (as if we already hadn’t!) if she gave us his veterinary records. We took him to a different vet, where he was identified as a Russian Blue, a breed renowned for its intelligence, refinement, and loyalty. Darryl was all that and more.
When we took ownership of our current place he came with us. We brought hardly any furniture those first few days because we wanted to scrub everything down. His first night he yowled piteously. The Fabulous Wife stuffed him alongside her in her sleeping bag until he nodded off, and when he woke the next morning he regarded the house as his.
He prospered for years, making up for his malnourished kittenhood by growing chubby. But in June 1997, Darryl suddenly lost weight. At first we crowed about his buff appearance. But by late July our pride turned to alarm: he hardly ate and fell from more than twelve pounds to nine. The veterinarian diagnosed hyperthyroidism. We took him to a vet in Pacifica for specialized treatment, but she determined he didn’t have hyperthyroidism, he had lymphatic sarcoma. She sent biopsies to the lab — and they came back negative.
We never did find out what was wasting Darryl. Through August he faded. On the last day of the month, a Sunday, we learned about Princess Di before driving to a pet food store that had high-nutrient wet food for kittens. We briefly noted that she died under the Pont de l’Alma, close to where we stayed in Paris a year earlier, then spoke hopefully of reversing Darryl’s fortunes by force-feeding him those viands.
But at 3:30 that afternoon he staggered from under our bed and collapsed in the closet, semi-conscious. We debated whether to rush him to an emergency clinic, but decided he’d only suffer from heroic measures, so we let him go, telling him what a good cat he was, how much we loved him and would miss him, the whole nine maudlin yards and a hundred yards after that. At four o’clock his breathing became intermittent, and fifteen minutes after that he died without a twitch.
Although Darryl maintained his reserve around others, he showered me with affection. I will always treasure the last night he could stay on his feet, just a week before his death, when after The Fabulous Wife went to bed I lay next to him in the living room and he pushed his face against mine over and over. He wasn’t asking for food or a favor. He was taking this last opportunity to thank me for rescuing him. I couldn’t accept it at the time, because I couldn’t bear to contemplate his leaving us.
And maybe he didn’t leave us.
I don’t believe in the supernatural. But the week of The Fabulous Wife’s birthday someone left a dead bird on our front steps, which no creature except a cat would do, and no cat would do without considering him- or herself part of the household. For months I was madly jealous, especially after no present appeared the week of my birthday. Then, in February 1998, we returned to Paris and I got my present: Darryl appeared to me in a dream. “This is your next cat,” he said, and showed me a big, brown, tabby male. It was Shmuey, then named Sam, a kitten living on the next street. We’d met him a few times as he explored the neighborhood with his sister Ham, and he’d trotted into our house one day with the same confidence Darryl had shown ten years before. But we weren’t ready for a new cat; we indulged Sam’s visit solely out of goodwill toward catdom. After we returned from Paris, Sam stubbornly attached himself to us, and nine months after Darryl informed me of the universe’s plan, Shmuey’s owners called to ask if we wanted him.
I had one more dream I consider a direct communication from Darryl, and it was the happiest, most tactile I have ever had. I giggled like a child as he rubbed his flanks against my head and purred. It may just have been my desolate heart giving itself permission to feel what it needed, but if, as the briefly-dead have described, there is consciousness beyond death, beginning on a white-lighted path the soul trods toward another realm, this clinched it: I want Darryl — all our cats — to meet me there and guide me home.