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Pet Diaries: The Cat Who Taught Me About Life After Love

"I scoured Petfinder like it was JDate. I wasn’t ready to move on from Smiley—I just knew I didn’t want to live a life without an animal in it."

Introducing Pet Diaries: Life lessons we learned from our pets. This five-part series explores the ways pets have a positive impact on our lives. It's brought to you in partnership with Purina ONE® beyOnd®. Check out more stories at GOOD Pets.

I met Smiley Muffin at the Petco in the Kips Bay neighborhood of Manhattan. They were doing cat adoptions as part of an event organized by the promoters of Dr. Doolittle 2. As soon as I saw a beautiful, voluptuous cat with the name Smiley Muffin outside her crate, I knew I had to go over and investigate. I put my hand on the bars and she rubbed against them. My heart swelled. I told the volunteer I would bring her home.

I never owned a cat before, but I grew up so obsessed with cats that I saved every page on my Cat-A-Day tear-away calendar and decorated my bedroom with 365 black and white feline faces next to calendar dates.

I arranged to foster Smiley Muffin before agreeing officially to adopt—the ol’ rent-to-own option for commitment phobes, I’m told, results in a 90% success rate for finding adoptive homes. You don’t save the receipt and the original packaging when it comes to this stuff—you fall in love and you do it fast.

Two days later, a volunteer dropped off Smiley, and instantly, I fell in love. I knew she wasn’t going anywhere: Smiley Muffin was my cat.

Soon came the infatuation stage and Smiley became my muse. I’d spend a whole afternoon just thinking about Smiley’s overbite and how funny her little teeth were to me. I’d draw her, over and over again. I’d think about what her voice would sound like if she could talk. I created a webseries called Cat News where she played the host of a news show by, for and about cats. Any one of those three episodes still makes Newsroom look like a pile of garbage.

I was smitten and, even though I imagine she’d have been hard-pressed to admit it (her neutral facial expression was either vexed or sleeping), the feeling was mutual. For twelve years, I’d come home and she accepted me.

Then, March came. My boyfriend Jack noticed that Smiley was hiding behind the television, and didn’t seem to have touched her food for a couple of days. She seemed a little weak and gaunt. As soon as he pointed that out, I realized he was right. Her condition had escaped me, whether it was out of denial or in that way you see loved ones with all of their manifestations—overweight, bad haircuts—in one consistent, unconditional gaze.

When Jack told me he noticed that Smiley’s behavior had changed, my heart sunk to my feet. I knew, somehow, that this was it.

Smiley had a tumor in her stomach, and the cancer had spread. She had lymphoma, and the tone in the vet’s voice alone made it clear that my options for extending her life were paltry. I decided to put her to sleep that night, and went to the clinic to say goodbye. She was snarling in a plastic cone, and I petted her as she growled to make sure the last words I said to her were that I loved her. I thanked her for making my life special and said I was so sorry. Then I said goodbye and kissed her head for the last time. I called the vet in the cab on my way home, and she told me Smiley Muffin was gone.

I like to say that I am only afraid of two things—my own feelings and snakes. In truth, I’m not really that afraid of snakes. The only thing that truly terrifies me is the prospect of unrelenting sadness. I’m afraid that if I give myself over into the vacuum-like maw of despair, it will never release me. What I let myself feel the night Smiley died was the pain I usually numb myself to with distractions or cynicism or sarcasm or cookies or wine or anything else that just means “distance.”

I cried so much that night, I felt like my whole body was sore and my heart was actually bruised and bloody. Without Smiley, my apartment was no longer a home. There were no nooks, no pockets of respite from the wide-open space of constant emptiness. I felt like I’d had a deal with her and she’d reneged. She wasn’t supposed to leave—neither of us were. But suddenly, my friend was gone.

After letting myself feel the grief of that night, I spent the weeks after her death pretending I was moving on. I refused to accept any condolences from people. I traveled. I kept busy. It would bring its own host of darkness if I let the sadness in—like those shadows with the mops and buckets from Fantasia. Those multiply and if the Sorcerer doesn’t save you in time, you will drown.

I scoured Petfinder like it was JDate. I wasn’t ready to move on from Smiley—I just knew I didn’t want to live a life without an animal in it. Part of me, even as I sidestepped acknowledging the quicksand-like sorrow of my loss, knew that I wanted to love again. But I also believed—from the same deep place where I should have been mourning her—that I would never be able to love a pet the way I loved her.

After a month or so, I found a photo of a little tuxedo’ed kitty gentleman by the name of Jimmy. His eyes were crazy and his markings were perfect. He was adorable.

Jimmy arrived on a Sunday and for an hour, I sat with him in the bathroom. Jack and I had already agreed to embellish his name from Jimmy to Jimmy Jazz, so, after I played J.J. his Clash song namesake, I tried to find some jazz on my iPhone to calm him down. I found some John Coltrane on Spotify and petted him while he hid behind the toilet, terrified. The music may not have soothed Jimmy Jazz, but it scored our first bonding session. There are worse first dates between human beings.

Later, Jimmy kept us up all night meowing bloody murder. I woke up the next morning after what seemed like half an hour of sleep to see a terrified little black and white face under my bedspread.

I wasn’t ready, I thought. I did this too soon. What was I—a slut? I was barely through the shiva phase of mourning my life partner and here I was with a young furry stranger in my bed at night? I felt like Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment when she finally invites Jack Nicholson over to her house to “Look at her Renoir.” I wasn’t comfortable with this new arrangement and neither was Jimmy Jazz.

And yet, when I paced through the steps of having to give him back, I cried. I doubted I’d ever be able to love a cat the way I loved Smiley, and I had no idea, still, who this odd black and white guy with the huge green eyes really was. But I knew that my heart was cleaving at the idea of having to ever part with him. That night, Jimmy slept soundly and silently.

It took me a long time to believe that, as Cher once pondered, there is life after love. And the time I spent postponing feeling truly sad about Smiley was the same period I spent pushing Jimmy away. Jimmy Jazz is so different from Smiley Muffin. Jimmy likes spazzing out a few times a day, hiding in my underwear drawer, and talking to himself while he watches the pigeons outside. The only thing he and Smiley do have in common besides being cats is that they're both devastatingly good-looking.

It took me a long time after Smiley Muffin’s death to finally let in the grief. I realized I couldn’t keep pushing away my loss, and I gradually learned to separate the introduction of a new pet into my life from the trauma of losing an old friend. It was around that time when I became comfortable—even through the fear— saying “This is my cat, Jimmy Jazz.” And I’m so lucky to be able to do exactly that.

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