Twenty-six years ago this month a sixteen-year-old gray tabby cat named Sasha lay down on our bedspread and, content with the companionship of her lifelong friend and confidante Joan, closed her eyes and purred, consented to death, and left us behind.
We’ve owned cats most of our married life. But one cat has to be the first cat. The kitten you have when you are young, live in rented apartments, and are perpetually short of money. One day in 1973, during our second year of marriage, Greg asked Joan out of the blue, “Do you want a kitten?” Prone (sometimes) to quick decisions, Greg had decided the young household of two needed a feline companion. Joan, although with no previous experience of cats, was, as per usual, game to try this idea out. So, off we went, prospective cat-owners, to inspect a litter of rambunctious kittens whose newly-arrived presence in this world had been discovered and announced by a graduate school friend of ours.
The kittens, as all kittens are, were intrinsically adorable. They readily and easily plucked those emotional chords that their domestication of our species has instilled in some of us. One of them, following some ancient feline instinct, recognized her one-and-only, her true and constant companion. She boldly climbed up on Joan’s lap, fell asleep, and the contract was consummated then and there. Joan, always a good judge of character, knew this was the one.
We were told this kitten was a male. Of course, as first-time cat owners, we had no idea how to sex kittens. So Sasha (the diminutive of the Russian boy’s name Alexander) lived as a male for the few days it took us to take her to a vet for her first checkup. By then, of course, we (and she) were used to the name, and it stayed with her for the rest of her life.
Sasha was petite, a diminutive cat just as her name implied. She was mild and loving, with an even personality; neither of us remembers ever being bitten or scratched. She loved to have Joan hold her and talk to her. At night she slept with us in our bed, nestled usually on the pillow by her closest friend, whose long dark hair was a source of constant fascination and comfort.
Of course, she was a predator when the occasion demanded, evolutionary heiress to sabre-tooth tigers and cousin to lions. Joan still remembers the live cockroach (from one of our first university slum apartments) brought to her as a gift and dropped on her leg as she lay in bed half-asleep. And there was, of course, always the odd moth or mouse or dim-witted insect. We remember a time when Sasha leaped high into the air to catch a housefly. With the fly still buzzing in her mouth, Sasha swallowed her prey with great satisfaction. We were duly impressed.
A few years before she died, Sasha allowed a homeless young orange tabby we were to name Goldberry (yes, Greg is a diehard Lord of the Rings fan) to move into the house. Tiny little Sasha, many years the new cat’s senior, established some house rules quickly. She took a small chunk out of her housemate’s ear, and allowed the intrusion. Maybe she was anointing a replacement, mindful that her wayward human charges should not be without a cat to keep and protect them.
Sasha lived with us in our first Ohio apartments, in Bexley, Columbus, and East Liverpool. She moved with us into our first real house in Pittsburgh, and then later to our home in Burton, Geauga County, Ohio. Sasha, with her large green eyes, witnessed our first real jobs, our first real tragedy, and the births of our first and second children. She was with us when we were young and just starting out and stayed with us, faithful and fond, until we were homeowners and parents—grown-up people with respectable jobs.
We’ve had cats since then. Goldberry, the favorite of our middle daughter, stayed with us for sixteen years as well. Ariel, our curmudgeonly caretaker after Goldberry passed, came in 1999, the year Greg had cancer and we feared for his life. A stray already five years old, Ariel was adopted as a token of his recovery and survival. Muffin, a beautiful Norwegian Forest Cat, was adopted and named by our middle daughter Kristyn (now, and maybe not by chance, a felinologist). Muffin ended up staying with us twelve years—until just a year ago last August when she, like Sasha, went away too soon and unexpectedly.
These faithful, constant friends were occupants of our hearts, and our children’s hearts. They provided, without particular condition or complaint, loving companionship and head butts; purring and soft fur; a languid little body in a cold bed in winter; a sleek silhouette in a window; a warm and comforting presence on a lonely lap. Now these things are gone, and we are alone. After almost 43 years of marriage it still seems strange to be without a feline companion or two. Now it hurts almost too much to love them and then let them go. Their lives compared to ours are too short by far. Sometimes in the night we think we can still hear them jump onto the bed and settle in next to us, keeping us company, constant and faithful, still.