On a Muse, Three Months Gone
My muse sits in a floral print metal box on my desk. The box is about five inches high, and looks like something used to store loose tea. On top of that is a clay figurine of a black cat wearing a tiny halo. It lays on its back with its legs up, as if awaiting belly scratches.
The box contains the ashes of my cat, Neko, who passed away three months ago this week.
I use the word "muse," though I don't really believe in the concept of muses. I don't have one person, alive or dead, whom I write for, nor does any one person inspire me over anyone else. That doesn't mean I don't have specific people in mind whom I hope to impress with my writing, but it's different people for different projects. Focusing all your creative time and energy on one person seems like a short and treacherous path to heartbreak, and I speak from personal experience when I tell you that much of the time they don't realize it's about them anyway. A cat obviously wouldn't.
Perhaps "writing partner" would be a more accurate term for what role Neko played. Last spring, I was struck with an idea for a novel, something I hadn't experienced in a very long time. I had been focusing in recent years on nonfiction writing, mostly pop culture. But this idea dug its claws into my brain and wouldn't let go, no matter how much I tried to pull it off and shoo it away. Seemingly almost against my own will, I jotted down copious notes, and began thinking about my characters as if they were real people. The jolt of energy it sent through me was delicious. The trouble was, though I wrote something almost every day, my productivity was spotty and unreliable. Some days I would get a single sentence down, excusing it with "it's better than not writing anything at all." It didn't matter how badly I wanted to get it down, I was easily distracted, and often let time get away from me, then see, to my dismay, that I had only written two paragraphs when I had set out to write ten.
With that level of productivity (or lack thereof), there was no way I could get a novel written in any reasonable amount of time. The only way it would get done was if I carved away the time to do it, so I began writing for up to an hour almost every day, mostly in the mornings. It required training myself to get up earlier in the morning, when I had never been a "morning person." I had to be hard on myself, not allow myself to sleep in another ten minutes, another half hour, another hour, because I knew myself, and I knew that if I didn't do it then, I wouldn't simply "make up the time" later. It would become a series of days, and then weeks, and then eventually I'd come to the conclusion that, well, I guess I just don't have the time to write a novel.
It turns out, I did. I rose before everyone else in the house did, made coffee and a small breakfast, sat at my desk, and wrote. After a couple of days, Neko began hopping up into my lap and joining me there, every morning. I'm pretty sure that it was partially because he was interested in my coffee, often sniffing at and pawing the cup. But mostly I think he just enjoyed the attention he got from me, as I would stop typing every few minutes to give his head a quick scratch.
Not that he lacked for attention, mind you. Despite being outnumbered by humans, he held eminent domain over our apartment. Other than the kitchen, there was nowhere he was banned from jumping on or entering. He'd jump in our laps while we sat on the toilet. He'd occasionally wake us at dawn with plaintive cries to be let into our bedrooms, where he would plop himself down on my chest like he owned real estate there and fall asleep. He particularly enjoyed curling up next to me while I cross stitched or embroidered, not caring if he lay on top of paper, fabric, or even, every now and then, a pair of small, exquisitely sharp scissors. Annoyed by having to constantly retrieve whatever pattern I was working on from under his considerable bulk, I nudged him away, attempting to reason with him (a cat, let me clarify) that he'd be better off laying near my feet instead. Sometimes he listened to me, most of the time, he didn't.
I enjoyed when he sat on my lap while I wrote, however. It seemed, I don't know, writerly, to have a cat near my side while I worked. There are whole Pinterest boards dedicated to pictures of writers from Mark Twain to Stephen King affectionately posing with cats. William S. Burroughs, whose persona seemed to be of someone who'd sooner shoot an animal than pet it, wrote of how he felt about his four cats "Most natural painkiller what there is. LOVE." It makes sense, really. Cats are the ideal companion for writers--they too are solitary creatures, who vacillate wildly between wanting no attention at all, and needing more attention than anyone could possibly give.
So, Neko and I, we sat at my desk nearly every morning while I wrote. Sometimes I still was only able to get down a paragraph or two, but on good days I hammered out several pages. I joked about covering his eyes with one hand while I wrote a graphic sex scene. He never looked at me askance when I stopped what I was doing to go look at Facebook, though I wished sometimes he would. I posted a picture of him looking at my laptop screen with interest, and said that he would probably expect co-author credit, like Rita Mae Brown crediting Sneaky Pie for helping her write mystery novels. I managed to finish a first draft in about three months.
After letting it rest for a little while, as one does with meat before carving it, I began editing my manuscript, and found, to my delight, that upon second and even third reading, I didn't hate it. Oh, it needed a lot of work, but I didn't hate it. I was also delighted that Neko continued to join me every morning, curled up on my lap, occasionally paying too much attention to the cup of coffee sitting on my desk. And then he didn't.
He went fast, which I guess is a good thing ultimately, though it certainly makes it harder to process. Literally overnight, he went from perfectly normal to showing all the classic signs of a cat who is not long for this world. He hid in my bedroom closet, and under my bed, so far back among the shadows and the dust bunnies that I couldn't see him. He refused food and water. When he did move around, he walked slowly and tentatively, like his feet hurt. I knew that none of these things on their own were the sign of anything good, but altogether it was like checking off a list leading to one bleak outcome.
We took him to the veterinarian the next day, and though by outward appearances he looked fine, it took barely thirty seconds of palpating his abdomen before the vet found a mass. The vet was unsparing in his words, and in retrospect it was necessary. The mass was on Neko's kidney, he said. We could try seeing a veterinarian oncologist, he said, but it would cost thousands of dollars, with a lot of unnecessary suffering for Neko and a very slim chance that any of it would prove worthwhile. He had been fine less than 48 hours earlier. He had been fine less than 48 hours earlier. He had been fine less than 48 hours earlier.
He died two days later. I'll spare you the details, because thinking about it still causes my stomach to clench, and tears to form in my eyes in a way that's a little embarrassing. A friend lost her young daughter unexpectedly a few days after that, and the grief I felt for Neko suddenly seemed small and frivolous. He was just a cat. I could have gone out the day he died and gotten another cat, a duplicate, and no one outside our house would have been the wiser. While almost no one would try to recover from the loss of a child by immediately having another child, most pet owners accept at some point that their life will be one of fleeting attachment and attendant loss, over and over. It's like the saying about how the best way to get over the end of one relationship is to get into another one. Your cat died? Go get another one. There are literally thousands in your town, right now, waiting for their "forever home," even if forever, really, won't be a very long time.
It took weeks before I stopped expecting to see him standing outside my bedroom door at night, darting in when I got up to use the restroom. It was nice when I had extra room on the dining room table to set out fresh baked Christmas cookies, as long as I didn't think about why I could. Even now, almost three months later, thinking about him, thinking about this, my eyes go a little fuzzy and hot. I miss him. I miss him every damn day.
We'll get another cat soon. We'll go through the screening, the approval, the adjustment, the attachment. We'll start the whole bloody process over again, and hope that maybe we'll get a little more time, but know we might not. Maybe the new cat will want to join me in my morning writing sessions, maybe he won't. I hope he does. At any rate, Neko will remain at my desk for always. My companion, my writing partner. Maybe not my muse, but something like it.