Toward the end of her life I drew close to Althea, the cat who had been with Mary and me for five or maybe six years, ever since her real owner, Mary’s daughter Karen, had to find a home for her when a landlord invoked the no-pets rule, and Mary and I were living mere blocks away, completely petless and, some might say, carefree. Karen had found Althea in the animal shelter in 1991, and she took her back to the apartment that she shared with a boyfriend who was busy furnishing an ancient blue school bus with bunkbeds, stove, sit-down shower, brake linings, windshield wipers, carburetor and other refinements. The new cat was a year old or a little more and had had a litter of kittens, none of whom were still with her. She had long grey hair and green eyes. Karen and her boyfriend named her Althea for a song written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter in 1980 and often heard at performances of the Grateful Dead attended by Deadheads, which is a term that Karen and her boyfriend applied to themselves in 1991. They liked to meet up with friends in enormous parking lots somewhere in Oregon or California, Mexico or Montana, or possibly Kamloops, BC, to listen with thousands of other Deadheads to the songs of the Grateful Dead in the heat of the noonday sun as the asphalt softened around them and dust got into everything, or so one imagines it looking at the snapshots brought back by Karen and her boyfriend from these distant gatherings: smiling people squinting in the heat, aroma of patchouli oil, sound of tambourine and bongo drum wielded inexpertly and continuously only a short distance away from wherever one was in those days; or so it seems while looking into the snapshots and wondering how it was possible that the Grateful Dead had been going on for so many lifetimes, without ever impinging on one’s own life until now, looking into the snapshots and then out the window at the blue school bus waiting for further repair in front of the place that Karen and her boyfriend moved into up on the Sunshine Coast, where at the edge of the forest the shadowy figure of Althea in the wild emerges from green leafy shadows: she flops over on her side in a pool of sunlight on the grass.
Such were the formative years of Althea, the long-haired grey cat who appeared in our apartment and seemed slowly to assume material form as I became accustomed to finding her basking in sunlight in the mornings by the east window and in the afternoons by the west window. Althea was an accomplished sitter in laps, which she accompanied with purrs and the stretching out of a paw when more caresses were required. She was easily adapted to; by the time she achieved old age (when could that have been?) she was the cat in the house and the house was a house with a cat in it when you came home and she was waiting inside the door for you. Last year when Althea developed symptoms of kidney failure, the vet gave Mary a bag of saline solution and a supply of sterile needles, and every few nights Althea would lie purring on the coffee table while Mary probed the loose skin at her neck and then thrust the needle in; it was my task to hold the bag in the air and open the spigot, and a hump would begin to form at the back of Althea’s neck.
In the fall Althea took to jumping onto the bed in the mornings and treading through the billows of the duvet onto my chest, where (so it seemed) she could keep an eye on me as I contrived to get an extra hour of sleep. When she was too weak to jump she scrambled or scrumbled at the edge of the duvet and had to be scooped up in one hand (gently, to preserve her dignity). Every morning she weighed a little less; she began to float on the duvet and I became aware of my own breath as she rose up and down on my chest. Her eyebrows had grown into a wild thatch of fur tipped with frost and thrusting long grey hairs and random whiskers, and she began to resemble an ancient philosopher in a movie or a dream. In the evenings Mary would take Althea on her lap and comb out her long grey hair and Althea would stretch herself under the comb as a cloud of fleece the colour of smoke formed in Mary’s hand. Then Althea would lie on her side in front of the gas fireplace and stare into the guttering fire and its permanent glowing embers. Occasionally she would rear up and sink her claws into the links of the firescreen and pull herself even closer to the flames, until her body became almost too hot to touch. During her last days (and we knew them to be her last days) we endeavoured not to leave her alone for long. I took to working at the dinner table; when I came in the front door I was instantly aware of her at the top of the stairs, not coming down the stairs as she had used to do, but instead looking over from her spot at the fireplace. And then when she turned her eyes toward us we could see that she was no longer looking into this world. In Greek myth Althea is warned by the fates that her baby son will live no longer than the log burning in the hearth; she extinguishes the fire and conceals the log, and years later, driven by the same fates to a terrible destiny, she rekindles it, and her son, by now a hero in the world, suffers instant death by burning. In quantum physics, Schrödinger’s cat in his quantum box exists in two states at once: the alive and the not-alive, until we open the box and look into it. The Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland leaves behind only a grin floating in the air. Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin, thinks Alice; but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life! John Berger, in his essay “Why Look at Animals?”, writes that animals are messengers and promises; they come from over the horizon.
Althea died at the vet’s office in the presence of Mary and Karen, and that night I looked over at the fire and saw Althea behind the firescreen, floating above the flaming ceramic log, her body unburning and permeated by flame. Every night since then, the guttering of the gas-fire heralds her presence here in the house, where it has been difficult to get up in the morning and go out in the world, for it’s always possible that Althea will not be here when we return.