Remembering Desi

We lost tatiana de la tierra on July 31, 2012. Then came the massacre at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and then Newtown and all the senseless gun deaths since. The slaughter in Syria continues, so the death of my sweet cat, Desi, on August 3rd, one year ago, seemed like a strictly personal matter. But while every day’s news fills me with outrage and grief, Desi was my companion for more than 15 years. We were fiercely attached. I’m still mourning and cannot help but write about her.

Desi healthy adult

When Desi decided (insisted) she would come home with me, I knew I loved cats but I honestly didn’t expect this little cat to love me. I’d always wanted to live with a cat and up until March 1997 it had never been possible. Without cat experience, I bought into the stereotype: they were completely independent and narcissistic. When I moved to California, I felt I had a stable place to live and stable income. So, finally.

But I didn’t want Desi. She had been weaned and abandoned way too young. Three weeks old or less. When she scurried up my arm like a little mouse, found my heartbeat and clung on, I was afraid she’d be a special needs kitty and I wouldn’t know how to take care of her. I tried to explain and apologize. I tried to remove her from my body. She shrieked and held on. I tried again. She screamed. So I told her I hoped I would know what to do. I promised her I would always take care of her the best I could and would never abandon her. And she remained as fiercely attached to me, at least emotionally, throughout her life as she was that morning.

desi as kitten
I can’t say how she discovered we were different species. For the first weeks we lived together, she copied everything I did. She grabbed the pen after I used it and pulled it over the page. She hit the buttons on the remote control. She tapped the letters on the computer keyboard and she would only eat at the table and only if I put her food on a plate that looked just like mine and her water in a matching glass. She couldn’t tie my shoes, but she loved to untie the laces. She loved water. She’d join me in the tub. I had to keep the toilet top down or she’d jump in and swim around. (OK, that’s not something she copied from me.) She slept wrapped up in my hair. One evening I put dinner on the table and she stayed on the floor, looking up at me and meowing. I put the dinner plate near her. She kept looking at me and crying. I transferred her food to a bowl. I gave her water in a bowl instead of a glass like mine. Then she purred and ate and drank and I don’t think she ever copied me again.

They’ll tell you cats don’t tolerate change. Always buy the same brand of cat litter. If you have to change their food, you’ll have to trick them, introducing the new flavor gradually. etc. etc. Desi was adaptable. She accepted any substitution without complaint, except that she accepted no substitute for me.

That made it hard to travel. I had to go to Vermont twice a year to teach. There was always someone here to take care of her, but she’d get sick from stress. Dad had a stroke. I went to New Jersey to be with him. Desi got sick.etc etc . Stress led to crystals led to damage led to her inability to control her urine. It wasn’t her fault. I couldn’t afford to keep replacing mattresses or the futon sofa. I had to stop inviting people over. But Desi had taught me unconditional love. What’s a ruined mattress compared to that?

Desi with vase
The economy crashed and three jobs evaporated. There was no work in Los Angeles. The only money I earned was from out-of-town assignments. I traveled a lot and I felt so guilty. When I returned from the last trip, she had stopped eating and I promised her I wouldn’t leave again.


Her appetite came back. For the next five months, I never left her, but we went to the vet over and over again, each time with a seemingly minor problem, hyperthyroidism that could be controlled, an infection that could be cured, impacted anal sacs and abscesses. There were weeks when she seemed healthy and happy and I’d think everything was fine. Then she stopped eating again. She lost pound after pound. There was so little left of her. I tempted her with her favorite–tuna fish and rejoiced when she ate. But then she refused it. She hid whenever I tried to tempt her again.

Why didn’t I trust what she was telling me? I kept putting her favorite food under her nose. She kept running from it. Those few mouthfuls of tuna she did swallow must have caused excruciating pain and there I was, repeatedly tempting her. The last morning of her life we discovered her intestine was completely blocked with tumors.

I held her and said goodbye on August 3rd, 2012.

Author Pamela Painter says her son told her “You can be between men, but you can’t be between cats.” But I can’t face adopting another. Maybe like Desi, I accept no substitute. In spite of which, I need to be among cats, so I’ve been volunteering at the Amanda Foundation. The rescue cats need some attention and affection as much as I need them.

After some time, I agreed to foster a beautiful kitten that needed a temporary home.


She was soon adopted.

Then I took in Johnny, the jaunty but mellow and companionable 7-year-old altered tom

more johnny 008

who stayed with me for three months before the Rascal and Chloe Rescue had to take him back after pipes broke in the apartment above me and workmen needed the run of my place to make repairs, after which I was again working out-of-town. I hope he has a loving home soon.

Don’t I get attached? Well, of course, but while it’s nice having a cat around, they are so very much Not-Desi that I miss her more than ever.

For years, I’ve tried to put into words what she taught me about trust. How she trusted me with her life without ever relinquishing her own sense of self. I could never get the words right. (Just as I failed to trust her when she asked me to understand her rejection of food.)

Trust. But Ashana M. expresses it perfectly in her blog, so after saying thanks for reading, I’ll give her the last word.

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5 Responses to “Remembering Desi”

  1. Ashana M Says:

    I am so sorry.

    I didn’t realize you fostered cats. You know, I will need to find another home for my cat if the Dream Job comes through. I feel terrible about it, but it’s just the right time in my life to be doing this. Maybe the groups you work with can help..

  2. desilef Says:

    Yes, it is so hard to deal with these partings. But I do hope you get that Dream Job in the Faraway Land. But where are you now? I’m in LA and will also be in a Faraway Land working for a month soon.

    It’s really hard to find an organization to take in an older cat with medical issues unless you’ve had a longtime relationship with the group. If you’re in this area, here’s a thought. I’ve never worked with Milo’s Sanctuary in Burbank and don’t know anyone there personally but they are known for accepting senior cats with medical disabilities. I hope both you and the cat are settled happily soon.

    • Ashana M Says:

      I’m in LA as well. I’ll be here for another month or two, regardless, but it does look like she’ll make it beyond that. She actually seems completely fine these days, but I know on the inside she isn’t, and one day she’ll wake up and not feel well and it will just be time. But it looks like that day may not be for a for a bit beyond my time with her.

      Thanks for the tip.

      • desilef Says:

        Wow! We’re neighbors. I wondered when you once mentioned Bruno at the zoo.

        Between us, it seems many rescues are more committed to dogs. They seem to take cats from big donors. But Milo’s — I hope they don’t accept only Burbank cats — is really dedicated to felines. I never got involved with them because they’re not in the neighborhood but people have spoken highly of them.

        I hope things work out OK with your cat.


      • Ashana M Says:

        Yes we are.

        Thank you. There has been a little voice in the back of my mind saying, “It will be fine,” for about six months now. Otherwise, I don’t think I would have gone down this route. I hope it really will be.

        I will try everything I can think of.

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