Sixteen years ago, I was living alone in New Orleans in a lovely Craftsman’s Cottage I’d purchased the year before. In late December—just around now—a friend called to tell me about a kitten she’d seen at her Uptown veterinary office: “It’s time you got a familiar,” she declared. “I think this one’s perfect for you.” Grudgingly, I agreed to visit the vet’s office and take a look at the little black-and-white female tabby she’d seen. I wasn’t at all sure I was ready, but Mary was my priestess, the leader of our small coven, and I trusted her implicitly.
I’d lost two beloved cats—Charlie and Lisa—a few years earlier, cats who’d made the journey with me from Philadelphia—where I earned my Ph.D.— to Oklahoma—where I had my first teaching job— to New Orleans—where I’d been teaching since 1990. Charlie and Lisa had been a sort of ballast, accompanying me through huge changes of circumstance and locale, loving me and letting me love them no matter what. I’d nursed Charlie through several years of diabetes, giving him daily insulin injections, and my partner had regularly administered subcutaneous fluids to Lisa after she’d been diagnosed with kidney disease. Charlie died in our arms, and we buried him in the backyard behind my little cottage near Bayou St. John; Lisa died less gently, but she too was buried with great ceremony behind the house we later shared.
The kitten at the Uptown vet was adorable, but she’d already been spoken for by the time I met her. I decided to check with my former vet in Metairie. They had a large cage full of kittens, most of whom had been left on their doorstep on Christmas Day. Two caught my eye: four-month-old orange tabbies, deeply bonded male littermates the vet was offering for adoption as a pair. I’d always wanted an orange tabby—but if I wanted a cat at all now, I wanted only one.
After a few days of reflection, I called the vet’s office and announced I would take one. “Because we know you,” the receptionist conceded, “the doctor will agree…But you’d be so much happier with two.” I succumbed—the two kittens came home with me that afternoon, and Mary helped me to name them, a matched set: Ginger and Miso.
Ginger was the tangy one, the bold, sharp-nosed, angular one; Miso was the mellow one, shier and slower, with a wider nose and more weight on his limbs. But they looked almost indistinguishable as they groomed each other or cuddled together, inseparable, always arranging themselves symmetrically, like bookends. Once, when Ginger accidentally got out and was gone for most of a day, I panicked. Miso spent two hours licking him when I finally brought him back. Although my previous cats had spent time outdoors, I kept Ginger and Miso together inside, telling myself I was afraid of how one might react if something happened to the other. The truth is, I was afraid of how I might react.
When Hurricane Katrina stormed in, less than two years later, the cats accompanied me on my frantic drive North. At each temporary shelter we came to—the homes of generous friends in Lafayette, Birmingham, Greensboro, and finally Brooklyn—they calmly walked out of their carrying case, shook themselves and stretched, then began to explore their new surroundings. “Oh,” I remember thinking, “that’s what I can do.” Living in the present, trusting, open to whatever comes, calmly curious: that’s who I wanted to be, who my cats taught me to be, even as I grieved for a lost world.
For awhile after the storm, I stayed with a friend in South Jersey, then at my brother’s house in the Catskills; for a few months, I sublet a place in the heart of Brooklyn, teaching my scattered New Orleans students online; for six months after that, I rented an apartment in Pitman, NJ, where I’d found a temporary position teaching at Rowan University. Then it was back to Brooklyn, where I finally settled into a tiny studio in Park Slope and began to teach at Borough of Manhattan Community College. Always with the cats, whose gentle acceptance of whatever came grounded and comforted me.
Miso died in late Spring 2018, at the age of fifteen—heart failure after dental surgery. I grieved, but mostly I feared for Ginger, who, after a difficult few months, eventually settled down…and grew even more devoted to me—as I to him. It was as if we’d adopted each other: I was now his new littermate; he was my passion. Although I’m married, my husband and I don’t live together, and so it was Ginger I came home to, Ginger I woke up to, Ginger I slept with every night.
When I made my breakfast, Ginger watched and waited (impatiently) for his own; when I worked at my desk, he slept beside me or walked across my keyboard; when I relaxed in front of the TV in the evening, he immediately jumped onto the couch and curled up in my lap. I prided myself on my independence, my solitude—but in fact I was never alone. My cat familiar was a constant presence in my life, a silent witness to all my acts, my deeply intimate, warm companion.
And so, when he fell seriously ill the day after Thanksgiving last month, I was stricken. The illness—chronic kidney disease—had been coming on for some time, and I should have recognized the signs. But if I wasn’t in absolute denial, I was in avoidance, not wanting to face the inevitable. When he stopped eating and withdrew, Ginger forced me to face it. He was a finite being, a spirit who’d taken on a body for a brief time, and who was now returning to the vastness of time and space. Mary called him my “guardian angel.” A compassionate and wise vet helped me to let him go. My husband held me as I sobbed.
I write this memorial for Ginger and Miso for Feminism and Religion, and I suspect that some of you may wonder why–why here, why cats, what’s the connection? But for me, these two cats were indeed the embodied divine, the Goddess with four legs and fur, dear creatures who taught me to give and receive unconditional love and to take my place in the web of life. They taught me how much I need physical, embodied intimacy. As I remember them, I want to carry those lessons forth to all my interactions with all creatures and all of nature, to remember, in everything I say and do, the great gifts I have been given. May their memory be a blessing.
Joyce Zonana is the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey. She recently completed a translation from French of Tobie Nathan’s Ce pays qui te ressemble [A Land Like You], a novel celebrating Arab Jewish life in early twentieth-century Cairo, forthcoming from Seagull Books. She served for a time as co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual and has translated Henri Bosco’s Malicroix, forthcoming in April 2020 from New York Review Books.