My ‘Recovery Cat’ Would Never Recover

When Kali died, she took with her 16 years of secrets

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Carla, with Kali

“She knows everything,” my best friend told me when I said we’d decided to put our 16-year-old cat to sleep.

She was right. Kali sat beside me when I couldn’t decide whether to return to New York and live with my then-boyfriend (now-husband) Ben. She overheard my deepest phone conversations with friends, fights and reconciliations, panicked all-nighters while studying at my intimidating Ivy League school, my miscarriages years later — and everything in between.

She was my recovery cat, a part of my soul trying to mend itself.

Kali came into my life just months after I stopped using drugs and moved back home with my mother and grandmother, living in their basement while trying to get my life back together with the help of a 12-step program. I was 23, broke, and uninsured; but being home was better than any rehab I could have found.

Ben’s coworker had found Kali in an abandoned lot in Brooklyn Heights and asked if I wanted her after another potential adoptee had superstitiously asked if she was truly “all black.” She was more of a rich black-brown in the sunlight, with a few grey wisps on her chest and underarms. I imagined them well-earned in her formative Brooklyn months.

I named her after the Hindu goddess of “time, change, destruction,” mostly because the color black represents the goddess. Months before getting clean, I’d also tattooed my back with the gods Shiva and Shakti, creator and destroyer. I liked the idea of balance, a full cycle.

After nearly two years, Kali moved from my New Jersey basement, where she’d run through my rooms with hunted crickets, their legs hanging out of her tiny mouth, to an our 350-square-foot apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with my now-husband.

Kali was my cat. But once Ben said he loved her, I knew she was both of ours.

She didn’t receive others well. She stalked my 5-year-old nephew as I bathed him. My neighbor protected her legs with a towel when she came over to cat sit. Some friends barely knew we had a cat, since Kali hid under the bed during their visit, only to saunter out the moment they left.

She didn’t make a sound until she was nearly 10 years old, around the time of my 10-year-anniversary off drugs. Before then, she didn’t meow or purr.  She needed time to find her voice, like me.

Kali became gray and slower over the years but so subtly we hadn’t noticed. When we came home from a long weekend on Cape Cod when she was 16 years old and I could see the sharp indentation of weight loss at her waist.

For six months I’d had an intuition she was declining, but ignored it and waited for Ben to come to the same realization. We later learned she weighed a mere four pounds, seven down from her weight just one year before. After a round of vet visits we found out she had aggressively spreading colon cancer. The doctor wasn’t hopeful surgery would help.

We scheduled the appointment to kill our beloved cat on a blindingly bright Saturday morning this past winter. With one arm on Kali on the cold metal table and the other in my husband’s, I had a deepening feeling her death was not about the closing of one chapter in my life, but a tome’s worth of love and life.

The sadness was deep and profound: My body shook apologetically as our vet injected her with the liquid that paralyzed and sent her into a trance before it stopped her breathing. But as we strolled near the Hudson River moments after she died, I sensed I was living in a gap of space an time. It was like finishing a beloved book, mourning its loss and wanting something to fill its space, while knowing nothing quite can. Until another great love comes around.

We cremated Kali. She was handed to us in a delicate floral green tin can. Her ashes were no more than a fistful of grey grit and bone. We spread a small amount in the Hudson River, the water between New Jersey and New York, between her life and mine.

The rest of her ashes now sit in our home office, on the radiator where she liked to sun herself and eat our plants. During the depths of this infinitely long winter, I’d lay my hand on the box, warmed by the radiator, and wish for spring. Destroyer and Creator. Waiting for something new.

Carla Zanoni is a digital journalist and social media strategist in New York. She is working on her first book in Inwood, or as she likes to call it, Upstate Manhattan.

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