Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Delilah, The Quintessential Cat

I don’t believe in pets. I believe in companions. Sharing your life with an animal is a unique and deeply meaningful experience that benefits everyone involved, particularly children. A cat or dog (or whatever) are not, in my eyes, akin to an elaborate household item. They are a member of the family. Though they cannot contribute in the way that other family members do in terms of sharing household chores or picking up the dry-cleaning, this does not preclude them from being an essential part of the family unit, of contributing to the spirit and harmony of a household.

In this same vein, when it comes time to say goodbye to them, I believe they merit the respect of a celebration of their lives. Domesticated animals don’t generally have extended families. They can’t pass down scrapbooks, heirlooms, and photographs. Thus, their history ceases when they pass on. Therefore, the onus is on us to keep their memory and history alive, to capture their lives as best we can with the often flimsy and inadequate power of words. I hope you will bear with me as I endeavor to paint a picture of my family’s beloved and sorely missed companion.

On the afternoon of January 27, 2014, a small but bright light went dark. After 19 years of a long and lovely life, Delilah Orkin has passed on to the next phase of her existence.

Delilah was born on the streets of East New York where she was ultimately rescued at about eight months old by my wife Nancy, who was teaching at an elementary school there at the time. There is no doubt in my mind that had Nancy not liberated her from that environment, she would have otherwise lived a short and desperate life, another sad and nameless victim of hunger, disease, violence (human or otherwise), or some brutal combination thereof.

Fortunately, this latter scenario did not occur. Nancy brought her rescued cat home, though she was timid, underweight, frail, feverish, and had fur like straw. Because Nancy already had a cat, we had to keep the two separated for several days, with Delilah spending the day in Nan’s room and Emi having run of the apartment. At first, whenever Nancy came home, Delilah, who would sleep on her bed, would jump off and hide beneath it, requiring much coaxing to come out.

As the months progressed, she became stronger. Her fur softened, and she became more outgoing and inquisitive. Delilah was an exquisite calico cat with large, golden eyes and a pixie face that was half-grey, half orange. The rest of her body was a mix of grey, orange, and white, giving her the appearance of being in an especially comfortable set of sweats. One of her more notable physical characteristics was her long, skinny grey tail which ended in an orange tip that looked like it had been dipped in paint. Throughout her life, she was lean, athletic, and graceful.

When Nancy and I moved in together in a new apartment, Delilah became the dominant cat, controlling all the space except our bedroom, which Emi fiercely guarded, and the food, which Emi also fiercely guarded, often attempting to eat Delilah’s food before her own so she’d have more. In response, Delilah would frequently chase Emi, creating a cacophony similar in effect to a herd of horses tripping down a flight of stairs that often ended in a tumbleweed of furry bodies. Lilah would periodically trap Emi beneath a wicker chair we had in our living room, preventing her from leaving for as much as a half hour at a time.

Delilah had an odd, love-hate relationship with a plant I owned for several years, a fern named Horatio. Sometimes she could be found quietly sitting on the soil in the planter but on other occasions she would attack the plant, grabbing its trunk and knocking it over. I later found out that Nancy had on more than one occasion taken the plant to her mom, a skilled green thumb, to care for it when Delilah had tackled it particularly hard.

She demonstrated herself to be spectacularly graceful and agile, sometimes jumping from the floor to the top of our refrigerator in one immaculate leap. She also had a propensity for making such jumps from the floor to our shoulders, occasionally scaring the daylights out of Nancy or myself when she did it unexpectedly. We had a clear area above our kitchen cabinets and as the highest point in the apartment, Delilah could frequently be found pacing along this area like a jungle cat treading a giant tree limb, silently observing our activities. She also somehow figured out how to climb into the upper shelf of our closet where Nancy’s wedding veil and headpiece were kept, resulting in us finding our petite, feminine little cat sitting pretty in a sea of white tulle.

Delilah was easily the smartest cat I’ve ever met. On one occasion, I watched her attempting to open a door by pushing on it several times. The door edged forward but was halted by the door jam. Delilah stopped, cocked her head in that uniquely feline manner, and after evaluating the situation for a few seconds, realized her error and reached her paw beneath the door to pull it open. She would consciously place her toys in places that were difficult to extricate them from for the challenge of doing it. Her taste in toys would shift over the course of several weeks, from balls which she would leap 3-4 feet in the air for, to ribbon and the plastic ties from shipping boxes. She particularly liked playing with the colorful elastic scrunchies Julianna used for her hair. She would carry them off whenever she could get to them, forcing Nancy to replace them fairly frequently. We have no idea where she put them all and I can’t help but wonder if we’ll find her stash at some point in the future. As a kitten, she enjoyed unraveling toilet paper. We’d find a mound of it on the bathroom floor a few times a month. Fortunately, she rarely carried it off to other parts of our apartment/house. She also loved the bathtub. We had a minor leak for many years and Delilah loved climbing in to drink the cool water from the smooth porcelain surface. We’d know she was in there because the top of her head would be soaking wet from the drip as she lapped up the water from the tub. She would also often climb onto the edge of the tub between the shower liner and curtain and hang out there as we showered. On some occasions, in a rare show of solidarity, she would work in tandem with Emi to retrieve the tiny bags of cat cookies we’d buy for them or liberate Q-Tips from the bathroom, which they both loved playing with.

Delilah had a rather unusual appetite, enjoying such delicacies as bananas, cantaloupe, peanut butter, and matzah, leading us to inform her on various occasions that she was in fact a carnivore. On a more traditional note, she loved the leftover water from tuna and especially sardine cans.

When we moved to our house, despite her keen intelligence, Delilah somehow perceived our ceiling fans to be gigantic dragonflies and escaped them by fleeing into the basement for the first two weeks we were there. On the rare occasions we saw her during that time (before finally allowing herself to be bribed back up with food placed in ascending positions up the stairs and down the hall), she would slink pathetically across the living room floor, quickly eat and drink, then dash back to the “safety” of the basement. This enabled Emi to assume the alpha cat role. Though they generally coexisted peacefully, Emi would sometimes treat Lilah poorly (as an example, she would inexplicably swat Lilah when they came home from the vet as though Delilah had something to do with them going there). Delilah would patiently go her own way, never dignifying such behavior with a response.

Though she had a sweet, charming, and affectionate disposition around us, throughout virtually all of her life, perhaps as a leftover reaction to the abuse she suffered as a kitten in East New York, Delilah was a hell-raiser at the vet, requiring the use of thick leather gloves by the technicians to prevent scratches and a roll of paper towels by her mouth so she’d have something to bite other than them. All such visits were accompanied by fearsome, caterwauling growls, howls, and yowls that could easily be heard in the waiting room as she was “tortured” by the vet and techs trying to cut her nails. Nancy often joked that her chart probably had a skull & crossbones on it but the staff at our vet, particularly our favorite, Dr. Cindy Meyer, seemed to understand that she was simply communicating her stress and anxiety rather than actively trying to hurt anyone. Getting her into her cat carrier was an exercise in benign guerilla tactics.

As with most cats, Delilah was a master of relaxation and had a unique way of spilling herself onto the floor, instantly assuming a position of contented repose. She could always find a comfortable spot to curl up in. She loved sitting in sunspots, shifting across the floor as the day progressed. One of her favorite places was the bow window in our living room where she would look out and watch the world, often voicing a strange, chittering chirp when she saw birds or squirrels. She had a small, oval-shaped wicker basket with a blanket in it. Despite her petite frame, she only barely fit in it, and when she woke up from a nap and sat up, she looked more like a baby chick than a cat. She also loved sleeping on assorted blankets, and in her later years, with a brown, stuffed Gund bear named Benjamin that Nancy and I keep on our bed. She would often cuddle up next to it or even scrunch her body on top of it, resulting in a blend of real and artificial fur that could be difficult to tell apart given their similar coloration.

Delilah loved being around us, often jumping onto the couch and climbing across my leg to sit on my knee or across my shoulders. A creature of habit, she would always jump up on the right side of the couch and walk across to reach us. In her later years, she would sit with Nancy every morning, resting across her left shoulder and chest for an hour or more at a time so she could feel her heart beating.

By far, her most endearing quality was her relationship with my daughter. From as early on as possible, we taught Julianna to be gentle and kind to our cats and she learned this lesson well, never pulling swishing tails or squeezing soft, furry bodies. Though Emi was a little too self-involved to fully embrace this gentleness, Delilah took it as a great compliment and assumed a role of guardian angel over Julianna throughout her life. She frequently slept in Jules’s room and as she got older, on her bed, watching over her as she fell asleep. In her later years, she hilariously managed to position her 4.5 lb body into just the right position to take over Julianna’s pillow (we eventually bought an extra pillow for Jules) and often, half her bed, which was no small amount of real estate considering that Jules has about 50 stuffed animals taking up the lower half of it. Sometimes, Lilah would sleep in the middle of them, creating a “Where’s Waldo?” effect as she nestled in amongst her soft, furry compatriots. She was ceaselessly patient with Julianna, tolerating such things as being “taught tricks”, wheeled around in a tiny stroller, and being given a ‘check-up’ courtesy of Jules’s toy doctor kit. When she came to visit Jules at bedtime during our conversations with her stuffed animals, Lilah was always a very good sport when the various dolls and other friends would “trip” over her, “ride” her, or other such silly indignities. I playfully nicknamed her Fluffy T. Cat (T. standing for “The”) and Jules later elaborated on this by calling her Fluffy McCutiekins. In her final years, we often also referred to her as our beautiful old lady. Julianna would sometimes read to Delilah and she always stayed and listened. She also enjoyed hearing Jules play her viola. She was like a supportive big sister, always taking an interest.

In the final months of her life, Delilah became ill. I’ll spare you the details but essentially she had a neurological problem that created flare-ups affecting her ability to move. It was heartbreaking to see her struggle but she had a quiet tenacity and toughness that was likewise inspiring. The flare-ups passed after a few days and she would be fine. Just before Thanksgiving, however, despite the medication we’d been giving her, this condition so debilitated her that Delilah was unable to walk at all. We had to carry her to her litter box and hold her up to enable her to use it. We had to keep absorbent pads over the cushion of the glider chair she enjoyed sleeping on for those occasions when we couldn’t get to her in time. We moved the chair into our room so she could be close to us, placing a set of small pet-steps beneath it in case she wanted to try to get down. Though she was unable to care for herself, she did not appear to be in any pain and her general disposition was quite good. She was eager to eat and drink and responded well to attention. She had not given up. Regardless, we took her to the vet with dread in our hearts, knowing that the likelihood was high she would not come home. Dr. Meyer indicated that it would not be an unrealistic decision but given Lilah’s positive disposition and that she was eating and drinking, to say nothing of the fact that she had gotten over other bouts of the disorder (albeit less severe), there was no harm in taking her home for another few days to see how she did. Remarkably, in the early morning hours of the day after Thanksgiving, my brother and sister-in-law, who were staying in our basement for the holiday, awoke to find a wobbly but standing Delilah visiting them. “Ten lives,” my sister-in-law Magda observed. From that point on until only a few days before her passing from another, insurmountable issue, Delilah was back to her graceful and affectionate self. She loved life and was courageous in contending with adversity.

Delilah truly was a quintessential cat. She was feminine, loving, graceful, inquisitive, charming, entertaining, funny, smart, and beautiful. As a 48-year old human, I feel I can only aspire to the wonder of her great, loving heart and gentle spirit. She was the very essence of beauty, love, and grace; in a word, a treasure. Words cannot express how much we loved and adored her. We have been truly blessed to share our lives with her. We are lesser for her passing.

April, 1994 – January 27, 2014


Delilah was named after a delightful song of the same name by Queen. Written by Freddie Mercury, a devout cat lover, for one of his beloved felines, the song is silly, sentimental, and very funny both lyrically and musically (listen for Brian May’s yowling guitar near the end). Although the Delilah in the song is more mischievous than our Delilah, the love and affection Freddie clearly had for his cat brings to mind our feelings for our own. Here’s a link to the song. An official video was never made for it but this fan-made version with lots of stills from Freddie’s personal and professional life is quite good.

Thanks for reading.

Posted: 1/29/14