I learned so much about life and love from my cat that when she died I had her freeze-dried…
She was with me through tough times and I craved her presence after she’d gone. Getting her memorialised was the best way I could keep her with me.
I am a proud Cat Lady. When my beloved Siamese of 16 years died in 2020, I realised immediately that I couldn’t live productively without a cat. I was 41 and had had her since I was 24, my entire adult life until that point. I not only mourned Lilu, but I craved the endorphin hit of feeling fur against my skin.
The comforting way she’d walk across me in my sleep, waking me multiple times in the night, more so towards the end, than my very young children. I longed for the affection she offered my ankles as I filled her bowl, the endless hours I’d spent alone as a writer with her next to me, curled up in a ball, ready for me to bury my face into her when the frustration of a blank page became too much to bear.
I missed keeping her alive, which was one of the things I was most proud of in my whole life. I’d have done anything for that cat, often sacrificing my own need for food for hers when I was in my 20s and broke. I have lost people in my life and sadly know grief and its vicious claws very well, but Lilu dying was different. The world had not lost someone, I had. I felt quite isolated. The words “it was just a cat” were what I feared people were saying behind my back when I couldn’t stop talking about it, no matter how hard I tried.
Although my husband was sad, there was no one who felt the same way as me, and therefore I dealt with her death in the way that felt right for me and no one else. I had her freeze-dried, a process where she was dehydrated using extremely cold temperatures over the course of 10 months, preserving her perfectly to look just as she did on the day she died, and now she sits happily, but 100% dead, on a chair in my dining room. See, I told you I was a Cat Lady.
I am not a “Crazy Cat Lady”, though. Oh no. According to society’s imagination, that is a spinster in her later years who lives alone with one or more cats. She is, by all accounts, quite odd and a bit sad. It’s all wrapped up in society’s inability to accept that a woman can be satisfied without a man. It’s meant as an insult and used in a derogatory way to suggest someone is unlovable or maybe even selfish for choosing cats over children. If, of course, that was a choice she even got to make. What nonsense.
Lilu and I once lived in a posh flat in central London with a friend whose parents were my landlords. I could never afford my rent when I lived there. It was humiliating, even though they were always very kind and, on many occasions, gave me the extra time I needed to raise some cash. I remember a friend coming over to lend me £20. He’d come to me because I couldn’t afford to go to him. I told him I needed money for food, but I spent £16 on litter and kibble. With the rest I got beans and bread and accepted every dinner invite that came my way. I’d watch the cat eat and feel so proud of myself. I’d done it again. I’d kept her alive. No matter what a failure I felt like in so many aspects of my life, Lilu never ever missed a meal. That was very impressive in my 20s.
In the end I had to move out, to the delight of my housemates who never loved the litter tray in the bathroom. I moved into a warehouse conversion in Hackney where my best friend, Louise, lived in a curtained-off section of the living room. Lilu and I lived there with Lou for months. Lou slept on the right, me on the left and the cat in the middle with her head on the pillow.
Lou provided for us both while I did everything I could to get paid as a writer, eventually making it in front of the camera and appearing in documentaries for the BBC. Lilu starred in them all. She was my loyal sidekick. Part of my identity. I took her on location and fed her tuna. We’d made it.
I ended up moving to Los Angeles for work, where I still live 15 years later. After an initial six-month test whereby Lilu stayed with friends in London, she came over, too. We were very happy in our little West Hollywood apartment.
Life was dreamy for her until the rare occasion that I had to return home to the UK. So I left her with a friend who rented the flat while I was away for a few months. What felt like a good plan where she got reduced rent, but had to look after the cat, was a total disaster. They didn’t get on. My friend couldn’t cope with Lilu’s Siamese dramas and the way she’d wail through the night because she’d been abandoned by her mother. It was made quite clear that the deal was off, and so Lilu was put on a plane to London, where we ran into each other’s arms like long-distance lovers finally reunited in a terrible romcom. It was then that I made a pact with her: if I go, you come, too. I kept my word.
It was in LA that I met my now husband, Chris. Lilu puked on his side of the bed the night after he stayed over for the first time. She could be terrible and full of vitriol when she thought my attention might be taken from her. It was a sketchy start to their relationship, but they worked it out. I’d go as far to say they loved each other deeply.
On our wedding day, in the car on the way to our ceremony, Chris suddenly said, “You didn’t say goodbye to Lilu!” And so, we went back. He thought it was important that I thanked her for my single years because she’d really taken care of me, too. You can imagine that moment. I thanked my cat and then told my husband he truly was the only man I could have married. At the reception we sipped whisky shots off a giant ice sculpture in the shape of Lilu. As it melted away, the symbolism of my single life disappearing wasn’t lost on me. It was a happy transition; Lilu and I were ready to open our hearts to the idea of a family.
Next came a dog, then two children. Despite being a difficult old bag, she welcomed them all with love. Labouring with me as I prepared to leave for hospital with my first, then sitting quietly on the floor as I delivered our second at home on our bed. The midwife said she’d never known an animal to be so well behaved during a birth. I was as proud of her as I was my beautiful baby boy. When he was out and things were quiet, she jumped up and sat on my legs, where she remained almost constantly as I breastfed and watched terrible TV for the next few months.
Since Lilu passed away, I have rescued two cats: a brother and sister called Myrtle and Boo, who I love so much it almost hurts. That brings my household to the grand total of two cats (or two and a half, if you count the dead one in the dining room), two dogs, two kids and a husband. Apart from the kids and the husband, I have big plans to extend the family even further. I love how pets make a home feel and the community you enter into when you get one.
There is no friendlier place than a vet’s waiting room. People chat and smile at each other’s furry babies. They ask the breed, the age. They make sympathetic “ahhh” sounds when the ailment is explained.
They coo and ask if they can touch them. This simply doesn’t work in the human world: if someone asked to touch my child, they would get a very different response. And the scene is quite different in the doctor’s waiting room. No one makes eye contact. We study expired magazines, repulsed by each other’s problems.
Animals bring people together. Cats make people who might otherwise be alone, not alone. There is nothing crazy about a woman just because she lives alone with cats. Well, that’s not what I see anyway. I see someone who has a lot of love in their heart who chooses to take care of a cat who needs her as much as she needs it. For me, it’s a sign of a person with a huge heart, not a cold one. Unless she’s got a dead one in her dining room, of course. Then she’s probably as batty as they come.
Cat Lady by Dawn O’Porter is published by HarperCollins at £18.99 in hardback, and also e-book and audio. Buy a copy for £16.52 at guardianbookshop.com
(Story source: The Guardian)