With My Cat, My Comfort Is Gone
The Bustle in a House
The Morning after Death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon Earth
Emily Dickinson, 1866
In this office within this house, trying to write is the solemnest of industries enacted upon Earth. Near my feet is a void that cannot be filled.
Missing is Frieda Lawrence Burton, the all-white cat who lived here for more than 14 years. Frieda, whose purring motor was so easy to activate as she curled up, waiting for the occasional kitty candy I would offer her while pausing from the computer to ponder the appropriate word or phrase in what I was writing.
In a way, I failed Frieda. Writing is a lonely life, requiring concentration: no distractions above that of the non-intrusive silent companionship of a beloved being. I am among those who admit, readily, that I talked to my pet.
Her response was a melodic purring or perhaps a loving, occasionally blinking, stare. She would listen and gaze at me as I talked to her. When she got older and vulnerable to health problems, I would promise her she would live as long as I - and I as long as her.
In the scheme of expected longevity, for some time we were approximately of the same age. But more recently, her cat years - seven for every one of mine - outpaced me. She was approaching 100, me 75, and ultimately my promise failed her. As did her kidneys.
Without hesitation. I would have given her one of mine. I might even have offered her one or two of my years to fulfill that promise, but such trade-offs cannot be decided by man or cat. So Frieda departed without complaint. Silently and gracefully. Dignified and purring lovingly to the end.
The same year Emily Dickinson wrote of the solemnest of industries, in a "Ballad of Burdens," Algernon Charles Swinburne penned "For life is sweet, but after life is death." And that applies equally to both men and cats.
Regular readers already know much about Frieda Lawrence and the role she played in the Burton household. Much of her life and antics, documented over the years, are worthy of re-telling to those who have been blessed with the true unconditional love and companionship of a pet. Others less fortunate (and less interested) can turn to the Classified pages.
Netting a Winner
As winter of '86 approached, I first saw her romping along the shoreline at Harrison's Chesapeake House, Tilghman Island. Of feral heritage, she scrounged for food and slept wherever there was sanctuary from the weather, a stray dog or aggressive older cat. She wanted nothing to do with humans.
It took a long-handled crab net to catch her, and once that was accomplished, we noticed she had a damaged eye, which later required surgery, and atop her head, a small light gray spot that disappeared within a few months.
Scruffy, scarred and hosting sufficient fleas to staff a circus, she was frightened and determined not to go into the box for the ride to Riviera Beach. By the time she arrived here two hours later, she was docile and purring - until the bath she needed so badly.
She was fed; named after the wife of my favorite author, D. H. Lawrence; and introduced to OJ, the older family cat who died less than three months ago. The next day she begrudgingly accepted a physical and the usual shots administered by Dr. Bob Etter at Pasadena Animal Hospital. Simple as that, she became a member of a family of two adults, two teen-agers and an orange cat rather reluctant to accept an intruder.
She was friendly, cuddly and singled out this writer as the primary target of her affection, following me from room to room. When I left the house for more than an hour or two, she maintained a vigil in the foyer.
She slept at the foot of the bed, usually on my side. When I was in the hospital for weeks culminating in bypass surgery, she became lethargic and waited at the door. When I returned and endured post operative complications, she knew something was wrong, and for days she snuggled close, licked my beard and purred.
Gosh, she could purr. That therapeutic harmony I called on whenever troubled. My mother had always said anyone angry or down should listen to the purr of a cat for therapy. Frieda was my therapist.
Not infrequently as I stood - and not just preparing her meals - I would feel a purring fur ball circling my ankles. If I looked down, looking up would be squinty eyes of affection. She trailed me like a puppy.
As she got older, there was the twice-daily ritual of liquids applied by syringe, also pills. When I told her in sing-song it was pill time, she followed me down the hall for her medication and the few niblets she received as a reward. Instinctively, she knew I was helping. Hear the word bedtime, and she would be in the bedroom, often walking ahead of me, looking back to be sure I was following.
She was never licensed as required by Anne Arundel County law. I decided she needed no bothersome tag dangling from her neck, as the only time she spent outdoors was when I carried her to the glider on the cement patio where she curled up in my lap as I read the morning paper. She was a house cat.
I figured her presence contributed more than enough to the economy of the county. In her 14 years here, the cash flow for food, toys, cat sitting, litter, litter boxes, kennel fees, prescriptions, shots, anti-flea preparations, treats, physicals, surgeries, a scratching post, fancy dishes and whatever else - including furniture replacement after she sharpened her claws - spread well over $10,000 through the community.
Some might say "Ten thousand dollars for a cat, are you insane?" I would answer that we got it back hundred-fold, for she was more than a million-dollar cat.
Visitors who came to know Frieda Lawrence Burton's unpromising future before she became a member of this household might comment how lucky she was to find such a home. To which I would counter, "How lucky we were to find such a cat. It's even-Steven, if not moreso in our favor."
The end came quickly and unexpectedly. After Christmas at Cape Cod, I picked her up at the kennel. Though happy to see me, she lacked her usual animated and vocal enthusiasm once released from the cat carrier. She barely nibbled even at her favorites, shrimp and sardines.
Dr. Etter said nothing could be done; no kidney transplants for cats. I understood what had to be next. Assured there was no pain involved, I took her home for two days. I just wanted to hear her purr, feel and pet her warm white fur - and let her know how much we treasured the 14 years she gave us.
On her last ride to the animal hospital, she purred quietly and licked my hand as wife Lois drove. Moist-eyed, I held her tenderly to the end, and now she is in the garden under a headstone with the profile of a white cat. Once the weather warms, a new yellow rose will bloom above her.
Frieda, words come slowly on this computer as out of habit I glance down to see the white ball of fur or hear the contented purr. Frieda Lawrence Burton, you are missed - and the house is the solemnest.