When She Was Gone: Gertie’s Story

Courtesy photo Gertie the cat

It was an early spring morning when I pulled into the parking lot. I started reading my book as a way to pass the nearly three hours before the shelter would open. Seven kittens were to be available that morning for adoption to the first comers. When the door opened I was ushered through double doors to a room in the back. As I approached the cage one tiny kitten stayed at the back while the others romped around. She sat perfectly still with unblinking eyes staring into space. I would find out later that this tiny kitten weighed 1 pound, 2 ounces.

A gray-striped kitten with crystal clear blue eyes and four white paws that looked as if they had been covered with miniature white gloves. Her two front paws were pressed together side-by-side pointing straight ahead in full view as if she thought they were her best feature. I reached in picking her up and gently tucked her in my sweater and buttoned it around her. I paid for her at the desk, never removing her from my sweater. We named her Gertie.

After years away from the shelter I would still occasionally catch a glimpse of Gertie sitting and staring into space. It had become her signature expression from her early days at the shelter. But I would pet her head and she would look up at me with her clear blue eyes and her spacey look would vanish.

Often when I would sit down with a good book, Gertie would jump onto my lap and with a front paw she would search for an opening in my sweater. She would climb in, curling up as I buttoned my sweater around her. I could hear her purring and see the rising and sinking of my sweater as she breathed in and out while sleeping.

On our bedroom floor we kept an overflowing basket of stuffed toys for our little dog. Being brave for Gertie was to race, full speed, down the hallway, and while still running, using her left outstretched paw to swing at a stuffed animal that had strayed from the basket. Then without slowing down, she would drop her head and dive under the bed on her right for cover.

When Gertie was happy to see me she would enthusiastically leap onto my lap while making her cooing and gurgling sounds. She would point and flex her gloved white feet while staring at me with her blue eyes.

When Gertie was sleeping she would have one paw draped over her head or her two front paws delicately crossed in front of her to form a small X. Sometimes she would sleep

with her two front legs outstretched in front of her as far as she could reach with her white paws pointed out like a ballerina on her toes. It was as if she was intentionally posing her feet in the way that some women hold their hands to show off their painted nails.

My husband and I were always bringing home toys and treats for Gertie. One December, just before Christmas, a large box arrived containing all the pieces for an elaborate cat climbing structure. My husband and I had searched for just the right one on-line and ordered, we hoped, in time for Christmas. The instructions were confusing, but once the structure completed, Gertie, unable to contain her excitement, quickly made her way to the top of her giant new toy.

She sat facing the direction we would be heading. In search of the right spot, we slowly pushed it from room to room with Gertie barely clearing the tops of the doorways. She was the lookout from her crow’s-nest on a ship at sea as we navigated through the house, with clear blue eyes focused straight ahead and her white paws planted squarely in front of her.

Gertie was always a small cat, but I was concerned when she seemed to be getting even smaller. I thought she had lost some weight so I took her in early for her annual checkup. Our vet said it was most likely cancer and that there was no hope for recovery. She lived comfortably for a while, but then it became time to let her go. Gertie was a little over 14 when she left us peacefully. She was sleeping when the vet arrived. When she was gone, I sat with my head in my hands and wept for the cat I loved.

Now in my often daydreams, she is running down the hall, and without missing a beat, swatting at a stuffed toy on her left then ducking her head and quickly slipping under the bed on her right. She had a kind of bravery that might go unnoticed if one wasn’t paying attention.

I also see her curled up in my lap with her front paws spread out like a duck’s feet, flexing them open and closed. She looks up at me and coos and gurgles, the little sounds that were so particular to her.

But mostly I imagine her climbing into my heart and curling up and nestling to sleep. I picture it much like when her paw would search my sweater for an opening. As with my sweater, I can feel my heart expand as she breathes in and out.

Joyce Leighton lives in Alameda.