I thought I saw Merlin scamper across the kitchen floor this morning and I started crying. Mostly because she’s been dead for three years.
Merlin was the haughtiest and most beautiful cat that ever lived. I didn’t own Merlin; she owned me. Black as night, with huge green eyes speckled with gold, two granny smith apples shining in a moonless night. She could stare seemingly for hours without blinking. Though she was female, she was dubbed Merlin for her ability to hypnotize with her stare. Even self-avowed “dog people” marveled at her charisma and magnificence. She wasn’t always sweet, but she was wise and knowing.
We had a telepathic link. When she had something I needed to know, she would lift one front paw up, asking for my attention like a student raising their hand in class. She brought me presents on the regular: mice of course, but also voles, small rabbits, snakes, and birds. Maimed but not yet dead, she would patiently drop them at my feet then look at me, giving me one more opportunity to learn how to hunt. She gazed at me in pity when I screamed and begged her to please, please, please stop killing my songbirds. I clearly knew nothing about the circle of life.
Trying to save the cardinals and chickadees, I bought Merlin a silky red collar with an attached bell. It was a breakaway collar, one that would unsnap and free her if it got caught on barbed wire or a low-lying branch. I put it on her and she glared. Free souls can’t be caged her eyes said. Without breaking eye contact, she slid her front paw up by her neck and under the collar, pushing it away from her neck until it broke away, left it lying on the floor like one of those small snakes she so often brought me. It was a cat middle finger for sure. Free souls can’t be caged. Or collared, it seems.
In 2017, Merlin was already 18 years old. She no longer yowled to go out to hunt at night, was content to curl in my lap for as long as I would sit still. I could tell her anything and know it was in the vault. In all her years, she never betrayed my trust. I could yell or cry or curse or be self-pitying and she maintained a sense of equanimity, never shocked or reproachful about my words. It was the feline version of yelling into a pillow.
Merlin got skinnier and skinnier that year, her once-lush fur growing sparse. One day when I was meditating, she leaned up to anoint my forehead with her paw and I noticed her breath smelled terrible. My gut clenched. I’ve had enough pets over the years to know the sign of a failing digestive system; it was the beginning of the end.
A few weeks later, she had grown too frail to jump up on the couch with me. David wanted to take her to the vet to be euthanized. But I couldn’t do it. Merlin hated the vet. Once, when Izzie and I were waiting for the vet to come into the examining room to give Merlin her yearly shots, we saw that someone had written BAD CAT: USE NET in large red marker on her file. We laughed out loud. She had escaped the towel the vet used to restrain her so many times, ending up on top of the shelves. She had to be retrieved with a large fishing net they kept at hand for the bad cats like her. She wouldn’t want to die at the vet’s office.
I would let her die the way she lived: on her terms.
One morning, she couldn’t stand up. I gently lay on the floor with her, petting her swollen belly. She looked deep into my soul with her now-clouded eyes. Let go she said, feebly lifting her paw to my face. I matched my breath with hers, the words echoing with every careworn exhale.
Her kumbhak, that pause between the inhale and exhale, slowly lengthened until it was constant, her tiny body now perfectly still. I took a deep breath, so deep it hurt, and exhaled a wail of grief. It didn’t feel like I had anything except pain and emptiness.
That afternoon, my family hiked deep into the woods to bury her. As David dug the grave, our stubborn dog Siddha started howling and pawing at the hole, either helping to dig or refusing to believe Merlin was gone. Siddha – the world’s worst dog – never cared for humans, but she loved Merlin. Merlin would climb into Siddha’s dog bed and we would find them there, a yin yang of canine and feline love, Siddha gold and white and Merlin black as a raven. Siddha’s grief was palpable.
Izzie led the service, “Merlin liked ear pulls and Extra Cheddar Goldfish and sleeping on the pillow by your head. She was soft and had beautiful eyes and loved Mommy more than anything on earth.”
Merlin was my first baby, saw me through all the transitions that led me to this point. She was my co-pilot when I got married, when I built my house, when I became a mother, as I traversed post-partum depression, when I built the yoga studio. How was I supposed to navigate anything without her there to steady me?
She had more faith in me than I had in myself. It’s that way sometimes with special animals. They see only our best, our abilities, our beauty.
So when I saw her today, I leaned into her last directive, knowing in my heart it’s the lesson my soul needs the most practice in.