It was late August 1992 and my husband Chris and I had been married for an entire week. Still in our newlywed haze, one night we walked into the underground parking garage of our apartment building on Dickens Street in Sherman Oaks, California and found a sweet, grey cat looking at us.
“She’s nursing,” Chris told me, pointing to her belly as she rubbed against his legs. “That means she probably has kittens nearby.”
Two minutes later, he was proven right when we saw her five little furballs crawling and mewing in an old box in the corner. I didn’t know much, if anything, about cats back then, but Chris immediately knew we needed to carry them up to our no-pets-allowed apartment and take care of them. “We can’t leave them here,” he said. “They’re just babies.” I’ve thought it probably a million times since then, but I remember that moment being the first time “I married the right guy” popped into my head.
The kittens were all adorable, of course, but one of them immediately stole our hearts. A tiny calico with huge ears, Kitten #5 would follow us around, try to climb our legs and play with us until her little heart was thudding in her chest. Even though we weren’t supposed to have a cat in our apartment, we knew we couldn’t give her away after we found homes for her mother and siblings. And so we kept her. And named her Dickens.
Dickens was a wild, wild kitten. For the first few months with her, we had to sleep with every single body part under the covers, lest she attack us like we were mice. She’d jump onto bookcases, patiently wait until someone passed by, then leap onto their backs like a chimp. She even managed to launch herself to the top of our shower stall where she’d watch and wobble every time we took a (very fast) shower. For 24-year-old newlyweds with a lot of love and energy, she was the perfect fit. Oh, how we adored her.
Over the next few years, our newlywed haze wore off, as it usually does, and we got busier with jobs and friends and obligations. We fought some, made up a lot, bought tons of IKEA furniture and spent Friday nights watching The X-Files. And, like most young couples in Los Angeles, we moved to a new place every couple of years. Each time we did, Dickens would sniff around, find her favorite window and settle in to yowl at the squirrels. She really didn’t care where she was as long as she was with us. And later, when we were 30-somethings relocating to Austin, she flew first class to her new city.
Dickens adjusted to Texas well, but when she was nine years old, her life changed again. Because that’s when Sam was born, and then Jack and suddenly, she wasn’t our baby anymore. Sure, we still gave her attention, but it wasn’t the same. Now she was more of an inconvenience to a mother exhausted from dealing with a needy baby and toddler all day. Chris and I didn’t have much time for each other, and even less time for her. But just like she’d done with our new homes, she sniffed around the babies, found her favorite place to watch them and settled in.
Finally, after a few crazy, loud years, the newborn dust cleared and Dickens and I found ourselves staring at each other across an empty house. The boys were off at school, Chris was busy working and the two of us began to spend our days together. We’d both mellowed over the years, and now we were content to just sit and enjoy each others’ company. She was almost always on my lap or my desk or my pillow and not a night went by when she wasn’t snuggled up next to me. Wherever I was, she was. Chris claims she thought I was her cat, not the other way around. And that was okay with me.
Last week, our family of four and Dickens moved to a new house. Like always, she sniffed around and found her favorite window and settled down to watch the squirrels. She was now an almost 20-year-old cat who had shared half of our lives with us. We’d gone from naive newlyweds to a middle-aged married couple and she’d been there for it all. Job losses, job gains, pregnancies, deaths, births, fights, health scares, celebrations, earthquakes, fires, floods and all the other madness of life—she was there. But now, now she isn’t.
Yesterday, after a quick yet serious decline, Dickens was put to sleep after Chris carried to the vet’s office in a box. We all had the chance to reminisce, say our good-byes and pet her soft furry head one last time. Today, for the first day in 19 years, her little heartbeat isn’t in our home. And it’s devastating. But all I can think, as I sit here at my desk and try to not cry my eyes out, is that as much joy as she brought into our lives, we brought the same to hers.
Good-bye, my sweet Dickens. Boy, were you loved.