My son, Raphael, and I were visiting friends in the hills of Echo Park, where I imagined we might take refuge when we fled the scorched earth of our “unblended” family. After more than a year in limbo, I decided we had to move. My wife had moved out, sadly taking my stepdaughter, Raphael’s stepsister, and it was increasingly clear that we were not going to get back together. Our friends were offering us a kitten, which only sort of made sense, given our uncertain living situation.
Raphael was coming back from visiting distant cousins in the wasteland of Palmdale raving about the size of homes and square footage you could get for a low price. At other times he liked the idea of living in Echo Park but when I brought home a flyer for a condo he railed against the high cost of square footage there. He was twelve years old. He was looking for home.
My dad was nearby in Verdugo Hills Hospital and almost dead; he arrived from Seattle to get out of the rain, it rained continuously and he got pneumonia.
Maybe a sweet kitten would fix our thrashed hearts.
Our friends had just adopted a mother cat, Mamacita, and her kittens were running underfoot, nursing way past vet recommended time. My son nursed the same way; I almost took him to NA –Nursing Anonymous – to get him off the tit before middle school. At about 2 ½ years, I told him “no hay leche” – no more milk.
The kitty ignored us, ran up to Mamacita and latched right on; sighed and went to sleep, the kitten happily moving his little kitty lips in his sleep.
Mamacita left her sleeping kitty and came over purring and cuddling into our lives. Cats rub up to you and mark you with their scent, claiming you. Our friends decided to give us Mamacita; we were clearly in need of her maternal instincts.
The first day Mamacita came home with us, Slurpy, our Sheltie Shepard, herded her, and Max, the Labrador retrieved her. When I walked in Mamacita was a slobbery ball, emitting a toxic smelling odor. I grabbed her and ran to the vet.
At the Vets office, Dr. Tyson recognized us and asked “who is the alpha in the house?”
I answered, “We’re in transit…”
“I remember you now,” she looked at us while Mamacita began to emerge from her temporarily subdued state, purring and rubbing up to Dr. Tyson.
“Yes, we were two moms, two kids, two dogs…” I continued “but now…”
I guess Lizette, my spouse, had been the angry alpha. Now she and Serena, her daughter, were gone, leaving us temporarily caring for the two dogs. Unhinged, roaming, chewing up whatever came in their path; the dogs looked as lost and bewildered as us. Losing my step-daughter, Raphael’s step-sister, felt like my arm had been cut off. Raphael didn’t understand why Serena couldn’t still live with us.
“My dad died when I was about Raphael’s age. I didn’t want to talk to anyone; my cat was my lifeline,” Dr. Tyson told us. “Mamacita is amazing – I just feel she chose you, your son needs her.”
She advised us how to manage the dogs and the cat, and sent us home feeling Mamacita was our “Beshert” (Yiddish for destiny, soul-mate). When I thanked her for the counseling session, she said, “I became a vet to deal with animals, not people. Turns out the owners need me more.”
Mamacita sat on Raphael’s head and purred. “She’s a motor,” he said, moving her gently off. A big straggly cat security blanket with deep- seeing orange eyes, she curled up on one side of me, my son on the other.
Serena came over and cried non-stop, “Why can’t I stay here with you guys?” Mamacita climbed on her lap and licked her tears away.
Mamacita had kept me going over the weeks that I wasn’t sure whether my dad would get out of the hospital alive. Pneumonia and other life-threatening conditions that descended upon him had pushed him into end stage Parkinson’s. But now he had rallied, and had been moved to a rehab facility in another hospital. Each night I’d come home to Mamacita and she’d sleep curled up against me.
In the morning Mamacita went out on her neighborhood walks. Having roamed the Echo Park hills, she was desperate to explore our barrio. One night she didn’t come back. The following morning she staggered in appearing lobotomized.
She smelled awful. Not knowing any better, I tried to bathe her. Like a cartoon cat, she stayed curled up in the blanket leaving an exact cat shape frozen into place with wet stink. I carried her into the vet the next day and was told that her innards were crushed. “She came into your life when you needed her; now you have to let her go,” Dr. Tyson counseled.
Later a neighbor told us, “I saw your cat; she was attacked by two coyotes. She put up a fight!”
“That’s my girl,” Raphael said.
Years later when 17-year-old Raphael struggled with drug addiction, I remembered our therapy cat. Unable to stop him from using, I decided to look for a cat. I wanted a cat that would just sit on my lap and purr, a “senior for a senior” they advertised at the Humane Society. Raphael insisted we needed a fun cat; we ended up with a one- year- old rescue Raphael named Princess Leia. In the Latino-Ebonics native to our household, she was nicknamed D’Princesa. A “teen mom,” I hoped she’d be a replacement for Mamacita.
Like replacing people, you can’t make a cat be someone she’s not. Unlike Mamacita, Princesa was not a cuddler; like most cats she ruled. She chewed on books, cords, our toes and leaped frenetically over my body when I lay in bed. Whatever Princesa wanted, I gave in. A petite short-haired cat, she gained weight quickly. Regal like her name, velvety white fur, spots of brown and orange, she fixed her steely green eyes on me.
When my son left two months later to live in a young men’s recovery house, I found myself alone for the first time in twenty years. Princesa banged on my bedroom door demanding I get up. She stared into my eyes insisting I could do better and chewed her way through our house until I played with her.
My experience is that the cats we need come into our lives. Mamacita mothered us into resilience. Princesa arrived to make sure an empty nest and the fallout from addiction didn’t send me permanently under the covers.
Carla Sameth has an MFA in Creative Writing (Latin America) from Queens University. Her work has appeared in several anthologies and publications such as Brain, Child; Full Grown People; Mutha Magazine; Longreads, Narratively; Tikkun; Pasadena Weekly; Hometown Pasadena and La Bloga. Carla was a fall 2016 PEN In The Community Teaching Artist, and she teaches with the Los Angeles Writing Project (LAWP) at California State University Los Angeles. She also teaches creative writing to incarcerated youth through WriteGirl. She was selected to be a member of the Pasadena Rose Poets, and presented as part of their first annual “Poetry Within Reach” series via an NEA grant in summer 2016; she recently read at the first LA Lambda Litfest 2017. Previously Carla “brought home the oatmeal” as a single mom, running her PR firm, iMinds PR (www.imindspr.com) website – carlasameth.com Twitter – @carlasameth