Author’s Note: "Some Tracery of Stardust" maps one woman's history with cats, in parallel to her history with chronic illness. This is a story of resilience and determination, of five cities and six cats, of chronic illness and true love, of mortality and suffering, of whiskers and paws. As you move from one city to another with the writer, you will experience her increasing pain and suffering, but you will also experience immense joy and love, as she is taken care of in sometimes surprising ways by her genuinely life-saving feline friends. Ultimately, this is an essay about love triumphing over illness— if you've ever loved an animal deeply, you may find yourself nodding along as you read!
Boo was my first cat, though if you’re at all like me, your first cat was also your first love. He was in my life from his infancy and from mine. As a kitten, he liked to jump out from behind bookshelves or potted plants, and startle people. It was a hop and a leap from there to his name. Boo was a striking seal point Siamese, with a meow that made people ask Do you have a baby in your house? when they called, and heard him hollering.
Boo was not allowed to sleep in my parent’s room. I think this was my father’s rule more than my mother’s, and have always hoped it didn’t hurt Boo’s feelings. Every now and then, and always at midnight, as if to make a point, he would yowl pitifully at their door. This meant bedtime with Boo, who liked to sleep pressed close against you, burrowing into the warm circle of your arms— was split between Sister and I. On occasion, a fight broke out over whose night it was with him, but we managed pretty well. When she went away to college though, every night became a cat night for me.
I missed Sister so much that I began sleeping in her bed with its hand-splattered comforter; red, yellow, blue. Boo followed me there, not about to spend a night alone. His naked trust, his dogged loyalty, his ample affection— in many ways, he taught me how to love. Eventually, I moved back to my own bed, and Boo followed me there as well. He taught me so much just by showing up and curling into my arms. He never questioned whether or not he was wanted. He never doubted that our love was rightfully his— just absorbed it, like oxygen.
Boo made it almost twenty-one years with us, dying in the springtime of my junior year at Sarah Lawrence College. I remember lying with my head next to his, keenly aware this would be the last time I would ever see his lovely, regal face. One salt-slick tear after another dashed from my cheeks to my chin. The tears were lukewarm, but felt like they could burn me. When my mother took Boo to be put to sleep, I cried until there were no more tears left to give, face swollen and sore.
Of course, there were plenty more tears to give. I cried into my pillow for weeks after Boo’s death. Arms empty of marshmallow-soft fur, ears void of sonata purr. My first cat— my first love— gone.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Melanie, my college roommate, found the kittens before my plane even touched ground in New Orleans. (We’d decided, on a whim and a wish, to live in Louisiana for the summer. It was Melanie, Micah, and myself— all three sensitive Sarah Lawrence students, all three artists, all three queer. Our apartment had no air conditioning or working oven, and I was the only one who’d set up a job in advance.) The kittens mewed at Melanie hungrily from behind the neighborhood post office— one sleek black, one gray with what we would soon realize was a fine coating of dust. She did the only sane thing. She gentled them home with her, tucked into the wicker basket of her lime green bicycle. They arrived the same day as me.
Not yet possessing names, we called them by lazy shorthand, Black kitty and Grey kitty. Melanie and Micah wanted to name them something along the lines of Elephant and Montana. I rejected these outright. Within a day or two, Grey Kitty would reveal herself to be a soft cream, with the bandit markings of a Siamese just beginning across her face, paws, tail. A seal point, just like Boo.
I’d thought I’d never have a Siamese cat again, less and less easy to come by without breeders. Thought I’d have to break my family’s forty-year Siamese streak. This streak began even before my parents married, with a cat named Petrushka who drew blood at random. My dad gave Petrushka to my mom; her first cat ever, tucked away in a small, buzzing building full of graduate students in Norman, Oklahoma. Later, Petrushka went to live with my mom’s parents; a stern, slim woman who wore meticulously pressed, hand-sewn wool suits, and a round-bellied, wink-prone man I swear to this day was the real Santa Claus. Away from the clamor of graduate students, Petrushka almost immediately stopped biting. Next came Ebenezer, who lived with my parents in Virginia before Sister and I came along. He was a private gentleman of a cat who would never dare chomp your ankle.
So now, this new, minute seal point strikes me as the very gut of a miracle. I was still mourning Boo, would be mourning him for some time. When I saw friends snuggling with their cats, I had to subtly edge my glance away, occasionally biting my lip until it drew blood. Yet here was this unnamed marvel curled on my chest, kneading outsized paws into my sky-blue sleep shirt. Her purr, hesitant to get going, but when it did: The rumble of a tiny railroad yard. Impressive, really— something so huge coming from something so tiny.
Wall cats, that’s what we called the New Orleans cats. Wall cats, because our very first night with them, they both appeared to escape. We briefly panicked, but quickly discovered that our sketchy apartment had sketchy holes scattered throughout its thin walls. We pulled the cats out of their respective holes, their bodies elongating as they resisted. Stuffed the holes full of paper towel rolls, cans of generic brand black beans, anything we could find that might serve as a barrier. We closed our bedroom doors, flipped over any furniture that wasn’t flush to the ground. Call it a kitten intervention. Black Kitty remained mostly aloof, allowing an occasional scritch under his chin. But soon enough, Grey Kitty turned Siamese Kitty took to sitting out in the open. Lounging on windowsills, batting at flies. Rubbing against our hands when we reached for her. She began taking naps on my chest, purring herself to sleep.
The plan was to stay for the entire summer, but I was simply too sick to manage it. Melanie and Micah stayed, and both later had partners move into the apartment, but I only made it three weeks in New Orleans before I had to return to my parent’s home in Alexandria. I remember the city in flashes and glimmers— an evening here, a meal there. I remember riding the trolley to a doctor’s appointment, nauseous, folding in on myself with pain. I can see the trolley’s jovial reds and yellows with quartz clarity twenty years later. Breeze in my shoulder-length pink hair, it was impossible not to love New Orleans. I was equal parts nausea and glee.
I remember the night we pretended to be British tourists, wandering The French Quarter. We scooped handfuls of change from fountains outside of gilded hotels, and used our dripping coins to buy lurid orange margaritas. British accents growing sloppier as we progressed down the street, alcohol dipping into our veins. I remember eating in the African restaurant across from our apartment, food flavorful but dry; remember going to the Latin market to buy plantains and pupusas; remember taking ice-cold baths daily. I remember long hours spent lounging in the living room, taking turns standing in front of the enormous black fan Micah found under an overpass. I remember a three hundred pound man fisting my lace-clad breasts in his enormous hands, seizing them like thick slabs of cherry pie. Casually, passing me on the street, as if this was just the sort of thing people did.
I remember our bizarre lesbian landlord, her soot-rooted blonde hair in stringy waves to her shoulders, trying to bully us into dressing up as cartoon characters for her children’s entertainment company. I remember when we told her we needed a real oven. She brought a second microwave instead, and refused to admit all summer long that it was, in point of fact, absolutely not an oven. I remember cutting Melanie and Micah’s hair on the balcony at dusk. They each had short, ink-black locks, and I gave them vaguely different versions of the same haircut. Micah’s bangs slightly spikier, Melanie’s cut a shade more Tinkerbelle. I remember buying biscuits at Popeyes— which were everywhere, absolutely everywhere— for fifty cents. Devouring them, crumbs falling to the cheap plastic tables. We were always hungry. We were always hot. I was always sick.
I took Bastien back to Virginia with me. That became the Siamese cat’s name. I started with Sebastian, but decided that sounded more like a Sheep dog’s name. On the flight home, she mewed relentlessly. The flight attendants let me open her carrier and murmur to her, whisper my fingers through her fur. Melanie and Micah would later have stories of a wild, madcap summer full of love affairs and drum circles, of dressing up as Barney during the day and cavorting in the neon-smeared city at night. I was sad I’d missed out. But I had Bastien now, didn’t I? Surely the precise reason I was meant to be in New Orleans at all.
Bronxville, New York/Portland, Oregon/Alexandria, Virginia
I snuck Bastien with me to college my senior year, and though she loved to sit in the single wide window, preening in sunlight, we were somehow never caught. By Spring semester, I was too sick to manage school. Between brutal abdominal pain and twice daily panic attacks, I’d stopped going to classes. At one point, I stayed in my room so long, eschewing calls and voicemails and knocks on my door, that my best friends had the campus police threaten to knock down my door. Bastien, smart and timid alike, ducked instantly under the bed. I frantically covered up her litter with a bath towel, opened the door with a polite smile, and promised I was fine, really, I was fine— and yes, I would call my friends.
Sarah Lawrence is a fluffy sort of school, one where you meet one-on-one with professors every other week, and develop independent studies for every class you take. It’s very DIY, but it’s also sharply academic, and you do actually have to show up to class. I double majored in Psychology and Creative Writing, and those departments did not play. I remember sitting in the Dean’s office, pulse palpitating, abdomen constricting cruelly: I’m sorry, I’m too sick. I don’t think… I can’t finish school right now. What intense shame. It feels as if I remember the exact slant of my green eyes to the Dean’s expensive grey carpeting. What intense shame— what dizzying relief.
After leaving college with just nine credits left to complete, I tried moving again, this time to Portland, Oregon. Sister was there, and I would live just a few short blocks from her and her partner. Reed College was in Portland as well— Sarah Lawrence’s sister school. I thought I’d have my degree in a year or two, easy. If you’d have told me that it would, in fact, be seventeen years before I held that holy, embossed paper in my hands, I’m not sure whether I would have laughed or despaired.
Portland was amazing. The kind of city where strangers stop you on the sidewalk if you look sick; where you can still happen on a date by wandering through the aisles of a bookstore; where a worker-run, worker-owned vegan café has enough power to run a Starbucks out of business. Well-fed neighborhood cats don’t prowl through alleyways— they plop themselves onto your porch furniture, climb in your windows, ample bellies swinging. I lived first in the basement of a house that would be condemned not many years later, and later, in two different Victorian homes. Sharing large orange or pink Victorian houses with three to five roommates was how many of us made do in Portland— the rent just a few hundred dollars a month.
I fell into a career as a pin-up girl; work I could manage through pain, hours I could make myself. I looped limbs around other women’s threadlike waists or ample hips, pressed glossed lips to their breasts, and was paid handsomely for it. The photos went onto assorted alternative erotica websites— whatever they asked for, I played the part. Sometimes I was a goth girl, sometimes a raver, sometimes a nerd. By the end, I had my own queer, feminist pin-up girl website, populated by myself and thirty dreamy models or so. There I was just myself, and naked.
Mostly, this career consisted of long nights entwined with cute girls, laughter fluting up to the ceiling— a beer cracked here, a line of cocaine there, soon enough it’s four a.m. I was the photographer as well, so we managed to avoid the predatory men too easily found in that field. There was Melissa, who looked like a modern-day Bettie Page, and whose heart I inadvertently smashed into pieces. There was Meret, who worshiped Hilary Clinton, and asked me to photoshop the I.V. drug marks from her arms. There was Aerlinn, whose pink hair matched mine and who could have ecstatic nipple orgasms, one after another. There was Luna, a ferocious redhead I adored beyond reason, and would later lose to suicide. There was Poppy, who kept chickens in her backyard and resembled a Renaissance painting. If you’d made a chart of who’d made out with whom, who’d had sex with whom, it would have resembled a very messy spiderweb.
It was a funny sort of thing: To be in so much pain, and yet use my body to make a living. All day long, I would arch my back and tilt my sharp jaw. I would grind my hips and stroke my inner thighs. But at the end of the day, I would always collapse back into bed, where Bastien waited for me. I pulled my black and grey comforter up to my glitter-encrusted eyes. I pressed my heating pad to my abdomen until a mottled pattern of burns formed. Bastien slunk to my side, curling against my chest, eyeing me wisely. I know, I know, I sighed. She purred back loudly, inching closer to the heating pad. I turned the temperature level to low.
Portland was amazing, it’s true. But no matter how many cute cafes and vintage clothing shops there were in this charming puddle town, I could not out-run my illness. I got the first of many abdominal surgeries there as well. I was given the diagnosis of endometriosis after nine years of steadily rising pain levels; of going to specialist after specialist; of being told the pain would go away if I ate a head of broccoli a day.
The surgery changed nothing, and it would be another thirteen years before I got one that did.
In Portland, Sophie— a gregarious tortoiseshell who purred if you so much as looked at her— joined Bastien and I. She had hypnotizing green eyes, white mittens on her otherwise black and orange explosion of fur, and came running like a puppy when you called her name. She and Bastien got along right away— not a hiss, not a growl passed between them. Just some cursory sniffing. They shared a bed by the second night they shared a home. The plane ride back to Virginia with two cats was a little trickier, the flight attendants a little stricter, but we made it.
Back in Alexandria, I tried surgery again— this time with Tori Amos’ doctor, one who’d warranted a section in her memoir. I was sure he’d be able to help me as well. Instead, he told me I was too young for a hysterectomy, and when the surgery he was willing to do instead changed absolutely nothing for me, seemed to take it as a personal affront. Raising his voice, he told me the only option left for someone like me was a pain clinic.
Eventually, I was so sick I couldn’t make it to appointments to get refills for pain medication. I went through cold turkey fentanyl and oxycodone withdrawal. Writhing on icicled bathroom tiles, vomiting until only thin yellow strings dripped from my lips. I’d already been mostly bedbound for seven years— but for the next four, would leave the house just twice, each of those in an ambulance. I saw no one but my mother and father, save Sister a few times a year. I’ll never forget her carrying her first baby, my first niece, into my bedroom. How struck I was by profound joy for her existence, and profound shame for mine, all at once. How instantly I fell in love even through the haze of pain.
Throughout this entire sour rollercoaster, Bastien and Sophie watched over me. Most of the time, Sophie slept tucked at my feet, while Bastien kept watch by my pillow. Is it Bastien I’m telling you about the most because she was my cat alone, whereas Sophie was gladly everyone’s? Or is it something deeper, something a bit farther from the realm of explanation? Bastien was an actual miracle of a cat, finding me at precisely the right time. She contained, I suspect, slivers of Boo’s soul, something of the starshine he left behind.
I did not realize when I began to take care of her that she would also take care of me. She slept by my head every night for fourteen years. She was a timorous cat, a one human cat, and I was very lucky— she had chosen me as that person. She heard me begging my mother to please let me die, please, and was having none of it. The second my mom left the room again, sobs still scraping from my throat, Bastien leapt back onto the bed. She pressed herself into my chest more firmly than usual. Blinked at me, twice and slowly— which in cat means I love you, I trust you. In Bastien, I think it also meant Don’t you dare think of leaving me.
In the end, I did have to leave Bastien, though just geographically— moving to seek expert, ultimately triumphant medical care. For months, my empty bed in Baltimore seemed to actually ache, her absence as distinct as her presence. Five years later, when she died, I asked my parents to take prints of her paws. I wanted to frame them, or wear them in a locket. I lost the paw prints shortly after my parents gave them to me. Every now and then, I search for them frantically; tearing through drawers, tears streaking my flushed face; but nothing ever turns up. She is gone, her precious inked paws are gone.
But against all odds, I am alive. Bastien made sure of that.
I have three cats now. We’re only allowed two pets in my building, so one of my babies is a fugitive. First came Sushi and Edamame, a bonded pair of tuxedo sisters. Originally called Joey and Rachel, they came from a litter named after the characters from Friends. I changed their names before even signing the adoption papers. Sushi is primarily interested in food and knocking things over, up to and including toasters and knife blocks. Once, she actually managed to nick my forearm, my mouth a pale pink “O” as I watched the blood well up. Sushi is a lap cat when it pleases her, ramming her way onto the pretzel of my thighs. Sometimes she is angelic, wrapping her white mittens around my legs and purring for hours. Lucifer was a fallen angel too, you know, I whisper with my face pressed to her cheek. She wiggles her whiskers in response, tickling my nose.
Edamame is known to lick walls and floors. On occasion, I wake to find she’s gnawed apart a book while I was sleeping, chewed it to bits. She likes her chin scratched so hard that I sometimes worry I’m hurting her. She will rub her face in a frenzy against almost any imitation meat product— vegan hot dogs, shrimp, crab cakes. She’ll never actually eat any of it though. She, like Bastien, is a one-person cat— if you’re not me, she’ll sooner dash away from your reach than let you pet her. She also likes to hop up on my shoulders like the cat lady’s version of a pirate’s parrot, sometimes staying there for long stretches, needling her paws into my upper back.
Ice Cream Muffin is a grey and white floof of a cat. A princess, easily startled. On occasion, she refuses to eat unless you feed her kibble directly from the creased cup of your palms. She fiends for bacon, but only from Five Guys. She’ll leap onto the dining room table, and yank a whole piece straight from your bacon cheeseburger. As my best friend feathers her bizarrely soft fur, he sing-songs softly: Meanie, you meanie, because she always prefers him to me, prefers my father to me, prefers anyone who identifies as male to me. She also poops in the bath tub. Once daily, twice on special occasions.
When I get sick again, Edamame goes from being a mildly standoffish cat to a clingy cat, overnight. Maybe that’s not really how it happened. Maybe she had slowly, steadily been becoming a more affectionate cat, and I only noticed when my need became full and ripe as strawberry moon. She begins to sleep on the pillow next to mine. Every night, I crash into bed, curl fetal in pain and exhaustion. I begin crying or trying not to. Edamame announces her arrival with a chirp, hopping in after me. She meanders across the bed first. If this cat were a person, she would always swing her hips when she walked. She stops to nuzzle the rainbow owl my best friend gave me after my most recent surgery, pauses to paw at the cord of my heating pad.
A tiny hop!, and she’s on my chest. Her purrs are quiet, but vibrate like a Harley-Davidson doing tricks on the highway. I feel as if I’m made of honey, warm gold drizzling through my veins. She rubs her face against mine almost aggressively, headbutting me, rubbing her gums against my cheeks. I like to think she’s saying something along the lines of: Look, I know you think I’m just a cat, but I really do love you, silly human.
She stays there for a while, kneading my chest. Sometimes she stays long enough to fall asleep on my chest, tiny black chin tucked under mine. Even in the absolute ravages of pain, even in the moments when I’m questioning if I actually want to live through this: It is impossible to be anything but happy when Edamame is a small, dark curl on my chest. A sort of bliss that defies disease.
When she sleeps next to me, Edamame likes it best when she has one pillow, and I have three. I think she likes this so I can prop above and curl down into her— tangling my trembling hands into her fur, scratching behind her ears, under her chin. She just keeps purring and purring, and every now and then, stares golden-eyed up at me. Then she goes back to sleeping, or perhaps bathing herself. She never runs away when I start to cry. She doesn’t even budge.
To say that I did not grow up in a religious household is to understate the matter. My father is an atheist astrophysicist, who genuinely doesn’t understand how intelligent people can believe in a God. The closest you got to religion in our household was my mother’s bright orange yoga mat, her books of Buddhist poetry. I went to church a tiny handful of times as a child— church picnic when visiting West Virginia, Christmas Eve Mass with my best friend’s family, a charity dinner with another friend. I remember serving sweaty meatballs, moderately creeped out by all the wooden crucifixes on the walls.
I tell you all of this, so you will understand a bit of my spiritual genealogy. So you will understand that I do not come by it lightly when I say that I think my cats are trading souls.
I can’t tell yet if I completely and factually believe this, full swallow, or if I believe it like the memory of a feather’s touch. Something so exquisite that, even if it’s not happening, it can easily feel as if it is. But something is happening here— something I thought stopped with Boo and Bastien, those Siamese spirit siblings. Then I fell flat-faced into illness again, and Edamame proved me wrong.
Boo ferried me into this life, in our home from shortly after my birth through my twenty-first year. Boo is childhood afternoons spent playing on sunshine-dappled hardwood floors; is adolescent memories of crying into brown-black fur after my first broken heart; is early adult memories of always being greeted eagerly by the front door when I came home from college. Bastien carried me through an illness I never thought I’d survive, carried me through eleven years that sucked the very marrow from my sanity. She was loyal to me long after I moved to Maryland, taking a full two years to accept my mother as her new person; to nuzzle onto her blanketed knees every night instead of mine.
And now I am sick again, and it appears Edamame has taken on the mantle of guardian cat. Edamame, who bathes her sister so zealously that sometimes Sushi has to yowl her objection. Edamame, who gets so excited about dinner that most nights, you have to guide her, spinning in half-circles, to her food dish. Each of these cats have had their own quirks and kindnesses. Boo’s passion for red yarn and sleeping, through the night, right in the warm circle of your arms. Bastien’s fondness for sleeping under the bed on the rare occasions she wasn’t busy guarding me. Edamame’s zeal for rubbing her face against vegan hot dogs; the way she meow-ows hello in the morning. They are clearly not the same cat— but do they share some piece of the same soul, some tracery of stardust connecting them through the tissue of time? Has this very stardust been protecting me for forty full years?
I cannot pretend to know. I can only suspect.
This new disease is even more brutal than endometriosis, and obscenely rare. Mesenteric panniculitis. It causes stupefying, zombie fatigue that leaves me stumbling, tripping over bare feet. It causes nausea so intense that I guzzle ginger beer for breakfast, keep a sliver of raw ginger in my mouth when even that doesn’t cut it. And the pain. The pain is surreal; unreal; more than I thought one body could contain. Eight months into living with mesenteric panniculitis, when I’m finally able to have a consultation with a specialist, he says: If the disease progresses to the next stage, the pain will never stop. We’re going to hope that doesn’t happen. It turns out this disease can also kill you pretty easily.
Soon, I can’t even sit without stingrays sniping through my abdomen. My dining room chairs are bright orange, wooden and boxy, from IKEA. My parents bring me one of the family chairs I’ve long coveted. Blue mid-century modern wonders that now go for $900 a pop, which they dragged home from Europe for $35 apiece. It’s a warm chair, a soft chair, a chair that slopes sweetly around my lower back. I can eat meals at the dining room table again. Chronic illness never fails to humble you; to remind you that you’re breathless-lucky for a thousand tiny things which are, as it turns out, not so tiny after all.
All three cats love the chair, instantly and obsessively. I can’t enter the dining room without finding one of them sitting in it. Sushi stares me down when I try to budge her, whines pitifully as I pull her off. Ice Cream Muffin eyes me cautiously, flicks her ears and looks away, then glances back. She lets herself be transferred gently into my lap, but soon leaps off. Muppet-mop of a tail raised high. And then, Edamame. She leaps off the chair the second I enter the room. Sways a few feet away, settling into a cardboard box. She protects me. She keeps the stingrays at bay.
When I first learn the mortality rates for mesenteric panniculitis, I wail and wail. Inconsolable. Within a few days, though, I become calm and practical, banging out a will in under a week. (What other choice is there?) I leave my nicest vintage furniture to my soulmate from age fifteen, also leaving her my favorite (and most sapphic) framed art. I leave signed prints by my favorite artists to one best friend, and all my gorgeous vintage dresses and slinky pajamas to my other best friend. I leave my cats to Sister, who I know will either home them herself, or find homes where they can thrive. She will make sure Ice Cream Muffin has her favorite sherbet-striped blanket. Make sure Sushi, the most jealous cat I’ve ever known, gets petted when she pleads. Make sure Edamame has someone she can share a bed with, her small, black head nestled next to theirs.
I do not like thinking about this part.
I tuck my nose into Edamame’s neck, breathe deep the sweet smell of freshly bathed cat. I’m not going anywhere, I whisper into her velvety ear. She perks up for a minute, waggles her spray of white whiskers. Beams her golden eyes right into mine. It’s as if I can hear her speaking directly to me. Damn right you’re not, she says. You’re staying here with me. She curls back into a tight sphere in my arms, yawns enormously, rubs her face against mine.
It's settled then. I have no choice but to live.