Missing Mark: A Christmas Story
By Christie Keith
In 1995, I got a new cat. Her name was Daphne, but I didn't name her. She wasn't a stray and I didn't buy her from a breeder or get her from a neighbor or adopt her from the shelter.
Daphne was left to me by my friend Mark, who died of AIDS in September of that year. In the last year of his life Mark, who had always been a dog lover, was "adopted" by a stray long-haired kitten who came in his back door one night. From being a man who didn't really like cats to becoming Daphne's slave took Mark only a moment.
He called me late at night to ask about hairballs, and in the middle of the day to ask about cat litter. Should she get shots, what should he feed her, should she be doing that, does she need a cat tree, should he let her outside or keep her in?
Mark may not have known much about cats, but he was an expert on Daphne. "Daphne won't eat dry food," he told me. "She hates baths, but she loves to be brushed. She likes to get under the covers and purr."
Mark took Daphne to Kansas with him for Christmas the year before he died. He flew her under the seat in a little case. "I got her a tranquilizer," he said. "Do you think that's ok?"
At Mark's sister's house that Christmas Daphne met a little spaniel puppy. Enemies at first, they became best friends by the New Year. When Daphne and Mark came back to San Francisco, Mark moved into housing for people with AIDS. Of course, Daphne moved with him.
Mark was in and out of the hospital all year, never for more than a few days. A friend fed Daphne, and a volunteer groomed her and cleaned her cat box. In August, though, Mark was in the hospital for twenty-one days. He came out of it weak and sick and fading.
For seven years Mark had fought off ill health; now he couldn't fight. "I want to go on my own terms," he told me. "I don't want to have to die in the hospital, or in a nursing home. I want Daphne to be with me when I die."
The next day, though, Mark was back in the hospital. He called me from intensive care, a nurse holding the phone. "Go get Daphne," he said. "I don't want to leave her alone again."
I drove up to the city and got Daphne. I got her litter box and her special food and her brush. I turned my office into a kitty wonderland, with a cat tree made of real branches and cat toys and cat nip and cat beds and everything a cat could want.
I visited Mark in the hospital. A friend called to say he was on his way over and could he bring anything? Mark pushed aside his oxygen mask and said, "Daphne."
A picture of Daphne was on Mark's bedside table. Several of us debated smuggling her in, but in the end gave up on it.
"Will you keep her?" Mark asked me. I said I didn't know how Daphne would get along with my dogs but as long as she was happy I would keep her. Otherwise, I promised to find her the best home in the world. "Someone who'll spoil her rotten," I swore.
Mark died on September 26th. Daphne made it clear she didn't like my dogs, and she puffed up her five-pound little self and hissed when Lillie, my 90-pound deerhound, tried to sniff her. She is very brave, and to this day Lillie remains impressed.
For a long time, Daphne rarely came out of my office, and while I worked she would sit on the arm of my chair and purr. The door to my office had a little cat door in it, so the dogs couldn't enter Daphne's domain but she could come out if she wanted to. At night she crept all over the house, but all day she sat on a pillow, looking out the window.
At the time I wondered if she happy. Did she remember that last December, flying to the Midwest for a family Christmas with Mark? Did she wonder where he went? Would she get used to me?
Today she's happy and healthy, and has made peace not only with Lillie but with all the dogs. But as the cold dark days of winter get near, I always wonder if she is remembering, as I am, another loving person who was devoted to her.
As yet another Christmas approaches, Daphne and I sit watching out the window, missing Mark.