Shortly after the death of my cat (my beautiful, sweet boy; my horrible, annoying little pissbaby), Forsythe Pendleton Jones III, I was wandering the house with a glazed expression on my face, as I was wont to do in those days, and I happened to stop in front of a mirror. “My boobs,” I thought. My boobs had been growing rapidly around the time that he died, and I was rather invested in the process. “Forsythe will never find out how big my boobs get.” This made me sad, and so I began to wail and hyperventilate. At length, I ceased to wail, and stared at my face in the mirror. This was unpleasant but better than wailing and hyperventilating. I was still. I began to wail. I was still. I turned thirty degrees to the right, shuffling my feet, beginning the motion of going somewhere but having nowhere to go. I stopped after the rotation. I turned back the other way. And back again. I did not know what to do. There was a stabbing pain in my chest. I felt like a terrible darkness had grown inside me and come to kill me. I stared at my face in the mirror and began once again to wail. That must have been the first or second day after his death.
When Forsythe (named after Hot Cole Sprouse, the character on Riverdale) came into my life, he had recently been rescued. My friend, a regular troller of pet Facebook groups, brought us together with the compelling argument that Forsythe — an extremely sad little guy, scrawny and suffering from a nasty autoimmune reaction — was simply too pathetic not to adopt. I had been on E for three months, and had been transitioning for nine, and I was having a lot of feelings about Being In The World. From the first time I met him, Forsythe amazed me with his beingness and his otherness. His ineluctable, obstinate materiality. If you wanted to get Forsythe in the carrier to go to the vet, Forsythe had thoughts about that. He also had thoughts about pillows (good to drool on), carpets (merely good to pee on, or sublime?), when he should be fed (immediately, now), and what I should be doing with my time (providing me with physical affection, MOTHER!!!).
Forsythe was a frightening commitment to the world and a certain way of being in it. I struggled then with existing in the world; I had ended many terrible things and now I was alone, without them, in a new place that I did not really understand, an exposed nerve in a wholly novel wilderness. My experience had a spiritual intensity: as I came into my capacity to feel, I discovered profound joy commingled with profound loneliness. So much of me was emotionally disconnected. Getting Forsythe meant: I am choosing connection to life.
He was awesome and divine on my lap: a jet-black, bean-shaped weight on my legs, heavy and warm, purring and nuzzling his head into the crook of my arm, safe and content with me. He was concrete and specific. I was the only human with whom he would do this with so little hesitation, the only one who fed him; he was the only cat whose well-being I took charge of. This bond had merely arisen. It could have happened in any number of different ways or not happened at all, but it had happened in this arbitrary and specific way, and here he was. My little being.
At three months on E I experienced every day as simultaneously the greatest, best thing ever to happen to me and also please, God, just kill me right now, thanks. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wanted nothing more than to touch and be touched. I also found nothing more horrifying than the notion of touching and being touched. For a long time, partly because of my relationship to transness but mostly because of unrelated and extremely depressing facts about my life, my whole body had two modes, and those modes were (a) I am so fucking dissociated right now, time to binge drink and (b) I am extremely fucking dissociated right now, shall I binge drink and contemplate killing myself? Touch was a complex thing!
In my favorite pictures with Forsythe, taken right after I got him, he is tiny and wearing an orange cast while the last of his wounds healed. He sits on my lap. He pushes his head into my chin. He lounges. I look, to my present self, unbearably young: my first pair of leggings, a formless denim shirt, short hair utterly unaware of its potential for luscious curls. I remember thinking is this allowed? as Forsythe cycled through a suite of postural variations on the theme of propinquitous luxuriating. Touch had always been ambivalent for me: equal parts thrill and terror. This was just self-evidently good: a cat having his chin scratched and absolutely losing his shit at the outrageous ecstasy of it all. A cat curling up on a human and taking a nice nap. Effortless touch — touch for its own sake — touch delighting in touch — touch utterly devoid of fear or violence.
I don’t really know how to convey to you what a cat like Forsythe meant to a body like mine. There was my life, out in the world, a life which I found exhilarating and depressing and so very hard, and then there was the life I lived together with Forsythe for almost a year, a sheltered life of joyful interdependence.
I’m going to lean on pop culture here. You know the seahorse scene in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse? There’s a really pathetic version of Spider-Man, Peter B. Parker, who is recently divorced and watching a nature documentary about seahorses. “Could you imagine,” he implores the viewer, on the verge of tears as he considers the poignant beauty of seahorse mating patterns. “A seahorse seeing another seahorse and then...making it work?”
Can you imagine that, reader? Being loved? Having someone unconditionally invested in your well-being? Just coming back into your lap, no matter how many times you get kind of steamed because they peed somewhere they really shouldn’t have, the litter box was right there, Forsythe?
Forsythe had worried me for a few days — I was taking him to the vet soon — when early on a Sunday morning I woke to the sound of him retching, retching, retching. When I came to him in the kitchen he looked deeply miserable and there was liquid on the floor and in the liquid there was blood. I went numb, and sat down on the floor next to him, and he stepped on to my lap and his whole weight collapsed against me and I started having a hell of a panic attack. He felt radically different from the cat I knew and as I soothed him I understood that something was very wrong, and the bottom of my reality fell out, the world tumbled through, and there was just me, my dying cat, and a sudden certainty that there was no future for me, that the sequence of events unfolding before my empty gaze culminated in my death, too, what else was there? I had borne so much with Forsythe, everything was so hard with him in the picture, and now I would be asked to keep going without him?
He resisted getting in the crate, and I had a hard time getting him in there normally, never mind exhausted and in the middle of a panic attack. And Forsythe was miserable, hiding from me and meowing a hopelessly sad meow I can still hear now. If this was that bad — so bad that he might die imminently — I did not want his last hours to be spent stressed, stuffed inside of his crate by a delirious and panicking human. I sat next to him; he stepped onto my lap again, and collapsed, as he had the first time; eventually he got off my lap and went off to one of his sleeping spots. I sat cross-legged across from him, one finger on his paw, until he was sleeping. And then I went to sleep, too, and in the morning he woke me up asking to be fed, and I fed him, for the last time.
And we went to the vet, and then the emergency vet, and the emergency vet told me that Forsythe was suffering, and maybe he would be ok with a lot of surgery, or maybe we would do the surgery and find out that he had cancer. I thought of Forsythe in pain for days or weeks, and I thought about putting him through a gauntlet of things he absolutely fucking hated only to find out that he was going to die anyway. I chose to let him go.
I was with him for an hour before he died, and I was with him as he died. When I held him at the end, he was so weak, so feeble, so not himself. Mostly he slumped in my lap. He had the same intensity, the same need for my affection, as before, but it was beyond him to curl up or nuzzle me. He just slumped, the full weight of his body falling flatly against me, and purred when he could. He gingerly stepped off my lap and looked like he wanted to explore the room. Just standard due diligence, you know. Basic cat stuff. He couldn’t. He gave up and got back in my lap, and a few minutes later he was gone. I may one day forgive this fucking universe for taking that away from you, Forsythe, but it will be hard.
My hormones are less exciting now, Forsythe. More like a fact of life. You will never know how big my boobs get, though I do not foresee a change in my cup size that will dramatically alter my overall happiness (I invite my boobs to prove me wrong). That change had happened while you were still alive, buddy, and I guess that’s what I’ll be working with forever, until I, also, die. Everything feels incremental now, and that’s fine. In the days after your death, I felt the absence of your touch most starkly. I would be spiraling, getting worked up in anxiety or despair, and as the warning lights flashed I thought: this would be when Forsythe would jump in my lap and nip this whole thing in the bud. Just normal, Forsythe, your touch — a welcome fact of my emotional life, boring and indispensable as the air I breathe. I think that I can handle touch now; once this pandemic is over I intend to give it a solid try.
It feels silly to say it but you are so inextricably linked with these first years of my transition. I don’t suppose that you actually understood the slowly downward-bending arc of my testosterone levels but you are as much a part of that story for me as the syringes of estradiol cypionate that I stick in my butt once a week. I have changed physically with the injections, and changed emotionally with them, too, and also with you. After you died I was mourning a level of comfort with physical touch I took for granted then and had thought impossible for most of my life. I did not become a woman with you, but I came into myself as a woman with you, and because of your affection and because you were just there — it is absurd to say it, Forsythe, but it feels impossible that this process will continue and you will be gone. I will get further and further away in time and our time together will forever be what it was, my life will become deeper and more vibrant, it will unfurl and allow me access to ever more joy and ever more sorrow, and you will not be a part of that, it will all happen without you, there is no other way it can happen now.
On the 27th of July, 2020, I wrote (because I am fundamentally a good and loving human being but also, in some ways, a thoroughly cursed one) the following in my journal:
I keep freaking Forsythe out. It’s funny. Sweet cuddlebug. We will both be dead one day. It is wonderful to be with you now. He purrs and purrs and purrs.
Well, Forsythe, I was prophetic. I see you, now, everywhere: as you were that night, curled up on my pillow while I scribbled; lounging on each one of your many favorite spots; exploring tentatively the far corners of our 900 square foot apartment. In the morning I still await your polite demands that I get out of bed and feed you. In the evening I light my candles and read my books and your absence is everywhere. Mostly when you ambush me in memory like this I cry.
But sometimes it is a visit: hi there, Forsythe, yes, jump up in my lap, hi, sweet boy. When I construct my safe and sacred mental space during a meditation, you are there, perfectly alive, timeless, eternal and particular. The first bearer of a love I did not know I could give or receive.
What I began to learn in our time together I must continue to learn without you. You are dead, and I am not, and I will not be killing myself because of your death, because that would be gratuitous and you never would have wanted me dead, anyway, so I guess I had better find a way to live that honors what a sweet, sweet, sweet creature you were, what a blessing, what a gift. You loved bacon and peeing on my stuff and I am totally fucking lost without you. Bye, buddy. It is wonderful to be with you. Now. Even now.