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Words by Jesse Paris Smith
November 15, 2001 - September 23, 2023
Our dearest abyssinian, Cairo, has now departed this Earthly realm, nearly half after midnight, the morning of September 23rd at the senior age of 21 years old, very nearly 22, and written in the Farmer’s Almanac to be the equivalent of 104 in human years. The autumnal equinox took place that same morning at 2:50am, and so she is now our first fallen leaf of autumn, marking the beginning of this solemn season of change and transition. September 23rd is also the birthday of the great John Coltrane, a day acknowledged and honored each year by my parents, and the observance day of Padre Pio, the Italian Saint revered and followed by our dear friend Tom Verlaine, who also passed away at the very beginning of this year.
Cairo was born in New York City on November 15, 2001, and not too long after her birth, she was brought home to our house to join our family unit. Cairo, a gawky little abyssinian cat with eyes of green flourite and a soft ruddy coat resembling the Egyptian pyramids and the sand that surrounds them, was the runt of her litter, cast out for being too weak, a burden on her mother and the rest of the kittens.
In the earliest years of our time with Cairo she was skittish and shy, nervous around people, and spent most of her time disappearing into hiding places. We had another cat in our family since Christmas 1998, an intelligent and dominating leader, and Cairo took some time to display her own brand of presence and confidence.
As Cairo adapted to her new life, she remained cautious and apprehensive, squirming fiercely and darting away at loud sounds and sudden movements. She rarely showed interest in visiting the back patio, the front stoop, and was wary of any new person. A hand reaching out to offer a loving scratch was met with visible fear and there was certainly no chance of leaning in for a kiss atop her head.
I was preoccupied as a child with my already established bond and friendship with The Kitty, and Cairo to me seemed more like a wisp and a shadow, a fleeting silhouette appearing here and there in a frantic condition. The Kitty was my cat, and Cairo was my mom’s cat, more like a disappearing apparition or a lost little bug moving fast and desperately in survival mode. But slowly and with time, as she developed a deepening level of trust, a funny cartoon-like relationship with other cats, and as she relaxed to a level where her personality began to show through, something became clear to us all: Cairo was quite rare and unique, a truly special being.
In nearly 22 years of life on Earth, Cairo never once hissed, bit, or scratched another person or animal. She never showed an ounce of irritation, aggression, or dominance. She was a being of love, wanting simply to share attention and affection. She displayed qualities of connection that seemed to exist in another realm of communication, beyond that of language or the need for words. The way she interacted pleasantly surprised and disarmed any new person who approached her. She was a cat for those who had previously disliked cats, she was a cat for those who were allergic, for those who had bought into stereotypes of cats being dismissive and disinterested, she was a cat for dog lovers, a cat for those who felt uncomfortable around animals. She was an anomaly, a pure hearted being of kindness, a being of love who seemed to be visiting us from another planet.
While Cairo developed her own private bonds with neighbors and friends who cared for her when my Mom was on tour, while she learned with time that she could trust in anyone who came by the house, and even though she bonded deeply with me, an equally sensitive and watery soul who also craves daily blankets of affection and closeness, there was one person she clearly adored more than anyone in this world, and that person was my Mom.
Those who follow my Mom on any platform, or know her closely, know that Cairo has been a major part of her life and has occupied her mind not just as her guardian, but as a loving friend and companion. In these last years as Cairo became a senior citizen, needing a higher caliber of attention and a special brand of care, my mom led the way as her sole caretaker and primary support, whether she was at home succumbing to any of Cairo’s needs and whims, or keeping constant tabs on her health and wellness while traveling for work. It’s clear the way my mom welcomed Cairo into her own life, accepted and embraced her as part of the fabric of her own existence. She has included Cairo in her books, through both images and writing, in photography exhibits and interviews, Cairo has a cameo in the documentary, Dream of Life, where my mom sings to her. Most recently, Cairo has been regularly featured in my mom’s Substack videos, sitting on her lap as she writes at her desk or nestled next to her at the foot of the bed. In A Book of Days, Cairo’s photo adorns both a page in February and also the back cover, having serendipitously been released on November 15th of last year, Cairo’s 21st birthday.
Something representative of their bond together, was the way they parted and reunited, the way it mutually affected them both. The number of times I would be in New York and receive phone calls and texts from cities around the country or around the world, my Mom worried about who was taking care of Cairo, if the schedule was alright, if there were any long stretches of hours when she would be alone. Sometimes these phone calls would arrive when she was about to get on stage, or had just finished a concert, often times the questions at hand would not even be time sensitive, worrying into the future about Cairo’s care, and I would assure her not to worry, that she was being visited regularly by a pack of eager admirers, lovingly taken care of by us all, and that everything would be okay.
On the other hand, Cairo’s most disliked experience in life, even more so than a vet visit, was to watch my mom pack her suitcase to go on tour. Cairo seemed to learn what this meant over the years, and sometimes it looked at though she was crying little tears watching the shirts and toothbrush get packed into my mom’s carry on, this strange box that for her symbolized my mom leaving, maybe forever. Near the end of Cairo’s life, my mom took to packing her suitcase downstairs, where she couldn’t watch, though she still always seemed to sense it somehow, knowing that frantic energy of packing and preparing to leave, and the anxious worry of saying goodbye to her. They were so deeply linked, both existing and connected in another realm of reality, and I am sure that Cairo could feel it all.
When I was a baby, I wanted to be held all the time, and I would cry if my mom put me down in the crib, even for just a few moments. Knowing this, she carried me as she did house chores, laundry and cleaning, talked on the phone, cooked and read. I wanted physical connection and closeness at all times, and Cairo was the same way. I felt a deep and pure kinship with her, that we offered each other a bond of closeness and comfort, an energetic feeling of understanding between us. I was amazed at the way she held eye contact, looking deep into my eyes as I held her, a true and soulful connection between two living creatures, a chance to let go of human thoughts and the complicated layers that separate two people from truly relating. With Cairo, I found such deep relaxation in the purity and slowness of her energy. It was meditative and soothing for the soul to spend time with her, and I think so many people who knew her felt the same way.
There are pages of stories and touching moments from her almost 22 years of life, elements and aspects of her personality that made her special to us all. The time when she tried to mother a mischief of baby rat pups during a flood, the way she gave her full and unconditional trust to the vet doctors at every visit, the way her strange meow didn’t match what you’d expect to hear and was more akin to an NYC fire truck siren, the fact that I trained her over many months to be unafraid of kisses atop her head so she could receive them from anyone, the way she chewed her food at the side of her mouth because she had lost so many teeth, the pitter-pat sound of her feet across the wooden floor when her claws needed a trim, and the way she looked at you right in the eyes, as if to say thank you, to get you to pause for a moment, as if to understand more about you.
Cairo never elicited an uncomfortable or upsetting feeling in any person, animal, or otherwise. She was sweet and gentle with children and welcomed their wild energy and loving excitement, even in her final weeks. She somehow tuned into the needs of those around her, knowing where and when to show up, and what to offer them. In the first few days of August, I tested positive for Covid and was sick in bed for 3 weeks. Prior to that, Cairo had taken to sleeping each night in my mom’s bathroom on a bed of fluffy towels she had made for her. My mom was on tour on the West Coast, and I spent my Covid quarantine at her house with Cairo instead of staying alone at my apartment. During the first day of bedrest, Cairo was stationed happily on her bathroom towel mountain, but as my symptoms worsened and I entered the peak of illness, feverish, coughing, and unable to move from the bed, Cairo appeared before me in the room and jumped carefully onto the bed as if not to disturb or startle me, climbed up onto me and nestled on my chest where she remained stationed for the next 3 weeks. My mom said she must have sensed that I was sick and in need, and Cairo was the best company and comfort to have had during that time. She woke me up with a little paw to feed her throughout the night, which sometimes felt difficult to bear, but it also kept me on a healing sleep schedule of waking up each morning with the sun. I cherish that recent time spent in sickness with Cairo, and can’t imagine having had to go through it without her at my side.
After I felt better and was able to ease back into life outside the house, Cairo remained stationed in my mom’s bedroom. One night while we were resting, a tiny mouse with big ears appeared in the doorway, peeking out from behind the hallway bookcase. I was startled at first, as I had never seen a mouse in nearly 30 years of us being there, but this little mouse seemed almost lonely, looking at us with full curiosity and a visible desire to get closer. I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing, a little being who would appear and reappear, easing closer, standing on hind legs, trying to gather more data, and seemed to be waiting for a verbal invitation to join us. What amazed me the most in that moment, was that Cairo didn’t seem to deter him at all, and she wasn’t bothered by him either. My mom said that he probably sensed his own safety, that she was harmless, non-threatening, and had no problems with mice. I almost wanted to let him join our crew, a miniature gaggle of misfits and black sheep looking for companionship and cuddles, but the little mouse ran away and I never saw him again. I know Cairo saw him too, but she didn’t flinch, never launched into hunter mode, she just let him be, a loving friend to all.
As I write this now, I hear the fire engine sirens outside, and I’m reminded of that meow, of her little paw touching my face, a gentle wake up or a polite plea for a meal. I’m reminded of the fact that while I experienced this only sometimes, when watching her overnight, or when I was sick with Covid, my mom was there taking care of her for all those years, every night she was home. Cairo lived with us for 22 years, Cairo slept in the bed with my mom, and in her final year, she rarely left her bedroom. My mom’s room was Cairo’s whole world, a happily shared domain.
Before she died, I looked up the meaning of her name and found the following: ‘Cairo is a boy's name and place name that comes from the eponymous capital of Egypt, Cairo. a_l-Qāhirah_ in Arabic, this strong masculine means “the Vanquisher,” “the Conqueror,” or “victorious.” This is in reference to Mars, the vanquisher planet, which was reportedly rising over the city at its founding.’ How incredibly moving that little Cairo, such a gentle and feminine creature of tenderness, should be recognized through her chosen name for the great level of courage and power she also contained.
In truth, I never thought of her in that way until I read those words and watched her fight to stay alive with every fiber of her being. Cairo was truly courageous. The average lifespan of a cat is 12-18 years, and the average lifespan of a runt is 12-15 years. She lived to be almost 22. It takes a great deal of endurance to move through 22 years, and to do so with unwavering and unconditional love. 22 years, 104 human years of a beautiful and loving life. 22 years of patience and trust, of bringing us luck, peace for our hearts. 22 years of being a writing companion, a listening ear at the piano, a comfort for the sick, a friend to our neighbors, an example for us all.
If there is one thing we can do to honor her life, we can recognize that ability in ourselves, kindness and courage, qualities that so often go unrecognized, and so often go untapped. So please honor Cairo by honoring yourself. She truly deserved that, and so do you. Thank you, Cairo, for everything. You will always be with us, in all that we are, and in all that we do. Bless you, sweet little one.
Jesse Paris Smith
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