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“Diana’s Piano” And All The Cats I’ve Loved And Lost

A drawn still from Diana's Piano. It looks hand drawn, maybe even even pencil marks. A red-headed girl with a white cat next to her plays a grand piano in a pink-ish void.
Image via Garfield: His 9 Lives

I think I knew it was near the end when she came up onto my porch. Mango, the neighborhood stray, had never approached me before. But one morning she came up onto the porch and meowed. She purred as she rubbed up on my leg. I went inside and grabbed a can of food for her and she gobbled it up. She came back a few more times over the next few weeks.

And then the stray cat that lived on the porch two doors down was gone. It’s possible someone picked her up and took her in. Mango lived on Joan’s porch, two doors down; she told me that a vet had estimated Mango’s age once. This cat was 14-16 years old, and she had not looked well for a while. It is more likely than not that Mango is dead. Either way, the result is the same for me: Mango is gone from my life.

This is how Mango usually greeted me.

I can’t say Mango and I ever interacted much until this summer. The cat had lived on our block for most of her life, it seemed; some college kids began feeding her when she showed up one day. By the time my wife and I moved into our Northwest Philly neighborhood four years ago, Joan was taking care of her. I was happy to learn that our ’hood has multiple pet cats that roam their neighborhoods during the day (or get put out at night like in a Heathcliff comic). I know that this is bad for birds, but I can’t bring myself to care every time I get a friendly meow from a cute kitty that flops down on the pavement for some belly rubs. Before I knew anything about Mango, I tentatively approached her to say hello. I try to be gentle, and call out to the cat before approaching. As I got close, I got a loud yelp and she quickly skittered away. This is another thing I learned: Mango was deaf.

Neighbor cats Grady, Billie and Etta. Little ones!

Mango was not the only cat I made friends with in the last four years. When I moved in, my next-door neighbors had three cats: Billie, Etta, and Grady. My favorite is Grady; he is the most outgoing. I’d run into Grady on the porch, see him flop on the ground, and give him a few pets. Etta is the prettiest, and occasionally comes by for some purrs and pets before scampering away. She mainly likes me when it’s late at night and she wants me to let her into the house next door. I always oblige. When I moved in, my neighbor told me “You’ll never see Billie,” but I did see her occasionally. I love walking into my house and seeing my own cat, but it’s also a treat to walk up to my house and see one or two on the porch. They might not be interested in me, but they’re there, and they’re usually doing something cute. It’s great.

These were not the first cats I’d become friends with on the street. Philadelphia is not Istanbul, but as in many big cities there are lots of cats around. Cats sit in windows and doorways. They also wander the streets, both pets and strays. I see cats in every neighborhood in the city, from the suburb-like cul-de-sacs and loop streets of Far Northeast Philly (Socks, for its white paws) to alleyways in Center City (Pizza, a cat behind the cemetery on Spruce Street). I like to think that I’m a bit of a cat whisperer. I’ve had cats purr at me on a coffee farm on Hawaii’s Big Island, and at the Bronx Zoo, and inside Ott’s Exotic Plants.

Walker liked to sleep like this. It still cracks me up.

But developing a relationship with an animal with a relatively short lifespan has its limitations, and will just by its nature end sooner than you’d like. Most of the cats I’ve known have left my life. Almost none of those were pets until recently; I did not get on cetirizine, which cured my cat allergy, until my 20s. I coincidentally met Sarah, who owned Walker, after I got on allergy medication. She was my first cat, and I quickly developed a connection. When I was unemployed, Walker became my constant companion, and the only non-depressive part of most of my days. I remember shining a laser pointer several feet up on the wall, and Walker jumping up to swat at it. When Sarah told me cats didn’t fetch, I vowed to spend all my waking hours teaching Walker to retrieve a little ball. As it turns out, Walker liked me, and she learned to fetch basically immediately. My favorite thing she did was fetch multiple balls for us overnight while we slept. It was as if she thought we weren’t throwing the ball to her because it wasn’t the right one.

Walker died in April 2021 at the age of 15. I only saw her occasionally, but it was always nice when I stopped by my ex’s house to give her some pets over the years. I don’t know if she remembered me. Considering that she seemed to enjoy the head scratches and still flopped on the floor for me, I like to think she did. If not, whatever. A cat can’t talk. I’ll believe what I want.

Detective sometimes gets supervised porch time when she meows at the door enough, but rarely lasts more than a minute before being spooked back inside.

I’ve known many other cats, pets of partners and friends and others seemingly without any owner at all. I am married, and one of the reasons I was so enamored with my wife when I first met her was her cat. Detective John Munch was a little wary of me at first, but, oh man, was she cute—maybe the cutest cat I’ve ever seen. I can prove this, to some extent: She’s so cute that we’ve sold hundreds of t-shirts and tote bags with her face on it. That this woman I met was able to pick out such a cute cat from PAWS basically let me know she was the one for me. By she I mean Jan. But also Detective.

I prefer cats to dogs. They’re smaller, you don’t have to walk them, and they generally like to be left alone. I also like that you seem to have to earn their attention. And once you make friends with a cat, it is a stream of cuteness. Detective now sleeps next to my chest or behind Jan’s legs, purring throughout the night. In the wild, cats only really meow to their mom when they’re kittens; it's how they ask for food. But they do meow at humans, whenever the spirit moves them. The way I see it, the cats I meet are intentionally being cute in order to get me to do things for them—give them food, pet them nicely, the usual. I accept the terms of this agreement.

In 1988, the comic strip Garfield had only been in newspapers for 10 years; Garfield himself had only had his familiar design for about eight of those. But Garfield fever was sweeping the nation. In January of that year, police in Victorville, Calif., reported that what I guess we have to call a cat burglar had broken into two cars to steal Garfield window clings at the Mall of Victor Valley. “We think this is a copycat crime,” a sheriff’s spokesman said, hilariously. “Because in both cases the thief left other items of value in the cars.”

That’s right: The Associated Press reported that there were exactly 40 Garfield window clings stolen in the Los Angeles area around that time, in a story about how the manufacturer would replace stolen window clings if provided with a police report. “Investigators are at a loss to explain the rash of theft,” the report concluded, “other than to speculate they may lie part of some adolescent ritual or fraternity hazing.” Maybe it was Sigma Purr.

In November of 1988, CBS broadcast its eighth Garfield special, Garfield: His 9 Lives. These had done well before; A Garfield Christmas was second in the ratings behind 60 Minutes one week in 1987. I think I have seen all 12 of them, which ran from 1982–91. All were nominated for Emmys; four won. “I think Garfield was destined to be a phenomenon,” Garfield voice actor Lorenzo Music said before the His 9 Lives special, adding that the voice of Garfield is just his regular voice. “To tell America every morning for 10 years not to worry about what you eat, don’t exercise, don’t be too hard on yourself, makes for a very lovable character. He’s a hero because he knows who he is.”

Garfield is not just a hero. He is now a meme-able object, able to be morphed into basically every joke or scenario. The 9 Lives special shows it has basically always been the case. It is a trip. The special is based on a book of the same name, which is slightly different. Each segment in both the special and book feature one of Garfield’s nine lives. They are like the modern, clever episodes of The Simpsons, which use well-known characters and put them in different scenarios, or different forms. So: Garfield is a caveman, he is worshipped in ancient Egypt, he is in space. There’s also one that’s just regular Garfield. “Garfield’s next life is… Garfield,” says the kid filming a television in a version on YouTube.

Some of the others are more out there. Garfield is a lab cat that escapes his captors and turns into a dog. Garfield is Handel’s cat, helping him win the favor of King George I. Garfield is Adam in an alternate Garden of Eden—created by Todd—where he and Chloe, the Eve analog, decide not to open a forbidden box. At the end of the special, God is revealed to be a cat. I swear to the Cat God I am not making any of this up.

I thought this special was great when I was a little kid, and I also thought it held up when I rewatched it last night. The stories are cute, weird, and sometimes both. It is incredible that, 10 years into Garfield, they were doing something interesting with it. This is, for instance, a special in which we see Garfield die in several segments. The best example of this is “Diana’s Piano,” my favorite thing ever done about cat/human relationships.

In this life, Garfield is Diana, the cat of a girl named Sarah. She receives him, and her first piano lesson, on her eighth birthday. Sarah gets better at the piano, Diana by her side, and the two are as closely bonded as a cat and a human can be. But things change for Sarah, in the way that things change. She goes off to college, saying she might miss Diana more than her parents. She marries Leigh, and they have a son named Billy. Diana is not always happy about this—Diana is a cat, after all—but she seems to accept her new role in the family. At the end of the special, Sarah puts the baby to bed early and plays a concert for Diana. After Sarah goes to bed, Diana lays down for the last time.

Though it has a janky 1980s feel—I swear some parts are less than a frame per second—the cartoon is still pretty. It seems like it was done in colored pencil. And the childlike nature of it really works with the theme. Here’s a woman remembering her first cat, and her memories are childlike drawings of the past. I remember this being an incredibly cute and poignant little cartoon as a kid. I do not remember whether it made me cry as hard as it did when I watched it as an adult. I do not think I’ve seen a piece of media that has captured the human/cat experience like this stupid little Garfield short.

“Diana’s Piano” was written by Jim Davis. The director of the whole 9 Lives special was Phil Roman, later a Simpsons producer for much of the 1990s. This segment was directed by Doug Frankel, now a longtime Disney/Pixar animator. It really does show why Garfield has worked as a media property all these years; it actually captured something about cats that people understood. “Cat lovers must be the most zealous people on earth,” Davis said in 1983. “They welcomed him with open arms.” Obviously Garfield was always a merchandising vehicle made to appeal to kids; Davis was open about this as early as a 1982 interview with the Washington Post. But there is still something to Garfield, I think, sometimes.

When I watched Diana’s Piano, I thought about Mango. I thought about Billie, our neighbors’ similarly old cat. She also wandered off forever recently. One of their other cats, Grady, is looking a little older by the day. I don’t see him as much anymore. I thought of Walker, the first cat I ever really had, the one I taught to fetch.

And I thought of Detective, my little girl, the one who greets me at the door with a meow every time I walk in. She is 12, and I hope she will be with us forever. But our lives are all going to change soon. My wife is pregnant, and Detective will soon no longer be the little thing in my life. This is all very exciting. But it is indeed a change I have not faced before in this relationship. Jan and Detective were a package deal when I met them. It ruled. Now we’re adding a third person to our little family unit. I am sure our child will like the cutest cat in the world. I hope our cat will be OK with another person in the house. But either way it will be a change. It is the end of one era and the start of another. It will not be the same.

I’m excited about that. I think I will have new adventures with Detective around the house, and hopefully our kid will get to have them too. But even if not, I will survive. The years I’ve spent with these cats—with Detective in our house, with Walker in a small apartment, with Mango on the porch next door—is worth all the feelings of loss.

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