I first posted this article in April 2009 as Namir and Cookie and I finished cleaning up the garden for another gardening year and republished it again in 2010 in honor of Peaches 100th birthday, and now in 2011 in honor of Senior Pet Awareness Month. A number of cats have grown to their senior years here, and one of the treats they get is to carouse in the backyard with me as I garden; the sunshine and fresh air is so invigorating for them and we can enjoy that little bit of extra time and special memories.
It’s a joy to share the time and the experience with them, but with a flicker of sadness, to watch Namir sprint across the yard just for the joy of running and Cookie patrol the garden paths, even in the late winter when strewn with weeds and debris. It means they are old enough to want to stick with me while I’m out in the garden, old enough that our time is limited and these will be our golden memories. It’s a tradition when the old ones get to be this old that they also get to enjoy time outdoors with me.
Because animals live shorter lives than we do, chances are we will outlive them. And if we adopt and foster a number of animals, we’ll live through that many losses. It never gets easy, but with the awareness gained from each loss, watching the oldest grow into their senior years is less shocking and painful. Animals are so graceful about aging, not like us fretting about gray hair and memory loss. The brevity of their lives may seem unfair to us, but that span is normal for them. The lesson is to enjoy them in this moment while preparing for the unavoidable, but not to dwell on either.
Out of the mixed bag of the eight or nine rescues I always seem to share my space with has always emerged a “couple”, a male cat and a female cat, spayed and neutered and totally unrelated except for having spent the better part of their lives together and with me. They become as the prince and the princess of the household and grow old together, growing wiser and closer to me as they age.
While Cookie is “single” now, she was recently part of my third “couple” with Namir for about two years from the time Cookie was 15 and Namir 13 until he passed at age 15. He had congestive heart failure and other complicating conditions but had had some close calls and spent a night or two in the oxygen cage in the emergency hospital for a “tune-up” at least once yearly since he was diagnosed in 2005. Cookie has a hyperthyroid condition and is not as flexible as before, plus she’s quite deaf but is otherwise fine. I’ve had cats live to their late teens and early twenties; even the best of care and love can’t bring back that seeming infinity of youth.
But I’ve always noticed that a trip to the great outdoors of the back yard is an antidote to a lot of ills for them and me, even just a few minutes will do. My yard is a Backyard Wildlife Habitat so it’s full of smells and noises and movement and the noses get to work and ears swivel around and eyes focus on tiny movements, and soon discomfort and infirmities are forgotten in the important business of being a cat.
Cookie has been my lady-in-waiting since she grew from a roly-poly tortoiseshell ball of an abandoned kitten to a generously-figured and poised tortoiseshell adult. She entered my household unresponsive to affection and “nursing” on one of her own toes for comfort, but quickly and wholeheartedly accepted that she was loved and welcome. She spends time on my lap, but more importantly she is always near, always vigilant, I’m not sure what for, but I’ve always been comforted by Cookie’s presence and perhaps that’s all there is to it. We give each other the gift of ourselves, and it doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.
Namir (his life was the inspiration for this blog) entered my household as a foster from a friend who was returning to graduate school and just couldn’t take her two cats, and though we tried for months for find them homes they ended up here. Now one of the sweetest and most popular cats in my household—he’s even popular at the emergency hospital where, even with tubes and bandages he’s desperate for affection and takes a long goodbye when he leaves—was hardly even social when he arrived here. He was very loyal and loved his mom, and every time I entered the room he’d stand up hopefully, then crouch and growl at me because I’d apparently taken her away. He arrived here in October; it was April before he accepted the situation.
Cookie and Namir acceded to their thrones a few years ago with the passing of Moses and Stanley. While Cookie and Namir displayed leadership potential from a young age, Stanley had been abused and was a real problem child into his teens, and Moses was a timid feral rescue, physically challenged by the after-effects of near starvation, but was the sweetest, most gentle soul I’ve ever known. These two entered my household a year apart and discovered each other’s gentle spirits when they were still healing from their time on the streets, and through it all were a refuge each for the other.
Moses had malformed hips and legs from the beginning, and no matter what treatment I found for her, the best thing was simply a sunbath. She was terrified of the outdoors and of other people and things, but when it came to the line of the sun creeping out of the kitchen or basement into the outside, she decided she wanted to follow it, and as often as I could she and I went out into the yard, she to lie on the sun-warmed wood or bricks, me to work my garden. It’s no wonder she was unsuccessful at feeding herself when little velvety voles ran over her paws and birds hopped all around her as she lay there and watched. She adopted one clump of grass at the corner of one of the garden beds to graze on, and it’s still there in her memory. She surprised even me by living to be 19 years old, not showing any serious health problems until just a few months before she died.
Stanley’s misbehavior inside came in handy outside, and trips to the outdoors helped stop him from errant watering in the house. He was very territorial, and whenever he saw another cat in his yard, he’d pee on the next nearest thing, inside. When we began visiting the yard he would run around sniffing everything, especially the forsythia which was like a big feline chat room, and after downloading his pee-mail he’d upload a few replies. Apparently this was more direct than giving a reply indoors, and it had the added benefit of keeping most cats out of my yard, and discouraging all but the bravest (or least intelligent) rabbits and little critters from inhabiting my garden. Now that he’s gone and no one is “watering” the boundaries, there are some pretty bold groundhogs and rabbits in my garden.
Stanley was well into adulthood when he showed up on my porch in 1986, and he was with me for a little over 20 years. He was in kidney failure for his last four years, but I treated him with fluid therapy and vitamins, and he was vigorous until his last few weeks.
And Stanley and Moses took over from Kublai and Sally, the original prince and princess, so noted in one piece of artwork I created simply to commemorate their place in my household, “Awakening”, where you can read their stories. As opposite as you could get, but they were the leaders for years, and in their day the other cats would answer to them before me.
Sally was deaf and absolutely fearless and I was always a little hesitant to let her into the garden with me, in part that she might run off and I’d never catch her, and that she was in part quite helpless at another animal that might attack her, even in my yard. But nothing ever happened as she happily patrolled the rows of tomatoes and slept in the cool dampness under the brussels sprouts.
So as I watched Namir chase leaves and harass Cookie for fun, and Cookie cruise around and nap in the leaf litter, and had them both supervise my gardening progress while enjoying their time outdoors, I thoroughly enjoyed their presence and remembered their predecessors…with smiles more than sadness. Each loss prepared me for the next, and that was their final gift to me, and to the household in which they had lived.
Loving them in the happiness of just this moment alone builds these smiling memories, and this, I know, is what I remember long after they are gone.
At one time all my cats were about two years apart, but now there is a big break in age. Namir had no elder male to whom to pass the scepter, and I can’t see Kelly taking Cookie’s place, though I think Mimi, who practically lived in my back yard when she was an outdoor cat belonging to someone else, is ready to be one of the back yard patrol. So perhaps I’ll have two girls for a while.
For now I tell the young ones who want to join us that someday they’ll be that old too and then they’ll be able to come outside, but for now this special time is reserved for me and my seniors.
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