Startled, an unexpected
kitten before him, he
cautiously greets this unknown feline, offers
friendly gestures though it has no
true kitten attributes, no smell or sound. He
doesn’t know, of course, it is
himself he sees, for he
senses himself in a different way, the
horrors he endured before rescue
blurred in the distant darkness of his reflection,
and with trust he has found reaches out to
this hesitant, wide-eyed kitten with kindness
to share the lesson
he has learned.
I wrote this poem in early November 2014 when Basil, then named Smokie, was about six months old and still easily surprised and intimidated by unexpected things, like a kitty he didn’t know, even if the kitty was his own reflection in a mirror. I saw the moment coming and had the chance to photograph this encounter, and I was very moved that instead of acting aggressively, which was not his style, or running away, as would be expected from a kitten who’d suffered some unknown trauma and nearly been euthanized because he totally failed his temperament test, even after fostering, he reached out to the unknown kitten with an act of friendship. Yes, love can change these things, and it saves lives.
Smokie had just discovered a few new places, and one of them was the top of the wardrobe where so many cats have sat to watch the day and nap. It has a great view down the steps and into both upstairs rooms, and right next to the bathroom door a kitty can just look around the door frame to see what’s happening in there. It’s a favorite place, but not all that easy to get to unless a ninja shows you how to stand there, jump up onto the windowsill, carefully turn around and leap straight up onto the top of the wardrobe, where Smokie encountered…himself, or at least, another cat.
He has seen himself in the bathroom mirror, but in this case he was confronted by a whole cat, not just a face that disappeared when he drew back. He can still be easily frightened, and stood kind of frozen for a second or two, then tentatively reached out to tap the unknown kitty’s nose, his first gesture one of friendship, just as it was when Bella came to live here.
He’s gotten used to himself now, and totally owns the top of that wardrobe. It’s been fulfilling to watch him change and grow.
I thought Cookie
was being stubborn, contrary,
when she wandered away
into the overgrown garden
sauntering at her own pace beneath the stems
of fallen burdock and grasses
and through the forest
of tall goldenrod and asters
where I couldn’t follow.
She sat calmly among grasses and blooming beggar’s ticks
and when I arrived at her side, irritated,
skirt prickly with stickseed and burdock pods,
I reached to pick her up, bad girl,
and turned to see what she studied,
and saw my garden awash with sun
majestic tufts of goldenrod backlit by beams of light
humming with hungry bees finding
the sweetest autumn nectar for their final meal,
white poofs of sow thistle holy in their radiance,
and the first calico asters, my favorite
dappled with passing drops of sun
against the backdrop of dark silhouetted trees;
so much to love in a sweet autumn morning
so much I would have missed.
Cookie gave me many gifts in all the years she was with me, including the visual discoveries from this particular morning in September 2011 which led to a poem and insights beyond what I wrote that morning, and remembering that morning and other mornings I came to the end of a stage.
I have also recorded this poem with a slideshow of photos. You can listen and watch it here or on YouTube.
Memories From That Time
My sincerest wish as I remember Cookie is that all of you who read what I write, each of you who has a relationship with one or more animals, that your relationship is as deep, complex, satisfying and, if your species or breed allows it, as long-lasting as was Cookie’s and mine. I could never feel that I have any regrets, that Cookie and I “missed” anything but we lived as full a life as a human and cat could do. It depends on many things often beyond our control, but I wish those things for everyone who loves an animal, now and always.
I first published this poem on September 26, 2011, right after I wrote it, inspired by a morning much like today, and these September mornings with Mimi and her explorations have reminded me very much of those mornings with Cookie, when we knew her time was finite. We had been together at that time 19 years, and it was a wonderful 19 years of memories.
Shortly after I lost Cookie in February 2012, to honor her I followed through with my idea of recording some of my poems along with slideshows of photos and art. Below is the text I had included with this poem when I first published it with the recorded version.
The last weeks have been working through a series of “never agains” as I remember and let go of the unique things Cookie did—stepping into a warmed pasta bowl while my back was turned; quietly climbing her way into any spot in the house despite her disabilities; loving every cat who was in the house when she came here and all the ones who came after; greeting everyone at the door with sincerity and making them feel welcome.
I have also been resuming everyday activities I had been intentionally avoiding somewhat or completely, those that Cookie and I enjoyed together and I now do alone or without her—sitting in the kitchen after dinner to crochet or read with all the cats around, where you see so many photos of her interacting with my crochet materials; visiting the deck and back yard each morning regardless of weather to feed the birds, drink coffee and take photos; and gardening, from starting the seeds in the basement to getting dirty out in the soil.
Much to the joy of the household, I’ve begun to take a break after dinner again so everyone can walk on me and test my crochet projects. Until yesterday I totally avoided my deck except for the first few days in February when Mimi joined me, only filling the feeder outside my office window, and yesterday I spent my first full afternoon in the yard without a cat in many years.
And this morning I sat outside on my swing with coffee and crochet, a Sunday morning ritual whenever the weather was nice enough (nice to me and Cookie was anything above 40 degrees and no heavy precipitation) as I remembered all the years she had gone off to explore the yard then come back to climb up on my lap and have a nap, just Cookie and me doing things we enjoyed and each other, best friends.
I’ve been sharing daily photos and stories from previous years because so many more readers have found The Creative Cat in the past few months. We see a lot of Cookie from last year, including a number of photo essays of her adventures outdoors. I photographed her excessively all through the years, but the extra postings were intentional. I knew what was coming. I knew because Cookie knew, and let me know.
From January 2011, around the time my mother died when Cookie grew weak and lethargic for no apparent reason, we presumed it was because she, as usual, was carrying part of my stress. She recovered, but I saw in her expression a realization. She kept slipping back every month or so, losing a little ground in between and even having a few close calls with her kidneys, and we decided we’d treat every symptom we could and enjoy the rest of our time together.
She stole her last month, January 2012, right out of the jaws of death as after Christmas 2011 she was again lethargic and anorexic, and worst of all suddenly lost use of her hind legs, her body temperature kept dropping and her heart rate increased; her blood tests were frightening. That truly was to be the time but she fought it off, a little adjustment in medications helped but mostly it was her working very hard for just a little more time. We saw her in January looking and acting like Cookie, but I saw she had little control of her hind legs, her body temperature remained depressed, she had increasing difficulty breathing as her heart grew more enlarged and her heart rate slowly increased.
Cookie needed a little help getting started each day, but once she was going she was Cookie again, until that last day. The previous afternoon, warm for February 1, we went outside, a treat since that was usually reserved for mornings only during the week, perhaps we knew. She had no interest in exploring but got herself onto my lap as soon as I sat down, curled up and purred. We went in with the memory of that warm sunny afternoon. The next morning I had to carry her outside for the first time in her life, and as I sat with her on my lap she did not revive as usual, ready to explore even just a little, just remained curled on my lap purring.
Though it was still winter the birds were singing their spring songs, our friends the chickadees and cardinals and wrens who we’d fed and watched all winter. During a brief silence a song sparrow landed in the forsythia just a few feet away from us and sang its familiar three-note-then-warble melody several times, and I knew it was singing to us, and I knew what it meant. It was February 2, that magical cross-quarter day when winter finally begins to turn into spring, a time of transition where death falls away and new life begins. They were singing her home.
I am so grateful that I could just drop everything that day and spend her last hours with her, monitoring her condition and managing her discomfort with the advice and materials given to me by my veterinarian, sitting with her on my lap in the studio, our favorite room, ready to call my veterinarian or run her to the emergency clinic at a moment’s notice if the need arose. In the course of that last month there were many things I wanted to do for her but simply could not afford and tried not to be regretful in those last hours, thinking they would have made any difference or bought any more time; they were superfluous in her condition, and likely would only have made me feel better, not Cookie. What she wanted was me, and that I could give to her.
At 3:00 the next morning, February 3, lying next to me on the floor with all the other cats around, she opened her eyes and found my face, put her paw on my hand and held my gaze for several seconds, comforting me, thanking me and saying goodbye; she stopped breathing about an hour later.
Always with us
Loss is never made easier or less painful by any amount of experience or knowledge, but the long, slow goodbye of that last year was sweeter than words can describe. Relationships like Cookie’s and mine are rare but we who have experienced them know they never end, not even with death. Cookie has visited me in spirit, but she is always with me as well, just as she was for 19 happy years.
For two years I maintained a shop room in Carnegie Antiques owned by my friend Judi Stadler, and Cookie was my shop cat there. The shop was difficult to manage with other things at the time, and I was holding on to my shop in the last few months because of my memories there with Cookie while she was too ill to go with me, and then after she had died. On the day, at the moment, when, I regretfully and emotionally decided to close my shop and take it all home, the back door of the room lightly blew open and I felt Cookie enter, could see her hobbled little gait as she walked a circle around my feet, one of her lifetime habits, and her tilted face looking up at me half orange and half black, her green eyes with gold flecks; she was with me as I walked all around the building remembering all the places I’d seen and photographed her in the times she’d been there with me. As always, she appeared at just the right moment with her comforting and practical manner. I should only hope to meet a human with half as much wisdom and willing compassion as that little tortie cat.
We haven’t seen the last of Cookie. She will still show up in new postings of prior daily photos, and I’ve had a few paintings of or including her that I’ve been planning for a while. (And it’s true, I still feature her photos both old and ones I’ve since found in my archives, and I’ve created new merchandise with her images.)
And the passing of an animal companion like Cookie has always meant for me the coming of a time of transition and personal growth. Cookie led me to the door and opened it, it’s up to me to walk through and do something when I get there.