I’ve had four cats in my lifetime, two of them great loves. The first was Smokey, a petite gray cat that found a home with us because we started feeding her. I was five and eager to play with a small, furry friend. She fit perfectly in doll clothes and my pretend shopping cart, and I was endlessly entertained by putting socks on her feet and watching her prance and shake-a-leg. I once placed a small pillow in a grocery bag, put Smokey therein, and hung the bag on my bicycle handle as I rode around our cul-de-sac. This lasted all of five seconds before she fell out the bottom and hid for the remainder of the day. In spite of all my tricks and foul play, she submitted to me in love and was actually quite fond of me. In all of her cat wisdom I think she new that she was more than a puppet; she was my friend.
After Smokey there were two other cats, and though I liked them, they didn’t steal my heart. And then came Jilly. We had been married a year and Erik was about to start PTA school. I was concerned about being lonely with him studying more, and a pet was just the thing to keep me company. I found Jilly at an animal shelter, and after “meeting” a few other cats in the adoption rooms, I knew she was the one. And so I brought her home in the cardboard animal crate provided, her little arm jutting out of the holes on the side, part play, part get-me-out-of-here. She was shy for a few days and not quite full grown, but soon she settled in.
Nearly one month ago, over eight years since we first brought her home, Jilly disappeared. She was let out of the mudroom in the wee hours of the morning, never to be seen again. There were no coyote yelps, no buzzards swarming over head, no traces of her remains. We called to her for days, scanned the property for any clues, but there was nothing, silence.
It’s been a particularly sad season for us around here, and this was the unwanted icing on the bitter cake. I admit, now that I have a kid, Jilly was the last on the totem pole to earn my affections, but only in her absence do I realize how much I enjoyed her presence: to have her outside with me and Sayla, sitting and observing from a distance with her half-open eyes; to have her follow us up the road on family walks, waiting for our return; to hear her familiar and sometimes obnoxious meow. Sayla was finally strong/coordinated/fast enough to pick her up, Jilly finally surrendering. I loved listening to Sayla giggle every time she touched her tail or chased her around. It has certainly felt empty without her near. And even still, I think I hear her meowing out front or see her body peeking up out of the grass.
My only consolation in her disappearance is that she was free. She climbed trees, nested in leaves, hunted field mice, and rolled in dirt. Though her freedom cost her everything in the end, I’m comforted that she lived her cat life to the fullest out here in the country. And not to get too deep, though I can’t help myself, isn’t that how it should be? Is life not fully lived unless we expose ourselves to great risk, loss even? Our tendency is to guard it—our lives, our hearts, our dreams—but we only end up smothering those things. One of the great paradoxes of life.
Jilly, I will miss your fuzzy, white belly and your light green eyes, your serious staredowns and playful ambushes. You were sometimes hard to please and a hairy mess, but you will always be “our” first pet, the cat we potty trained (yes, literally), our calico queen. Rest in peace, dear one.