The Ninth Life

me and baby2I never liked cats much. Always thought dogs made better pets. But when I lived in an old farmhouse in Kentucky and the temperature dipped below zero, I couldn’t bear to leave the two kittens that lived in the barn outside all night. That was 18 years ago and things were never the same again.

My first book had just been published and I had moved from an apartment on a golf course into a sprawling Civil War-era house to get more privacy. The rustic setting was a far cry from my luxury digs. I had to get up twice during the night to keep the stove fire going. There was snow to shovel and grass to cut and firewood to stack. But I absolutely loved it. And then I got two furry roommates.

After buying a litter box and food, I spent an hour coaxing the cats inside. They were feral and despite the bitter cold, were wary about going indoors. Their first trip to the vet soon followed and once that shock wore off, we settled in to learning how to live together. When I moved to Georgia, I gave one of them away. That’s when I got into the habit of talking to the other one, and when our relationship really started.

Over the years, I got to know her body language and could understand most of her expressions and sounds. In turn, I was able to teach her to understand more than 20 words and phrases. Whenever I squealed “deer!” she knew to run to the window to check out the latest intruder on her territory. She became more of a companion than a pet to me, and I got into the habit of calling out to her whenever I entered the house and hollering “Bye, Baby” when I left. The more time we spent together, the more I felt like I was turning into the proverbial crazy old lady with her cat. When I used this photo on a card one year, I worried that my family might think I was pathetic. But I loved my kitty.

She taught me not to get angry. She taught me to keep to a regular schedule. Each evening she would sit and stare at me intently, signaling it was time for me to go to bed. And she’d stand on my chest if I didn’t get up when she thought I should in the morning. Although she was the one who had been feral, her influence made me more domesticated. Given that our relationship lasted longer than both of my marriages put together, it hit me really hard when I started noticing signs that she was getting old.

At first, I adjusted the house to make it easier for her to get around, but one day I noticed she wasn’t eating much. I tried enticing her with her favorite treats. I put her food in the blender. She seemed fine otherwise, but was losing weight. The vet replenished her fluids and gave me things to try, but no matter what we did, she would not eat. I knew it was time, but couldn’t bear the idea of losing her. Thought it hurt, I finally decided I had to put her well-being ahead of my needs. So I carried her around the house and yard, talking to her about her favorite things. Then I took her back to the vet.

An hour later, the pet carrier seemed heavier with a lifeless body inside. I thought I would collapse on the sidewalk as soon as I left the vet. But just as I moved through the doorway, the sun came out and I felt an inexplicable sense of peace come over me. It made me feel that she was all right and that I had done the right thing by letting her go.

Saying goodbye to a loved one you have shared many years with is painful, whether they are the two-legged or four-legged kind. Between crying spells I found myself able to see the gift her life had been to me. Eighteen years is a long time. I used to think people who cried when their animals died were nuts. Now I understand. Her last lesson for me was about death. I will miss her terribly but am grateful for all that we shared over the years. And that’s worth smiling about.

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