Jools became a roommate of mine in 1991. She was a stray off the street, had delivered a litter of kittens in my friend’s front-hall closet, and was pretty much unflappable except when I tried to give her some affection. I had never lived with a cat before. I appreciated the fact that she didn’t jump on my kitchen counters. On mentioning that I had just acquired a cat, an acquaintance remarked, “You’ll have a lot of years together.” What? I said. How long do cats usually live, anyway? “Oh gosh, 12, 15 years, something like that.” I was stunned. I was thinking four or five.
We had a long road ahead of us.
Jools moved with me from Lewiston to Green Bay to Shorewood to Milwaukee. That first move, from New York state to Wisconsin, involved a plane ride and the first time we really cuddled, because she was drugged up.
My inexperience with cats must have been hard on her. I kept on expecting her to greet me at the door when I came home, tail wagging. At times should would go so far as to greet me, but I caught on pretty fast that this meant she was hungry. We went through a phase of learning to accept each other for what we were. I think that lasted about six years.
She was an indoors cat. Once in a while I could tell she was pining for her old street life. She would sneak outside, and it was always really tough to (a) find her and (b) capture her. I became acquainted with most of the shrubbery on Woodburn Street, and I think the neighbors became acquainted with the sight of me on my hands and knees in their front yards. I would typically have to lunge at her and grab her by the nape of the neck. It seemed like such a violent way to rescue a loved one.
Twice, Jools was gone for long stretches. One of those times, a November, she was missing for almost a month. After the first week I dropped snapshots of her into mailboxes around the neighborhood (shrubbery sites) with my phone number on the back of each. After the second week, I visited the Animal Rescue Center (no luck). After the third week, I gave her remaining cans of high-quality cat food to a colleague, figuring it shouldn’t go to waste. I started feeling sentimental. But … you know, it was kind of nice not to have cat hair and cat puke to clean up. I had begun to accept that she was gone. Well, we had had a lovely nine years together.
Then one chilly night I pulled into my alley on the way back from Spin class, and saw a cat dart across the path of my car. She was blurry, but I was pretty sure she was Jools. Could this be?! I stopped my car, flung open the door, and ran in her direction with the engine still running. Here I was again, my butt in the air, talking to a neighbor’s landscaping. “Jools,” I said plaintively, “is that you?” She was highly annoyed, crouched low against the house foundation, and looking me in the eye. She was doing her don’t-mess-with-me sound and I was doing my come-here-sweetie sound. This was our shrubbery drill. Except this time, the drill was dramatically shorter. Something snapped in her and she suddenly stopped her complaining. I could practically see the thought bubble float above her head: Oh. Her. Soft blankets. Warm fluffy bed. Regular meals. And for the first time ever I did not have to lunge at her. She walked toward me. I could gently pick her up and cuddle her. She didn’t squirm. And I muttered to myself, “Oh, shit.”
She was a tough cookie. She was thinner but actually looked wonderful, given the circumstances. Within moments after arriving back home, she was on the bed shedding and I was looking for something to feed her.
About five years later I bought a condo on the east side of Milwaukee with low, wide window sills, and I was excited. Jools will love these! But within a year I noticed she wasn’t jumping up there anymore. And then I had to admit, hm, I guess she’s getting old. I started thinking I should break my vet moratorium (I had stopped that habit when one vet told me I should floss her teeth, which I found appalling). That winter, I noticed Jools wasn’t on the couch or bed anymore. She was spending an inordinate amount of time in the spare bathroom. Ah, the radiator. She would stare at it as if it were a TV. They became the closest of friends. I moved her Purr Pads there.
When I decided it was time, I put her into one of those cardboard boxes you use to pack up office files — very handy what with the sturdy construction and carrying slots — and brought her to the vet. I asked a friend to join me. I fretted. What would I find out? Would my cat need some kind of expensive treatment? Would the vet tell me I had neglected her and should have flossed her teeth?
There was an exam and they drew blood, and I had to come back a second time. I packed Jools up again in the box. I fretted more. Turns out the vet said she was borderline this, borderline that but generally in wonderful condition for a cat of her age. I needed to give her some pills every day and come back in about three months for a check.
Then began the Geriatric Phase. The checkups generally went well. My vet and I agreed not to go the pricey-test route (such as chest X-rays and, yes, CAT scans), but to treat the symptoms and monitor her. She was now deaf and out of teeth. Her rear legs didn’t work so well. She started having problems with her litter habits.
I had some health scares with her. Once she was actually googly-eyed — a stroke?! — and I was quite sure the box would come back empty. But it didn’t. It never did. Jools had an amazing ability to bounce back, come back in the box, glare at me for food, and settle in beside the radiator again. I began bragging about my amazing 20-year-old cat.
Yesterday, she was having a really bad morning. I packed her up in the box, ready for another round. Turns out, it was her time. She could have stayed in the hospital for two to three days, and then I would have needed to give her daily injections. The poor thing looked miserable. Her fur was still soft and her face still kittenish, but I knew. My friend was with me again and we cried together. I rubbed her head, which she seemed to like. They were very nice about it at the Animal Emergency Center, and gave me a clay impression of her paw.
I put the empty box in my back seat, and my friend took me out for margaritas.
I keep thinking I hear Jools around the house. Isn’t that weird?