Lady was always the first one to wake. I’d walk downstairs in the dawning and turn on the lights in the kitchen. I’d start coffee and I’d hear a gentle meow and turn and Lady would be there, walking soft on little white cat feet, noiseless as a snowflake come to earth. The dogs would be sleeping; Sally still in bed. It was me and Lady in the time before sunrise.
I’d feed her. She’d eat some and then go off to find her way into the day. Later, Riika and Thor and Fenway would wake and come down; Sally as well. But the early morning time was me and Lady.
That was our routine, me and our cat, hot coffee in a dark house, moving slow and easy, waking to the day ahead.
Sally got her from the shelter in Minocqua. How many years back? We don’t know. Nineteen? Twenty? And she was not a newborn when Sally picked her up.
Sally had lost her old dog Jake and her remaining dog, Carley, was distraught. Carley would walk the house, looking for Jake, disturbed and unsettled at a life thrown out of kilter, a pack animal now solo. Sally got Lady to keep Carley company.
They were, dog and cat, as oil and water in the early going. They got over it.
Lady was an orange tabby color; Carley was nearly the same and they’d often lie close together and seem to merge, so similar their color. Cats are solitary animals; dogs, pack animals. Lady grew up as a dog, as part of the pack. She and Carley. Then with Riika, then Thor and then Fenway; her pack, our pack. Four of them the past half dozen years since Fenway joined and made it a quartet.
She was the senior member, sitting above on a table or chair, Sphinx-like, overlooking the others. She took them all in, allowed them into her domain. Lived with them all.
Fenway was the worst. He came to us at six pounds of Boston terrier wildness, too small to push the big dogs around. Thor towered over him, Riika cut him no slack. But in Lady he had a foil; small and dainty and sweet. He tormented her, yapping at her, tagging her with his blunt snout, backing her into a corner and not letting up.
She gave it back to him. Standing up to him, swatting him with her white-booted paws, punching at him like a bantamweight, rat-a-tat-tat, right-left-right-left, a blur of punches. She never gave ground.
They worked it out. She, the oldest of the pack, he the youngest; bookends.
They hunted, all four of them. The dogs hunted in a rush as gust of wind, all fury and force and movement, charging full bore at game in the yard, leaves scattering in their wake as if on November’s storm.
Lady hunted like winter; patient, efficient, cold. She’d lie in wait for chipmunk or bird, statue-like, still as a shadow. She’d wait. When the prey ventured out, cautious, then bolder – only then would she measure the distance, judge her effort and when the time was right, strike fast as a spark arcing a wire.
She had no malice, did Lady. Had no mean side, did not cause us headache or travail. She brought sweetness and calm to our lives, drifting room to room, light on her feet, easy on our laps. She never topped ten pounds, never grew chunky or awkward. Rarely did we call her “cat,” more often “kitten” for she seemed fixed in time as a young kitten, innocent and sweet.
And purring, purring so often it became part of her like a low rumble of a beating heart or the soft rush of pulse through veins.
She would find us in the evening, always lying with her head to our left. She would survey the room when we had people over, look, analyze and then casually but purposefully stroll over to the one person allergic to cats, spring from floor to chair as if gravity were held no bond, and then curl up in their lap and begin to purr. She inevitably turned her back to the person and faced the room as if to better take part in conversation.
She required very little care. We spent enough on vet bills with the dogs to put a child through an Ivy League school. Lady got by on kibble and treats and a pauper’s stipend. She required little else.
And so it went in our house, me and Sally and Lady and Riika, Thor and Fenway. A big pack, the six of us. So it went.
Two weeks ago she stopped purring. She stopped eating. I took her to the vet. She ran blood work; it came back clean. Kidneys fine, system fine, an old cat but good to go.
She seemed normal more than not. She moved well, went outside and prowled the yard with the dogs, came upstairs to our bed. But she did not eat much, she had problems taking food in.
I took her back to the vet. Another exam. A different result.
A tumor under her tongue made eating difficult. A scenario of what would come that nobody needs to hear. We held her close, held our little kitten. She was losing weight, wasting away.
It is not a matter of knowing what to do. That is easy. It is a matter of knowing when. That is gut wrenching.
Spring warmth came late this year. On a sunny day Lady went to the backyard and soaked up the sun, she and the dogs. And she purred again, not long, not loud, but purred nonetheless. It was a good day.
The vet came to the house in the afternoon, bag in hand. We said goodbye to our Lady.
We buried Lady on high ground in a place dappled by the spring sun. We can sit there and look to the west, feel the breeze across the lake, watch the sunset, listen to the sound of wind in the trees, close our eyes; imagine the sound of purring.