On Monday, my feline companion of twenty years died. She came to me as a grown cat in May of 1989, the day after my grandmother died. She was injured, with a back leg at an angle and a big open wound on the joint. Obviously underfed, she was still magnificent, with her long fox-red fur and fluffy tail. I already had a cat, the overfed, overly fearful, middle-aged Tasha, so I kept the newcomer outside, but offered her some food. Then I called my vet to ask if there was anything I might do for the wound. She said I could clean it with some hydrogen peroxide, but warned me to be very careful, because it might sting and the stray might bite me. I gathered the supplies and very gently began cleaning. The new cat purred and purred and held very still as I tended her. How could I turn her away after that?
Her introduction to Tasha went well for a few minutes, then the new cat hissed and scratched and Tasha hid. They were never friends, but they established a truce. I began hunting for a name, and found Tilki, which is Turkish for fox. Perfect. I discovered that she liked melon, and preferred to drink from dripping faucets, and when I took her to the vet, found out that she’d probably been hit by a car and her fractured leg bone had already mended, though a bit crooked. She always had a bit of an odd gait, though she didn’t let it slow her down. The vet estimated her age as one year, based on her teeth.
Tilki escaped outside whenever possible, but always came back when she got hungry. She doled out affection so that we began to call the cuddle times “Tilki moments.” She’d sit on a lap for a minute or less, and then move away to be on her own. She loved to have me pick her up, and would purr loudly for a few moments, and then lean out, ready to get down again.
She gathered, like all beloved cats, many names. She soon became Tilki-toes, and my Native American roommate called her Blackfoot, because one of her back legs was black from the ankle down, while the others were tawny. Later, my husband called her Trickster. And Tilkster.
After I married, my husband and I decided to adopt a kitten, so Tilki would have someone nearer her own age to play with, and with any luck would leave off harassing Tasha. We soon learned of a kitten that had been found by a friend, who was headed the next day for the Humane Society. We took him in. Though his black and white markings could have easily earned him the name Tuxedo, his too-big ears and tiny head made him look more like Yoda. Though he started small and starving, his enormous appetite and disinterest in the outside world helped Yoda grow into a strapping 16 3/4 pound adult, much bigger than Tilki.
Yet she always ruled him. She was the cleverer one, the fiercer one, the Great Hunter. Yoda, by contrast, preferred a lap and a snooze. We lived at the time next door to a man who rarely mowed the grass on his large lot. One day Tilki appeared at our screen door wild-eyed. The bottom third of the door had a metal kick plate, and she stood on her hind legs to look into the room. Her alarm got my attention, and when I went to open the door, discovered a mole beside her. In the spirit of sharing, or pride, she’d brought it home for me to see.
She used a few more of her lives during her adventures. Once someone kicked her abdomen and she had to spend several days in the dark and quiet while her diaphragm healed. She forever after had a mortal terror of big trucks and workmen. She developed an abscess from a cat fight that went undetected by our house-sitter while we were out of town, and by the time we got home and I raced her to the vet, she was very, very ill. She had, especially in her younger years when I lived on the frugal budget of a grad student, the curious knack of needing urgent vet care right after I’d received my tax refund.
She must have been a yogi in a previous life, for she loved to get on the floor with anyone doing yoga. We could be on the floor for any other reason—a nap or a card game or playing with the kids—and she’d ignore us. But yoga drew her and she’d weave around us purring. Sometimes she’d wash my hair as it hung down from a pose like Downward Facing Dog.
She outlived both Tasha and Yoda, and at eighteen had surgery to remove a basal cell carcinoma from her chin. The vet tech couldn’t believe she was so old. The surgery slowed her down quite a bit—perhaps another life spent. But she still found energy to run across the yard to me, and to travel to whichever neighbor’s yard had the sprinklers going. She would sit in a sprinkler for ten or twenty minutes, washing her fur every so often, and then washing for a long time afterward. I suspect she liked the source of running water. Even a few weeks ago, I caught her returning from a morning venture two houses away where the sprinklers were on, her fur wet.
She often walked into our shower and waited for someone to come turn it on. She’d let me spray her down completely, and then purred when I wrapped her in a towel and dried her off. She also understood English. When I’d waited long enough holding the door open, I would ask, “Are you waiting for the engraved invitation?” and then she would walk into the house. Once, at a party, she tried drinking from a guest’s water glass. I told Tilki that I’d get her some water in the kitchen, and before I could move she jumped down from her perch and started toward the kitchen.
As she grew older, her “moments” grew longer, and she would drape herself over my shoulder when I held her, or would reach up with her front paw to touch my cheek. She slept more and more in her spot on the purple couch, ignoring the squirrels in the tree outside the window.
At the end, she wanted me to hold her constantly. For three days she would seek me out when I went to sleep in my own bed rather than beside her. During her last night, she wouldn’t settle unless she lay against me or on me, our hearts only centimeters apart. Farewells are never easy, but she made it clear to me, as I’d asked her to, that her time had come. Over the last couple of years she’d dropped from her top weight of 13 pounds to her final weight of 4 1/2. I could feel every spur of every bone beneath her fur and skin. She couldn’t keep her balance, and she ate very little. Fresh water, though, she’d still lap down. As her eyes grew more unfocused I doubted that she really saw me, but I trust that she knew I was there.
With her passing, there’s a soft hole in my heart, awakened whenever my gaze travels over her usual haunts—the purple couch, the heat vent where she’d sit in the winter, her food and water station in the kitchen, her favorite sunning spot outside. One day, I expect, a kitten or some adult stray might come along and fill up the space she left behind, but there will never be another Tilki.