The phone call came in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner. We were at my in-laws,’ and my face flushed with embarrassment when they handed the receiver to me.
“Willy’s been hurt. Not exactly a collision, but some sort of brush with a car. He wanted to be put in the crib, so that’s where he is right now.”
My neighbor’s voice was brisk and curt, as it always is, but the urgent and intimate conversation topic was new territory for both of us. We had been living next door to each other in a small seaside New England town for three years, but my continued volleys of California candor had yet to breach Amy’s well fortified Yankee reserve. I am not terribly flappable, but watching her single-handedly scrub, sand, rig, and sail her wooden boat during the first warm days of summer, each year, while I, just as faithfully, donned a tennis skirt, and filled my deck planters with fluffy annuals, made me feel frivolous by comparison.
The fact that Amy is missing her ring finger, thanks to an unfortunate mishap inside a sail loft, and that her husband has a habit of leaving her home alone with their two sons for months on end, while he races sailboats around the world–and that she accepts these facts of her life with steely and stoic complacency–compound my feelings of inadequacy.
Yet here was Amy showing a warmer, compassionate side. Willy, you see, is one of our two cats, a brother and sister pair of tabbies we had picked up from the animal shelter two years earlier. Willy and his sister, Maxine, were named after Amy’s sons, Willie and Max, and were my husband’s and my “demo-kids.” If we could keep these two balls of fur alive and well, we reasoned, we might muster the courage to try some human offspring.
From the moment we spotted him at the shelter sticking his paws persistently through the bars of his cage, while his siblings huddled and cowered behind him, we knew Willy was a go getter. In short order he introduced himself to every member of our close-knit neighborhood—freely walking into their houses and helping himself to their own animal companions’ food bowls and other fascinating edibles. He was particularly fond of Amy’s front stoop, not only for its curbside location, where he could meow at and impress passers-by, but also for its late afternoon sun.
On the rare occasions when Amy wasn’t mowing her lawn, varnishing her boat, or tending to her naturalized herbaceous garden, she too liked to enjoy her sunny stoop, spreading out the newspaper on her flagstone path, and reading the parts that Willy’s prone bulk didn’t obscure. Their communion was perfect: Willy might meow and initiate conversation, and wasn’t at all bothered if Amy didn’t vocalize her reply. Instead, he purred even more loudly as she grabbed the cat brush stowed conveniently in her mailbox and commenced to groom him with absentminded but no less tender strokes.
Amy’s ministering to Willy after he decided to ‘chase” a car that Thanksgiving afternoon wasn’t the first time I had seen her pay attention to him. But like so many things in life that remain largely unnoticed or taken for granted until magnified against the backdrop of urgency, danger, or tragedy, Amy’s deep affection for Willy was put into unmistakable relief that day.
It was she who ran into the street after hearing the screech of the brakes. It was she who rushed Willy to the vet, persuading the doctor to come in on a national holiday. It was she who didn’t need human words to perfectly understand that Willy wanted to lie in our son’s crib to rest and recover from his adventure.
At Amy’s insistence, we remained at our in-laws’ and didn’t disrupt the family holiday. Instead, Amy spent her weekend constantly running in and out of our house, checking on Willy nearly every hour, cooing at and comforting him when he wasn’t sleeping. If her feline ministrations interrupted her own family holiday celebrations, she never mentioned it.
Twelve years later, Amy’s and Willy’s relationship is still intact, if a bit changed in dynamic. Whereas Willy used to be the attention seeker, and tried to distract Amy from her chores, her reading, her sailing; today he is like the king lion of the ‘hood: aloof, independent, self-sufficient. Faithfully, Amy sends Willy handmade Valentine’s cards every year, and keeps the brush at the ready in her mailbox. In return, Willy occasionally graces her with his presence. Their encounters are fewer and farther between, however, since for the past few years Willy has taken up residence a few houses down the street, preferring those neighbors’ cat food and the stress-free atmosphere to his life at home. (His sister Maxine has become a bossy tyrant in her elder years, and Willy rightly says, “Who needs it?”)
He makes exceptions for formal occasions. Inevitably, when Amy has a house full of guests, or a backyard barbeque, Willy makes a ceremonial entrance. As he expects, Amy drops whatever she is doing, rushes over, and makes a fuss over him. Knowing we miss him as well, she also grabs Willy whenever she sees him, and without warning or words, pops him in our front door.
Willy is approaching 15 cat and 76 human years in age. That makes him older than all but one of our children’s grandparents. At checkups, the vets marvel at his muscular physique, good teeth, and sparkly eyes. “He’s like a cat in the wild, strong like a lion,” they say. So taken are they by Willy, that they allow him the otherwise unheard of privilege to be a “walk-in” for his annual physical. They understand that pinning him down with a scheduled appointment cramps his roaming style.
Still, on the rare occasions when I manage to catch Willy, and shamelessly bribe him with cat treats, his beloved canned tuna, and my own cat comb–which like Amy’s brush, is always close at hand—it’s impossible not to notice that my once wild fur ball is aging. His shoulder blades protrude more prominently from his back, and his formerly rabbit-soft fur is becoming, dare I say, a bit mangy. On the plus side, his mobility and energy level put his couch potato sister Maxine’s to shame. We now refer to her as “Tublette,” and she rarely emerges from our sons’ bedroom.
I try to prepare myself for the day we say goodbye to Willy. I accept that this will happen. Harder to gauge and plan for is the potential rift this may cause in my immediate surroundings. What will life be like in our cozy neighborhood (Amy and I share a backyard) without my trusty feline friend? Willy is my calling card, my beloved ice breaker, guaranteed to thaw any ambient Yankee frost. Willy also provides otherwise shy, reserved Amy a way to comfortably interact with our family. We are great neighbors, and once Willy spends all of his nine well-lived lives, I hope we will always remain so.
Alessandra Bianchi Bio:
When she’s not chasing after her two whacky cats or two teenage sons, Bianchi writes about lifestyle, culture and clever entrepreneurs from Marblehead, MA.
I look forward to learning more!
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