When I last wrote about my cat Betsy earlier this year, she was going on 19. Now we are 20 and still going.
You'd think at 20 a cat might start looking a bit messy and down at paw. Not Betsy. She is mostly deaf but still keeps herself up.
Her fur is soft, her coat is healthy. Yeah she's a bit on the thin side and wobbles when she gets up but apart from that everything appears to be in good working order and she is still a very pretty wee cat.
We're into winter now and that's tough for both of us with our arthritis and continual desire for warmth and comfort but the cold doesn't seem to affect her pattern of being pretty lively for a week or so, then needing to rest and take it easy for several days.
However, last week I noticed her slowing down more than usual, unsteady on her pins, not going up on the roof every day to sit in the sun and watch birds. Her appetite, normally healthy and vigorous, was almost non-existent. Bowls of food went uneaten and the birds were the grateful recipients. I was concerned.
Then she went into the hot water cupboard.
The cupboard is in the kitchen and one day the door was ajar. I went to investigate and found she had managed to open it and was crouched under the water heater, looking up at me with eyes that were not smiling. She did not meow her usual greeting and as I watched, she crawled further into the cupboard until all I could see was the tip of her tail.
Betsy has a mat she likes to sleep on so when she exited the cupboard to attend to outdoor business, I put the mat in there for her and a couple of soft, old T shirts. Betsy stayed in the cupboard on her mat for three days, only creeping out to eat and drink a little and go outside for necessities.
Needless to say I watched her like a hawk, tempted her with delicacies of poached chicken breast which she nibbled at, a bit of milk in her special saucer. Nothing seemed to entice her to eat much.
I was feeling bereft already, thinking my life companion of almost 20 years was about to leave. I remembered all of the things we had shared, some good, some not so good, and with such pain in heart I recalled her devotion to me when I was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, how she would not leave me during the worst, only going out to eat and pee and bring me leaves, gifts from the bush which she brought to me at night, leaving them outside the sliding door or on the floor by the bed.
I remembered a vet telling me one day that cats are very 'stoic' and in spite of pain or discomfort, they kind of just get on with things. Betsy certainly is stoic. She endures her old age with such grace, making that climb up her little ramp every day to get onto that roof so she can warm herself in the sun and watch the clouds go by. But being with her for a lifetime, I know when she is unhappy and I had a very sad and sorry cat in my hot water cupboard.
So I began getting prepared emotionally for that trip up the road to the vet and decided, well, if she is still poorly on Friday, we will go, and what will be, will be. If I need to make the decision of putting my best friend to sleep, then so be it.
This is when I started to believe that Betsy could be telepathic, or can read minds and the future.
Thursday morning she wasn't in the cupboard. I looked everywhere in the house, she was gone and I remembered a friend telling me that cats will often just go off into the bush when they're ready to die. Throwing on my gumboots I headed for the door to be met with the usual Betsy howl of good morning, especially loud due to her deafness. There she was, as per the usual morning routine, outside the front door yowling for a hearty breakfast which I delivered right away. Food eaten, fur groomed, good morning conversation with me attended to, she was off up onto the roof.
I cannot believe the resilience of animals. They just keep going, They find a way because life is everything. And that's the truth, isn't it.
Life is everything, even if we do need to spend some time regrouping in the hot water cupboard. It's worth it because then we can get back on our feet, have a good breakfast, make ourselves look nice again and we're off.
I guess she was just having a particularly bad 'off' period and I have learned to take each day as it comes with Betsy the Wonder Cat. I suspect we will have more of these hard times, because she won't live forever, but for now, Betsy continues to thrive, amaze and inspire. I can only hope that I am as fit and well when I get to be her age (which in human years is probably over 100 or close to it).
I think the secret to longevity must be the hot water cupboard. I might make some alterations to my house so I can construct one big enough to climb into with my favourite mat, some old T shirts, a few books, and perhaps a bottle of nice single malt whiskey.
Outside my kitchen window there's a small plastic tank that collects run off from the roof. I use the rainwater to water the garden and indoor plants.
Betsy loves being up on the roof and she's been going up there for years. It's warm, lying on the corrugated iron, and of course she has a view to die for. It's safe from predators and she is the queen of all she surveys.
Going on 18 years now, her legs ain't what they used to be. She's been finding it hard to make the jump from the lawn to a concrete block, then up onto the water tank, and from there to the roof. It's a leap too far these days. If she gets up there, getting down is hard too.
The other day I was in the kitchen and I heard her howling, the loudest, most heartbreaking cry. At first I thought she'd hurt herself so I looked out the window to see her sitting atop the concrete block, looking up at the roof. The morning was sunny, warm and clear, perfect for some roof-lounging. The leap was beyond her so she cried.
Quick thinking, I went out and set up an old wooden plank from the lawn to the roof. Too steep for her, the plank too wobbly. I lowered it to rest atop the water tank. Betsy observed me carefully, sizing up the entire operation to determine if this would be suitable for her.
After about ten minutes of looking, sniffing, figuring things out, she walked the plank and could make the now shorter jump to the roof.
We all need some help when we get older. I suppose I'll have some kind of ramp thing eventually, so I can wheel my walker up to the door. I only hope I have the presence of mind to ask for my ramp, to let out a heartrending plea for someone to help me rather than try to do it myself and fall over.
It's not always easy for us to ask for help.
Cats don't seem to have the same difficulty.
‘A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.’ – Ernest Hemingway
The sun is up early these days and so is Betsy.
She has taken to sleeping out doors, as is her usual habit during the summer, and when the sun is up, it is time to eat. 5.30am she is howling outside the bedroom window, irritated and annoyed beyond measure.
'Be quiet Betsy!' I growl. There is silence for a minute, then it begins again, a tirade of frustrated yowlings that say, 'I am hungry. Get up. Feed me.' After some time, it seems to dawn on her that no amount of noise will encourage me to rise and attend to her, so she takes up her station of patience outside the front door, and waits.
Cats are honest creatures. They let us know what they want, and when. They don't hold back with their feelings. There is no politeness, not really, although some cats are more subtle than Betsy with her howling.
I often think writing is the same way. Betsy would agree. When she was writing her stories (she's a retired writer now, preferring to spend her days under the pink hibiscus out in the garden), she had a no holds barred approach, letting it all hang out, no standing on ceremony or politeness. Total honesty.
When I was writing my book Welcome to the Amazon Club, I figured out pretty early on that nothing less than total honesty would do. If I wasn't truthful and open about the experience of breast cancer, people would know, the emotional impact of the experience would be lessened, the force of its reality would not be fully captured.
Be like a cat. Write with that emotional honesty.
It gives your writing power and force, truth and daring.
Are cats better companions for a writer than dogs?
Of course Betsy says she is a far better mate, every day in fact, as she sniffs her food with disdain, giving me the look that says, 'This is NOT the kind I like', turns her back on me, stalks out the door to venture out into the garden for the day where the sun is bright and warm.
In an essay for the New Yorker, author Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote about two years of owning a dog, and during that time he did not write a single line of literary prose. The Guardian article goes on to say that he did write articles and essays though but the dog was such a problem for him, he wondered 'Has a single good author ever owned a dog?'
I like the quietness of a cat. Betsy is very good at just sitting, watching, hanging out with me when I write. She often sits up on the printer, purring, closing her eyes in some kind of catly meditation.
A dog would make me get up a lot, take it for walks, tend to it because it might bark and chew up stuff.
I did live with a dog once. It stayed in the house I shared with two other people. I worked nights at the time and my flatmates worked days, so I was the sole entertainment for the dog during the daylight hours, and it needed constant entertainment. I identify with Karl when he says in his essay, "It never let me out of its sight, and tagged along after me over to the house I write in, lay down at my feet when I was working, and, if I put on some music, it would sometimes begin to howl, often in the same pitch as the vocals."
At least with Betsy she only howls when she's hungry, doesn't follow me about (ever) and doesn't need to be taken for a walk. She does that herself.
I suppose dogs are good in that they make you get out into the world, you have to pop them onto a leash and exercise them, and I do remember the dog I lived with took great joy in my company and really seemed to love me dearly, and I was fond of it. Most afternoons we would walk out in the acres of forest that surrounded this house we lived in, explore, look for rattlesnakes of which there were a great number, and have adventures together, look up and look down at the clouds, the sky, the earth, the trees.
Can't do that with Betsy, no sir, and now, working from home as a writer, it would be hard to have a companion that demanded more time than my felicitous feline. I'm kinda with Aldhous Huxley when he said, 'If you want to write, keep cats.'
"That’s the great secret of creativity. You treat ideas like cats: you make them follow you.” Ray Bradbury
I've never been able to get Betsy to follow me. I think she just doesn't see any sense to that, unless there is food involved.
However I know that when I'm working in the garden, she does follow me around, without me having to ask. I'll stop to cut or dig something, and she will sit, and watch, or lie down to enjoy the sunshine. Of course I think cats quite like seeing us work, expending energy, to make their environment a bit nicer for them.
Or more convenient.
The nice, loosely turned soil around my newly planted flowers makes a perfect location for her to perform her toilette.
But I think it is true, cats do follow us about because they like company, they know who the Alpha Cat is and want to follow the leader, keep tabs on the one that feeds and nurtures.
Are ideas like that too? Do they cling to us, seeking expression, acknowledgement, nourishment, recognition?
Ideas do come to us without invitation. We don't always have to ask. The thing is, you have to be open to them, allow them in, make that process a habit, a creative practice.
Well it's Friday and the end of the week, time to relax by the fire, contemplate the week that was, and ponder one's weekend activities.
Betsy likes nothing more than hunkering down by the woodburner on a Friday evening - well, any evening really - to watch the flames and luxuriate in the heat.
She enjoys it so much that the staff must bring her dinner to the fireside, so she may eat in comfort - no way she's going to venture into the cold kitchen, over the freezing floor tiles, to eat in her usual spot.
Actually Betsy is pondering her next book - she writes in the new 'up lit' genre and her novels are riding the wave.
An article in the Guardian defines 'up lit' as "novels and nonfiction that is optimistic rather than feelgood. And an appetite for everyday heroism, human connection and love – rather than romance – is expected to be keeping booksellers and publishers uplifted, too."
This, they say, is a response to the 'grip lit' thriller genre that has bombarded and led the market for years. It's time for some 'good news' stories when there is so much uncertainty and fear in today's world.
So Betsy is one very market-savvy cat. I think she writes about her horrible experiences whilst living under the tyranny of Little Boy, who has since died, and turns them into positive stories that uplift and inspire. She is making something good out of bad.
The fire is lit-up so Betsy can do her up-lit thing. I have my instructions: 'keep the fire going, the warmth coming, bring the food, then go away and leave me to gather inspiration.'
'Authors like cats because they are such quiet, lovable, wise creatures, and cats like authors for the same reasons.’
– Robertson Davies
My cat Betsy is 17 this month.
She came from the pet store up the road as a kitten, one of many tabby cats in a large cage in the window.
For a long time she was an 'only cat' and had the run of the place. Then a black male stray, Little Boy, came on the scene. Before I could control him, he had defiled all of Betsy's favourite places with his malodorous male-ness, spraying high and low. Even after being 'fixed' Little Boy retained his evil habits, dousing and beating Betsy into submission. Her new home became the roof of my house, and in wet weather, the garden shed. Despite my pleadings and actually carrying her fighting and scratching into the house, she would not stay, preferring to remain aloof , alienated and indignant in her lofty perch.
Little Boy passed away a couple of years ago and now Betsy has reclaimed her rightful place. In her twilight years I give her as much love and care as I can, because she deserves it. She has good food, warm places to sleep (inside) in as many locations as she desires, she is brushed daily, and in winter time has a delightful fire every night to sleep beside.
Most days when I am writing she spends some time sitting on my printer, being close, as if to say, 'You are mine. I will not share you. I tolerate your writing because that is how you earn money to pay for my food and comforts.'
Ah but I think it goes beyond that. She is my companion, my friend. We chat throughout the day and in the evening we settle down with our glass of whiskey and talk about the day. She tells me about the lemons ripening on the tree and I share my stories with her.