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For my Nilly

Four weeks ago yesterday I had to say goodbye to my cat Nilly. This relationship was the longest of any of my adult life – homes and boyfriends came and went, but Nilly and I were together for 14 years. I didn’t do the standard “RIP” Facebook post. I had no desire to receive the condolences of “friends” whom I haven’t seen in over 20 years and have no intention of seeing in the next 20. But in the weeks since her passing, I’ve had some guilt feelings about how quickly I’ve set about to normalizing my life with one fewer cat in it (I have two younger boy kitties, Theodore is 7 and Jasper 5). Though painful and sad, I bounced back from losing her far faster than I did when I lost my cat Sunshine to cancer when he was 12 and Theodore’s brother Liam to heart disease when he was 2. Sitting on the porch last night, enjoying a cool summer evening with a gorgeous sunset in the background, I missed Nilly. The porch was her favorite spot. So, seeing as there are many knitters, who are also cat lovers and animal lovers, I’m going to indulge my sadness and guilt a bit by eulogizing my Nilly here.

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Nilly came to me when she was 3 years old. Her previous owner was fulfilling a long-held dream of living in a tropical place and had decided to move to Hawaii. Being that Hawaii has, or at least had at that time, quarantine laws, she decided it was better to find a new home for her kitty in New York, rather than put her through the discomfort of quarantine. This particular cat owner worked with a friend of mine – a friend I’d told about my desire to get a cat, now that I’d resettled in New York and found an apartment that allowed pets. Nilly’s owner and I got in touch, I paid her a visit, met the young Miss, and agreed that I’d take her.

For the first month and a half, Nilly was my only cat. She liked to play fetch with little foam balls, and she was a bed snuggler. She was a lap cat, a hearty eater, and a nice companion. Then, I did the unthinkable and took in another cat.

The friend who had gotten me in touch with Nilly’s owner also had a cat – and a wife and brand new twin baby boys, all of whom were moving from Manhattan to Colorado. It was decided that the move would be tough enough with just the babies, so I was asked to take in their cat, Sunshine. I did, and I don’t think Nilly ever forgave me.

You want to pet the belly!

There was no reason for these two cats to not get along, but not get along they did. There weren’t constant battles, but they never chose each other’s company, they never groomed one another, they never, ever snuggled. Nilly became Sunshine’s antithesis – where he was happy, bouncy, full of personality, goofy and sweet, Nilly became the grouchy, greedy, self-involved princess – in other words, the quintessential bitchy kitty.

I don’t think Sunshine did this to her. I think she had it in her all along. When people throw out the blanket statement, “I don’t like cats,” it’s probably because they’ve only ever had contact with the Nilly type of cat. She’d purr like a motorboat on your lap one minute, but if you pet her in a way she didn’t like, she’d be swatting at you, claws out and with intent to injure, the next. And she had awful timing. I could be sitting on the couch for an hour watching TV with her nowhere in sight, but as soon as I was ready to get up to do the dishes, that’s when she’d climb onto my lap, ready to settle in. Everyone who knew her would comment on her distinctive markings and pretty face, but they’d generally give her a quick pet and step away, or not make any attempt at contact at all. Her reputation was well known.

When Sunshine died of cancer in 2010, Nilly was once again the only cat. She seemed to like it that way, but I had gotten used to having more in the way of cat company, so I decided to adopt two younger kitties. Just bringing one cat into the house and having Nilly as its only feline companion seemed like a bad move. But getting two kitties, who could be each other’s best friends when she scorned them, felt right. So, Theodore and Liam were brought into the family.

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At first, of course, Nilly would swat at them, hiss and growl at them. These little fluff balls upset her so. But then the most amazing thing happened. Liam took an inexplicable shine to her. He adored her, and he worked on her for a solid year to gain her love. And it worked. I have two videos of Nilly licking Liam’s head – a display of affection she never repeated after Liam passed.

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Because Liam loved her so much, I had concerns about how her passing one day would affect him. She was 10 years older, and, I assumed, would go first. I’d get another older female cat, I thought, once she was gone. Maybe that would fill the void that would be left in Liam’s life. But we lost Liam when he was only 2 years old from a previously undetected heart condition. Unlike with Sunshine, who’d battled diabetes for years before the cancer took him, Liam’s passing was sudden and completely unexpected. But the fallout from both was the same – I was bereft, could barely function from the grief, and was left wondering how the home could ever feel happy again. And, Theodore needed another cat. I couldn’t leave him with Nilly as his only feline companion

That’s when my little clown Jasper entered our lives, and we were again a threesome. He didn’t even know the responsibility he had, coming into a home that had lost two of the most amazing cats in the span of two years, but his sweet, open personality and innate joy lifted the pall, and we settled into the new cat constellation.

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But through all this turmoil, there was always Nilly. Nilly, who needed feeding, attention, affection. Nilly, who never had any major health issues, never made things too difficult – she was essentially a good girl, always doing her business in the litter box, not making too many messes. Nilly, who just wanted to be indulged, liked chewing on plastic bags, and who knew what she wanted and when. Nilly shared seven homes with me. She moved with me from Brooklyn to South Carolina, to the Bronx, to White Plains, back to Brooklyn, back to the Bronx, and then finally to my current home in the Hudson Valley. She complained. She never liked riding in the car. But she adjusted quickly and always found comfort in whatever new home I’d plunked her down in. She seemed especially content here. She loved being able to go outside on the porch. This picture is from the day after we moved in.

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This year I made sure she got as much time as possible out on the porch, knowing that it would be her last summer.

Her ashes now rest on a shelf in my bookcase, along with keepsakes from Sunshine and Liam, whose ashes I did not keep, letting them rest instead in pet cemeteries. They were much more social animals, so I don’t regret that they are forever mingled with the remains of other beloved pets. Nilly only ever wanted to be the only cat, but I never allowed that for any length of time. I thought it was fitting to keep her remains with me. If she could have said as much, I think that’s what she’d have wanted.

Rest well, my friend. If there’s any justice in this existence, you and Liam are now cuddled together and at peace.