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The Last of the First Ones

Michael Hillman

If anyone would have told me back in my youth that one day I would be a confirmed cat lover, I would have been insulted, but today, it would be a safe description of me, and Willie, a wonderfully special brindle, can claim much of the credit for my transformation.

Willie was Audrey’s first cat, and their first meeting, like many things in life, was purely by chance.

It was the summer of ‘78 Audrey was working as an barn manager. While out exercising a horse one day, she came across and injured kitten, which she rushed to the vet. Unfortunately, she was too late, and the kitten died. Later that evening, when she stopped in to pay her bill, she inquired if they had kittens available for adoption. The words had no sooner left her month, the a tiny paw burst from a cage and as if signaling to come here, drew Audrey’s attention. An easy touch, all the brindle kitten had to do was ‘‘meow’’ at Audrey, and the deal was done.

Convincing the barn owner, a confirmed dog owner, to let her bring Willie home, was something altogether different. The owner was initially against the idea, but when Audrey threw down the gauntlet of ‘‘she either comes or I go.’’ His opinion quickly changed.

Looking in from the outside, one would figure that the life span of a kitten entering a barn full of Jack Russell's would be measured in terms of days, maybe weeks. But Willie outfoxed them all, and before anyone knew it, it was the Jack Russell’s that were running for cover.

One of Willies favorite pass times was to sit on a chair, under which the Jack Russell's had to pass in order to get to their food bowls. As they passed, Willie would reach down and wack then on their butt. Soon, the Jack Russell's were is such a state of terror, that the owner of the barn had to ask Audrey to intervene, and restrain Willie from tormenting his ‘‘fearsome’’ Jack Russell's!

Another favorite pass time of Willie's was to wander into the bathroom whenever the owner would be in it, and brush up against his legs. Invariably, this would result in a frantic call for Audrey to call her cat, a call that much to Audrey’s amusement, she would never make.

Any cat that could intimidate a Jack Russell had to be a master mouser, and Willie was no exception to that rule. Life got sedate, and much more to a cats liking for Willie when Audrey went back to school and moved out of the barn apartment. Instead of the daily hustle and bustle of the barn, Willie spent her days sleeping on pillows in sunbeams while she awaiting Audrey return from school.

Where in the barn, Audrey’s life could be summed up as work and sleep, which left precious little time for kitty snuggles. Study time soon became prime kitty play and snuggle time. For two long years, Willie keep Audrey company into the wee hours of the night, either amusing her or soothing her. To Willie, pens were the most perfect toy ever created, especially the pen Audrey had in her hand. In hopes of distracting her, Audrey would throw used pens on the ground, but Willie would only fall for that just so much, and quickly she would be back grabbing at the one Audrey was writing with. During these two long years the bond between them, already strong, grew stronger still.

After graduation, Audrey moved to an apartment next to a barn, and Willie, once again resumed a life as a barn cat, met Tony, a blue eyed, Siamese something mix. The two hit it off instantly, and before Audrey knew it, Willie had invited Tony to join their family.

The three got along as if they had been made for each other. During the days, and on warm evenings, Willie and Tony would ‘‘cat about’’ together. On cold nights, they would curl up in bed next to Audrey, drawing heat. With two hands free, each was assured equal attention from Audrey, who would be lulled to sleep by the stereo sound of purring.

Willie, a sociable cat, was not one to tolerate being alone, especially when there were idle hands around that could be used to give kitty scratches. So when Audrey went off to work, Willie went off in search of scratches. The neighbors in the apartment above were always a prime target. Climbing up a nearby tree, she would leap to the window and tap on it until it was opened and she had gained entrance. If that failed, she would retreat to the basement apartment, where again, she would wait until admitted. Everyone loved her.

The arrival of PJ and I into Willie's, Tony, and Audrey lives threw everything into confusion. While skilled in the ways of tormenting a Jack Russell, Willie, now advanced in age, found it easier to avoid PJ rather then confront him. PJ, who was quickly calibrated by Willie’s Ally Tony, likewise, found it easier to avoid Willie then to confront her. While unsteady at first, peace nevertheless reigned, and as time wore on, their relationship evolved into one of mutual respect.

By the time we moved to our farm in Emmitsburg, Willie’s age was beginning to show. Gone were the day of long hunting trips, replaced instead by long lazy naps in the garden. For the first time in their relationship. Willie and Audrey were together all the time. No longer would Willie be left alone while Audrey went to work. And while having to share the bed with me was a draw back, Willie quickly discovered like Audrey, I gave great scratches.

I would no sooner site down to read or watch TV, then Willie would jump up next to me. Lady like in all her actions, she would never press for a scratch, but instead, sit a respectful distance away, and let out a silent ‘‘meow’’ and wait for your response. A simple movement of the scratch hand in her direction was all that was necessary, and within seconds, she was next to you and purring like a newborn kitten.

At night, Willie was always first in bed, and would wedge herself between Audrey and I to assure maximum warmth. During the day, in the summer, she would take up residence on the front porch, outside of the boundaries imposed on the dogs by the invisible fencing. There she could sleep away the day in the sun, undisturbed by the coming and goings on the farm. In the winter, the guest room bed was her principle, and late only residence. Located on the sunny side of the house, she could sleep her days away on a comfortable bed, basked in a warm sunbeam.

Audrey saw to it that Willie wanted nothing. As she grew older and more feeble, Audrey would help her move from the bed or front steps to the food bowls and back. Nothing was considered an effort when it came to caring for Willie.

In spite of all her efforts however, age took its toll on Willie. A broken leg, broken by just shear brittleness, took a lot out of Willie. Never a heavy cat, Willies weight dropped dramatically. Remarkably the leg healed, but in spite of the recovery, Willie increasingly became dependent on being moved by Audrey.

Willie's end came quickly and tragically. We had come to depend upon the reality that we could place her in a spot and felt safe that we could find her there when we returned hours later.

Pulling out of the drive way for a horse show one day I felt the truck hit something. As I turned and looked behind me, I drew back in horror. There in the drive way, was Willie’s body. How she had managed to get from the porch to the drive way is unknown, but nearly blind and frightened by the movement of the truck and trailer, she ran in the only direction she new was safe, toward the house, and in doing so, in the path of the trailer.

Audrey gently wrapped Willie in a blanket and said her good-bys. Unable to simply bury and cover her with dirt, I crafted a coffin of cherry to place her in. Like Emma before her, we buried Willie in her favorite spot, on the sunny side of the house, where, in her later life, shielded from the wind, she and Tony would bask away their days. Willie was 21 at the time of her death.

Like Emma before her, Willie’s death opened the door for another. As Kess helped heal Emma’s loss, Jordie, a black Manx, help heal (Willies) Willie's loss.

While the death of Willie was hard on Audrey, it was harder on Tony. Without the company of his life long companion, Tony seemed to age almost overnight, accelerated in part, but the hustle and bustles created by the ‘next ones’ -three young cats and two young dogs.

Too weak and too tiered to play the youngster’s games, slowly but surely, Tony and PJ, the last of the first ones, made peace, and became allies in search of the perfect warm spot for lazy afternoon naps.

"Farewell, Master, Yet not farewell
Where I go, ye too shall dwell
I am gone, before your face,
A moment's time, a little space.
When ye come where I have stepped
Ye will wonder why ye wept."

Part 1: Charmer's Story
Part 2: Emma's Story
Part 4: Tony's Story
Part 5: PJ's Story

Read other stories by Michael Hillman