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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

A dead cat looks not at all like a sleeping one. I gave her forepaw a final, hopeful nudge, but it was no good; this cat sprawled on our patio, a cat who had thoroughly insinuated herself into our lives, had now – quite dramatically – run out of lives of her own.

The cat’s name was Cosmo, and Dawn and I had known her for a long time. One thing I should make clear, though, is that she was not our cat. She had arrived on our street about 10 years ago with the family who moved in next door. As our new neighbours explained to us, she was a rescue, a former street cat they had picked up at a Toronto shelter. As such, she was not the kind of cat to be content with an indoor life; she went outside when she damn well pleased and brooked no argument about it.

Inevitably, she started coming around to our house, demanding entry. She then proceeded to, as my wife so eloquently put it, “make our house – inside and out – part of her territory.”

It didn’t take long for us to establish a routine with Cosmo; or to put it another way, it wasn’t long before she had us properly trained. On weekdays, I’d get up at about 5:30 a.m. and head straight for our front door to pick up the newspaper; almost invariably, I would find Cosmo sitting on the doormat, glaring at the door as if she expected it to open by the sheer force of feline will. When it did, she would lope right past me, giving me a sideways “me-murr” call, which I interpreted as “what took you?!”

She would then head straight for the dining room and perform the most important task of the day – investigating her food bowl. (Dawn, being a soft touch, had started feeding her – just one small scoop of dry food a day.) I would give Cosmo her kibble, explain to her incredulous upturned face that “yes, that is all you get” for the umpteenth time and then sit down to my own breakfast. After consuming her morning ration, she’d hop onto the chair next to mine, and a tiny face would poke up over the edge of the table. Her nose would begin to diligently sniff this way and that, trying to work out whatever I was eating (and to put her face in it, if I didn’t forcibly prevent her).

I was done with cats, but then I met Max

The wild life I find in my own back yard

After making sure that all cereal bowls, butter dishes etc. were safely out of reach, I’d go get ready for work. Her Majesty would then give up on the mooching and go find a place to nap until we tossed her out (no, not literally!) at 7:30 or so.

She became such a fixture around our place that, when our COVID-19 work-from-home regime began in March, 2020, it made very little difference to her – except that she often took advantage of the opportunity to stay at our place the whole day. The small futon/couch behind my workstation in the spare bedroom became her favourite spot and she’d sometimes sleep there for hours at a stretch. One consequence of all this lockdown-mandated domesticity was that she sometimes stayed right through to dinnertime and started begging for food off our plates. In response, we started giving her a daily “treat” of a little bit of canned cat food (the extravagance!) while we were having our dinner – mostly just to get her out of our hair.

During this time of increased intimacy with Cosmo, we each developed favourite nicknames for not-our-cat. Dawn’s was “Kibbie” derived from her obsessive interest in the contents of the food bowl; the one I used most often was “Get-the-HELL-out-of-my-way-you-dumb-animal-you’re-going-to-get-stepped-on!” inspired by her habit of planting herself right smack-dab behind my feet whenever I was prepping food in the kitchen.

I wouldn’t want to give the wrong impression about Cosmo. What I have described was the indoor Cosmo, the feline “angel of the house.” Outside, she was quite a different animal, a wary, wily, relentless defender of her turf. If you were a two-legged creature, she wouldn’t mind you – the neighbourhood children were particularly favoured and would usually be granted the privilege of petting her – but if you were another cat, then woe betide you! Cosmo’s territory was hers and hers alone – trespassers would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of her claws.

In the end, I suspect it was this implacable nature that was her undoing; she was a brave cat, but she was also quite small and getting very old.

Looking at that scene on our patio that morning, with the fur everywhere (most of it a tawny colour quite unlike Cosmo’s), I came to the conclusion that she’d had an epic battle with another cat and lost. Curiously, there was no blood, no sign of any wounds on her body – I imagine that the stress had just overwhelmed her 20-plus-year-old heart.

Although I am not quite as old in human years as she was in cat years, I did find that the longer I knew Cosmo, the more I found myself in sympathy with her attitude toward life. For one thing, I have found that eating and napping are now among the highest priorities of my day. Like Cosmo, I tend to get into rather an ill temper whenever I have to deal with members of my own species. (Although I have, as yet, managed to restrain myself from hissing and growling at random strangers.) I get particularly annoyed with people who look at me and just assume that I am too old to learn new things. Poppycock, stuff and nonsense! (And when I get a free moment, I’ll look up how to say that in the current vernacular.)

But I have to admit that age has made it difficult for me to unlearn things, to break certain habits that have become ingrained. For example, although it’s been weeks since that fateful Saturday morning, I still get up early and I’m sometimes halfway down our front hall before I catch myself and remember that there’s nobody out there waiting to be let in. Or when I’m in the kitchen and feel the need to check behind my feet before I step back from the counter. Or when I spot some random dark lump on the futon and momentarily take it for a sleeping cat.

Cosmo, you were a lioness in a house-cat-sized frame; hail and farewell, brave warrior! No, you did not belong to us – but we most certainly did belong to you.

Peter Coo lives in Kitchener, Ont.

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