Lily (from the The Widower’s Notebook)

For NATIONAL CAT DAY I could not think of anything better than posting this drawing I made of my last cat, Lily, along with this excerpt about her from my memoir THE WIDOWER’S NOTEBOOK (Penguin Books). It’s a bit long but…

Beside Joy’s main closet is a tall stack of shelves where her sweaters and tees are neatly stacked. I kept this door closed, but every morning it was open. For a while I thought the magnets that held the door in place must have weakened, or it was some weird settling of the building, though I couldn’t remember it ever happening before. Every night I closed it. Every morning it was open.

It started to feel eerie.

Then, one morning, still in bed, I saw the door bang open, and Joy’s cat, Lily, jumped out. When I investigated, I saw that she had made a sort of nest on one of the shelves among Joy’s sweaters by rumpling them up, and she’d obviously been doing it for some time, the imprint of her body along with a thick pelt of cat fur made that clear. Did she actually wait for me to fall asleep each night, then manage to open the door to sleep among Joy’s clothes, to inhale her scent, to be with her? The next night I waited and watched closely as the cat quietly pawed the door open and climbed in. How had I missed it before?

Joy always said that when she got very old she wanted to have dozens of cats. Though she never got very old she did have several cats, though not at the same time.

I’d grown up with a dog I adored, a golden cocker spaniel, Mr. Cosmo Topper, just plain Topper for short, but Joy converted me to cats. We each adopted one in college; I got Beads, Joy got Lulu, and we had them when we married. The two cats became inseparable friends. Beads was gone many years before Dorie was born, and Lulu had the intelligence and good graces to bow out at eighteen only a few months after our baby was born.

We let our daughter, at a very young age, choose a scrawny ugly kitten from a local shelter. I had tried to influence her to choose another, but while a shelter volunteer fetched the pretty cat, the ugly one was put into Dorie’s arms and that sealed the deal.

My daughter named her Brenda, after a character on Beverly Hills, 90210. She turned out to be a hisser, a scratcher, and an occasional biter. Not what we had in mind for our six‐year‐old daughter.

And so Lily, a beautiful calico, shy and scared, was adopted as well. Brenda, by default, became my cat (no one else liked her). Lily, though intended for Dorie, in actuality became Joy’s cat, and they adored each other.

Brenda mellowed with age and I grew to love her. She died at twenty‐one, in good health and good shape up until the last months of her life. In the end, a vet came to the house and put her to sleep in my arms, something I would like when my time comes.

Lily didn’t seem to notice that Brenda was gone; they’d never had much to do with one another. She remained as close to Joy as ever, if not closer, following her around and avoiding me.

After Joy’s sudden death, Lily’s dislike for me escalated. Most days she hid under the bed, nights she inhabited Joy’s closet or the living room, as far away from me as possible. If I came too close, she bolted. If I tried to touch her, she hissed. I doubled my efforts to befriend her. I fed her extra cat food, which she whisked out of her bowl onto the floor where it was left uneaten for me to clean up. I bought her toys and treats, all ignored.

Then the howling began. Several times a night I’d come out of the bedroom to find her in front of the elevator that serves as our front door, performing a doleful aria—piercing, hollow, mournful, and very, very loud. Clearly, she was waiting for her beloved mistress to come home.

Her howling was like the crying I could not do.
I begged her to stop. “You’re killing me,” I said.
These intense howl‐fests went on for months, a late‐night opera to accompany my insomnia.

Then, six months after Joy died, I was invited to Yaddo, the venerable arts colony in upstate New York, where I had been several times over the years, a place I love, which has rescued me more than once. Yaddo had always been the perfect place to think and work away from the disruptions of regular life. But now, I wasn’t sure about going. My New York life was not only disrupted, it was completely disjunctive and disconnected, hardly a life at all. I barely slept. I had not worked. I hated being home but was afraid to leave. Dorie said, “Go, it will be good for you.” Yaddo’s president encouraged me, as did the program director, who said, “Yaddo is a healing place. You should come.” Their words touched me, but I was still unsure as to whether or not I could actually go. I had a million excuses why I could not.

And there was the question of Lily. No pets are allowed at Yaddo. But how could I leave her alone for three weeks? And with whom? She hated everyone and was scared of everything.

I broached the subject with the colony staff. I explained that Lily was old, declawed, and would probably hide the entire time. She was granted special dispensation, like a seeing eye dog or in this case, a grief cat, and so we went, Lily howling and shaking as I put her into her cage, me equally nervous about leaving home alone for the first time since Joy had died.

A half hour from home I felt lighter, an actual physical feeling, as if a literal weight—one that been crushing me—had been lifted off my body.

We arrived at Yaddo at night, the place quiet, beautiful, Gothic and mysterious as ever. If you didn’t know, you might have thought it was uninhabited.

I brought Lily inside my Yaddo digs and opened her cage, but she would not come out, frozen, unmoving. I spoke to her in hushed tones trying to coax her, but it wasn’t until later that night that she ventured out, looked around, and made a beeline for the back room, where she hid under the bed. I put out her food. A day passed. The food was uneaten.

Another day passed, more food left uneaten. I started to worry.

The next morning half the cat food was gone, though Lily was back under the bed and no amount of coaxing could get her out.

Meanwhile, I was acclimating. It was strange to be away, but familiar too, the colony a place I had always gone alone, without Joy, and so it was easier than I had anticipated. I felt no less sad but better than I had in months, able to breathe, and after two days, able to write, which I had been unable to do at home. I was thankful to be there.

In the late afternoon of the third day Lily emerged from under the bed, let out a howl, and let me and let me pick her up. She didn’t squirm or hiss. After a minute she started to purr. She rubbed against me, even licked my arm, a first, and a shock. “It’s you and me, Lily,” I said. “We’re all we’ve got.” She looked at me sleepy‐lidded, purred, and pressed closer. We stayed that way for almost an hour. I suggested to her, aloud, that since she was at an arts colony, she write a book of poems.

After dinner, I returned to my rooms and Lily greeted me with another cry, a familiar one she had used with Joy, one that meant “pet me,” and I did, ending with her curled in the crook of my arm where she fell asleep and so did I. She stayed like that all night.

The next day was the same but even more intense. She wanted to be near me, on me, paws kneading my chest, purring loudly, drooling onto my shirt, often licking my cheek or the tip of my nose. Sometimes she’d spend fifteen minutes diligently washing my arm. Every night she slept with me. This was the routine for my entire stay at the colony.

So what happened? What miracle occurred that made the cat not only accept me, but adore me? Was it being away from home? Was she scared? Or was it simply time? Maybe she finally came to her senses and realized He’s as good as I’m going to get.

Back home, Lily and I remain as close as we’d been at Yaddo. She still howls but it is reserved for evenings when she wants me to get into bed and pay attention to her.

She curls up with me every night, and I hope Joy is watching. I think she would find it incredible, though heartening, and it makes me feel as if I am doing at least one thing right.

While at Yaddo I made several quick sketches of Lily. Back home, I made this more finished drawing.