I’M A WIDOWER, a word that through 99 percent of my life I never for a moment thought would someday apply to me. Any more than I imagined giving up journalism to become a Certified Public Accountant. Or developing a taste for lutefisk. Or voluntarily moving to Arkansas.
I was one of those lucky people who found the love of my life at a young age. She was also my best friend. In our optimistic youth, if Barbara and I ever talked about old age and death, we made a pact to blaze out together while making mad, passionate love until our wrinkled old bodies could take no more. The autopsy report would make interesting reading.
It didn’t work out that way, sorry to say. Damn, damn cancer.
I’ve kept it no secret that I’m no fan of solitude, but for better or worse I’m now the sole human occupant of Nuthatch Cabin, on a remote little island reached only by small boat or plane.
But I’m not here alone. I have a cat.
A dopey orange cat who has helped me weather loneliness and occasional depression over the past 18 months.
Galley Cat got that unusual name because she was a boat cat for most of her life. It was my lame play on “alley cat,” suggested as kind of a joke at the time. But it stuck. When Barbara and I visited a cat-rescue center in 2013, a few months after another well-loved kitty had taken up residence in the cat graveyard by the Nuthatch’s front path, my dear wife was lobbying for a sedate, older gray tabby. One that would be happy to snooze most of the day and come with no challenges.
But as a teenager I had grown up with a handsome orange cat that I adored. When the adoption-center aide showed us a beautiful little five-month-old tiger-striped ginger, still with kittenish ears too big for her head and an assertive, slightly pugnacious attitude despite her still-healing spay scar, Barbara’s hopes were dashed. She knew her husband couldn’t let that one go by.
Even at a very basic level, Galley is a rare animal. Because of a fluke of genetics, only one in five orange cats is female. Orange coloring in felines is carried by the X chromosome. Females possess two Xs and males possess an X and a Y. Male kittens need the orange gene only from their mothers to become a ginger, whereas females must inherit an orange X from both parents — making females much less likely to exhibit the trait.
Whether Barbara liked it or not, Galley had a particular fondness for her, obviously regarding her as a mother figure. When Galley’s cuddling and purring adoration went too far, Barbara would have to chuck her off her lap with protests of “Cat drool! I can’t stand cat drool!”
Galley Cat had a tough year just as I did when Barbara passed away in 2021, followed closely by the death of our older cat, Bosun, Galley’s buddy since the day we’d brought her home. That summer of 2021 was about the same time Galley started getting chased outside by wild foxes, which an idiot neighbor had trapped on a neighboring island and illegally released on Center Island because he apparently thought it would be fun to have more wildlife. (Even on the other island, these foxes are not native to the San Juans, but are an invasive species brought by humans.)
Can cats understand death? All Galley knew was that two of the beings she loved most had left her. And suddenly the woods she loved to roam weren’t safe anymore. More than once she’s had to bolt up a tree to escape a predatory fox. She became skittish and easily frightened. She would hiss at people she didn’t know. They thought she was a mean cat. She’s not mean, she’s just had her world shaken. I can sympathize.
She and I bonded in our solitude. After so many years of living on the boat, at age 10 she loves being outside, and I can’t deprive her of that, so I’m trusting that she’s learned how to escape foxes. I find joy — an emotion in short supply lately — when she gallops up the path to the top of the rocky knoll behind the cabin, sometimes continuing six feet up a maple tree before looking back to be sure I was watching. I cheer her on every time.
She has been good company in my months of adjusting to life without Barbara. Galley sleeps on my knees most nights, and sometimes noses her way under the blankets. Occasionally she’ll want to lick my face in the night. Kitty kisses are no substitute for Barbara’s, but they make me grin awkwardly until her rough tongue starts to take skin off and I have to push her away. Sometimes I get drooled on. (Like Barbara, I’m not wild about that.)
Having a pet limits my travels since I don’t have a regular cat-sitter. I hate to take her to a boarding kennel, and she’s made it clear that she, too, hates that experience. Sometimes she accompanies me when generous family members and friends don’t mind hosting both of us. I put that to a real test recently when Galley and I went on a road trip to visit a friend in Walla Walla, a long day’s drive over the Cascades and across the state. I provided her bowls of food and water on the floor in the Honda’s back seat, along with a small litter box should she need it. As long as I let her wander freely inside the car, snoozing when she chose, she didn’t seem to overly mind the long ride. At times, she would stand on the passenger seat with her rear paws on the seat and her front paws on the dashboard, looking ahead with interest. I don’t think she’d ever seen mountains before. Once again, she proved a good sidekick.
It’s hard to quantify the value of a friend, whether human or animal. All I can say is that, in the toughest time of my life, a dopey orange cat has helped get me through.