remembering my man jack

Jack the Demon CatSOME MEN I have lived with would tell you I am inflexible, and fussy—that hair in the shower, for instance, or any noise or disruptions to the sanctity of sleep are just two of the legion of things I am impatient with. Jack the Demon Cat would have told another story of me, about a person who resisted but then surrendered, who got past the hair and the all-night prowling, at least this once. The other day, I lost my Jack, the one who finally got through to me. A remembrance of my longtime friend.

First this, for the record, because for all living souls it’s the deepest heart’s desire: He never suffered. Jack’s end was quick, and dignified. He had what my own doctor tells me is called a compressed morbidity—a blessedly brief time from “something’s wrong” to “it’s over,” short-cutting around prolonged illness, or debilitation. He was Jack every day of his life, which spanned about 15 years.

He was my 9/11 cat, the stray who came in from the cold that morning (or at least from the woods). There he was when I, frantic and afraid, pulled into the driveway. I had fled Manhattan after seeing planes fly into the World Trade Center from my office window, seeking refuge upstate at my then-weekend home.

Jack with flying squirrel and weasel tailsHe was my Welcome Wagon that morning, and soon he was also my first real pet of my own. But I was an accidental pet owner, because he adopted me. He’d lived rough for months before he identified that I would be his newest prey, after he’d knocked off many of the local weasels and flying squirrels (including those once attached to the tails above) and eluded other al fresco bunkmates from bear to coyote, bobcat to Eastern timber rattler. But I’ve told you that story before, a story that ends with the phrase, “before winter wrapped itself around us that year, my days with Jack began.”

Today, in this early raggedy rawness, my thoughts don’t want to form into some polished essay. All there is so far: fragments—the odd bits that I can remember of the time when winter wrapped itself around us again, and my days with Jack wound down.

Like these:

GENETICS ASIDE, he was more canine than feline: in size (no cat carrier could accommodate my Jack), and in demeanor (if someone dared pull in the driveway, he’d jump up and growl, and head straight for the window or door).

jacks-feetHe spoke his own language, sometimes not only with relentless mouthiness (for he was a talker), but with his distinctive pink feet that smelled of popcorn—or with the retractable claws they disguised.

“It’s time to get up” is carved into the doorframe leading to upstairs, a record of any day that I was tardy coming down. In payment for my sin of sloth, a small pile of wood shavings would await me beneath the bottom step. Some cowboys notch their guns, or belts; Jack kept his records in the moldings.

“Let me in” after an outdoor jaunt was more of a squealing, squeegee sound, at least at first. Paws moist from morning dew madly pumped on the window glass, my giant cat splayed across the big panes like Spiderman.  If I was out of earshot, an indignant Jack turned up the volume, shifting his point of contact to the window’s frame and ripping deepening, long grooves into it, as if for punctuation.

To Jack, I spoke another language, one that closely resembles the vocabulary my sister and I shared when we were small. I hadn’t heard the dialect since (unless I was at my sister’s, and she was talking to her dog), or at least not until my Jack arrived.

He was also catalyst for spontaneous lyrics, set mostly to Broadway musical tunes or those of hymns or carols. He tolerated my singing, as long as there was kibble.

Now I am quiet, but in my head I hear our conversations and the score of our relationship still.

jack on duty 2LIKE EACH OF US, Jack had his routines, his rituals: a morning drink, before dawn, from the frogpond, or best of all, if rain had fallen overnight, from an ample depression in one particular paving stone not far from the kitchen door. Delicious.

Checking all the rodent runways came next most days. And then a lot of naps.

At the start he was rough, not easy to be around, with those claws, downstream from those massive, muscular shoulders. After much blood loss, I proposed the first of many negotiations that defined our years together. The initial bargain we made:

To get a bowl of kibble, I required the semi-wildman to let me brush him. Before long, when he was hungry, he’d go stand at the bowl and scream, but wait to be brushed before taking a bite. Hilarious: my own Pavlov’s cat.

Food was always front-of-mind with Jack, who didn’t really need the kibble, anyhow, and could cook, or at least prepare sashimi, quite expertly for himself. Though easy pickings, considering their abundance in the garden, neither frogs nor birds were on his diet. I took this to be another of our mutual concessions, the way I’d agreed to live with the visual chaos of towels on the furniture, and man the DustBuster.

We were of a mind on what made an appropriate target of extermination, both obsessive about mice and voles. We always showed each other our trophies (though I did not afterward devour mine, but tossed them in the open field uphill, a treat for some raptor or fox, perhaps).

He was a stoner, and knew how to grow catnip. (By sitting on it like a mother hen, of course—how else?)

He was a man of many names—most known only to the two of us. I think for now it will stay that way. Some things are private.

Jack and Margaret RoachFRESH SNOW has fallen overnight three times since Jack departed, and on each such morning after, there were the tracks of a domestic feline here–distinct from the resident possum’s, the squirrels’, the birds’, and the occasional rabbit’s.

The tracks indicate that someone is drinking at the frogpond’s edge, and using the stone wall of the patio as a blind for mousing, just as my guy did.  I don’t know if the cat stopped by to wish its own farewell to Jack–a former hunting buddy, maybe?–or is forming a plan, perhaps, to say hello someday to me.

385 comments
January 24, 2014

comments

  1. Debby West says

    Thank you for sharing memories of your dear Jack. I have two “volunteer” cats that have adopted me. Kudzu and Uncle Martin. They are both unique and special. They love their breakfast buffet on my front porch each morning and love “helping” me when I am working in the garden. When one has a garden and a cat, life is pure bliss.
    Sending you healing love and hugs. Jack was one lucky fellow!

  2. Sue says

    My daughter just sent me a link to your website and your memorial to Jack has me in tears. My husband and I currently have 2 cats and 3 dogs, all rescues, and have had to say good-bye to 2 of our dear furry loved ones in the last year. Now our 18-yr old cat, Oreo, is not well and we’re watching him closely, knowing he’ll be leaving us soon. Just when you think you’ll never open your heart to another furry “child”, you meet one that makes you laugh and you just can’t turn away. When I lost my Simon (basset-lab mix) in June I thought my broken heart wouldn’t allow another in. Last year was rough for us in many ways but then a dear friend brought me Brutus. He was an 8-week old stray pit bull running from something in 26 degree temps. He was answered prayer during a time when I needed a project. He has been welcomed by both cats and dogs on our little blueberry farm and I believe that Simon would have wanted it that way. The holes in our hearts that our pets leave always seem to be filled with someone that helps us heal.

    • margaret says

      Uh-oh, Sue…I might have a Brutus in my future, huh? :) (He sounds irresistible. And what good timing he had, that clever boy.)

      Again, I thank you all for such amazing stories of compassion and pet love. It’s quiet here, but who knows what will happen next!

  3. says

    I’m so very sorry for your loss. I lost my 17-year old dog last year, and I still feel his absence keenly. They are such significant (and in my opinion, necessary) additions to our lives. I’m so glad that your Jack did not suffer.

  4. Kim Hart says

    Deeply sorry to hear of your loss. I burst into tears when I heard your
    January 27th podcast. I had to do the same on February 1st, my beautiful
    Fester was also a tuxedo cat and the same age as Jack. He had renal failure
    and I did not want him to suffer. I was so lucky 4 years ago to have him
    survive a stroke and have all the wonderful years we had together since his
    adoption in 1999. Now he has a place in the garden that will remind me of my fond memories of him.

  5. Jen Taylor says

    Oh my Margaret. I I am so very sorry to hear you lost your dearest friend Jack. Your reminiscences are beautifully written; a tribute to your buddy. I know he will be close by, watching over you forever. Another guardian angel.

  6. says

    I am so sorry that your Jack has passed away. One feels the death of a beloved pet as accutely as if they were a human. Humans in fur suits with their own language and mannerisms, all of which become dearly missed.

  7. Penelope Sales says

    Did you bring Jack back to his garden? Will you keep an offering of his catnip plant for his pals, when coming to visit?

  8. Mary Nessel says

    My heart aches for you this morning and I will miss Jack here in your www world, and such a fine and well crafted glimpse of your world up there in the now frozen earth it is.

    Gratitudes out to you for sharing your grief and memories. Margaret, you are one fine writer.

  9. says

    So sorry for your loss, Margaret. Will miss reading about Jack’s latest antics… pets touch our hearts in such a special way…Sending you a big hug…XO~

  10. Leslie Goldsmith says

    Lovely and beautiful – your tribute to Jack. Nothing left unsaid. Just a few tears because he was not “just a cat”. My Big Boy is a stunning clone of Jack. The same heart shape under his nose. White whiskers by his black nose and above his brow. Wild, he came to me the same sweet way, just wandered in. After 14 years he lets me hold him and I can barely hear his meow. He is special like Jack was. A spirited soul with unconditional love to give and an occasional mouse.

  11. says

    Margaret,
    Thanks for sharing your stories of Jack. Reminded me of losing my Floyd a couple of years ago. He was also a black and white cat and was an old soul. He lived with me for 16 wonderful years and was always my comfort and my companion. He is buried in a special spot in my garden, one of his favorite spots to lay in the sun and keep watch over his domain.

    After a year I was lucky enough to rescue a 1/2 Maine Coon cat whom we named Leo. He is a delight and has filled the hole in my heart left by Floyd’s departure. I hope that someday when the time is right another special cat will walk into your life and garden.

  12. Maura says

    I loved your tribute to Jack and especially your dedication of Johnny Cash singing You Are My Sunshine.

    I had such a cat as Jack, growing up. His name was Didi (Chinese for Little Brother.) He was huge, a black and white mouser, and we had him 15 years. Like Jack, he preferred hurling himself at a window rather than yowling at the door. We would hear a thud, run to the front hall, and find him hanging on one of the long narrow windows on either side of the door, peaking through his paws. Once (only once), I was privileged to see this feat from outside the house.

    Didi was with us when my brother died suddenly at 23. He was with us when my father died of cancer 4 years later, and sat on my mother’s deathbed 5 years afterwards. He was with me to greet (with considerable reservations) the arrival of my first daughter. In fact I remember going into hard labor in the middle of the night, and begging his forgiveness before staggering out to get a taxi.

    When Didi sickened and died, I cried my heart out for days and days. When I took him to the vet for euthanasia, I held him in my lap and sobbed the whole story to his doctor. He purred. The doctor told me it was a side effect of euthanasia.

    One cannot underestimate the power of an animal companion to bear witness and to heal.
    Didi has been gone seventeen years but I still think of him every day.

    A little dustmop of a dog, my first ever, joined our family in August. His name is Moby, he smells good, and he adores me. But he’s not Didi; he’s not my first.

    Darling Jack, rest in peace.

  13. Emily Magnuson says

    I just lost my kitty Charlie. He followed me into my office one morning and I never let him go! I know how you feel and I miss my Charles dearly! What good pictures you have of your fur ball! =)

  14. Candace says

    Margaret, What a lovely and heartfelt tribute to Jack. My friend, Jeanie, and I came to your open garden day a few years ago and you autographed our copies of your first book and we had the pleasure of meeting you and Jack.
    He was all that you had written about and more.
    I have been a cat owner all my life and loved the fact that Jack had adopted you. How wonderful that you two bonded and shared so many years together.
    I am so sorry for your loss, but know that you offered him a loving home.

  15. Laura says

    This poem has brought me comfort every time I lose one of my precious fur friends. I, as all your other readers share your grief with Jack’s passing. I so enjoyed all of your writings and photos of him.

    Do not stand at my grave and weep
    I am not there. I do not sleep.
    I am a thousand winds that blow.
    I am the diamond glints on snow.
    I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
    I am the gentle autumn rain.
    When you awaken in the morning’s hush
    I am the swift uplifting rush
    Of quiet birds in circled flight.
    I am the soft stars that shine at night.
    Do not stand at my grave and cry;
    I am not there. I did not die.

    Mary Elizabeth Frye 1932

    Thank you for sharing Jack with all of us,

    Laura

  16. Deborah long says

    I’m so very sorry for the loss of your friend. After having started many second sentences and erasing them, I think I will just stop with the above. Take care and hopefully soon snipets of joy will return.

    • margaret says

      Thank you, Deborah. Everyone here has been so amazing with their kind words. It’s so quiet here at the house, and I miss him.

      • Anne Slater says

        Jelly, age just over 14, died in October, and her littermate, my heart’s core, Carrie, 2 days ago. They were torties, and small, weighing just over a pound TOGETHER when I adopted them. My first pets, they filled a hole in my life and then expanded their role to become my best friends, Now, I keep looking left from my computer to see Carrie, but the radiator cover is bare.

        When I brought Carrie home so the other (rescue) cats could see her and know why she would be gone, 1 cat was totally hesitant, but the other, Roger, poked her gently a couple of times, and then climbed on top of her and started licking her face and then her neck. I was overwhelmed by the sweetness and caring of it. Someday Roger will come close to having a place in my heart like Carrie’s. My deep sympathy to you on Jack’s departure..

        • margaret says

          I am so sorry, Anne. I keep looking for Jack, too. I suppose that will happen for a good long time.

  17. Judy says

    Hi Margaret,

    I’m so sorry for your loss of Jack. Reading your post brought tears and smiles at the same time. Jack was quite a character.. with his toughness and quirkiness. I always enjoyed reading posts about him. He was a wonderful companion, and he knew he “picked” the right person to spend his life with.

  18. Heather Wingo says

    I am presently reading your book about your life change and I can relate so much. I am enjoying it very much and wanted to learn more about your present so I was naturally sad to hear of Jack’s passing. I know what it is to love a pet like a friend. We live on 3 acres in Meadow Vista which is near Lake Tahoe in California and I live similarly to your experience. Thanks for the heartwarming story which I read at night in the comfort of my “country bedroom” which overlooks the expanse and pond amidst pines, oaks and cedars. Love is grand, aint’ it?

  19. Sherri says

    I am sorry, I had no idea of your loss. I enjoyed your stories and pictures of Jack so much, what a little rogue he was.
    Thank you for sharing him with us all. He will be missed.

  20. says

    I just finished reading “And I will have some peace there” (after reading a review & attracted by the quote of my favorite poem), which I thoroughly enjoyed. From there decided to visit your site (wow) and saw immediately this post on Jack. How you must miss your buddy who was such a constant companion. I am sorry for this huge loss, but what a rich trove of memories he left you. I’m sure by now, your heartache has eased somewhat and perhaps there will be room for a new love to move in. If not by your own choosing, perhaps you’ll be chosen again, sometimes those are the ones that are the most memorable. Blessings.

  21. Abby says

    Margaret,

    I was at the BBG today for my weekly volunteer duties when a friend mentioned that “Margaret’s Jack passed away.” We all knew exactly whom she was talking about and felt your loss. At the last Open Garden Day I attended at your house, I felt privileged to actually see the big guy in person – he was quite the celebrity although he wore his fame in a proud yet understated way.

    Jack will be missed by more gardeners than you know.

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