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.

  1. Shelley says:

    A year already?! And of course it is in the middle of winter when you have time to dwell on it. We all miss Jack and share in your loss, Margaret. We’ve all struggled with losses and they do continue to haunt us a bit. But, oh the memories and emotions they bring out of us- they are family and certainly a part of our gardening memories (for better or worse). Jack’s memory will live on!

  2. Linda says:

    Jack was a wonderful sweet looking creature. I could see he was a well loved content guy; and I confess I cried when I read you had lost him. Thanks for sharing all the photos and doings with Jack. They made me smile…….a lot. :-))

    1. Kate Gutierrez says:

      My cats have and always will be apart of my family. They tend to find me and are always welcomed for how ever long they stay. The good-byes are difficult and I have many cheery memories of each one. Hugs, Kate G

  3. Judy B. says:

    What a beautiful tribute to a well-loved family member! I was so sorry to learn that Jack had died and hope that the memories of the countless ways that he enriched your life with his larger than life personality with help, over time, to ease the sense of loss you must feel. He landed well when he appeared in your driveway on that fateful day but it seems like he also added a lot to an already rich country life!

  4. Lila says:

    I’ve had little gardening time in the last two years and, because of it, I’d not kept up with your site. But today, as we began to get some blessed relief from winter in NC, I decided to check in. I was unprepared to learn of your loss of Jack, that wonderful boy. He was a special character, beautifully described in your posts and so amusing to my husband and I, who are beholden to seven cats of our own. I hope you soon will have another companion (or two) to supervise your outdoor work.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Lila. Can’t believe he’s been gone more than a year. Still miss him daily, my big handsome boy. Thanks for saying hello…and welcome back!

  5. ceci says:

    How exciting to see a wild bobcat in your garden! I have only ever seen in a zoo…..not the same of course as your dearly departed, but still very lucky!


  6. Carol says:

    What a gorgeous guy Jack was. He reminds me so much of mine. I recently lost my big “tuxedo ” cat Tartuffe at age 16. We found him when he was just weeks old–a tiny thing. He loved being in the garden and and had a real sense of humour. We had lots of mature box hedging in the potager and he loved to secretly scuttle through it to where you were working, suddenly popping his head and shoulders up out the top of the hedge to try to give you a fright. His favourite pal for years was the local Doberman.

  7. Peg Lotvin says:

    A true tribute to a lost friend. We lost our 16 year old at about the same time. Ours to a coyote. Two new kitties have come into my life and augment the memories of Cleo, not replace. They do not go out to tempt the coyote however. The house is mouse free at least. Enjoy your Bob, what a beauty he is.

  8. Donald says:

    I am so sorry to just now hear about Jack. I haven’t been keeping up! I may be losing my Dec. 1, 2002 Siamese soon. Our cats become a part of who we are. I know you will always miss him, but probably already, in a joyful way.

  9. June Fisher says:

    Hi Margaret,
    After a little hiatus from your blog, I was sad to read about Jack’s passing. I have such a soft spot for big black and white kitties, and he clearly had the personality to go with it.
    My house bunny, Spikey, a Lion’s Head rabbit died in June. We rescued him and he was in his 11th year. There is a huge gap in our home at this point that we are doing nothing to fill. Secretly, I am hoping someone will come to the door looking for a home and choose us.
    I love that someone is visiting you. Bob is such a handsome gift of nature. You knew what you were doing when you chose that spot in the world.
    Here’s to vagabond travelers who know a good home when they see it.
    June Fisher

  10. Terry says:

    We are a very small cheesemaker in Lake Geneva, WI. We have just a dozen cows abd innumerable cats, many Black & White should you want a new house mate. I’ve always been a cat person and lose a few every year. Even though they’re barn cats I miss them.

  11. Marcia Groover says:

    What an touching tribute to an incredible friend. He was blessed to have you in his life and it is clear that he blessed yours. Their paw prints remain in our hearts forever.

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