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. Diane says:

    The tears ran down my face as I read your most beautiful memories of your dear companion Jack. I have four rescue cats and two are very old, 18 and 17, they have given me so much joy. I hope they too experience the “compression of morbidity” when their time comes. I feel your loss–Namaste

  2. Mark says:

    So sorry to hear about Jack.

    Met him before your container gardening seminar a few years ago. He stole more than a few moments during the introduction outside your home.

    Quite the handsome guy!

  3. Sally roach says:

    So sorry to hear about the passing of your beautiful Jack. Some animals that live with us are really souls in animal fur with human personalities, and it’s so painful when it’s their time to move on. Blessings and love and beautiful cat dreams to you.

  4. MarfyD says:

    Oh, no! So sorry to hear about Jack’s passing. It’s amazing the bonds we forge with our animal companions. Sometimes even stronger than those with our human ones.
    Sounds like he was a great, if a bit strong-willed and independent, friend to you, and will be dearly missed.

  5. Roger Giovinazzo says:

    wow! feels like a punch to the solar plexus. I was laying in bed last night with my two cats. Insomnia had me up at 2:00 with the ear buds in listening to your podcast, unaware of Jack’s passing. Johnny Cash’s mournful “Sunshine” tore me up. My two girls were also strays that came to me about the same time as Jack did you. I frequently fret about losing them. The thought makes me hug them a little tighter.

  6. Mary Trout says:

    The footprint that Jack left on your heart will never be replaced. Several dogs have lived their life with me. Right when you think you couldn’t love something so much and that will be so painful when it ceases to live, a new love will come to you when you least expected it. May it be a cat or a dog, it will “talk” to your heart and you will know. Can’t give you a timeline when it will happen but it will.

    Upon reading of Jack’s departure, I searched his name. I’ve been rereading the many, many articles that he has included himself (yes, I said that right) in. There are some that insist on being a topic of conversation and he had the giant personality for that. I don’t know if it was your first mention of him https://awaytogarden.com/mole-patrol/ April 2008 on your new site, at the time, but many of us looked forward to hearing of his happening and perhaps mishaps! :)

  7. Shelley says:

    So sorry to see this… I will miss reading of Jack’s adventures and seeing the pictures of him cat napping. Its never easy losing any part of the family, he was loved and admired by so many. Such a nice memoir, RIP Jack.

  8. Liz Primeau says:

    Oh no–Jack the Demon Cat can’t be gone. I’d grown to know and love him–almost as much as I love my own three (now two ) darling boys.
    My adorable Rufus died suddenly last May ( he was only 7) and I still have a hole in my heart. We’ve had about 10 cats over the past years; three or four lived to be 18 to 22. Big Rufy was too young to go.
    I am so sorry. I know you will never forget Jack, and I hope you’ll soon find another man cat to love, although he will never be Jack.

  9. CEN says:

    We lost “Mr. Boy” in October — he was 13 and his illness took him quickly. Blessedly he was doing his favorite things up to the end. Peace to you and all of us who have loved and been loved by such wondrous creatures– there is never enough time, but it is always full and rich.

  10. Sharon Faerber says:

    What a lucky little man to have shared his life with you and what a lucky woman you are to have shared your life with him. Cherish all the memories. R.I.P. Jack

  11. Deb Funkhouser says:

    Thank you for putting into words, your feelings for Jack. I’m so happy he found you, and chose to spend the rest of his like with you.

  12. Dahlink says:

    Dear Margaret, I learned the sad news about Jack belatedly as we were traveling. I came home to hug our two rescue kitties even more closely. I am grateful that Jack did not suffer for long. Our last cat, Cleo, was 21 and a half when she died, and in retrospect we kept her going too long. I am sure there is another animal companion waiting in the wings for the right moment to appear to you, but none of us will ever forget handsome Jack.

  13. Marnie Andrews says:

    Dear Margaret,

    Thank you for your goodbye to Jack. It brought our girl Fatima back to me in full.

    Fatima walked back into the woods this summer, as she had come out of them 8 years earlier. She was old, weak, and needed to be outdoors when she went.

    We met when she wandered from those woods into my son’s marriage celebration. My daughter in law lured her inside with salmon and lamb, and called her Mr. Fats. I wanted a more graceful name, so Fatima emerged.

    She adopted us like Jack adopted you. She was fierce and a hunter. She was white with black splotches, opposite to Jack.

    She mellowed somewhat. The vet said she was 10 or 12 years old when she arrived at our doorstep. So she made quite a few accommodations when she came to stay as an already mature cat. She even allowed the dog, Sundance, who we adopted after her, to stay. They even slept together a bit in her last few years.

    Thanks for writing about Jack. And for letting me write about, and remember, Fatima. It is a great gift to receive those who come to us. And helpful to share the memory when they go.

  14. Teresa says:

    Oh Margaret, I am so sorry about Jack’s passing. I have so enjoyed reading about him here and meeting him in person during one of your Open Days. Such a special guy.

    My 20 year old cat (the one that stole my heart) passed away over a year ago. It’s such a gift to know that they pass quickly and with dignity.

  15. Cindy says:

    It’s a pleasure to have gotten to know Jack through your experience. I put in a good word to my animal angels, Shadow, Doolittle and Dixie…Perhaps he’s now frolicking with them!? Thank you for sharing

  16. Simon says:


    Sorry to hear of your recent loss

    We had to put to sleep our Cairn Terrier Damson over the summer
    She was 14
    I was emotionally distraught for a while
    I found making a photo homage good therapy
    Now as I write the tears fall as I remember her
    She rests in the rose garden her favourite spot for sleeping and sun bathing
    I am building a small cairn of stones for her
    When we go on holiday I bring back a stone and add it to the pile
    She is still in the garden and with me still in my heart when I pottering I can look at the stones and know she is resting in her favourite spot



  17. Sharon says:

    I have been a longtime reader and along with the voluminous amount I have learned from your writing, it is hard to express how touching and humorous your stories of Jack were/are. This week I adopted a new man. He’s a large orange tabby, a tripod, that no one had asked for besides me. I guess his being larger than most New York dogs is a deterrent for some. Deciding to take him on had, in part, been inspired by your writing. Checking back in on the blog this week as my new friend settles in, I saw this post and my heart ached for you and the loss. But, I am so happy that you chose to not only share this story but the many other experiences and memories you have. They are gifts. As a reader, it’s funny but I think you have successfully placed Jack in all of our hearts. I hope and believe that another friend will come to you when the time is right and until then, I hope that you are well and that the memories of Jack keep you warm.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks to all of you, and Sharon, I wanted to be sure to say that I am similarly happy to hear your story of the new orange tabby, and that Jack in some way helped him get adopted by you. That is yet another example of how we are all connected in one big circle, I guess! Thanks for sharing.

  18. mary ann says:

    great Cat, memories all good, farewell Jack…..am currently in love with a stray
    little boy lion who comes for food and heated home I got for him….and I never
    liked cats! he disappeared for 5 days in the cold spell here near Lake Ontario and
    I was distraught…..but here he is today, hungry and so cute….reading about your
    Jack thru the years was a joy……just know that another companion will come for you.

  19. Martha in Austin TX says:

    Your eulogy of Jack is a tribute to you both. So beautiful. And shared so generously to quicken so many hearts. But I suggest those memories are being written by both of you–with Jack whispering his special memories in your ear, reminding you of his treasures with you.
    Twenty years ago I lost a special cat friend of 18 years–yes, ragged, so painfully lonesome–and other cats in my household wandered about rooms and garden for weeks, calling out their “where are you????” meows. I went thru boxes of photos, remembered and wrote and told about so many special moments with Sweetheart.
    A human friend advised me, “You are not just remembering Sweetheart, SHE is RE-membering WITH you. She will always be there, just behind your shoulder, until you get to the other side–where she’ll be waiting for you at the gate.” And so she has been, there, just behind my shoulder.
    Hope that friend’s words help you and Jack too.
    With wholehearted sympathy,

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