Our elderly cat Gus, frail in the middle of his 16th year, is still a pivotal member of the family, still a model of calm, of loving acceptance and resilience with some important life lessons to teach.
What kind of life lessons am I learning from my aging cat?
The pleasure of daily routines: Gus has an internal clock that keeps exquisite time. And he's always looking forward to something -- like breakfast at 5 a.m. and dinner at 4 p.m. Like mandatory cuddles just as I sit down with the morning newspaper. And promptly, at 7:30 every evening, a quarter-sized dollop of whipped cream on a saucer. After the whipped cream, he is sated -- content with a last cuddle just before bedtime. His routine rarely varies. He lives from pleasure to pleasure.
The rewards of generativity: Since losing his brother Timmy to melamine poisoning in middle age, Gus has raised a series of kittens. The first was Maggie, a scraggly little black Bombay discarded into rescue by a Beverly Hills breeder. We brought her home to console Gus, who was howling every night for his deceased brother, and the bonding was immediate. He embraced her, groomed her, held her as they slept and taught her by example to be a calm and caring young cat. He had a bit more of a challenge with a later addition, Sweet Pea aka The Rabid Badger, who is the wild, erratic element in our feline family. With time and patience, he and Maggie helped to tame her fierceness without trampling her spirit and now Sweet Pea cuddles up to him, grooming him, as Maggie does. Perhaps Gus' happiest mentoring project has been with young Hammie, a male Siamese mix who looks a little like Gus's late brother Timmy, and who adores Gus. Since Hammie came to us as a two-month-old kitten, Gus has befriended and embraced him. Now Hammie takes wonderful care of him, growing into a gentle and loving young cat.
The wisdom of stoicism about the aches and pains of aging: Unlike many of us here in Sun City, Gus rarely complains about his geriatric condition. His arthritic pain is visible only briefly, when he jumps down from the bed or couch and has to pause as his back settles, or as he pads across the cold tile on newly tender paws. But aches and pains don't keep him from essential activities. He is still there quickly when called, when he wants attention or affection, when it's meal time or when whipped cream is served. And a brown paper bag or a feather on a string channels his instant inner kitten. He shows the younger ones how to chase a laser or how to conquer a moving feather or a tented newspaper. He feels his years, some days more than others, but he never lets pain interfere with his play.
The advisability of not getting involved in things that don't matter or are toxic: He steps back from squabbles and has little interest in Sweet Pea's hissy fits or Maggie's territorial growlings. He ignores Hammie's tail-biting antics. He stays resolutely above the fray -- and is the one cat that all the others seem to love and with whom they seek rest and refuge.
The wisdom of living fully in the moment. Gus lives to savor life. He stretches out at the front door screen, basking in the warmth of a summer evening or inhaling with puzzled pleasure the scent of mesquite after an autumn rain. He finds a spot of sun streaming from the bay window and turns his face to it. He stakes out a napping place among the lush decorative pillows on our bed. He slides with particular pleasure into the battered little donut bed he has had since kittenhood, curls up and snores through the night. He licks every trace of whipped cream from his saucer every night and comes to say "Thank you!" with a gentle rub of his head.
Gus is especially happy each Thanksgiving and Christmas when he smells a turkey in the oven. He lounges by the oven much of the day, enjoying the warmth and the scent and re-discovering with delight, once again, how much he loves small scraps of dark meat.
The joy of savoring relationships that matter. Gus is kind and affectionate with anyone who seeks him out these days. But certain people mean the most.
Many times a day, Gus comes to me, looks in my eyes and wants to cuddle, to be touched, to be cherished -- and to give this back. There is always enough time to enjoy his family and special friends. And he reminds me to take time when I'm too absorbed with the newspaper -- which he will stand up and bat away or reach over and pull down until we are face to face. When I'm sitting at the computer, oblivious, he'll stand up and gently tap me on the shoulder or rest his front paws on my thigh, mewing quietly to remind me that I can always type or read. But I may not always have the pleasure of simply cuddling with Gus.
Whatever time we have left together, Gus will continue to teach me what it means to enjoy every moment, every experience of life and what it means to love -- in the moment and forever.