Consider the Lilies

“Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Luke 12:27)

Normally I devote this space to lessons learned from the roses in my backyard garden. Today I want to talk about lilies instead.

Well, one Lily at least.

A cat.

It was a warm day in June when she came to us. Meandering through a local street fair, I noticed a tall cage equipped with a cat tree crowded with kittens. An older couple was offering them for adoption. “Barn rescues,” they said. Lily caught my attention immediately. Her tabby coloring was unusual – dark gray with a beautiful brown undercoat that was most prominent on her face and belly. When she looked at me with weepy green eyes almost too big for her tiny face, I knew she would be coming home with us.

My husband might have nixed the idea of a second cat if we had been at the street fair alone. But, as luck would have it, his adult daughter was visiting from another state. She and I conspired, he couldn’t refuse us both, and Lily rode home tucked inside my stepdaughter’s shirt.

A few days later she got a thumbs up from our local veterinarian, a round of vaccinations, and drops for her weepy eyes and itchy ears. To say that the follow-up care was troublesome would be an understatement. She wiggled and twisted and worked her way out of our grasp every time we tried to apply the drops. We didn’t know it then, but these wrestling matches were a glimpse of things to come.

Other than the health care squabbles, for the first year she was pretty much a normal kitten – chasing string and batting balls, cuddling up to our 2-year-old Siamese mix while he licked her face and ears, and trying unsuccessfully to make friends with our uninterested, elderly Springer Spaniel. She was so small that “Little Tiny” almost became her name. When I realized that she was beginning to respond to my repeated coos of “little, tiny kitty,” I picked a name out of the same mix of letters – Lily. Nicknames inevitably followed – Lily Pily, Silly Lily, and Lilyfer (the latter being an homage to my daughter, Jennifer).

By her second summer with us, she had not only grown into a rather hefty cat but also a decidedly independent one. She was a tank, she still didn’t like us to pick her up, and now she had more than enough strength to fend us off if we tried. We couldn’t catch her even if we worked strategically together. We wondered aloud how we would ever evacuate her if our high-risk neighborhood was threatened by wildfire or wrangle her into a carrier for a trip to the vet if she got sick. She refused to be managed. She was the manager, thank you very much.

And yet, despite all headstrong appearances to the contrary, she was literally a scaredy cat. She immediately ran and hid when anyone dared ring the doorbell. Most of our visitors never saw her, although a few caught a glimpse if she decided to momentarily venture out of the safe room we created in the large rear bedroom of our house. She bolted and disappeared at common household noises – an ice cube dropping in the freezer, the low whirr of the belt on my manual treadmill, a chord on the piano, a human sneeze. We never had to worry about her trying to get outside like our older cat. She instinctively knew even more dangers lurked beyond the doorway.

She was an enigma. Stubborn but skittish. Willful but wary.

After a while, we stopped trying to understand her split personality and embraced it.

The love Lily gave us in return was genuine but rationed. She preferred my husband’s attention to mine, I think partly because our older cat grew jealous and made it clear that I was his human. At least once a day she spent 15 or 20 minutes on my husband’s lap letting him stroke her and talk to her. Periodically I would hear the two of them chatting in the dining room about whatever she might have seen in the yard through the glass sliders. He would ask, “What,” and she would give a verbose reply about the visiting desert quail, cottontails, and lizards.

Occasionally she let me give her a lengthy chin or ear scratch but, normally if I wanted to pet her, she would walk slowly past my outstretched hand and just barely let my fingertips slide across her back and tail. Once or twice was enough. On the extremely rare occasion that she crept hesitantly onto my lap, it was only for a moment. I would ask, “Well, to what do I owe this pleasure,” reach out to pet her, and then she would be gone. It was like a peck on the cheek from a teenage child who didn’t want to be seen kissing her mother.

Because her affection was given sparingly, I think we appreciated it more. And, because she spent most of her time quietly minding her own business, we felt fiercely protective when her peace was disrupted.  Other than visitors and sudden noises, the most common disruption was perpetrated by our older cat. He bullied her for his own entertainment or, like a naughty child, to get our attention. I kept a spray bottle of water handy for these occasions, and my husband and I took turns admonishing him. With her dominant size and bulk, Lily easily could have put him in his place without our help. But she never did. She seemed to live by the old adage, “Pick your battles.” Obviously, his childish antics were simply not worth the effort.

She almost never got into mischief either. Her biggest offenses were joyfully clawing a few select pieces of furniture, while ignoring the many cat scratchers in the house, and making a mess in the guest bedroom after her curiosity led to accidental imprisonment for the better part of one day. She more than made up for these minor infractions by delighting us with her signature poses – sitting regally with her front legs crossed or laying playfully with her front quarters in a side position and her rear legs pointing skyward. She would typically let me take one or two pictures of her little performances if my camera was handy, then swish her tail and walk away.

“There, pesky human,” I could imagine her thinking. “I have entertained you. Now be off with you.”

If I had space to write just one memory of Lily, it would be that she was content living a simple, peaceful life. I think the widespread isolation during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic was probably her happiest time. My husband and I were both retired so there were no telephone calls or Zoom sessions to bother with, and absolutely no one visited. No out-of-towners with suitcases bumping down the hallway, no friends sharing raucous laughter, no family with rowdy dogs. During that time, with very little to frighten her, she was the most Zen cat I’ve ever known. A bit of a feline Buddhist, if you will.

Alas, our fears about catching her in a fire or wrangling her into a carrier eventually materialized. She got sick and nothing we tried to do for her helped. Our experience with other pets told us this was the end. We agonized about taking her to the vet as a Hail Mary or for euthanasia, but we knew exactly what would happen if we went down that path. Should we add struggle, terror, bewilderment, and betrayal to her last days?

No. We couldn’t bring ourselves to do it.

And so it was that we spent the last two weeks of Lily’s life ensuring that the house stayed calm and quiet, trying to coax her to eat, keeping water bowls all around the house for easy access, making comfy resting places that she unapologetically rejected, keeping a litter box near, and constantly reassuring her with as many soft words and as much gentle petting as she would tolerate. She didn’t seem to sleep; perhaps because she felt vulnerable and was determined to stay alert. But, through it all, she remained calm. She accepted the situation with more grace than any animal or person I’ve been blessed to be with in their last days. My husband and I grew more grief-stricken with each passing minute but, observing her, we somehow drew on her strength and carried on.

As her days dwindled to hours, her distress began to show. She cried when she moved and even more so when I tried to help her move. Yet, she continued to display her willful side by making her own decisions about where she wanted to rest. Long after it even seemed possible, she slowly made the rounds to her favorite places in the hallway, the guest bathtub, and the walk-in shower adjacent to our bedroom. We found it odd. Why not settle down in a cozy bed in a safe corner? But, in the end, who were we to argue with a cat who had always been the mistress of her own fate?

When our sweet Lily finally took her last breath in the early morning hours of Easter Day, my husband and I were both asleep – I on a sofa cushion on the floor beside her, my husband nearby in our bed with our older cat. It was as if she waited for a moment when all was quiet and calm … just the way she liked it. No drama. Just peace.

Now, as I remember our gentle girl, I can clearly see she offered us lessons in much the same way my rose garden does. Neither flowers nor cats can tell us what they think. Yet, it’s easy to benefit from their natural wisdom. One needs only to pay attention to the way they live. What did our Silly Lily teach us?

  • Be yourself no matter what others think.
  • Cultivate inner peace.
  • Choose your battles.
  • Endure difficult times with grace.
  • In your own way, show love to those who love you.

I’ll never forget you or the things you taught me, sweet girl. I promise, I won’t.