Winston awoke to the kiss of sunlight gently warming his arthritic frame. After the recent rains, it felt good to bask in the comfort of morning sunshine. He stirred a bit, testing the rebellion of old limbs and uncooperative muscles. Surely his ninth life had come and gone, and these days were borrowed time. Still, it had been a good run for a cat of mixed breeding and unremarkable roots.
He had known many a cat who faired far worse. Like the Henderson's tabby across the street. Always fixated on those damn squirrels. Yes, the tabby had caught many in his day, until that final chase. Into the street and direct path of a UPS truck. Terrible way to go. Mrs. Henderson shrieked and screamed. And the look on that young UPS driver. Stunned and bereft. But it wasn't his fault. He could never have expected a gray squirrel and old tabby to bolt out in front of him like that. Nope, when your number's up, it's up. Nine lives or not.
Winston elongated and stretched. Gathering steam, he rolled over and wobbled upright. Looking up at the headboard, he saw that she was still sleeping. Good. It had been a long time coming. After the divorce, she seldom slept much and Winston had worried about her. Many a night he crept up beside the pillow and sweetly nudged her cheek with his wet nose and whiskers. It seemed to stop the tears and often she'd scoop him up and under the blankets. Then he'd purr, his slow rhythmic vibrations lulling her to sleep. He was most proud of that. Those nights when he could give her quiet comfort.
After she awoke and ambled off to the shower he made his way to the garage. It was a familiar routine. Liter box. Kibble bowl. Sip of water. Take a nap. What was the sarcastic remark her ex had made? "Cats are worthless. They sleep to eat and eat to sleep." Yep, that's what the jerk said. Which was funny, considering all he ever did was sleep, drink, pretend to work a little, and repeat. Hypocrite.
Winston awoke later on the windowsill in the art studio, to the sounds of soft music. Looking up he watched her humming, sipping a mug of coffee and painting at the easel. It was so good to see her painting again. He always knew that art would save her in the end. Men may come and go, but cats and creativity were the only reliable companions. The ones you could count on. Yes, she had begun to heal and rediscover herself and her art. There was the beginning of a spring in her step.
In the days that followed, friends started to come over more and there was laughter in the evenings. Winston would occasionally saunter out into the living room to make an appearance. "Oh, there he is," said one of her best friends, Barbara. "How old is Winston, now?" And she laughed and answered, "Ancient, but he's been such a good buddy. I couldn't have survived this last year without him." That made Winston feel good. Because he had strived to be there for her. That's what good cats do. Unlike dogs, with their brash affection and predictable slobbering. No, cats communicate their love with reserve and elegance. It's like the difference between a rap song and Bach. No comparison.
The following week it happened. The dull ache in his back had worsened and finally one morning he couldn't stand up. He didn't want to alarm her, so he feigned sleepiness when she tried to entice him to get up. After much effort and some pain, Winston struggled to his feet and off the bed. That afternoon he watched her working on a beautiful landscape piece. It had sweeping vistas and mysterious thickets. The kind of environment a cat could get lost in. He closed his eyes and dreamed he was there. In her picture.
Later, he worked hard to edge across the studio and nudge her ankle. She looked down and he looked up at her. She smiled. "What is it, Winston?" He tried to smile back. Then he looked up at the canvas. He mustered all his strength and hopped up onto the stool. Then he reached out his paw and gently tapped the painting. She looked at him quizzically. "What is it, old guy?" He mewed softly. And then he gazed at the painting. She smiled and ran her fingers through his long mane. "Yeah, I like it too, Winston. It's a peaceful landscape, isn't it?"
"Yes it is," thought Winston. "So peaceful."
That night, he made his way toward the headboard and purred softly as he nudged her arm. "Do you want under the covers, buddy?" She held open the blanket and pulled him close to her. He could feel her warmth and heartbeat. It was heaven. And it was time.
He closed his eyes and gave thanks that he held out long enough to shepherd her through it all. And to see her paint and laugh and enjoy her friends again. The best part was knowing that she was okay. That she was strong enough now. Capable of weathering the loss of this old fur ball. So he closed his eyes, happily in her arms, and drifted off to what he knew awaited.
She awoke that morning and nudged him. He usually didn't sleep with her all night. He was independent that way. "Come on, sleepy, time to get up." Nothing. She ran her fingers across his back. "How about some warm milk?" But Winston seemed very still. She sat upright. "Oh, no. Winston. You can't do this. Winston!" She cradled him close, his whiskers brushing against her face.
And then it happened. Winston twitched. He opened one eye and looked up at her. Then the other eye. "How strange," he thought. "I didn't expect to wake up." She started to cry and held him close. "Oh, Winston. Oh, Winston." They rocked back in forth together, and Winston felt a bit of hopefulness and energy. Funny how her love could enliven him so. After a wonderfully long time together, she slid out of bed and said,"I'm getting you some warm milk, you old fellow. Because you deserve it. For sticking with me, buddy!" She padded off to the bathroom and then the kitchen.
Winston slowly worked his way over to the window. The sun was peeking through now and he basked in it's healing warmth. "Why stop at nine lives?" he mused. And then she came in with the bowl of warm milk, and he lapped it happily, and she giggled and everything in the world was perfect.