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Weeds: So long to an old friend

We have an old cat in our house. Our children have come and gone and come and gone. But Taffy the cat has been here most of two decades.

Daughter Abby was always befriending farm cats and bringing them in the house for extended visits when she was young. Kittens born in a closet were a high point and a brief invasion by fleas were a low point in those years.

When Abby was 12, she was playing over at Dan and Lisa Steffl’s farm. There was a kitten in a puddle which had somehow lost its mother. Abby asked the Steffl kids if she could take it home. Abby has long been a defender of the downtrodden of all species. Pam and I assumed this kitty she named Taffy was another short-term visitor.

Eventually Abby left, and Taffy stayed. She’s still here, 17 years on. As Abby went to University, moved to the West Coast, and then Europe, I had a running joke where Taffy wanted Abby to look for her mother. Abby recently moved to Guatemala City. Perhaps Taffy’s mother is there.

Now, Taffy looks to be in her twilight. Aging is different from injury and illness. It is a long, slow, gradual slide. Taffy doesn’t bat the string around anymore that hung on the stair railing. She doesn’t sit on the chair across from me when I’m having my morning coffee.

For many of these columns, Taffy jumped up on our computer desk and laid next to the keyboard when I was writing. It was a little annoying, I had to maneuver the mouse between her paws. But she was social in that way, so I left her. I said she was my editor. A few months ago, she couldn’t make that jump anymore.

The gradual decline has become steeper lately: not eating much, barely getting up the stairs, even looking tippy sometimes. Just to be sure there wasn’t any simple thing to help, I took Taffy to the vet’s. Christina from Riverside Vet Clinic concurred that Taffy’s condition was a natural state of being near the end. Death is, after all, natural, even if I don’t like to think about it.

I called the kids to let them know Taffy was on palliative care, hospice provided by Pam and me. And they should prepare for bad news.

The thing about pets is you see their whole lives play out, from kittenhood to old cat or puppyhood to old dog. It is a life spanned within our own life’s span. I didn’t think about that till becoming an older human. But right there in front of us is a metaphor for our own life. Depressing as it may be, watching Taffy’s decline presages my last chapters. Loss of acuity, susceptibility to various ailments, lessening energy are things common to cats and us as we age.

I hope to be running around for a while. But I know how this fall, climbing on top of bins and crawling underneath equipment were done with less friskiness than in the past. Achiness after a hard day was a little more pronounced. Running for 12 or 14 hours has gotten more challenging.

As I describe those phenomena, I’m not glum about that. No way did I anticipate any of it when I was 30. But now that I’m twice that plus four, I understand that’s the script. I remember my dad moving slower and grunting to climb up on tractors when he was this age.

I was thinking about this while I was combining corn. Six rows of tall, browned stalks were being whipped down by the snapping rolls, the ears drawn in by the gathering chains. It’s all incredibly fast, almost violent. There’s standing corn in front of you and bits of leaves, stalks, and cobs behind you.

Hours of this becomes hypnotizing, and your mind has space to wander. It occurred to me that my corn plants were another life spanned. In this case, all within a growing season rather than the unpredictable lifetime of cat or human.

Six months ago, I gently poured seeds into my planter hoppers. A lot of planning and effort went in to giving each one of those the best seedbed and conditions possible. When the shoots poked out of the ground, there is always a tiny excitement for the farmer.

After that comes days of green stalks growing skyward, leaves rolling out. Corn standing tall and straight in late summer is impressive and not to be taken for granted. There’s everything we do as farmers and then about 90 per cent what nature does that gives us a crop to put in the bin.

Cat, corn, farmer. There are seasons for all: a time to be young, a time to grow, and a time to die. Ecclesiastes says it well.

With some of my own physical ebbing, there comes understanding that I couldn’t have had when I was younger. Understanding and appreciation. These days are gifts given more than earned.

Taffy looks tireder and tireder. If I am lucky to grow old, observation tells me that will come for me. In the way that the corn plant turns from green to brown, I think we grow tired of this life, exhausted as our bodies wear out.

The kitten Abby found in a puddle might have had a short life if it hadn’t moved in with us. The life of a farm cat can be tough. The luckiest live in a warm dairy barn with spilled milk for an occasional treat. The less fortunate wander from farm to farm avoiding coyotes, scrounging food to survive.

I sometimes wonder, would Taffy have chosen that and the chance to bear a couple of litters of kittens over her comfortable but neutered life? The urge to procreate is after all large in nature. She didn’t get that choice, and I appreciate that she gave 17 years of companionship to our family.

Taffy is dying of old age. And that is a gift not given to all. If I die of old age, I’m not sure how much I’ll be aware of things. But I hope I can appreciate that. Maybe even celebrate it with whoever might be there at my end.

(After this was completed, Taffy passed on. I was able to be there at her end, her on a blanket, me on my knees. It felt like a small grace. Burial to follow in the grove.)

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