“You say ‘I love you’ to the cat more often than you say it to me,” my boyfriend says after he overhears me whispering into my cat, Zola’s, ear. He’s a good sport about it, but I can’t help feeling guilty. We’ve been together for seven years, but the 20 years I’ve spent with Zola constitute the longest intimate relationship I’ve ever had. No one—not my parents, brother, friends, or boyfriend—has spent more time day in and day out with me than Zola. She’s my life partner.
I got Zola during my junior year of college. My boyfriend at the time’s uncle found her while mowing the lawn. Someone probably ditched her because she was a runt, palm-of-the-hand tiny. My boyfriend thought she was dangerously small and would be chronically sick—or worse—but I couldn’t bear the thought of her at the ASPCA. When she fixed me with her cross-eyed stare, I had to take her home.
Her first litterbox was a cereal carton cut long ways and filled with sand. The decision to take her in was quick and easy. I didn’t think about the future. And here we are, 20 years later.
Zola has moved with me from Michigan to New York City, to Vancouver, back to Michigan, and then to Boston. She’s often been my only friend in these new locations. When I think about what home means to me, it’s not about geography—it’s about her.
We’ve had our share of adventures. We partied together in college, where Zola entertained dozens with her catnip-fueled antics. She’d sit on the back of the couch and paw at people’s heads, sometimes delivering playful cat-smacks. Once, a furious rustling woke me up in the middle of the night and I found Zola tearing around the apartment with her head stuck in a bag of marshmallows.
One time I took a bubble bath and Zola sat on the ledge, pawing at the foam. Apparently she thought it was solid, because she jumped in—and then promptly jumped out in the fastest direction reversal I’ve ever seen, trailing foam as she sped down the hall.
We moved to New York City on September 8, 2001. She hid for three days, freaked out by the move and the street noise. On September 11, she crawled out from under the bed into the eerie quiet. She was my only source of comfort. Shortly after, she escaped through an open window.
Thinking about her out there, terrified and unable to get back home, shook me every bit as much as the 9/11 attacks. Those I couldn’t do anything about, but Zola was my responsibility. In a twist of fate, or luck, or who knows what, I found her days later under a pile of firewood in the backyard of house half a block away.
When I got her home, I slowly released her and she sat on my lap, looking around, looking at me, realizing where she was. She seemed to understand that I had found her and changed her reality in a matter of minutes. She didn’t leave my side for weeks, following me into the bathroom and waiting on the mat for me to finish my showers.
We lived in Canada for a couple years while I was in graduate school. One night, I looked out my window and there was Zola on the roof, staring at me. They say people’s pets grow to resemble them, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s true. Zola is a true weirdo (and I mean that in the most affectionate way), just like me. She talks constantly, chirping like a bird or a Tribble. We have conversations. Sometimes I meow and trill, and other times I talk and she responds. When I get home from work, she’s waiting at the top of the stairs, yakking about her day or reprimanding me for being gone so long. I’m grateful she doesn’t speak English—oh, the stories she could tell.
When my dad was diagnosed with cancer, Zola and I moved back to Michigan. I spent nights sobbing on the couch. She snuggled against my side or napped on my chest, never leaving me alone. She knew. I often think about how much lonelier those weeks and the months after my dad’s death would have been without her. She made me laugh when I didn’t think it possible.
When I moved to Boston, she was my only friend. Now, she’s my oldest friend. And that means she won’t be around much longer.
Zola was diagnosed with kidney disease three years ago, which has progressed to stage three. She still chases the laser pointer and jumps into boxes, but her balance is off, she sleeps a lot and she caterwauls at night after we’ve gone to bed, forgetting we’re upstairs—a sign of senility, according to the vet. Some days, I’m consumed by preemptive grief.
About six months ago, she spent a few nights at the animal ER and I got a taste of life without her. The house was painfully empty. Nights were the worst. “It just feels wrong,” my boyfriend said when we climbed into bed and I wept. We didn’t think she’d make it then, but Zola seems determined to live out her nine lives.
I’m constantly aware of what lies in the not-too-distant future. I remind myself that Zola doesn’t know what death is, doesn’t fear it. She doesn’t know she’s old or sick. My knowledge of these realities is the burden of being human.
When I think beyond Zola, I suppose I’ll get another cat, in time. But I suspect it feels a little like imagining dating after one’s husband or wife dies. Unthinkable. And what cat could ever compare? Perhaps none is supposed to.
I’m pretty cynical when it comes to relationships, but I’ve done this one right. Zola greets me at the end of every day, good or bad, hot or cold, early or late. And no matter what, when I see her face hovering at the top of the stairs, cross-eyed and goofy, my heart swells.
What comforts me most is that Zola has had one hell of a life. She’s lived in multiple states and countries and has had some magnificent adventures. She has been adored and loved for every minute (okay, almost every minute) of her 20 years. I have no regrets—and how many people can say that about their life partners?
Illustrations via Josh Carter
Joelle Renstrom teaches writing at Boston University and writes for the Daily Beast, now.space, and Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel. Her collection of essays, Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature, was published in 2015.