I am sitting here at the computer with a new friend in my lap, remembering old ones. In particular, I’m thinking about someone who was barely here long enough to be anything but new, but whose presence meant everything at a time we really needed her. Regular readers and friends know our story, how we raised a family of nine coonhound puppies from birth, after finding their mama hit by a car on the highway and bringing her home to join our greyhound. You might also know how hard it got, these last 5 years, watching our kids get old, sick, and pass away. We have no regrets over how we were able to round out our adventure together, but being a senior caregiver is hard. It’s wrenching. It’s exhausting and heartbreaking. Because our pack was so large and so closely knit, we never considered bringing anyone else into the family. So unlike many other large animal families, we didn’t have a periodic influx of new life. Our family was complete, at thirteen, and we planned to see it through to the end that way.

But then there was Sophie. One late, stormy July night in 2015, CJ took the garbage out—and never came back. After about fifteen minutes, I realized something might be amiss, so I went to check on him. And there, standing in the halo of light from the open garage, were CJ and a tiny neighbor, asking for help. “Excuse me, sir? It’s late and raining and I have nowhere to stay.” This wee black and white kitty had run right up to him, meowing her head off. What could we do? It was after midnight, and it was pouring rain. But we still had five dogs in the house. So she spent the night in our garage, and we sent her back home in the morning.

My name is “No.” My number is “No.” My sign is “No.”

But she kept coming back. For a whole year, CJ and this little stray cat forged a friendship, and she became a natural extension of our caregiving duties. Did she have food? Water? Shelter? Companionship? Was she warm enough in the winter, cool enough in our hot hot summer? Whenever I’d leave the house, she’d be right outside the front door—only to give me a look of disgust. “Oh, it’s you,” she’d sniff, and walk away. And if we came out with one of the dogs? The betrayal in her face was hilarious.

As the year went on, our family at home got smaller and smaller. And the little stray cat’s life started to seem more and more urgent. Was she staying safe from cars? Was anyone taking care of her medical needs? What about the hawks and foxes in the neighborhood? Other neighbors were sharing the duty of looking out for her, setting out food and water, but we started bringing her in overnight when it was too stormy, or during the day when it was too hot.

“I have exceptional taste in fine fabric.”

At first, it was all about us helping her. But it quickly became evident how much she brought to our lives. Our last three old dogs (now over 15) responded to her like they hadn’t done in months. They were thrilled by their new family member (probably more than she was!). She perked up EVERYTHING in our household. All our lives, for the past few years, had been about sickness and dying and endings. And suddenly there was somebody NEW and YOUNG and ALIVE. She changed everything. She reminded us that we still had more love (sometimes I had forgotten, in the grind and stress of elder caregiving), that although our big adventure was coming to an end, there were new adventures ahead of us.

Christmas 2016, with all the girls

All of that, in a tiny, nine-pound cat.

Research Consultant, Muse, and Writing Supervisor On Duty

And there was even more. A chance remark from an acquaintance sparked an idea (“You should write a book about that.”), and that tiny cat breathed new life into my work, as well. As life with dogs wound down, we started to learn about cats. Or at least this one cat. She was calm and confident and knew not to show any fear around the dogs, and even our big guard dog Jade came to respect her. She had Strong Opinions about everything, which she vocalized liberally. Her favorite word was “No.” Do you like your dogs? No. Do you want to play? No. Do you think I should wear this top to writers group? No. She was convinced that there should be six or seven meals a day, all of them breakfast. She gave amazing massages, and sweet little kitten kisses.

When she joined our family for good, we named her Sophie, after the raven-haired grifter in “Leverage” (played by Gina Bellman), who could sweet-talk her way into any situation. She had us on the long con, and reeled us in. We could not have been happier.

She meowed and meowed at me until I came to see The Best Sunbeam Ever.

We thought she’d come into our lives to save us from our grief. Which is why it was such an unbearable shock to have her ripped away just two months after losing our last dog. It was unimaginable. How could this young, beautiful, perfect life just disappear, so suddenly? We have suffered a lot of grief in the past decade. Losing your entire family is inconceivable, even when you go through it. But with each of them—even the really tough ones, like losing Mama Nelly at 8 from kidney failure—there felt like there was some consolation there. We’d saved Nelly and her pups’ lives. Nelly deserved more than the extra seven years we bought her, but those seven years were a HUGE win. All her pups lived to be at least eleven; two lived to sixteen. We had two cancer survivors, a stroke survivor, and more than one life-saving surgery. We only had our greyhound for seven years, too, but even he lived to be 13. Everyone had a good run. Except Sophie.

It was hard to imagine how we’d go on. I didn’t even want to come back to the house without her there, let alone think of finishing the book we’d started together—the one she’d sat on my lap while I wrote about her. This story doesn’t have a nice tidy ending; I still don’t know how to wrap it up in any kind of sensible way. It just stopped. The main character died, and there’s no more to tell, except the hole she left behind.

There is, however, a new story. It’s not Sophie’s amazing story, but it would not have been possible without Sophie, and what she taught us about new chapters and opening up our hearts again. And that is the most important thing about Sophie, and that’s what I want to remember: That she lived. She was here. She taught a grieving family how to love again. And that’s what I wanted you to know about her, too.

Thanks for reading. We really miss her.

RIP Sophie “Kitcat” Bunce, 20??-October 21, 2017