Photo by Jill Bates

I’m still running with the animal theme, thanks to Timbits, who you’ll hear about in a bit. Whether our animals are registered service animals or pets, they can be important caregivers. Animals are great for this because we care for them in turn, making it perhaps the most equal give-and-take relationship in our lives. With them, there is no need to pretend you’re fine when you’re not.

The cat you see pictured above, in the wonderful portrait shot by his “Auntie Jill,” is my late Nimby. Yes, Nimby, for Not In My Back Yard. Nimby was larger than life; a perfect replica of a B. Kliban cartoon. Weighing in at 21 pounds, that cat was solid muscle. We missed his first vet appointment because I couldn’t wrestle him into the carrier. Nimby was a character and a half. He made his opinions known—I often said if I’d waited to name him until I knew more about him, I’d have called him Alger because he hissed to get his way. He wasn’t always the easiest cat, but he commanded respect and usually reciprocated.

The first inkling I had that Nimby was no ordinary cat came when someone tried to break in through my back door at 4 AM. The intruder hurled his body at the glass door again and again. I stood around the corner from the back door, the 911 screen bright on my phone, and Nimby sprang into action. He launched his full bulk at the back door with a cougar screech that froze my blood and sent the intruder running for the hills. When the police arrived and the officer stood in my living room talking with me about the incident, Nimby sat on my feet and growled every time the officer leaned in my direction. When I went back to bed, Nimby sat on my chest for the rest of the night. Every time I opened my eyes, he was staring right at me, never letting up on his protection vigil.

When Nimby was 5 years old and I’d had him just 3 years, I left for a bike ride and promised to be home in an hour. I didn’t make it home for 3 months. During that time, my parents stayed in my condo and cared for Nimby. His little girlfriend Kali still came over and spent every morning with him and they put on their own little Benny Hill show for my parents. Nimby accepted the new routine, with strange people suddenly moving into his house. It just killed me to know he thought I’d abandoned him. When I finally came home, I was still braced and bandaged. I moved differently and I didn’t smell right at all. Nimby was terrified of me at first. It took hours before he finally jumped in my lap and gave me his ridiculously loud purr with slamming head-butts.

I had fractured my spine in 3 places and broken my shoulder, so sitting up in bed was a painful ordeal. Without the electric hospital bed to lift me into a sitting position, I had to do it myself. The first morning I didn’t think I could do it. I tried several times, refusing to call for help. No one could help anyway; there was no place they could hold onto me that wouldn’t cause injury. As I struggled up a few inches, Nimby jumped up on the bed and head-butted my back with his feet firmly braced, his claws embedded deep in the mattress. That cat tried to push me upright! I made it up and I wasn’t sure if he’d actually pushed me or I’d just managed not to fall backward onto him, but we did it together. Every morning for the rest of his life, even after I was more than able to get up by myself, he came to help me out of bed.

When Nimby was 7, I felt a mass on his side behind his right shoulder. It was spindle-cell sarcoma, an aggressive cancer. The tumor was solid and well defined, so I chose to have it surgically removed—1.2 pounds of malignant tissue. Nimby was shaved over about a third of his body and I was terrified by the long incision. He recovered fast and we took a long walk together around the complex every day. We loved those walks. After a year there was still no sign of the cancer returning and we called it a victory.

The year after that, my dad died suddenly. As I was leaving for the airport to go to the memorial service, I petted Nimby good-bye and I felt it—the mass was back. This time it had penetrated his chest wall and couldn’t be removed. I decided to just let him be a cat for as long as he could, then let him go. Nimby handled those last six months with more grace and good humor than most humans I know. One day I just knew it, he was done. A home care vet who knew us both well came and put him down at home in my lap with his favorite music playing. I carried his ashes over 300 miles of mountain roads on my bicycle to scatter them in my favorite place.

I still have Nimby’s girlfriend Kali; she had moved in with us permanently by the time Nimby got sick the second time. She is an enormous comfort. She has a new brother, Timbits (named for the donut holes from the Canadian coffee shop chain, Tim Horton’s), and he’s very different from Nimby. Timbits is a project cat. He’s high-maintenance, wicked smart, insolent, and funny as hell. Tonight Timbits inspired this post by running across the yard to bound up a tree, knocking me hard in my injured knee as he went. Timbits is no nurse cat, but he needs me and I need to be needed.

Who are your furry caregivers? Tell me about them!