When James Cook landed on the shores of Aotearoa in the late 18th century, he offloaded a lot of baggage. We remain bedevilled by that baggage. Yet hidden among the shiny trinkets and all manner of deadly distractions was a visitor who was not Pākehā, but probably English.
A cat. Cook brought cats.
They settled in properly after the New Zealand Wars in the 1860s and proved adept at colonising our hearts. Today, there are roughly 1.5 million pet cats. Half of all our homes have at least one.
And, right now, I’m taking care of one of them as she winds down her clock. I’m preparing for her exit.
Tallulah came to my daughter Ariana and me, and my late wife Wiha, as a homeless wee thing 13 years ago. She was the youngest of the 30 or so pussycats we had somehow gathered about us.
I still scratch my head in wonder at it all. All I know is that after taking in our first strays, it took us about five years to accumulate another two dozen of the buggers. Tallulah was the last, the smallest, and the prettiest. We had plenty of room at our Ngāruawāhia home and only half of them were allowed in the house. Each one strengthened the bonds in my family. After certain adjustments to lifestyle, budget and hygiene, it was all quite fun.
They’re all gone now. And I’m sad to see our Little Miss slide listlessly into a final acceptance that her magnificent animal frame is on its last legs. She writes the last page of that Ngāruawāhia chapter of my life.
I’d learned a lot about the way a society functions when we dwelled among those cats. There were leaders, there were outsiders, there was conflict and resolution. Bloody fascinating, I thought, as I watched it all play out in front of us. Unlike dogs, who are so damned keen to be loved, a cat doesn’t give a rat’s arse. I have always been impressed by that feline commitment to its own comfort. There’s a life lesson.
And, when one lets you in by allowing a tummy rub, you know it’s a victory. Or, when a child picks them up by the legs and dumps them down the loo, and there is no (apparent) resentment, you know you’re safe in their hearts.
A searing image in my mind of those years concerns a cat’s way of showing you their aroha. Whenever a dead bird or rodent turned up on your kitchen floor or pillow, it was less an invitation to share the kai than a token of love.
During Wiha’s final illness, I would come home from work and the entire property would be littered with bits of bird, mouse, or rat. Our cat fam knew that their mum was ill and they needed to show their love.
It was both icky and so very touching.
Tallulah was the pōtiki. It was easy to accept her into our large family. She was quiet in the beginning, a little scared of all the rest of us. But she learned it was her job to be spoiled, and to get her way. No one minded because she didn’t annoy anyone, and she had a sweet nature. She was always good to children.
For the past decade, she’s had a comfortable life in Ōtaki. Her relationship with Bounce, the dog, was fraught from the beginning. The hound was utterly flummoxed by a creature who jumped out of reach so easily. He never forgave her for that.
I admired her body. A cat’s muscles and structural flexibility are a wondrous thing. And, yes, she was a killer. She was deadly on attack and clearly thrilled to the chase — especially the anticipation of it.
Mostly she was a big fluffy bundle. She enjoyed people. She had her favourites in the family. She had a personality that was patient, playful, and hungry.
I’m home alone while my family is overseas. I have Tallulah by my side. We have the place to ourselves. It’s painful for her to walk, and I know that her liver and kidneys are playing up. Her condition has deteriorated very quickly. She’s a lot smaller now. A brittle bag of bones really, poor darling.
Because I work from home, I carry Tallulah to the places she’d usually go. She joins me in the wharepaku in the mornings, hangs by my coffee machine and laptop during the day, and under my piano when I play.
I don’t want to let her outside because I know she may head somewhere quiet and out of reach. A cat who knows the end is near will often do that. And, anyway, I don’t want her to die alone. I want her to feel my beating heart until the end.
By day and by night, I carry her to sections of the land where she once stalked or sunned. We feel the wind and listen to the roar of the sea over the dunes. Sometimes, we have karakia. She likes to get back inside and to be dropped off on the floor where it’s cool.
Sometimes, she will sup a little broth or water. No food. Not any more. She rarely has a mimi. She likes ice cream.
Other times, she stands by the window and surveys all that she once knew so well. It’s tough when she jumps before I can lift her down. She has no muscle mass, and what once used to be a dignified landing is now a painful splat.
No matter. She trundles off and finds a spot where she will stay for hours. She conserves energy by doing as little as possible. Efficient to the end.
Every night, she sleeps with me. We enjoy it. Her eye is on me as the light goes out.
And, in the morning, we do it all over again.
I feel her breathing get laboured and raspy. Bad breath too. All I know is, if the end comes naturally and suddenly, I have to hold her and comfort her as best I can. I’m always looking at her, trying to figure out her condition.
This morning, though, I can see something in her eyes that’s new. She’s hōhā. Little Miss is over it. I check with Ariana and Libby, then make the call to the vet.
Every photo may be the last. I can now choose. It’s nice to know when and how to say goodbye to someone you love so much. It’s a comfort to be able to remember and share the story you lived together: From the beginning to the end. And to cry.
Ōriwa and I travel with Tallulah to the vet. Little Miss is unafraid. The vet and the nurse are lovely people and do it all with compassion. Tallulah is comfortable and enjoys the stroking and the whispered words, right to the end.
We wrap her up and take her home. I bury her. Kātahi ai ka tukuna ngā karakia me te rere o wai aroha. A simple cross and a pink collar mark the spot.
The end of a life creates absence. The more beloved the life, the greater the grief hollowed out by absence: of sight, sound, touch, smell, and all the senses that made you so alert and so needful of the life you’ve farewelled.
The life of any creature is no less precious in our animal kingdom, of which we humans are but one part. We’re joined together by heartbeat and breath. How can we not be of one life force? Pets give us the chance to love someone other than ourselves.
Taku hoa pono
Taku tohu rauora
Haere koe e hine,
E hoki ki tō Whaea
Piri pāua ki te pō
Mō te kāhui tori e
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