If you ever met our friend and “roommate,” Smokey Smokerson Tyson King, she might have struck you as quirky, coy, cute, shy or hilarious.
We met Smokey as a kitten, just weeks old. We’d dropped off a friend at the metro station and saw a furry little thing scurry across the parking lot to hide under a car at FedEx. “Was that a kitten?” asked my husband.
“Ooh, I hope so!” I replied. We’d had kittens on our radar and had already started visiting nearby animal shelters to explore adoption opportunities.
Sure enough, it was a teeny gray kitten hiding under this car, trying to keep warm from the engine on the first windy, chilly night of a Maryland autumn. The car she was hiding under pulled out and she scampered over to another car.
We decided we couldn’t just leave her, but questioned our ability to be quick and gentle enough to pick up her tiny little frame. So after a cat food purchase at the neighboring Rite-Aid and at least half an hour of watching her and ensuring she didn’t have a mama around, I picked her up, Colin named her Smokey, and we were off to introduce her to her new home.
Our condo was tiny. The kind of cool-views, urban city high-rise with a view of the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument. We didn’t have a long stretch of space to let Smokey run around, but she got a great workout running back and forth from bedroom to kitchen and living room and back. Her favorite was chasing foam bouncy balls, just like a puppy.
We wanted her to connect with her natural instinct of the outdoors, so we extensively researched the safety and stats of cats on 10th floor balconies. Turned out if she ever jumped, she’d be okay from that height. Better than from the 6th floor, due to more time to prepare her body for a safe landing. So we purchased chicken wire to surround our balcony railing and allowed her regular outdoor time to bask in the sunshine and play in the dirt of our potted plants.
She loved her time outdoors. So the next thing I tried was taking her for a walk. We bought a kitty leash and drove her to a nice trail nearby. Not a success. Smokey hated the halter and was too skeptical of her surroundings to explore more than ten feet from the car. So we settled for just the balcony from then on as her time al fresco.
As the years passed by, Smokey remained as a very special family member. She’d sleep right behind my laptop in my years of working from home. She’d greet us both sweetly any time we’d come home (if she wasn’t too cozy in a napping spot). She’d cuddle up to her favorite doggy toy, which was a squeaky plush animal beaver, or play a loose version of tug-o-war with the toy (a cat style, mellower version).
When we’d leave town, she didn’t hold a grudge for too long on our return, but she would be a little extra clingy for a day or too, following us every step around the place.
We had wonderful cat sitters to keep her company. Our system of cat sitters in our condo building also became a system of friendship, making a handful of friends who connecting simply because of cat sitting interests.
Oh and how she could make us laugh. She had eclectic interests. For example, we caught her on the kitchen counter one day, where she knows she’s not allowed to be, but she couldn’t resist as she was rubbing up on something in our drying rack.
On closer inspection, it turned out to be our new olive wood salad spoon. We put it on the floor and she went to it like cat nip - rubbing up on it, rolling around in full spoon embrace, licking it… She’d merrily played for ages with that wooden spoon, and then she’d cuddle up with it for a nice long nap.
Visitors questioned our tidying ability when they’d find kitchen utensils around the floor, but those who knew Smokey’s obsession knew it was worth the odd decor choice.
Smokey was there for us through so many ups and downs of our lives. Just like any other animal, she had a keen sense of when I was blue and stayed extra close. She was no lap cat, much to my chagrin on a chilly night. But she had her other ways of showing affection. We’d rub forehead to forehead with each other, and she’d pat down my lap anytime she was in a softy mood, or when I whistled or sang “Happy Birthday.”
One day, we brought home a “weird creature,” a.k.a. our newborn daughter, Vivee. Smokey had her doubts, but all in all she was great with the baby, and as Vivee got older and explored more, Smokey let her pet, or more like whack her — that is, when she was in the right mood.
At times I felt concerned that Smokey needed a hobby. Sure, we played, and sure, by age 8 it was no surprise she slept more often. But it seemed that aside from her excitement with food, she had nothing much to pique her interest except for following along with whatever we were doing. Our building was too new and well-maintained to offer her mice or bugs. The most natural excitement she’d get would be catching a fly that snuck through our patio door.
Sure she’s a cat, but I truly thought she could use more than the general toys and cat nip and interaction we gave her.
Last summer, we took Smokey on her first flight for a big move across the country. Once at our new house, of nearly triple the size of our old condo, she settled in beautifully. We tried to ease her into the space by leaving her in one bedroom, but it didn’t take long for her to communicate she was ready to explore the whole house.
Explore she did. In every cabinet, on every ledge. Everywhere we looked, she’d be in a new space, attempting to climb every shelf and assess every corner.
When asked how we were settling into our new home, the easy answer was that we were all enjoying the new space, but no one quite as much as Smokey the Cat.
Since we knew how happy she was on the balcony of our old home, we didn’t hesitate when she followed us out to the top deck of our house after a few days of settling in. We figured it was okay as a start, and eventually we’d let her explore the backyard. We didn’t feel right keeping her in as a full-time indoor cat, even though her background for her last 8 years was just indoors.
She quickly took the opportunity to explore the deck stairs and down to the backyard. “Well, I guess she’s fine,” we decided.
From her cautious stair steps down to the lawn, she reached the grass for the first time. She was so immersed in the whole process: sniffing, looking around, feeling around. Everything was so new to hear. A whole lifetime of the indoors, and then suddenly she could feel and smell and taste so much of the natural world that she had only a tiny snippet of in her balcony life.
We took comfort in having the backyard fenced off, and figured (hoped) our city cat wouldn’t jump the fence anytime soon.
Our easygoing vibe changed its tune, however, when Smokey slinked outside in the evening and refused to come back in. Our neighborhood was a little more wild than I’d imagined, and in the first week we were greeted by boisterous yips of a nearby coyote pack, and some scorpion visitors by the pool. Two nocturnal creatures I was not comfortable with our city cat meeting. The coyotes being what worried me the most.
That first night, I woke every hour in a start to step outside and bring Smokey in. No good. She wouldn’t come. I kept trying and kept worrying. Any pet parent would worry with a “newbie” indoor to outdoor cat, I’d assume.
The following few nights, we were able to keep our little cat indoors.
But on another night, she slipped on out an opportunistic door.
This time, we tried even harder to lure her back inside with all the bribes we could possibly offer. We called, and called, and she’d come, but you could visibly see this primal conflict going on in her head. She wanted to come in to the treats an cozy bed of her companions, but then she’d hear something.
“What’s that??” she’d jerk around. Then she’d turn back to our calls and step forward, but then this instinct to merrily rub around on the concrete would kick in. And then another sound that seemed intriguing and grasp her attention.
Then she’d come back, then do a dance of heading toward the door, and then over to the bush with a noise, then back, and forth until she’d give into her curiosity and bound for the bushes.
We eventually relented for another uneasy night with frequent checks to get her back in the door.
As the days went by, she’d spend more and more time outside at all hours, and we’d see her less and less. Unless, that is, we were outside playing or doing yard work. Then she’d happily make her appearance to see what we were up to, then dash off to follow a bug or a leaf.
Many times I’d be gardening and hear a rustle, rustle, rustle getting louder through the overgrown brush, and every time it was Smokey coming to visit. Then off again!
She ran around so much - every time I saw her. Just like her adolescent days. She started to look slimmer, leaner, fitter. She was a cat on fire. A cat with purpose. A cat with so much to learn and explore. After a few weeks, we found she’d started climbing trees.
And the rolling. Oh, the blissful rolling she’d do like a pig in the mud. She’d roll on concrete or on dirt any chance she was outside.
In our house move unpacking, I found her beloved olive wood salad spoon. But unlike her usual gleeful greeting, and she turned her nose up at it. No interest at all for the first time in history. I then realized we had a few olive trees in our yard, which she’d merrily climb. So I’m sure she was getting more than enough olive wood smells in her life.
I reached a point of my uneasy sleeping when I had to make a decision:
Option 1: Worry too much and sleep too little
or Option 2: Accept that Smokey’s love for the outdoors at night was much greater and more important than my worries.
I chose option 2. I took a deep breath in, a deep breath out, and accepted in that moment that anything could happen to our cat in the great outdoors, but that she was living her fullest life. Her most adventurous, blissful exploration of her lifetime.
She’d found that “hobby” I always knew she needed. She found surroundings and fueled her primal instincts. She found motivation to run, to play, to explore, to hunt (yeah, she easily figured out how to catch mice and lizards). She found her natural home among the bushes and trees and grasses of our wild yard.
The best decision I could make in the circumstances was to let go and accept this new reality. And to embrace it as I truly was happy to see how happy she was.
By now you may be noticing how everything about Smokey in this story is past tense. One night last fall, she didn’t come home. Then the next night, still nothing. It’s a hard thing about when a pet just disappears, as you can hold on to some hope and just keep waiting. But by the second night, I felt deep down she wasn’t coming home, and the reason was due to an encounter with a coyote. I just knew. I just know. And it sucks, and I’m sad, and I miss her dearly.
But I refuse to regret letting her out, because in the end, she was living her fullest of lives. And whatever walkabout she chose to embark on that night, it was probably worth it for her. And hey, she did go in a more natural way than an end with a car or an injection. So I’m happy for her in that sense. She lives on in our memories and all the cute cat videos we snapped of her.
May her wildly full life in her last months serve as a beacon for saying yes to her call to adventure.