The Sunday Magazine·Personal essay

A cat dies, a community is born: all hail Sir Hamish!

Paula Hudson Lunn’s grief over the death of Sir Hamish, her tough old orange tabby cat, was eased when she discovered he had been much loved by her neighbours and friends as well.
Hamish the cat used to live under the verandah at Paula Hudson Lunn's house in Nelson, B.C. (Paula Hudson Lunn)

Originally published on January 6, 2019.

by Paula Hudson Lunn

Sir Hamish, Lord of Crack Manor — Hamish — was my cat. 

He came into my life just over 10 years ago when I rented the wonderful hundred-year-old house where I still live. I affectionately named my place 'Crack Manor,' because it was a dilapidated drug house when I rented it. 

The landlady who took it over didn't even want to show it to me because she didn't think I'd accept it. She was planning a clean-up/reno, but hadn't started yet.

I told her loved it, that I could turn an outhouse into a home. And, I did.

Unbeknownst to me, there was already another resident … living under the veranda.

Hamish was Paula's feline and Paula was Hamish's human. (Paula Hudson Lunn)

He'd been there as long as anyone could remember. And that was Hamish, though he didn't have that name at the time. He was referred to as the big, orange, no-name cat.

I heard many stories about him, including his regular confrontations with any dog that had the audacity to come near the property. I witnessed his prowess. In fact, when I moved here, I had a dog and he attacked her.

I had no intention of taking in a semi-feral, gruff old cat, let alone come to love and care for him.

Ha ha … the joke was on me. I became his human and he became Sir Hamish, Lord of Crack Manor.

Hamish died this past summer. It wasn't unexpected. He was, after all, 20 years old.

He mostly slept his last few months, stretched out in the sun on the front verandah steps. 

Hamish wasn't 'just a cat.' He was my companion and, when he died, I felt alone in my loss. But it turns out that wasn't so.

I went to work the day he died, knowing his health issues had progressed to unmanageable.

That once hefty, strong, ginger boy, the one who chased down dogs at the end of the walk, the one who stood his ground with raccoons and skunks … that fierce and mighty cat, now ravaged by arthritis, diabetes, hyperthyroidism and a host of other aged-cat conditions, could barely hold himself up.

I had a vet appointment that day. I hoped the vet could prescribe a miracle, but knew I might just have to say goodbye instead.

Mid-morning, something happened with one of the computer programs I was using at work, and I went to talk to tech support.

Kirk, the techie, said something to me, like, "So you want me to fix your screw up?"

I burst into tears and went back to my desk.

Before leaving for the day, I sent Kirk an email: "Sorry I started crying. It wasn't anything you said. My cat is dying. I think it's today. Kind regards, Paula."

Then I went home and took my cat to the vet. Sir Hamish lay dead on my lap 25 minutes later.

The next morning, I had an email from Kirk: "So sorry about the kitty. We lost one to a cougar a few days ago, and it hurts."

I stared at the email and cried.

A few minutes later, someone touched my shoulder. I turned around to find my co-workers holding a card and a bottle of wine.

They said they'd always loved the Hamish stories I told them, and they would miss him too.

Hamish didn't just enrich my life with stories, with humour and with love, he connected me to my community.- Paula Hudson Lunn

When I got home, two good friends were at work digging a grave in the patch of sunlight where Hamish use to lie when I worked in the garden.

One of the guys had stuck a piece of duct tape on the front of his sweater to resemble a cleric's collar. It made me laugh. We buried Hamish, drank the wine from work, and told Hamish stories. And I realized how much of a presence Hamish had had, beyond his perch on my verandah. 

Over the years I'd seen people taking photos of him asleep on the step. Neighbours walking their dogs regularly stopped to tell me how feisty he was. I'd watched children come up the walk to pet him.

As he deteriorated over the summer, passersby would check to see if he was still alive and ask how he was doing.

He really belonged to them as much as to me.

Flowers were left for Hamish by neighbours who were fond of the cat. (Paula Hudson Lunn)

It occurred to me they'd want to know he was gone. So that night, after the 'funeral,' I put Hamish's basket out at the front steps with flowers from the garden and a picture of an orange cat in it.

The next morning I was having my coffee on the verandah when some people from down the street walked by.

They looked at the basket, then at me: "He died?" one woman asked.

"I buried him yesterday," I said.

They told me how sorry they were; that he was such a wonderful fellow. And then they carried on. A few minutes later one of them came back.

She was crying and gave me a hug and said Hamish had, "been such a fixture on the street ... it wouldn't be the same without him."

Over the next few days, small bouquets were left in Hamish's basket — from an ex-boyfriend who had always been allergic, from a man whose dog I gave treats to at the coffee shop down the way, from a family two blocks over … from my vet.

Hamish was not famous but he was beloved and memorable. 

One note I received called him, "the most vibrant, wise feline gentleman of all time."

He most certainly was. 

Hamish didn't just enrich my life with stories, with humour and with love, he connected me to my community.

When he died I got to experience the extent and complexity of that connection.

Months later, people still stop to talk about the cat, and Kirk, the techie at work, still asks me every day how I'm doing.

Click "listen" above to hear the essay.