The Cat Has My Back

Raising an outdoor cat is preparing me for my eventual empty nest.
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Illustration by Dola Sun

I joke with my husband that, if he had his way, our 15-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter would still be taking bottles, sitting in high chairs, and having their grapes cut up. It’s an exaggeration, of course. It’s not that he doesn’t want them to grow up, but he’s always struggled with letting go of one stage of parenting and embracing the next. With knowing when a child is old enough to master a new set of milestones and expectations.

So when he starts grumbling about our kids not “minding us,” I remind him that our job description has once again changed. We’re no longer raising children. We are raising adults, and most of what we do from here on out is about preparing them to live as independent people.

I say these things so smugly, in my Why am I always the one who has to explain parenting? tone. My husband sighs and nods, “Yes, you’re right.”

But the cat? She looks at me, her smirk stretching all the way to her golden eyes, which blink at me. “Do you even hear yourself?” she seems to say. “Shut up and have a treat,” I tell her.

She yawns, bored with me now. But she knows the fraud that I am.


We adopted Madeira, a dainty butterscotch tabby with a sweet face, five years ago this month. Barely out of kittenhood, she came already named after our little town, since she was a neighborhood stray and some families had been taking care of her.

I kept the name because it felt appropriate. After all, I’d been looking for something to ground me here in this community, in this stage of life, in these choices I had made. She was my whiskered sign. (I actually wrote about her in this space in March 2020.) I thought I had learned the biggest lesson from her that I needed to learn. I was wrong. Madeira the cat had a Part II in mind.

For the first few years we had Madeira, she was content to stay inside. Though she loved looking out the window and stretching out on the patches of sunlight that warmed our wooden floors, she never seemed that eager to get out there. After all, she’d been abandoned in that cruel world of scary cars and harsh winds.

And then someone—probably one of the kids—left the back door open accidentally. Madeira got out. She didn’t run away, so it wasn’t tragic. She just explored the patio and backyard. It was an hour before we realized she was out. By that point, she was sprawled out under a tree and smitten with the outdoors. It’s like she remembered that she actually loved it out there.

She started a daily practice of meowing at the door, reaching her paws toward the handle, begging, pleading. Every time the front or back door opened, she ran to it, trying to rush her little body past our feet for her moment in the sun. Over and over, we blocked her path and scooped her up. I became almost frantic about knowing her exact whereabouts inside the house every time someone was coming or going.

To be on the safe side, we bought a collar for her, putting her name and my phone number on a little medallion. She wore it with no complaint, seemingly unannoyed by its soft clink against her ceramic water bowl. “It means you’re starting to cave,” her eyes seemed to say.

The kids and I tried taking her out on a harness. She allowed it but yearned to explore the bushes and flower beds without the annoyance of a leash getting tangled up in brush. Each night, I would try to have a discussion with her. “Madeira, outside is dangerous. Have you seen the statistics about how cats who go outside don’t live as long? You don’t really want to go out there!”

She would rest her head on her paws and look right at me, her expression translating to something like, “It’s funny that you think you’re in charge.”

Not surprisingly, she finally won her campaign to be a full-on indoor/outdoor cat. I couldn’t take any more of her desperate begging. It was a Saturday morning about a year ago, and I reluctantly opened the front door and let her go explore on her own. She immediately went into the neighbor’s yard, and I lost sight of her. I paced and wrung my hands. My husband thought I was acting bananas. “She survived outside on her own for months! She’ll be fine. She knows where she’s fed.”

Sure enough, when I called her a few minutes later, she trotted back like she owned the neighborhood, prancing through the grass and sniffing at the air. I sat on the porch, and she rolled her body on the concrete, scratching her back on the rough ground. She was so happy. I wanted to be happy, too, but all I could think about were the bad things that could happen to her out here. Someone had recently posted on the neighborhood Facebook group about their cat getting shot with a gun just a mile or so from where we live. (The cat had surgery and was recovering.) A gun, for crying out loud! Threats were everywhere.

She saw my concerned expression but didn’t seem bothered. “You can’t hold on to me so tightly anymore. You have to let me be who I am,” I understood her to say.

But I just wanted her to be safe at home with me. I wanted to know—needed to know—where she was at all times. Over the next several months, I drove my husband crazy, peering out the window every second, calling her constantly just minutes after I’d let her out. I didn’t even care how foolish I sounded opening the door of my Madeira home and beckoning, “Madeira!” To her credit, she’d always come back; it helped that I gave her treats when she returned.

I enforced strict rules: She could be out only a few hours at a time. She couldn’t be out if no one was home. She could never go out anywhere near dark. She probably shouldn’t go out if it was too windy. Or too cold. Or too hot. And I wanted to be able to track her. Maybe I needed a GPS collar. I researched options.

How could I send this cat into the world? It wasn’t a safe place! Cars and coyotes and other cats who might start fights. Not to mention, she would soon be driving! And going to parties with drugs and alcohol. And navigating sex and consent. And, oh, OK. Right.

It’s possible that my growing fear was about more than the cat.


I prided myself on being a free-range parent when my kids were little. From a young age, I encouraged them to go have adventures in the neighborhood. I made them wear bike helmets and gave them a time to be home, but I didn’t worry that much. I assumed this was some essential element of my parenting. I believed my children could handle themselves because I was raising them to be independent.

But they kept getting older. It turns out that raising adults to live in the world at large is a lot more terrifying than raising children who scoot around in one square mile of a neighborhood I know every inch of. Because an adult is a person in their own right, with their own agenda and set of motivations and—most difficult for parents—the means to test these things in the world. So no, it isn’t about “minding” us anymore, as I tell my husband; it’s barely about us at all, which is much harder to accept.

Luckily, Madeira the cat is determined to see me through this rough patch. I think she’s training me for that moment only a few years away when I’ll have to release my adult children into the world, one and then the other. She’s always been a great cat—smart and personable and sweet. But outside? She’s a version of herself I hadn’t seen before.

The girl doesn’t know a stranger. The whole neighborhood is in love with her, especially all the kids. She visits porches, greets visitors to our Little Free Library, and lets anyone pet her. I had no idea how much she loved people. How much she was craving a bigger life.

Still, the evenings I like best are when our teenagers are in their rooms and Madeira snuggles in between my husband and me on the couch. We watch British detective shows, and I ask her if she knows who did it. “Of course I do,” she says, not hiding her yawn.

It’s a household accounted for, and I know where everyone is. I hold on to it, because it’s fleeting. Madeira puts her paw on my leg. “You’ll be OK,” she purrs. Who knew cats were so wise?

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