Narrow flanks and jutting ribs. Cold paws and back claws that won't retract all the way. Constant bedhead, fur stuck in tufts no amount of grooming ever fully tames anymore.
Day by day, I face it: my oldest cat, Thai, is getting even older. Her days with me are now less, not more.
She's been my companion for nearly fourteen years. Through tumultuous teens, through leaving my childhood home - and three moves since. Through separation and reconciliation in my family, through marriage, through the onset of anxiety and panic and the start of new careers and stepping into the future.
I have lived more of my life with her than without now. Yet I know it isn't forever. Her predecessor, our first pet from my childhood, died at the threshold of thirteen - barely a year younger than my girl. And that's been on my mind a lot in the past year.
Watching this graceful Siamese sphynx age has given me a new outlook on mortality - in how I write death. As a teen writer never personally experiencing the death of anyone, person or animal, who was close to me, I wielded death in my stories indiscriminately for the sake of shock and emotion. I yanked feelings and tears from readers for my own satisfaction - and to sate my belief that a story only had high stakes and great impact of it ended in the loss of a life. Or several.
Yet now I see it differently. Now I pause.
Character death is not outside my repertoire - as a storyteller, it can never fully be. But watching my girl age with grace and knowing our days together are not endless has given me a newfound respect for the weight of death. And the beauty of life. And how precious it is to survive beyond what might be expected, anticipated, or common.
These days, in my fiction I wield death with a softer hand. Gentler. I bear in mind my readers' emotions are not there to be mercilessly played to my satisfaction. As my precious Thai grows older, moves slower on the path toward meeting her mortality, she has taught me that life is just as impactful as death - and for many readers, myself included, it is even moreso. A life full of snuggling and squeaky meows and chilly pawpads that need rubbing, because I will miss these things when they are gone.
Because death is the ending of so much possibility. The end of a story. The end of something precious, even if it's told well.
So these days, I wield death softly in my stories. And I count myself thankful for narrow flanks, cold paws, and eternal tufty fur - and all the lessons they've taught me.