Dear Willow

A love letter to the world’s greatest cat

Photo Ellie K White

When I was 12, I never could have imagined how much a little fluff ball would change my life. 

On April 22, 1996, in New Westminster, B.C., I came home from school and was told that “the cat had her kittens on your bed.” I ran into my room and, sure enough, there were four white balls of fuzz with a proud mama. As the kittens grew, I got to keep one for my very own. I named her Willow, after Warwick Davis' titular character—my favourite movie at the time.

I didn't have many friends growing up, and my home life was, to put it mildly, not the best. As I went through puberty, crushes, triumphs, and failures, it was Willow I turned to for love, comfort and support. A lot of little girls write in a diary; I gave Willow all my secrets for safekeeping. 

When I moved out of my parents' house into my first cheap basement suite apartment, Willow came with me. She was there through every job, all the bad roommates, to help celebrate when I graduated culinary school and multiple moves.

Willow formed a special relationship with my boyfriend, now husband, especially after he and I moved in together. If she couldn't have me, she wanted him. They had an understanding, much like a sibling does for their sister's partner, and she teased him in much the same way. 

When we moved from Vancouver to Montreal in 2016 so I could do my bachelors at Concordia, Willow made the trip with us at the ripe age of 20, her first and only time on an airplane. 

As she aged, her body slowed down but her mind was still sharp. She didn't jump or run, but she still loved her cuddles and conversation, to be quietly included, to listen to me reading my papers aloud and offering the best feedback through kisses and meows. 

On Nov. 7,2017, Willow died in my arms. 

It was calm, peaceful and quiet. I felt like a piece of my soul was torn from me; my oldest and truest friend was gone. The reactions from the people in my day-to-day life were broad. Those who knew me from high school were quick to offer comfort and condolences.

My husband and I had been together for about 15 years by that point. He loved Willow and had been her main caretaker, keeping her company as he job-hunted after we arrived. He poured his love into her well-being on the daily. He was devastated when she passed.

I had called the day off work, and my manager was sympathetic. The coworker who was replacing my shift, however, was not. When told I needed the day off because I had to have my pet put to sleep, she replied "Can't you just come into work after? It's just a cat." At the time, I was beyond furious. Now, years later, I feel sad for her. She had never had a pet before, and I am sad that she has never had the experience of unconditional love like I had with Willow. 

After I had my son in 2020, I developed postpartum depression, and began seeing a therapist. One of the thoughts I struggle with is that my son will never get to meet Willow, especially when he points to her picture and tells me he wishes he could give that kitty “a big hug and kiss.” I think Willow would have really loved and cared for him.

My therapist told me that the relationships people have in life are varied and unique. Willow, for me, was not merely a pet. She was emotionally my sister, and the only healthy family member I ever had from my original family.

I don't expect others to fully understand the bond we had, much like how I don't fully understand the relationship many people have with their parents or siblings. I do hope that, eventually, people become more empathic towards the love others have for their animal companions. It is an idea that Willow taught me: how to love without judgement. I will always miss her.

This article originally appeared in Volume 44, Issue 5, published October 31, 2023.