Animals We Love & the Art They Help Us Make
by Michelle M. Johnson (and Samuel Johnson-Vrooman and Steve Vrooman)
|A smidge of an ink drawing I did of Willow in my |
journal in 2006, back when I only drew once in a
very blue moon.
- I was on vacation away from home (one shouldn't be drawing when there are always chores to be done around the house)
- I was on a plane (which was only ever because I was embarking on a vacation)
- I was in a doctor's waiting room (because I can not focus on a book or magazine when I am anxious, and all doctors make me anxious)
|It wasn't always possible for me to|
accommodate Willow's desire to
sit on me while I worked, but when
I could manage it, I did, even if it
made me ache the next morning.
|No chair was as good as my|
chair to Willow, even if I provided
her with a copy of the EXACT same
chair I was sitting in. If I left my art
studio for even a moment, I would
return to find Willow had left the chair
I provided for her in favor of the one
I had been was using.
|Willow LOVED being an art studio|
cat, and quite frankly, she was very
good at her job! Of my four felines, Willow
was the best at being next to me creating
rather than on top of what I was creating,
an invaluable quality in any studio assistant.
My Life with Willow
I guess I can’t exactly remember a time without Willow.
|Samuel, age three, and Willow, a bitty kitten we adopted|
from the Guadalupe County Humane Society,
were a match made in heaven.
She adored her boy so very much and was the perfect
companion for cuddling and mischief making.
She was just always there - when I read, when I played video games, when I got upset, when I did anything, really. It’s hard to imagine what my childhood would have been like without her. Would I be the same person? I don’t think I would be. Willow would always sit with me while I read, and I think that may have had something to do with why I was such an avid reader as a kid. In some ways, she encouraged it by being an absolute pain when I would want to get up!
Funnily enough, she was not a fan of musical instruments, especially not the percussive ones I played, which made my practice not her favorite thing (I am a music performance major in symphonic percussion at DePaul University right now, and my life has always been about music). This was especially apparent when I would start practicing my drum kit while she was still in my room, unbeknownst to me, asleep in my closet or in my kick drum when I had the head off of it. I would start to play, all I would see was a flash of black and brown run towards my door until she realized it was closed, and then she would wail to be let out. The Willow wail was a very prominent part of my entire family's relationship with her; anything she didn’t like, if she was ever stuck, if she was going to throw up, all triggered such a dramatic meow that it was hard to believe it was a cat making that awful sound.
But, as bad as her meows were, she never got angry, never bit anyone, and would always forget if anyone did something that she didn’t like. But, if we ever did anything she did like, however, that stuck in her brain forever - the time, the place, the day of the week, everything! We ran on her schedule, not our own. We went to bed when she wanted us to, got up when she wanted us to, watched TV when she felt it was "that time" of the evening.
I guess it wasn’t as though we had a cat, but more like we happened to share our house and lives with this other little being, who had her own rituals and opinions and say in what we did, and was just coincidentally a fluffy little cat on the side.
I’m going to miss you, Willow, but I have a sneaking suspicion you aren’t really so far gone as death would have you seem. You're still going to be with me whenever I do any of the things that you loved to do, I will probably always have to guard my chicken from you, and if I ever leave a glass of water where you might be able to reach, you will probably start drinking it the moment I turn my back on it.
I guess that means I’ll see you when I see you, which is fine by me.
Willow, Willow, Willow
Willow was the world's foremost expert on the face squish. You could tell you were doing what she wanted if she smooshed up beside you on a couch or a chair and planted her face right into your leg. I never quite understood how it was comfortable for her to do that, but it must have been settling.
|A perpetual scene when Steve was|
nearing the end of the semester: the
professor on his phone, and the Willow
smooshing herself into his working
I therefore got pretty good at doing things on my phone instead of a computer, because a phone put me in the right posture for Willow to come in for a landing. Although I'm not sure any of that sounds like an especially good habit to pick up, what she really helped me with was the building of patience for engaged work that I find difficult.
I have an almost limitless attention span for things I want to be doing, but I have a notorious difficulty with keeping my motivation on other stuff, including grading student work in a timely way. Maybe I'd rather be spending time on the other parts of my professor life. Maybe I have a hard time when I see how often some students seem to be phoning it in. It's hard not to feel discouraged or like I did something wrong. And maybe I did do something wrong! Maybe I need to come at things differently with the next class to get better results! But when you are slogging through a stack of papers, it's hard to keep that perspective. Don't get me wrong. Most student work is great! But it's hard not to fixate on the ones that aren't up to snuff. Of course, the quicker I give students feedback, the better they learn, so you can see the trouble with this lack of pluck in my grading efforts. What Willow did for me was to kind of force me to not give up disheartened before I finished my grading.
By the way, yes, I can grade on my phone (for better or worse). Even before COVID, I'd transitioned to electronic submission of papers and such. But, before I did that Willow would always find a way to sit on my piles of papers, rarely leaving the piles or the papers as nice as she found them! Once I transitioned to online grading I could do on a phone, it never failed -- I would get to a place where I just had the instinct to stop, I was just tired and distracted and kind of bummed out and then, sploosh, here would come Willow's face with a wet nose, right on the side of my leg. That ability to stick with the stuff I don't want to do is still a hefty challenge for me, but Willow made me better at it.
I'm definitely not the only teacher whose cats like to "help" with their grading, but I don't know how many cats have ever made their teacher people better at it! We all miss our Willow so much. The process of losing an animal is so hard. But thanks to this small creature whose fur was soft until the end, I'm a lot, lot better at taking time to finish things that are hard, so I think I will be able to find my way through this difficult heartbreak, too.