My cat Tahini is halfway through her 21st year, which my vet tells me is equivalent to a human aged 98.  She’s skinny and arthritic and deaf, she walks with a stiff-legged limp, and she regularly gets disoriented and wanders around the house moaning like a foghorn. But she still savors life’s basic delights: laps, cardboard boxes, a can of food cracking open, a hand rubbing under her chin.

Tahini spends much of her time napping at the foot of my bed on a folded comforter—speckled with fur, occasionally puked on, and—because she is prone to UTI’s–smelling faintly of cat pee no matter how often I wash it. Several times a night she gets up to prowl and yowl—Where am I?  Where did everyone go? Eventually she makes her way to my side, where it calms her if I reach out a hand and lay it on her head: Hush. It’s OK. I’m here. Then she nestles back to sleep, purring in the curve of my body. 

As a light sleeper and occasional insomniac, I’m generally fiercely protective of a good night’s rest. I cover every window with blackout blinds, tape over the tiny red eye of the smoke alarm, and keep an eye mask and a box of earplugs by my bed to block out the hum of the air purifier or a sliver of light under the bedroom door. But somehow I indulge this aging creature with fishy breath who’s crying for my attention. 

Back when she was a tiny grey kitten with black leopard spots, Tahini was a gift for my son on his third birthday. I suggested calling her Dakini, after the Buddhist sky-dancer deities, but my son misheard me—and she ended up named for a sauce we poured on our vegetables. Newly separated from my son’s dad, I welcomed a daytime distraction. But my son had only just started sleeping through the night, and I refused to indulge another creature who kneaded my chest at midnight and woke me at 4 in the morning to play. Every night I locked Tahini, hissing and spitting in protest, into my writing room with a bowl of water, a litter box, and one of my son’s blankies.

Thoughts of keeping her as an indoor cat vanished when Tahini began climbing the kitchen walls and dangling from the ceiling beams. Now free to roam, she’d follow my son up the ladder of the twisty tube slide in our back yard, then shoot out the bottom looking startled but game to do it again. She once disappeared for a couple of days. My son and I walked around the neighborhood, putting up flyers with her picture and our phone number on it. Looking increasingly worried as we went from pole to pole, he finally asked anxiously, “I don’t think Tahini knows how to read yet. How will she know what number to call?”

After my divorce, when we moved to a new home in the hills which was infested with rodents, Tahini became a hunter. She’d deposit the remains of mice—a bundle of guts, a smear of blood—on my yoga mat out on the deck next to a statue of Prajnaparamita, the mother of all Buddhas. One time she released a live rat in my bedroom. It ran into my closet and hid among the shawls, and my son’s babysitter—a wild food forager who ran an outdoor education program—helped me flush it out. “ It’s a Norwegian wood rat!” she exclaimed with enthusiasm. We chased it around the bedroom and out the door while Tahini watched with great satisfaction. Finally, the people were in on her favorite game!

When I started dating, Tahini offered her opinion by kneading the laps or attacking the ankles of a series of potential partners. When Teja’s shoes became a regular fixture just inside our door, she’d burrow her head into them while clawing at the soles. And that first Christmas when our newly configured family opened our presents together, Tahini entertained Teja’s daughter and my son by shredding the wrappings off a pile of gifts to get at a hidden catnip mouse.

Tahini became the consistent thread weaving through my changing life. She lounged at my son’s feet as he learned to play guitar, and sprawled on the table by my “bonus daughter” as she studied water-coloring. As my son graduated from college and got an apartment with his girlfriend in a new state, and my daughter traveled through Europe and embarked on a career as a product designer, Tahini stayed right here with me and Teja: sleeping in the same puddles of sun, jumping up on the same counters to drink running water from the faucet. She retired from ratting—the first of our family to give up her job–but she still hunts the occasional balled-up sock, which she carries proudly around the house, emitting a triumphant cry.

And now this failing old cat has become the being with whom I have lived the most days in my entire life. Somehow, taking care of her with kindness has become a practice of honoring the passage of time and the fragility of life. Her howls remind me that aging, sickness, loss, and death are an inevitable part of life’s symphony. Her purrs remind me of the joy that throbs and rumbles in the midst of it. The other day, looking at Tahini, I found myself paraphrasing the Buddhist chant I’ve recited on retreat so many times: All cats are impermanent, they arise and they pass away…to live in harmony with this cat brings great happiness.

When I do Downward Dog now, I feel a twinge of arthritis in the base of my right toe. When I get tired, my left eyelid starts to twitch. Sometimes I’m two chapters into a novel before I realize that I’ve read it before. And when Tahini wakes up in the night and wails Who am I becoming? What happens next? I put my hand out, stroke her head. Yes. Everything’s changing. It’s going to be OK.

And we both go back to sleep for a while.