Photography has always held a weird space in my head. In my mind, I make things that look neat. I have always held great envy to those who create such complex, emotional narratives to their images. I sit and observe with awe and wonder at the tales that come from them, their reasons for color, pose, and other infinitesimal details. Pixels for me are a means to an end, but it’s still something I can’t help but create. It’s how I tell a story, but it’s not how I tell my own.
It’s always been something that was work-related, a tool to use towards building a career and reputation over the past 19 years. I hold very little emotional ground in the work I create, I leave that to the people who observe the pixels I arrange to tell me what they see. They’re like complicated ink blots, and I’ve always enjoyed listening to people enlighten me with the tales their minds spin. I think in many ways, that’s one of the best parts. I tell just enough to get someone thinking, and they fill in the rest. It’s delightful.
All this taken into consideration, Life it seems, is a funny teacher. She is always preparing new chapters that I can never see coming.
When I was 13, 3 kittens were born on the family farm. It would have been perfect meme material, as mama seemed to have run out of ink: one black male, one grey female, and another white female. Eventually the time came and we had to find homes for the three kittens as our farm only had room for one more cat. I used my ‘oldest sister’ bullying and aggressive nature, fighting tooth and nail for the white one, Sprite. In some ways I feel bad for how hard I fought. I probably wasn’t a very nice sister to have when I was a teenager, but that’s another story.
Sprite grew up to be the great white terror of the farm, slaughtering everything from mice, squirrels, birds, and has even been witnessed chasing deer out of the yard. My dad was always fond of saying “That cat has got some jam!” as he would update me with stories of that little cat inspiring fear into anything that moved.
Farm cats have a good, but sometimes risky life. My dad built each cat and dog their own little homes that were safe from bigger predators, always full of food, heated against the frigid Canadian winters. Despite our best efforts, we would often find our beloved cats had become prey to things bigger and meaner than they were. I would cry every time, and we all wondered when the little white ball of fuzz named Sprite would meet her end. In winter, she was perfectly camouflaged. But come summertime, I would always wonder if this was the summer she would be picked up by an owl or torn apart by a pack of coyotes.
Fortunately, that call never came. But a different one did.
2015 was a fantastic and difficult year for me. Arguably the most growth and success my business has ever seen, balanced by some of the most difficult health problems I’ve ever had. Three separate and devastating brain injuries knocked me completely off my rhythm. I spent most of the fall figuring out how much of my mind and body connection I had lost. Admittedly, it’s still a work in progress today.
In December my dad called to tell me Sprite wasn’t doing very well. She’d gotten herself lost or something out in the cold weather and had frozen her ears off. It wasn’t looking good, but at 17 there was no way she could live outdoors anymore. He asked me to take her in and give her a good retirement home. I’m aggressively allergic to cats, but when I love a furry family member, I figure it out.
December 4, 2015, my frisky little barn fluff moved in with me. What a change that must have been for her, having spent the majority of her life outdoors in the country, to suddenly be swept into a car and plunked into a home in the city. I still remember the symphony of meowing and caterwauling from the kitty carrier on the hour plus drive from my dad’s place to mine.
She looked rough, as elderly barn cats do anyway. I put myself to work, researching ways to fatten her up and get her washed, brushed, and cleaned up as best I could. In a period of my life where I questioned everything I did, she was my point of focus every day. Eventually she stopped hiding in the bathroom and started to explore the rest of the house. And watching her, I was able to get out of my own crushing mind for a few moments of clarity every day.
At first her exploring would happen late at night, which was perfect as I am a notorious night owl. Eventually, I started waking up to a little snuggle puff of fur hiding under my arm or on my legs almost every morning. Those little moments are the world to me, I called them “My Morning Mew” and my smartphone was the camera to capture every morning we woke up together. The right camera is the one that’s there for the job.
Anxiety would spike when I would have to leave for work. She started looking really good, but she was still an elderly cat and anything could happen. While traveling, I would flip through the photos of her and I waking up together. I would dream about waking up next to her most nights. Those little iPhone photos were all I had during the months I was gone. Photography had started to mean something to me, but not in the way I had expected.
My personal Facebook page went from being a sharing point of controversial topics, sarcasm, and photography, to mostly being taken over by Tales of the Fluff. I received more than one email from fans of my photography wondering where all the “real” photography went and why I was only sharing cat stories. Well, it’s a cat lady thing. Once the fur gets into the heartstrings, everyone else is along for the ride, willing or not.
She started acquiring nicknames like Razor Floof, Vitamix, Doom Floof, Morning Mew, Fuzzy Butt, and so on. It was always a battle to give her medication, and I earned a few more war scars from her tenacity. All that being said, she was a gentle fluff most of the time, even though she had the most adorable resting bitch face. Once again, my iPhone was there to capture as many moments as I could.
That’s the funny thing about knowing finality is coming, and being unclear exactly when it will hit. It was waking up every morning, touching her belly, wondering if she’s still breathing. Coming home, wondering if she would meet me at the stairs like she usually did, or if I’d have to go find her and see if maybe she had finally given up. It was a weird rollercoaster of emotions, every single day.
I made a promise to her that as long as she was willing to live, I would do everything within my power to see that she did. I spent thousands on vet bills, and even a surgery that would amputate her poor ears that just wouldn’t heal any other way. I actually had to crowd fund half of that surgery, and I thank every person who bought a print towards that operation every single day.
I’ve never met an animal so driven to survive. It’s probably how she’d endured 17 years outdoors. Every ounce of grit she would exude, I would match it in my determination to try everything to keep her alive. My heart would swell and almost explode every time I would come home off a long tour and see her scamper up to me and lay on her back for head scritches – Cat logic is weird, I know.
I started documenting her with my “real” camera. Mostly she slept a lot, so I would interrupt her with the sound of the shutter and a long lens from across the room. She hated her photo being taken. I thought the sound put her off, but I knew that one day there would be no more opportunities to document her adorable little habits: the place by my boots that she claimed her own; the little corner in the bathroom by the shower; different corners of the bed. These photos are just as special to me as the camera phone photos. Now I was using the skills I’d built for work to remember my personal experiences with her.
I’ve held off writing this blog post for a few months because I honestly haven’t been able to think about writing it without breaking down. Because eventually the time came when I was home and I saw her sitting by the patio door, legs crossed in an unusual way, making this terrible sound and shaking. I dropped everything and just curled up next to her, all the fear and anxiety that had built up over the last two and a half years pouring out of my eyes. I rushed her to the vet. She appeared to have some kind of stroke or seizure. But, like a true survivor, she had perked up again, and was walking, meowing, and looking for food. So, the vet told me to hold off putting her down, but to prepare for the time that was likely coming soon.
The following month was terrible. She started having more seizures. I began to doubt myself and my choices to help her live as long as she wanted to. It’s a terrible decision to come to, to force an animal to end their struggle, even when they don’t want to. There’s no way to tell them what’s happening and why, and she just would not quit. I made the call, and had booked a vet service to come and put her down at my home. I knew how much she hated the vet, and I couldn’t let her last memories be in a cold, bright metal place with no familiar smells. I slept beside her on the floor for the last week. Her legs wouldn’t make the steps up to the bed anymore. Through the entire thing, I told myself to keep taking photos, whatever camera was within reach.
Sunday was the day, and at the very last moment I made two calls. One to my friend Darcy Evans, a pet photographer in the city. I needed someone to take photos of her and I. Although I’d had lots of photos of her, I was always the one with the camera. Selfies are one thing. But I wanted something from another person’s perspective. We brought her outside and he shot some of the most precious photos of her that I have, capturing the little moments of the two of us that mean so much to me.
The second call was to a friend, Warren Gamache, who has a wonderful journalistic style to his photography. I wanted someone to document the reality of what was going on. I knew once she was gone I’d be riddled with guilt, wondering what else I could have done, where I went wrong and so on. I needed someone to tell the story of the reality of what was going on. I told him “No matter how ugly it is, take the photograph. I need this, just tell it how it really is.” Someone had to document her end, and the end of our companionship that had lasted over 19 years. Sunday, June 25, 2017 my frisky little barn fluff left me.
The two sets of images are less than 30 minutes apart and they tell a completely different story, but both were reality. In the 19 years my little Sprite and I had together, there are so few photographs. I can’t recall any of her when she was a kitten. Perhaps my dad has some.
For the first time, photography has finally started to mean something. Since this shift, I’ve started documenting my personal and travel life a little more seriously. Most of it isn’t for the Internet, it’s for me. I print them off in little 4×6 or 5×7 prints and keep them in a wooden box. They’ve become these little tangible moments in time that don’t just exist on a social media page or a hard drive.
All I know is that the little specks of moments that float through my memory like dandelion seeds in the wind will eventually fade. Even now, with all the memory I have lost from damage, the precious things I have are the photographs that remain. They will outlast my failing memory, and perhaps one day I will look upon them, not knowing the story anymore. Just a feeling without names, dates, or locations. An emotion to a tale that no longer has any words. And that will be enough.
About the author: Renee Robyn is a Canadian commercial photographer and Photoshop alchemist. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of her work on her website, Facebook, and Twitter. This article was also published here.