It is 12:34 AM. And 12 degrees outside. And for the first truly-cold winter night in fifteen years, I don't have to worry about the cat (the outside cat, who slept in the garage in a box with a big, fluffy blanket that my I-hate-cats husband made sure was replaced with something equally fluffy and warm when it gone worn out) being too cold.
Because, for the first time in fifteen years, I don't have a cat.
I haven't had one now for three weeks.
She was a good kitty, Emily.
We got her almost exactly, to the day, one year before Haley was born. She was this tiny grey fluff ball when we brought her home. And I swear: even as a kitten, she was mellow. She'd just hang out, purring, digging her claws into whatever soft surface she could find---you know how cats knead when they're happy? She was great at happy kneading.
When we brought Haley home, I was nervous, because there're all those urban legends about cats smothering babies by licking them to death or sitting on them or whatever. But Emily just sniffed the baby and wandered off.
As each kid grew to a certain age---18 months or so---Emily became this unnameable combination of sibling/playmate/auntie/pillow. She was always so patient with them. Sure, if they pushed too far (well, if they pulled too hard) she'd scratch back. She was a cat, not a saint. But always, I am certain, with restraint: her scratch meant too much, not I'm unleashing my inner lion on you and now I will prepare to eat you. She'd let them cover her with blankets (mostly Kaleb), or with stuffed kitties (a Haley specialty); she even didn't freak out the time Jake managed to climb a tree holding on to her, but just sat in the tree with him and let him pet her.
She was our walking shadow. Walking down to the corner and back is a phase all of my kids went through; there was something magical about walking all the way down to the other end of the street and then turning around to come home. She'd follow us both ways, and we'd include her in our walking-to-the-corner conversations. In the winter she'd get really fat, but in the summer she'd lose it all, only her belly was still droopy, so when she walked the skin sort of flopped back and forth.
We all giggled at that, every now and again.
She knew all the warmest and comfiest places in the yard, the spots where the sun hit just right. We'd sit down next to her in the grass, me and whichever kid was in the I-love-the-cat-so-much-I-could-eat-her phase, and pet her warm fur. This was especially nice on chilly days. If their feet were bare, the babies would try to wiggle their toes into her warm fur, too.
Of course, she really wasn't a saint, just a cat.
She had an inordinate hunger for birds, and I don't think I've ever been more angry at a cat than when she managed to somehow eat every. single. baby. robin one summer. She'd sit under the trees, watching the birds and mewing her hunting mew at them, and I'd clap my hands at her and say "leave those birds alone!" but she'd be back at it, a few hours later. What she would leave alone: mice. Well, the one mouse we've ever found near our yard, which got caught in the little plastic swimming pool we had (it was empty at the time). Since neither Kendell nor I could bear to kill the mouse, but also neither one of us wanted a mouse hanging around, we put Emily in the pool with the mouse. Thinking, of course, that she'd do the catlike thing and eat it. Instead she found the warm, sunny spot in the pool, curled up, and took a nap. No doubt kneading her claws while she slept. And dreamed of birds for breakfast. (We ended up scooping the mouse into a pail and handing it over the fence to our neighbor, who took care of the mouse and then tossed the empty pail back over.)
But she was fiercely protective. A few years ago, we had a set of troublesome dogs in our neighborhood. They'd run all over, pooping in people's yards and biting unsuspecting children. (The pound was called several times that summer, and not just by me.) They stayed out of our yard, though, because she would unleash her inner lion on those dogs. Seriously: they'd come sniffing around, and once she got her startled fur under control, she would make an entirely different hunting meowgrowl, and then chase after the dogs. Then she would leap, claws out---happy-kneading makes for really sharp claws---right onto the back of one of them and start biting for their jugular.
The dogs didn't bother us much.
The thing that makes me saddest is that she was Kaleb's surrogate little sister. Every spring, summer, or fall morning, he would want to go outside to eat his breakfast with the kitty. He'd sit on the back porch, dripping milk and bits of honey-nut Cheerios on the step, and she'd be right next to him, licking up the dribbles. She'd sit in the grass by the swing set and he'd swing next to her, telling her stories. He would hunt her out and love her until she couldn't stand it anymore, and then she'd walk along the top of the fence, and over, into the mouse-killing neighbor's yard. Then he'd cry, and we'd call her together, and eventually she'd come back.
Plus, don't tell Kendell, but she wasn't always an outside kitty. Sometimes, after the kids were gone to school, we'd bring her inside. She'd sit on Kaleb's bed and he'd cover her with blankets and pet her and kiss her. Even though he doesn't get to have a sibling his age, Emily sort of made up for it.
"Let's go pet Emily," he still says, because he doesn't understand that she's gone. She'd gotten sleepier and sleepier, and she started ignoring the birds, and she stopped making her hunting mews. Dogs felt safe in the yard again. She began drinking gallons, seeming, of water ever day. I think I was filling her water up nine or ten times, and sometimes she'd wake us up at night, yowling with thirst. She'd sometimes not make it to her litter box after all the water. And after a dream that made me wake up at midnight knowing it was time, and talking to my friend's mom, whose husband is a vet, and listening to my gut, I knew: she was ready. She was in pain and more than likely diabetic, and what was best: a fast falling asleep, or a slow, cold death in the garage on a night like tonight, at 1:07 AM and 11 degrees?
So I took more pictures of her, some with each kid. I borrowed a cat carrier from a sympathetic friend. And I, on a random November Thursday, found her where she was sitting in the sun outside. She'd climbed to the top of the slide platform, so I climbed up with her and we had a talk. I told her she'd been a good kitty, and I loved her, and I was so grateful she could be so good with the babies. I petted her and she rustled a little bit, in the painful way she'd developed, so she could purr and dig her claws into my leg.
I cried and I told her goodbye.
Then I managed to get her into the carrier, and Kendell and I went to the animal shelter. She meowled, a sound I have never heard before, and I sobbed while I drove, and then she stopped and I cried harder. We took her to the animal shelter, and Kendell did the paperwork because I couldn't talk, I just sat on a bench and rubbed her paw, which was all I could reach of her, and I said goodbye some more, until the vet's assistant came to take her away.
On the drive home, somehow I started talking about all the other kitties in my life. Misty, our little Siamese who I remember watching deliver her kittens and who, with another batch of kittens just born, got distemper and had to be put to sleep. The kittens, I was told, were "taken to the farm," and every time we went to the farm---my mom's friend Dixie's house---I'd ask to see those kittens, only no one would ever show them to me. Hooter, who was the muscliest, jowliest tomcat
you can imagine, black and white except for where the scars were, who lived through distemper and the neighbor boys' bb guns, who gave me one of my life's most embarrassing moments by peeing in my gymnastics bagonly I didn't notice my competition leotard was soaked in cat pee until I went to change into it, whose only remains were a bit of indeterminate black-and-white fur discovered by the side of the road in the spring after the snow had melted. Hit by a car or done in by those bb guns: we still don't know. The unfortunate six months of Depeche, a white kitten who lasted about three weeks before dying of distemper, and then Abbey (the tabby) who was hit by a car---cat death as impetus. Finally Noel, a Siamese who was my consolation prize of sorts, followed by Chris the Cat (also Siamese, a fat, enormous apple headed chocolate point) who was technically Becky's, although in reality he was Noel's.
I don't know why the cataloging of dead cats made me feel a little bit better. Except for it reminded me of the good cats I've had in my life, and reminded me that cats, like everything, die. But I also remembered: lots of good-cat days, and if there is a cat heaven---and what would heaven be worth, without kitties?---all of them, in their healthy kitty heavenly forms, are there. And even though I feel like a cat murderer, I also know it was right to let Emily be in peace, away from her thirst and her sore joints and her litter box misses.
I just hope she knew she was loved and valued.
And, finally, because it is hard to write about cat death without being maudlin, one of my favorite non-maudlin poems (and I think they do have souls) :
"The Heaven of Animals"
~ James Dickey
Here they are. The soft eyes open.
If they have lived in a wood
It is a wood.
If they have lived on plains
It is grass rolling
Under their feet forever.
Having no souls, they have come,
Anyway, beyond their knowing.
Their instincts wholly bloom
And they rise.
The soft eyes open.
To match them, the landscape flowers,
Outdoing what is required:
The richest wood,
The deepest field.
For some of these,
It could not be the place
It is, without blood.
These hunt, as they have done
But with claws and teeth grown perfect,
More deadly than they can believe.
They stalk more silently,
And crouch on the limbs of trees,
And their descent
Upon the bright backs of their prey
May take years
In a sovereign floating of joy.
And those that are hunted
Know this as their life,
Their reward: to walk
Under such trees in full knowledge
Of what is in glory above them,
And to feel no fear,
But acceptance, compliance.
Fulfilling themselves without pain
At the cycles center,
They tremble, they walk
Under the tree,
They fall, they are torn,
They rise, they walk again.