"I don't want to have to tell you this," my mom said, her voiced cracked and broken over the phone. I could hear the tears in her throat, the softness of her voice. And I knew what she had to tell me. "Smokey died this morning."
I cried instantly. Grief hit me suddenly, like a land mine, which is unusual. Give me bad news, and I'm usually fine for at least a few hours. But later, in the middle of some random task, I'll break down, finally realizing that someone is gone. This, though, was different. My throat closed and tears formed, and I couldn't talk.
"Honey?" Mom was crying, too. "Are you okay?"
Smokey, the cat I've had since third grade, had been sick for a while. And even though he'd gone deaf and skinny, even though he wasn't quite as vibrant and active as he had been before, I figured he'd just always be around. Twenty years is a long time to live for any animal, and, for some reason, the part of me that's still the kid who found him thought we'd get a good thirty out of him.
It was about six months ago when we noticed how thin he'd become. You couldn't tell by looking at him, his thick mane of gray and white fur covering any sign of weight loss. Only when I picked him up did I feel his delicate little ribs, feel the bones of his spine, sharp and defined, through his thick coat. Slowly, he went downhill. His breathing was difficult, but we figured it was because he was wearing what amounted to a fur coat in hundred degree weather. An indoor/outdoor cat, my parents just kept him inside more often than usual and hoped his breathing would return to normal.
It didn't. He sat with his mouth open many times, his little lungs expanding and contracting visibly, his fur moving in and out with each breath. We'd never noticed him breathing before. He'd zone out for a while, catching his breath, then climb onto someone's lap and sleep. Like breathing had exhausted him.
His legs betrayed him next. His back legs wouldn't cooperate with the front, dragging him down and limiting his ability to jump. Some days, he'd be fine, like nothing was wrong. But others? We thought the end was minutes away.
About a month ago, on one of his bad days, I picked him up and held him. I couldn't help but cry, amazed at how little he weighed, how hard it was for him to breathe. "Do you think we should take him into the vet?" I said to my mom through my tears.
"We've done that already. There's nothing wrong with him."
I looked at him, felt his spine beneath my fingers as I ran my hand over his little body. His big green eyes were closed in a long purr, and he lifted his tiny face for me to scratch under his chin. "He's old, I guess," I said, more to myself than my mom. "Twenty is old for a cat."
"That's all it is, honey. Age."
"I just don't want him to die," I said, my voice sounding more each minute like the six year old who found him and was begging to keep him. "I just can't take that right now, too." I was battling with my own body, worried about losing vital pieces of me. I couldn't take losing him.
"He won't," my mom said, her voice sweet with sympathy. "I asked him to hold on through your surgery."
I laughed and kissed his fragile skull. "You better," I said to his sleeping face.
I was just worried that he'd pass on when he was outside, and he'd never find him. "Where was he?" I asked my mom yesterday, tears streaming down my face. I clutched the covers in bed. I felt so weird.
"He was in our bedroom," her voice shook. "He came in last night and slept with all of us - Me and daddy and Sam." Our golden retriever always sleeps with my parents, but Smokey, independent and stubborn, usually sleeps in one of the vacant bedrooms upstairs. "And when we woke up this morning," she paused. "When we woke up this morning, he was...gone."
I just couldn't believe it. He'd been around since I was kid. He was a stray, wandering our neighborhood for days. All of the kids wanted him, because he was so damn cute, with his soft gray and white fur, his tiny little body. Everyone kept trying to take him home, but he'd never stick around. And suddenly, he chose us, taking up residence on our front porch for days. A tiny ball of gray and white with the sweetest little mew I'd ever heard. "Can we keep him?" I begged my mom.
"No. I hate cats," she'd reply. But she put a blanket out on our porch for him. And tuna and water for him. He wasn't going anywhere. She relented, we could keep him. But he was to stay outside.
A week later, he was sleeping in bed with me, crawling on our furniture. We had purchased a food bowl, but didn't know he was a he and bought him pink by mistake. Soon, he ruled our house. I was excited to get home every day and see him. My mom made him a collar that said he belonged to me. I loved him to pieces.
"Wasn't he sweet, though?" Mom said, crying out loud now. "He held on through your surgeries, just like I hoped."
I drove right over. Daddy was in the garage, making a little coffin for him. My mom was out front with Sam, and walked to my car when I pulled up. "Where is he?" I said into her shoulder through our hug.
"He's in the garage with Daddy."
I walked to him, all tiny and frail, laying on the blankets my parents put him on. I sat on the floor, my dad's saw whirring behind me as he pushed wood through. My chest heaved as I petted his little body for the last time. His eyes were open and fixed, but I swear I saw him breathe. Wishful thinking, I guess. I kissed him between his soft little ears and said goodbye.
The three of us, my mom, daddy and I, took turns digging in the rocky soil by the house. We laid him to rest in the root-ridden patch of earth he loved to roll around in. We were all so sad, putting his little box in the ground, covering it with fistfulls of dirt, kind words and tears.
We laid rocks on top of his little grave. I've never buried a pet before, and it struck me that I'd never see him again, save for pictures. Through move after move, through everything, he's been there. And now he's just gone. Except, not really; he's laying in our yard, under a mound of stones and a makeshift headstone, "Smokey" crudely scratched on it in my handwriting.
I put the headstone into the ground, stood back and looked at our little mausoleum. "My God," I said. "My life is a country song. All this tragedy and worry, capped off by the death of a pet."
My mom smiled, wrapped her arm around me. "He knew we loved him. He had a great life."
It seems silly, almost, to be so broken over the death of a pet. But it's as if something I'd always assumed was definite has now changed. A little piece of me went with him.
My hands and arms ache today from the digging. As does my head, from the crying. It hurts more - and less - than I thought it would. I'm sorry he's gone, but I'm glad he went like he did. In the house, peacefully. We didn't have to put him down, and though we watched him get older, he just slowed to a stop. He didn't get sick and become an animal we didn't know. He was ours until the end.
But I was wrong about one thing; no one writes country songs about cats. But I would. I'll miss him something terrible.