column: Death of a childhood pet bookends an era
My cat died Monday.
Furball was a grumpy, skittish cat — but I loved her nonetheless. My sister decided early on that Furball was bad news and she detested even being in the same room with the cat. Extended family thought Furball was strange and learned to fear her after several impressive hissing fits.
She was curious, usually playful— never fully knowing, or at least acknowledging, that the string she chased was an inanimate article. She was proud in her waggishness. She fully possessed herself with a natural grace I never knew as a clumsy child with stilts for legs and noodles for arms.
She loved the sunny spots of the house. As a kid, I'd lay next to her and soak up the warm rays. Furball used to chew the bottom branches of the Christmas tree. I couldn't possibly tell you how many phone cords our family replaced when she was a kitten. I remember her waking me as I tried to go to sleep: left paw, right paw, left paw, right paw. On nervous nights — going into middle school with loose stitches on my chin, the evening before I left for college, the tossing and turning in anticipation of a date — her presence was a comfort, allowing me to be in solitude yet not fully alone.
I recall her fear when I tried, halfway though her life as an indoor cat, to initiate her to the wild outdoors. She scratched and clawed as I put her outside and rocketed back into the house as soon as she hit the ground. It was months and months before she willingly went outside again. I think back to the baths I was asked to give her as a kitten and cringe at her meowing and discomfort. Then I laugh at the memory of her soapy and wet in the sink.
No matter my age, I was never too old for an affectionate lick and nuzzle. Even as I left for college and the periods between visits home lengthened, even after I got married and moved far away, to Furball I was always the nine-year-old who walked home from visiting a neighbor with a little kitten clinging to my chest. Who begged and pleaded with my parents until they acquiesced and promised me I could keep 'that darn cat' as long as I was the one to feed her. Who fell asleep a thousand times to the ring of her deep, contented purr.
See, Furball's passing marks more than the death of a pet or of a childhood friend. It fully closes the door to an era. It bookends my childhood.
At 25, you'd think that door had shut already and perhaps I thought it had. But when my father called me from my childhood home in Maryland and told me of Furball's death, I felt like that nine-year-old all over again. I wished for my cat to cuddle, I craved the permanence of her, I itched to hear that comforting purr.
When those things didn't come, I decided to just be thankful for the companionship my little, cranky, loving cat brought me during those formative years, the decade and a half that I took shape in front of her. I thanked her for not discriminating against me in my angsty moments or my angry moments or my timid moments or my boisterous ones.
The death of a childhood pet is a common experience. It's a wrenching one, but one preceded by sweet memories and experiences that are wholly unique yet somehow still universal in nature.
This Thanksgiving I'll drive down the Turnpike to my Eastern Shore hometown and walk into a home that, for the first time in 16 years, will be devoid of the presence of my only longterm childhood pet. She won't greet me as I walk in, she won't implore my husband to pet her, she won't be sitting near a window in the sun.
And no, she won't be hissing at visitors.
But the memory of her, I hope, will linger.