My first full-time job was at a bank. I worked as a teller, and behind the line was a row of tall, plate-glass windows looking back on the pavement of the drive-through. I worked there for a year but the scenery from those windows was always just the one scene, gray sky over gray asphalt. Sometimes cars swung by, like a broken metronome.
The drive-through teller was named Charlene; she sat in a back room, apart from us. One day we heard Charlene talking over the intercom though there weren’t any cars there. It turned out that a stray cat had decided to sit down in the drive-through lane. She tried to scare it off, but it refused to go. We watched the battle with interest. It had no tag. The manager decided to bring it inside, just to see if they could find the owner.
For the next couple of weeks the cat lived in the bank by day, and I took him home with me by night. It was a revelation. The customers loved the cat, who would attack plants and climb over cubicles; the gray people, waiting in line, were amused. Our monotone day was suddenly divided into cat-length increments. Then, one day, the regional manager visited and saw the cat dozing in a sunspot behind the counter. The branch manager got in trouble, and I got a cat.
We’ve spent most of sixteen years together. Gato is smart, sometimes cranky – he once launched onto the face of a rottweiler five times his size and drove it out of a doorway to protect his kibble – but always kind. I left him in my parents’ basement for a year when I lived in Korea; when I came in the door, he crawled all over me as if I’d been gone for a weekend, licked at my face. Often he would wake before me, sometimes four, five in the morning, and gently bite my face so I could wake up and be with him. He once popped a screen off a second-story window and leaped fifteen feet to the ground, and ran into the nearby trailer park; when I finally found him and brought him back, he ran over and did it again before I’d thought to shut the window. He was kind of a bastard, really.
Last night, the vet got back to us: the swelling in front of his left eye was not an infection, but lymphoma. He has about a week.
I cried, of course. Well, not at first. First Kjersten and I stood on the back deck in the darkness, planning all the things we would need to do, because I’m an adult. Our options: a week’s worth of pain medication. Grandma coming down to watch the kids. Who would take him in, who would put away his stuff, where was the little red mouse that he’d spent a lifetime ripping to shreds. Once the last detail was in place, I cried.
Sylvie and the cat have never been the closest friends; he likes her well enough, and she tolerates him but never quite forgave the claw-based play he engaged her in as a toddler. Felix adores him; last night, unable to sleep, he kept crawling down to the foot of the bed and yelling “cat!” at him, I believe (in my fatigue) to be declaration of approval. We bought a couple books on the loss of a cat; Sylvie has spoken of death, mostly in cartoon terms, and she understands what happens to flowers after she picks them. But the permanence wasn’t there, yet.
Learning about death, actually understanding it and what it means, is the first true tragedy. We’ve bought a couple of books to talk about it, neither quite right, but they’ll have to do. I don’t know exactly how to say it: I don’t believe in heaven or hell, and that’s a choice I’m usually comfortable with, but it’s hard to impose that existentialism on a four-year-old. Felix will miss Gato, but he won’t really understand, just feel a blurry emptiness that dissipates with time. Sylvie will get it. She’s a smart girl. I just wish she didn’t have to understand it yet. I wish I didn’t have to, either.