I am going to write this blog post without crying one bit, partially because I’ve waited several days to do so, and partially because I’m too stuffed up and cold-medicated to have any emotions. Right? Right.
In 1993 we went to the local pet supply store on a Saturday, because on Saturdays they opened up their back room for people who had kittens and puppies that needed homes, and because we were in the market for a kitten. To this day I could walk you directly to the spot where that particular cage was. Inside that cage were two kittens. The first was shorthaired, orange, and deranged. I still remember him hanging upside down from the top of the cage, yowling.
The second was Schubert. He was very small, longhaired (although there wasn’t much of that at the time), gray with white socks and a white bib, and when I picked him up he tucked his head into the crook of my arm and hid. At first I called him Hidey, but we couldn’t go naming a boy cat Heidi, particularly not when there had been a girl dog named Heidi in the family, once upon a time.
I was twelve.
And in love.
I think both Schubert and Minuet (the little cat we brought home the following year) were supposed, in some way, to be Mom’s cats, but no force of nature can withstand the bond between a gushy, mothery twelve-year-old girl and her kitten. Schubert and I became inseparable. Although he was a terrible scaredy cat for the first half of his life, he would let me do just about anything to him.
All he asked in return was to be allowed to escort me to the bathroom, to exchange headbutts on demand, to share my bedroom and to not be forced into public when the doorbell rang.
He grew and grew and grew. Imagination fails to comprehend how that tiny handful of kitten turned into such an enormous – and I don’t, by any means, mean overweight – cat. There must have been some Maine Coon in his lineage somewhere. He was a noble, leonine, King of the Suburbian Jungle cat.
Schubert could stand on his hind legs, reach the door knob, turn it and let himself out of a room if the knob wasn’t tight. He got more stoned off of catnip than any cat I’ve ever known. He could hide in places so ridiculously small (e.g., the insides of a Wurlitzer organ, accessed through the gap underneath the foot pedal) that I’m sure it defied the laws of physics. He would let me hold him on his back like a baby. His whiskers were multitudinous, shocking white, regally long. Schubert listened to my secrets, promised not to hate me, and agreed – with those wise, golden eyes of his – to marry me and be my prince if I could only find the way to break the enchantment that locked him in his feline form. Failing that, he would always be my best friend.
In the end, it was I who betrayed Schubert. I didn’t break the enchantment, and I didn’t wait for him. I bought a dress and got married to a man. Schubert eventually forgave him. And he didn’t hurt the dress, even after I moved away and left him behind as I started my adult life.
In 1994, when I was thirteen, we went back to the pet supply to find a companion for my Grammy. She’d expressed interest in a small, male, apricot poodle. Inside a playpen on the opposite side of the pet market (I could walk you to that spot, too) we found her a little dollop of Irish cream that she ended up naming Bailey.
Bailey was trouble from day one. We went from there to Walmart to buy him a collar, and I tried to smuggle the wee thing (he couldn’t have been the size of a can of Coke) inside my coat so that he could be fitted. The greeter, a cantankerous old curmudgeon who probably hated working at Walmart almost as much as he apparently despised adorable puppies, saw through our ruse and threw us out of the store. We had to leave him in the car while we bought him a tiny green cat collar.
Bailey was a bossy little thing, and quickly did his level best to take over his new household. He guarded the premises ferociously, despite having legs the length of a dachshund’s, and lived to hear a car he recognized coming up the road. No – that’s not true. He lived to play “football” – obsessive-compulsive fetch with whatever stuffed toy he loved best at the time. Grammy used to fuss at him for being such an attention hog and for getting on the sofa, which isn’t at all where he was supposed to be (and yet, where he ended up much of the time).
When Grammy couldn’t go back home at the end, we took Bailey in, and he became Dog #3 in a five-critter household. These were his twilight years, and he no longer felt the need to be in charge of absolutely everything, but he still slipped into a dominant role with Mom’s puppy and the docile golden retriever.
While I was trying to work out my own place in a world without my Grammy, I had little talks with Bailey where I’d reassure him – and in doing so, of course, trying to reassure myself – that I’d take care of him now that his mama was gone. I’d often feel like he was the last really tangible and alive part of her left, like he was a connection to Grammy that I didn’t feel so much in any of the inanimate objects left behind.
Even up until the end, he got first dibs on the food dish and water bowl. Bailey grew older and tireder, and eventually blinder and deafer, but he never lost that dominant spirit. Although he got cold and needed to wear a sweater in the cooler months, he would fight viciously to defend himself against the dreaded knitwear. Being a tiny seven-pound poodle didn’t stop him from fighting with the strength of a wolf when anyone tried to groom him or make him do anything he didn’t want to. He was a stubborn, sweet little guy, toddling – even skipping – across the yard, making a beeline for the food dish afterward just in case a stray bit of cheese (or, heaven permit, ice cream!) had ended up there while he was away.
Little furbodies don’t stick around forever. The night before Schubert and Bailey departed, I went over and tried to bid them farewell as best I could – which mostly consisted of holding them and bawling until I had a migraine. (Have you ever noticed that “bawling” is kind of like “yawning” – all you have to do is type it, and then you’re in danger of doing it. Must be that w.) There was no doubt that, at almost-17 and almost-18, my two little guys were ready to catch the train to What’s Next – especially if What’s Next included bodies that worked and didn’t hurt. I really wrestled with whether or not to go with them to the vet, but in the end I stayed away, and I don’t think I regret it.
The next day, a friend wrote to me, “While a specific pet can never be replaced, they teach us to let them into our hearts again and again, with full knowledge of having to let go again. I’ve lost quite a few pets, and people. It’s not the same, and it’s never easy, but the ability to love and let go at the same time is an awesome power that, so far as I think, no one else can teach.” And of course, that’s so true. Our little kitties and puppies are, as I’ve oft been told, and said myself, heartbreaks waiting to happen – but I couldn’t live without them.
I reckon that a lot of the sorrow wrapped up in losing a childhood pet is less grief for the animal’s passing – because, after all, that’s a necessary part of life, and a release from pain for them – and more a sense of mourning for what is gone. I didn’t just lose Schubert; I lost a tangible part of that little twelve-year-old girl who had no doubt that magic existed and that there were fairy tale endings. It isn’t just that my cat and my grandmother’s dog grew up and grew sick and died – it’s that I’m grown up, and my sister is grown up, parents are getting older, and the past is gone forever, and I don’t know what the future holds – except that I know the future holds loss, and that’s why I cry when I write a stupid blog entry even when I swore I wouldn’t, because sometimes I would just kill to get to go back and be a little girl again, in a time where I didn’t have to worry about the world and all its problems, in a time when I knew my mommy and daddy would always be stronger than I was and would take care of me, in a time before politics and internet arguments and sex and coworkers and grad classes and bills and housework and death. And life.
Bye, Schubie. Bye, Bailey. Stake out the good sunny spots, okay? I love you both for always…