Originally published on June 16, 2012.
The first cat, the white one whose name was Oliver, arrived with my bride. The two of them came as a package. I’d never lived with a cat before. And though it dates me to confess it, I’d never lived with a woman, either.
What I brought to the marriage — besides two shotguns, a 19-year-old car and an $800 debt to the Internal Revenue Service — were two hounds and a bird dog.
Now dogs and cats, in myth at least, are a famously uneasy mix. But on their first day together, Oliver materialized over the back of the couch like a missile bursting from its silo. And from that moment onward, the dogs were his emotional slaves.
After Oliver, by my best count, we’ve shared our house with 28 furred creatures over the years: eight of them dogs, the remaining 20 cats. Each has been valued. Each has had a character uniquely its own.
The good part is the friendship they’ve brought. The hard part has been the losses, of which we’ve lately had another.
The black cat, Birken — the one we called Headlight because of the way his enormous golden eyes shone out of the darkness of that face — was rescued by our daughters from a shelter in their college town.
Like all college cats, eventually he found his way home.
His appearance was threatening, but Birken had the heart of a mouse. He preferred to find some refuge under a bed or behind a couch, apart from the other more confident ones of his kind.
Then a new kitten came in, this one a foundling from a garage next door to a lodging for homeless men. Stripe was his name, and he, too, would become a large cat in his time. Large, and something of a rowdy.
And somehow, along the way, those two — the recluse and the extrovert — became the best of friends.
One of the daughters, finished with her schooling, took an apartment. Stripe and Birken, by then inseparable, went to live with her. When work took her to another city across the state, they moved there, too.
These last five or six years have been Birken’s finest. He gave up his solitary ways — came out into the larger world, enjoyed his toys and looking out the window at tree leaves rustling in the breeze and birds on the other side of the glass.
He claimed his place with Stripe and a later cat on the bed of their mistress, our daughter. His preferred spot was the pillow next to hers.
That was Birken’s golden time. And it was friendship, I believe, that changed him so.
Then the sickness came.
Treatment and medication bought him a little time. On good days, he still could make his way onto the bed. But what afflicted him could not be cured. He lost interest in food. His weight declined. He began to withdraw again.
There came the day, finally, when there no longer was any doubting the final kindness owed a friend, and I traveled to that other city to help our daughter through the sad time.
The veterinarian said the thing he had to do was the hardest part of his profession. Though Birken’s eyes still shone like golden headlights, the once-sturdy frame was slight under my hand.
My daughter wept. So did I.
Give a piece of your heart to nearly 30 creatures, and what’s absolutely guaranteed, after all the goodness, is nearly 30 griefs. There’s no way around it.
But the only safety I know is in never giving your heart to anyone or anything. And what sort of bargain is that?