(expanded from Ring of Fire)
In the six times I have had to put a much loved pet to sleep, I have only felt I got it right once. Simon was not the one.
We met on a rainy day when I saw a smudge of something run right under the front wheels of my car. I screeched to a stop, got out and looked, dreading what I might see. But there was nothing.
Guessing ‘cat’, I called out, and on my third ‘Here, kitty’ I heard, not far away, ‘ya-row, ya-row’ – quite loud.
About 20 feet off the road, under a scrubby pine tree, sat the saddest looking cat I had ever seen. Long, stringy, dirty blond fur hung like spanish moss on a rack of bones. Squished ears clung to the sides of his head. When he called to me, he only had two canines, both on the same side. And one eye was half shut, streaming tears.
I admired him immediately. This mangy wreck of a cat, still had the courage and the, what…hope? to reach out and answer my call. For three days I was drawn back by his strong voice and unusual cry until he let me pick him up and bring him home.
He stayed with me for six years. I paid more to restore him to something like health than I prefer to tell you. The vet guessed him to be 10 or 11 years old and thought he had been on his own a long, long time. His ears were so infected from ear mites they were mashed and misshapen, one eye was infected, and he was thin, not just from hunger, but from a tumor on his thyroid. But he was neutered so at some time someone cared for him.
I came to love him dearly, under the terms he set. He had very clear ideas on how he wanted to relate to humans. If a face came too close to his, he’d shoot a claw so deep into tender human tissue that he could then let his arm go limp and the claw…and arm…would hang there. But if you approached him sideways, put your arms around him and pulled him in, he would snuggle right down to be held.
Naptimes, my naptimes, were his favorite. He would station himself on my chest and purr, and purr. A warm, skinny, mini-massage machine.
He died because I made a mistake. I didn’t keep his coat combed. His fur was long and kind of oily and it wasn’t pleasant for either of us to groom him, so I didn’t. And when the mats inevitably formed and I took him to a groomer, he had a stroke on the table. He was too old by then and the stress was too much.
I punished myself for this mistake for weeks, making the grief doubly difficult to bear.
Then one night, lying awake and thinking of Simon, I found myself speaking to him directly, as though he was there.
‘I’m so sorry. I made a mistake. I miss you so much.’ And I saw my dear friend, flickering back and forth between the misshapen suggestion of a cat he had been and the beautiful blond Persian he was meant to be.
And I heard him say ‘I haven’t gone anywhere. Every time you hold Dottie or George or Pearl, every time you hold any cat, I’m right there.’
He was right. I hadn’t realized. But now when I hold Dottie or Pearl or George and I think of Simon, he is there. I can feel the distinct texture of his coat and I can smell his smell. I hear his purr again. And we can have a visit as I relax into the certainty that he forgives and loves me still.