“I said that Life and Love go on. But why do they?” -The Host
I’m thoroughly convinced every person has their “soul pet”. You know, it’s just like how you have a soul mate, and a best friend who is the friend. Mine was a grey and white cat with some anger issues, but an overall understanding of the family he lived with. We inherited him when my maternal great-grandmother passed, and to this day we still don’t know why she chose to name him Gretchen.
Gretchen withstood years of dressing him up in baby clothes, walking him through the living room as I pretended we were getting married, a single attempt to leash train him so I could take him to church to be blessed, and my ever-changing nicknames, such as ‘Munchie’. If you haven’t guessed, I was a child who had never been taught how to properly love a pet. But he taught me. As I noticed my precious companion aging and losing more cat wars in the neighborhood, I began to keep him closer. My childish games ended, and soon my wise little cat began to trust me. Before bed I would make sure he was inside so he could sleep on my pillow with me. In storms I would stand outside calling him until he finally appeared. I would get home from school, he would run to me, and we would go inside to cuddle on the couch or explore the internet together. We were inseparable.
With him I welcomed responsibility. I was very diligent with my care for him, despite the arrival of our dog, Raider. When it came to Gretchen, my vision narrowed into a tunnel, and the only thing that mattered was keeping him safe and happy so he wouldn’t die. I guess I believed he might live forever, but deep down I knew that wasn’t the case, so as a reward for completing middle school with awesome academic standing, I asked for a kitten. Don’t get me wrong, Daisy wasn’t brought home because I was tired of an old cat. She was a glorified replacement for the inevitable loss of my best friend. In my mind I had years to get them acquainted and then make sure she learned the ropes of the house, so that when Gretchen moved on she could sleep on my bed and play on the computer with me. It’s a horrible intention. I was so naive. Gretchen’s last year was spent fighting for his rights to the family, putting poor Daisy in her place, and desperately trying to maintain his position in the neighborhood despite his age. I clung to him, as angry with him as he was with me for the Daisy situation. Things seemed to finally settle down after months of tears and breaking up cat fights in the middle of the night.
Of course, as soon as we began to find a happy compromise, disaster struck. Freshman Shelby had only been in high school for about a month. I look back on her now, thinking of the little, sheltered girl who had no sense of style and was still pining after her first love. I remember going through ups and downs and just barely understanding the idea of being a teenager. Gretchen had been there through it all, constantly on the watch for any signs of distress that his purr could ease. I hated riding the bus home every day, because it was over crowded and none of the school officials seemed to care that 3 kids were sitting on a benches designed for 2. On September 23, 2010, my mother drove me to school as she usually did, reminding me of my orthodontist appointment that day. She picked me up again, took me to the stupid office, then drove me back. At one point a hearse and all of its funeral glory passed us. We commented idly and moved on, not realizing then that said vehicle was foreshadowing the end of our day. After school, I rode the bus home as I usually did, silently dying over the awkwardness of having to hold my viola in an already cramped space. When we reached my bus stop, I saw my mom sitting on the corner of our street. I was immediately overjoyed, because what freshman girl doesn’t enjoy walking home with her mother? Not me. Not when I could sense the waves of misery rushing off her. I may have been naive, but I was a very intuitive child, and this pain especially could never have dodged my radar. As we walked down the street I ran off my list of people who could possibly affect her this way…Daddy, Cj, Grammy, T, Boppy, Raider, Daisy…and then I got to the name I was desperate not to mention, because somehow I knew. Somehow I knew it was him. And then I was running. I was running like the nerds I saw racing across the school courtyard with their backpacks flapping behind them. I hit our property and the only thing on my mind was finding him, my viola be damned. That melodic piece of wood I treasured so much was flung on the driveway along with my backpack, and then I launched myself onto the kitchen floor before the one thing I loved more than any possession in the world. And I screamed. And wailed. And lost myself to such agony that my virgin heart couldn’t handle. I remember crying out “It should have been Daisy! You took the wrong one!”…stages of grief, you know? Nobody, no human or animal had ever stared at me with eyes that said they understood me from my head to my toes. Not my parents, my sister, my family, my friends, or our other pets. That wonderful, stiff body before me had once held the soul of someone who actually knew my own soul…..and the thought alone that I had lost such an important piece of my puzzle was enough to rip every part of my being.
I don’t remember at what point my mother told me the story. I just remember seeing her guilt stricken face through my tears and almost hating her for taking my only true friend from me. She didn’t mean to. She loved him almost as much as I did. They all did. Gretchen had grown slower, and when he tried to race her car into the garage….he got stuck between the frame of the doorway and the wheels. She immediately drove him to the vet, having to listen to his wails of torture the entire 10 minutes. He took his last breath before she could get there. It wasn’t her fault. It’s unfair to blame her for such an accident. I think part of me blames him for not understanding his own mortality, and myself for not being there to watch over him. Years of absolutely loving him and stressing over his safety, and I didn’t get to say goodbye.
When the wailing subsided, and I had no more tears to give him, I began to busy myself with a Facebook memorial. I dove into scrapbooks and picture boxes, finding old Christmas photos and silly shots I took of him when I was younger. The sun began to set, and my mom insisted on digging the hole in our backyard herself. I wrapped him up in a piece of cloth and a trash bag, because no bugs were going to dishonor Gretchen by eating him. Then, with my parents at my side, and a hyper Raider running around, I laid him in the grave my mom dug. I said a speech I had written to thank him for putting up with me, being my childhood husband and never leaving me to cry alone. I’m pretty sure that was the first time I heard my father cry. To keep Raider from destroying my sweet cat, we put stones and our old bench on top of the newly placed dirt. I was proud, because we had given Gretchen somewhat of a memorial area.
I watched the stones sink lower every day. Eventually I stopped sitting on the bench. I went through an enormous amount of pain and happiness the rest of my freshman year and I learned to deal with it on my own. I began to resent my kitten for being alive less and less. The wound scabbed over, as it always does, but I was never the same. I still get lost in memories and the trauma of that day, and sometimes I have to stop what I’m doing and breathe to keep the tears away. Even now, I find myself having to stop writing multiple times to calm myself down. I don’t think I’ve retold the story since it first happened…
She’s not the same as him. She doesn’t like sleeping with me when I go home, nor does she enjoy being inside much at all. She gets into fights with other cats, but even I can tell she’s just a cowardly princess. Not a king like he was. I love her dearly. I raised her. But no other cat will have that place. No one will fill that void, and this will be my eternal gift to him.