My 19-year-old cat Alice James died last fall, a few days before Thanksgiving. She didn’t so much die as she was dispatched to the other side, after I took her to the vet and requested he set her loose through lethal injection. Over the last several months she developed a disinclination to go more than 24-hours without vomiting and an inability to digest dry food. She also suffered painful arthritis and sundry urinary problems. When one sunny afternoon I set her down on the backyard deck and her hind legs went out from under her, I realized why she’d been peeing on the floor: She couldn’t climb into her litter box. The diagnosis the vet gave me on that visit was a long list, while the treatment list was short and iffy. Now she is buried in my backyard, a few paces away from a grave that holds the body of my retriever-mix and the ashes of my Chesapeake.
Milestones are marked by different people in different ways. Some sort events by whether they occurred before or after college graduation or marriage, the birth of a child or the death of a parent. I recall occasions based on which assemblage of animals was present in my life at the time. Peaches was the Brittany-mix who was often my only friend in a rather desolate and disturbed childhood. Henry James came to me in a snow storm, the same day I’d determined to write my master’s thesis on the writer for whom I immediately named the cat. Bonnie was the Chihuahua-mix who followed me home from a college job in Kansas and was the first of my pets to cross over the rainbow bridge from a vantage point in Wyoming. Spike is the Pomeranian/American Eskimo mix who visited me in the Laramie hospital when I had some non-essential internal body parts removed, and is with me still.
Alice James came in to my life when I was 26 years old. I had been married to my second husband for one year. We were at an outdoor blues concert on Labor Day weekend when I spotted across the park someone carrying a too-tiny kitten. I don’t remember whether that person was male or female. I just remember the lips mouthing: Free kitten. I plodded over picnic blankets and past buckets of chicken discarded by sun-stroked partiers to claim the kitten for myself, although I told my husband we’d just take her long enough to find her a good home. Turns out that home was ours.
I have said goodbye to many animals over the years. I’ve also said goodbye to many people, such as my father who died not long after I found a wild kitten under my porch and named him Ted, as in Nugent. I’ve also said goodbye to the living, such as ex-husbands, and their families, as awkward a parting as there ever could be. I’m one of many who has said goodbye, not just through the inevitable but wrenching surprises of life, but through stubborn choice. A big one was years ago, when I said goodbye to family and friends, packed my two cats and a dog, and pointed west, like a sight-hound pursuing the setting sun.
Last March, the son of some friends died, without saying goodbye. He left behind a bird dog used to ranch life. Now the dog lives in town with my friends. In November, my husband prepared to take the dog pheasant hunting. My husband gave our friends a pheasant feather to acquaint the dog with the scent. Once in the field the dog associated the feather scent with the aroma all around her, and did well as a retriever. A month later, during down time in her living room, she ate the feather. I’ve wondered if the flavor took her right back in the field, to that exhilarating day, when she gathered a limp pheasant peppered with shot between the lips of her soft mouth.
This spring, my husband scattered bird seed on the mound of dirt in the corner of the yard we borrow from for gardening projects. We call the hill Bird Mountain because birds seem attracted to the slight vantage point it offers. On top of the mountain, mourning doves strut and peck at the seed. Beneath the mountain lies Alice’s grave. Do those doves, and the white-crowned sparrows who scratch at Bird Mountain’s base, know that a cat curls just a few feet below? She who in earlier years would have bubbled saliva and purred deep in her throat at the sight of them?
My cat Bradley, the first of my pets to be born in Wyoming, sits on the back yard deck, tail wrapped around his legs, watching and listening to the activity coming from that corner of the yard. He doesn’t make a move as the birds dance above Alice’s head. Perhaps he sees what is coming, in his life, and in mine.