|A Goodbye For Soldier
By R. D. Flavin
"Get up and feed
the cats, before I kill one of them!" she threatened sleepily.
Kevin knew she
was kidding, but he threw back the covers and got out of bed nonetheless.
Slipping on his robe quietly, he heard Susan's breathing deepen and knew
she'd fallen back asleep. She probably hadn't gone to bed until after
two again. The cats began to meow once more, and he quickly left
his sleeping significant other and the bedroom, closing the door behind
at his feet as he walked to the kitchen. Incessantly, the four cats
tripped over themselves to be first in line to eat, just in case the food
ran out part way through the feeding. It had never happened before,
of course, but the cats couldn't take any chances. They knew instinctively
that breakfast was the most important meal of the day, and as Kevin opened
a can of shredded ocean whitefish, their litany reached an annoying crescendo.
"Will you please
shut up?" he begged them. "If she wakes up again, she'll take you
the butcher and sell you for seventeen cents a pound!" They didn't
believe him and meowed even louder.
Even though the
four cats had lived together as a family for almost five years now, they
still fed in pairs. Kevin's two female cats ate together in one corner
of the kitchen and Susan's two male cats required another. As he
tossed away the lid of the canned cat food and fishy smells playfully overran
the room, the voices of the cats combined into one raw, demanding howl.
They were spoiled, but Kevin didn't care. He loved them with all
Calling out their
names as he individually fed them was a private tradition. "Gilda-food,"
he said softly, spooning a portion into the youngest cat's dish.
"Katie-fat-butt-food," Kevin quickly added, depositing a sizeable dollop
of cat food in a second dish. Stepping across the kitchen floor,
trying not to walk on Susan's cats, he divided the remainder of the can
between the two males. "Max-baba-food," came first, followed immediately
by "Old Soldier-food." At last the house was quiet once more as all
four cats enjoyed their breakfast. Susan could sleep through the
morning and the cats would not be sold to the butcher.
sun mounted the horizon and started its slow climb skyward. The kitchen
filled with warm sunlight as Kevin prepared a pot of coffee. It was
a quarter of seven and he had forty-five minutes before he had to go to
work. Usually, he'd go through a ten-minute workout before showering
and getting dressed, but this morning he felt like doing something special
Since she started
taking night-classes to finish her master's degree, Susan was never home
for dinner except on weekends. Carrot-sticks, apples, and cold, brown
sugar Pop-Tarts became her standard evening meal, rapidly consumed as she
raced from her receptionist job across town to school. Susan referred
to herself as "culinarily challenged," which basically meant she could
boil water, make toast, but little else. Kevin, who did all the cooking
in the household, took some mixed vegetables, cut up a chicken breast,
and combined them for stir-fry. Tonight, at least, she'd eat well.
chicken, the cats began to take turns rubbing against his legs on the outside
possibility a stray piece of fresh meat might just happen to fall to the
floor. "Not a chance, kids," Kevin said, chuckling to himself.
However, and predictably, the cats heard instead, "Rub harder against my
legs, and maybe you'll eat again!"
"You don't give
up, do you?" Kevin didn't have to answer himself. As the meowing
started once more, the correct reply was obvious.
She awoke feeling
exhausted, as if she hadn't slept at all. Midterms were in a couple
of weeks and Susan was staying up late studying every night. Fortunately,
her reception job didn't start until ten and so she didn't have to get
up until eight-thirty. It still meant she was only getting a little
over six hours of sleep a night, but a degree in computer science, and
a chance at a "real" career, would hopefully make it all worth while.
As her eyes focused and she looked around the bedroom, there seemed to
be sleeping cats everywhere.
sure got the good life," she mused out loud. As if in appreciation,
Soldier woke up at the sound of her voice and marched across the bed and
began to suck on one of her fingers. The ten year old, jet-black
cat was her favorite and would often go through the motions of nursing
at her hand. To anyone else, even Kevin, he was unsociable and would
usually hiss and run away. But, Soldier was the first cat she ever
owned and their love was the deepest.
old boy," she said after a couple of minutes, gently pushing
The cat retreated
a few feet, near the foot of the bed, and stared at her silently.
Their eyes met, held for a heartbeat, and Susan sighed deeply, got out
of bed and walked to the kitchen.
a cup of coffee, she read the note from Kevin. Opening the
refrigerator door and seeing the chicken
stir-fry caused her to squeal in excitement. "He knows the way to
my heart, that's for sure," Susan said to herself.
At her feet,
Soldier began to wheeze and cough. Over the years, the cat's asthma
had worsened and the increasing regularity of the attacks saddened Susan,
leaving her with an overwhelming feeling of helplessness. The choking
sounds brought the other cats into the kitchen to investigate, but like
Susan, they simply watched Soldier's suffering and didn't try to do anything.
There was nothing anyone could do.
She readied herself
for work, listening for any change in the old cat's condition. Usually
the attacks lasted only a few minutes, but sometimes they seemed to go
on forever. A veterinarian had told her once that there was no immediate
danger to the cat's life, but the asthma would, over time, drag down his
health and kill him. That was five years ago and Susan lived with
the ever-present image of coming home at some point and finding her favorite
cat dead. After a fashion, it was the main reason she let the cat
nurse at her fingers. Soldier was not long for this world and a little
kindness was the least she could do.
also recognized she wasn't alone in either her love for the ailing cat
or in possessing the ability to grieve. Seven year old Max had spent
his entire life with Soldier as his pal and older brother. And, with
Kevin came Gilda and Katie, who also loved the cat in their own mysterious,
"I have a favor
to ask regarding my cats, and yours too," she asked Kevin one day, shortly
after they first moved in together.
her approach to life, death, and how closure is a necessary thing.
She'd asked that if ever Kevin found one of the cats dead, of any cause
or reason, that he wouldn't simply dispose of the animal or allow some
vet to whisk the carcass off to backrooms unknown. "Please place
the body in the same room as the other cats and give them the chance to
discover for themselves that the cat has gone on. If they don't get
that moment of realization, they could pine horribly for years, believing
the cat had just run away. Let them know death..."
At some point
the attack ran its course and Soldier wasn't coughing anymore. Susan
was racing around the apartment collecting books, papers, keys, and everything
else she'd need for the next twelve-plus hours. In the kitchen, she
put the plastic container of Kevin's chicken stir-fry in a paper-bag, along
with an orange and a small box of juice. Soldier sat near the kitchen
door which lead to their third-floor porch. The cat gave a pathetic,
low howl, asking to be let outside.
"Fresh air and
birds for the old cat?" Susan asked cheerfully. She opened the kitchen
door a couple of inches and Soldier immediately squeezed through.
Of all the cats, Soldier most enjoyed the out-of-doors. He'd a wild,
reckless, and untamed streak, though he had shared a couple of 'prizes'
over the years. Depending on where they lived, it was sometimes a
bird, once a bat, but usually mice. Soldier was ...independent.
him carelessly roll on the porch in the morning sun. "Happy kitty,"
she said, and remembering the traffic tie-ups of the last few mornings,
hurried off for a long day of work and school.
It became gray
and overcast in the early afternoon, and by the time Kevin got home from
work it was pouring rain. Cold, damp air greeted him as he opened
the front door to the apartment. Hanging up his coat and kicking
off his boots, Kevin began going from room to room looking for an open
window. In the kitchen, with gusts of wet wind blowing through the
open door, he discovered why the apartment felt so cold. Thinking
nothing of it, he closed the door, went into the living room, turned on
the television, and began to watch the evening news.
arrangement, however, lasted only a few minutes. It was dinner-time
and cats galore began to encircle his chair and insisted on being fed without
delay. Sometimes they'd meet him at the front door, other times he
might be able to get in a half-hour of news. Sooner, rather than
later, the cats would get their evening meal. The cats knew it and
so did Kevin.
The air in the
kitchen was still damp and chilly as Kevin opened up a can of cqt-food
and summoned the cats with a loud, "Come and get it!" Little calico
Gilda was always first, screaming as she ran into the kitchen. Then,
a full fifteen pounds of gray Katie thundered in, her big belly bouncing
from side to side as she ran. Max and Soldier always entered together
-- always a touching show of cat-solidarity, But, there was just
Max, hungry and wanting to be fed.
Come on, old guy!" Kevin cried out. There was no sign of the cat.
He walked slowly
through the apartment calling Soldier to dinner. After a few moments
of no response, Kevin began to seriously suspect the worst was both inescapable
and happening now. He remembered the open door and ran to the kitchen.
Standing on the
porch, wind and rain hitting his face, Kevin looked over the railing and
saw his world change irrevocably. Soldier lay unmoving, three floors
below, on the ground.
The single word
"No," that passed his lips was powerless to change what had happened.
He walked through and out of the apartment, past his coat and boots, and
down the stairs. Numb to the soaking downpour all around him, Kevin
made his way to the rear of the apartment building and stood silently over
Soldier. He wanted to scream out in rage and frustration, but instead
he cried. He already missed the old guy.
With more tenderness
and care than he'd ever shown before, Kevin picked up the cat in both his
arms. He didn't need eight or ten years of scientific training to
determine the cat was dead--its body was already surprisingly stiff.
The fall must have happened hours ago.
came back to him as he took the lifeless body of Soldier
back upstairs. She'd loved the cat
for ten years and his passing, though expected, would still hurt her greatly.
Kevin placed the dead Soldier in the middle of the living room, following
Susan's wishes, and let the other cats hold a wake and grieve in their
He sat down on
the couch, turned off the television and watched the three cats sniff and
paw at Soldier. Susan probably wouldn't be home for three or four
hours. There was nothing to do, but wait.
Opening the door
to the apartment, an unnatural quiet greeted her and dispassionately announced
that something was terribly wrong. The lights were off and usually
the television was blaring, often with Kevin sound asleep on the couch.
She'd seen his car downstairs and knew he was home.
hesitantly, reaching for the light-switch on the wall in the hall.
"Don't turn on
the lights, please..." His voice was husky and thick with emotion.
Her eyes probed
the darkness of the living room and she eventually saw the three cats sitting
quietly around the prone body of Soldier. The tears came violently,
her chest heaving in sobs and her stomach tightening like a giant fist.
"Oh, Soldier," she cried out after several minutes.
Kevin left her
alone. It broke his heart to watch the woman he loved in so much
pain, but he respected her grief. The old cat shared a private part
of her for years before he'd started dating Susan, and he owed these moments
to both of them.
She was still
crying as the cats left Soldier's side and took turns rubbing her legs
briefly, before leaving the room and their old friend. Several deep,
cleansing breaths brought a small amount of calm, though tears still fell
from her eyes. Walking into the living room, Susan knelt beside Soldier
and began to stroke his fur.
boy. Sleep well," she said at last, standing and turning into the
waiting arms of Kevin. "Oh, Kevin," she sobbed, "I don't know what
to do with him! I've never had to make this decision before!
"I'll take care
of him. Don't worry about it," Kevin answered, holding her tight.
"You can't just
put the body in the trash! That's cruel!"
"I was thinking
about a nice spot in the park, maybe under a tree so he could listen to
the birds and they'd keep him company..."
"And annoy him
for all eternity!" she laughed through the tears. Susan had passed
through the first stage of her personal grief and realized there was life
after loss. Hugging Kevin as tightly as she could, she looked up
into his eyes and said, "Go ahead... It sounds like a good idea..."
separated. Kevin took down an old and tattered wool blanket from
a closet shelf and Susan selected a couple of Soldier's favorite cat-toys.
Before he wrapped up the cat, Susan kissed Soldier and gave him one last
pet on the side of his face.
sandwich meat in the fridge," Kevin said over his shoulder. "Why
don't you make yourself something to eat and I'll be back in a bit.
"Okay," she replied,
as he left with Soldier.
The next day
Susan told Kevin she didn't want to visit Soldier's final resting place
for a while. She wanted a period of adjustment and to put some distance
between her pain and the rest of her life. Kevin agreed, not really
understanding, but trusting her to handle her own emotions in the best
About four weeks
later, on a bright sunny spring day, Susan brought home a tiny kitten,
jet-black and looking like a little version of Soldier. "Does it
have a name?" Kevin asked cautiously.
"What?" he asked,
coughing in amazement. "Like the regular on CHEERS?"
she corrected, "No, 'Norm' as in short for 'Norman '-- like Norman Bates
in the movie PSYCHO. The crazy, little guy bit me the first time
I picked him up!"
Norman was put down and immediately got into a fight with Gilda, while
the other two cats pretended not to care. There were four cats again
and the apartment seemed a happier place.
arm, Susan said, "Come on, show me where in the park you put the old boy.
I want to make sure the birds are doing their jobs."
They left the
apartment to the loud noises of kitty-hisses and cat howls -- the sounds
A previous version of this story appeared in the online The Greenwich
Village Gazette 10-18-96.]
c. 2002 by R. D. Flavin.
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