It was an altogether surreal day.
The second full day of a vacation, the second of seven glorious days in a row off from work. Relaxation was just starting to set in, and the rigid schedule of countless work weeks was only just beginning to loose its’ grip on his internal clockwork.
Settling back after a coffee, he punched the ‘three’ on his phone to speed-dial his Mom.
“Yeah?” was the greeting.
“I’m coming out to snow-blow, and….”
There was no “and”. She curtly reminded him he had spoken of calling after work on Saturday to check on how much snow she had gotten. His neglect in doing so was selfish callousness. His brother had had to do the snow-blowing after working all day.
He bit his lip, and took the deep breath he had learned to draw whenever chastised. “Well, I had to get my driveway done because Jen’s sister came in that night, and we had dinner.”
Her response: “Must have been a long damned dinner”.
He did not get into the fact that his shoveling and snow-blowing for her was usually before work. He did not get into the fact that his brother lived only three miles from her house, while he was a good fifteen miles from her. He did not get into the fact that, living alone without a car, a ‘shut-in’ by choice, it made damned little difference to anybody whether all snow on her property was removed every twelve hours or not. He simply noted that he would “talk to you soon”.
It usually took a while to absorb the verbal blows and to walk out the ‘hurt’ after such a conversation. But not today. He pocketed the phone and went to the kitchen. Resting quietly near a register in the archway between the kitchen and the dining room was his eldest cat, Toots.
She was dying.
At sixteen years of age, it was not shocking that she had ‘slowed down’. She was eating, she could still ambulate and jump up on the bed, but her step had become unsteady. She was drinking a lot of water. And, said the veterinarian sister-in-law, upon examination after dinner, she had a month at the most to live. “Probably diabetes”, she noted.
He bent down to caress her slowly, noting the ever-increasing sharpness of the individual vertebrae in her spine. Her fluffy calico coat had belied her weight loss. He refreshed the water bowl in the kitchen and went upstairs to write.
A few hours later, after some lunch, he went outside to shovel off the driveway. This made perfect sense, as he would not be doing so at his mothers’.
Upon re-entering, the other three cats gathered and mewed for the treats they had come to expect with his entry from outside at about this time. Toots remained on the rug between the kitchen and the dining room. He had to bring them to her. She had two.
He frowned as he placed the treats back in the cupboard. She had never not assembled with the others for the once-daily treat. He began to dread the eventuality that she would be gone before Jen got back from California.
At first, she had been a bit peeved that he would suddenly request a vacation from work during the same week she would be gone on business. His sudden decision was more notable in that he had made the request only a week, instead of the required two weeks, before it was to start.
His excuse to her was that he didn’t want to leave the house unattended during the day. He worked nights, she worked days. He would just feel better about home security if he took off from work the week she was gone.
She saw through this fabrication with surprising ease.
“You’re worried about Toots, aren’t you?”.
“Well, you always give her that special soft food in the evening, and I’m never home then”.
She smiled and touched his face. “You’ll miss her more than I will, won’t you?”
At about five o’clock, he drove to the library to check out a book he had decided to read during his time off. Inexplicably, he could not find the library, a location he drove by at least twice a week for the last five years. In a daze, he finally located it. From there, he hopped on the interstate to pick up some snacks at the supermarket. The market was one exit away. He realized he had missed it when he was two exits past it.
Arriving back home, he delayed dinner, and went upstairs to write instead. A strange aura of fogginess remained about him. He dreaded the thought of the special soft-food meal being insufficient in aroma to get Toots back up on her feet. His own hunger at length brought him back downstairs to cook his dinner and rattle the little dishes which signaled the ‘soft-meal’ of the day.
She had moved. He entered the dining room and found her lying on her side, her soft, long fur blowing in the draft of the heat vent she had coveted lately. As he touched her head, he saw that she was gone. The suppleness in her neck, jaw, spine and limbs told him she had passed on scant minutes before. He kissed her forehead and put her down.
He retrieved a box from the attic. He ritually placed her form into the box. Prayers were said; tears were shed. He somberly carried the cardboard sarcophagus to the garage, and placed it carefully on the roof of the car.
She was the ‘alpha’ among the four. She was outweighed by all but one of them, yet suffered no trespass of her favorite ‘spots’ along side of or on top of, Jen or himself. And she faced her fate with a stoic serenity that was beautiful to behold.
Yes, it struck him ‘surreal’ that, having been spurned and humiliated by one female in his life, who long ago had placed herself in a box and pronounced the world around her dead, this selfsame spurning had enabled him to ‘be there’ for his Toots, who for over a decade and a half, had warmed his stomach in return for his rubbing hers.
Even in a garage, in the dead of winter, there was more warmth and love in that box on the car than there ever had been in the box he had grown up in on the other side of town.