A stone for Cleo
I was walking down my road a few weeks ago just after dark.
"Cleo?" I called for my little black cat. I would cluck my tongue and make little noises that tend to make her perk up her ears.
I walked past the neighbors' houses and came to the place where there's a wide field of tall grass running on into the trees and up into the hills. Here the wires were buzzing on poles above me as the last red dimmed from the sky in the west.
I stopped to watch the little fireflies blinking greenish white among the blades. One close to me would wink on for just a moment and then another farther into the willy-whacks would brighten up with an answer. They were a cosmos of little Earthbound stars.
It would be so easy for predators to find them, I thought, then pondered if that was why God made bats blind, to give the fireflies a sporting chance. I tell my daughter they're fairies. She bends to the lawn, looks real close and says, "It's a bug, Dad." Always bothers me she just doesn't go with it.
At moments like that, looking at the fireflies in my flip-flops, I wonder if the world isn't really perfect, just the way it is. How can these things be? But there's always that flip side to the equation.
She wouldn't come home.
The next day I called my neighbor, who happens to be a police officer, to mention she was lost. He broke the news that our little cat had been hit by a car in front of his house a few nights before. He'd buried her for us.
If she hadn't slipped her collar somehow, she would have had identification and he would have been able to tell us sooner.
I found myself surprised by the sudden sadness this news caused. I wanted to negotiate on the phone, but felt silly at the same time. How many times in his career has he delivered news far worse than this?
My wife and I actually kind of mourned Cleo. We felt the stages of it. Denial, still going outside in the evening and looking across the yard, hoping maybe it was some mistake and she would come trotting across the lawn, maybe stopping to chase a blinker bug.
There was guilt. We let her down. If only this and that. There's no "undo" button in real life. There's no rewinding back to the second before impact.
Everyone asked us the same question: "Did you tell the kids the truth?" I myself had a dog that went to a "farm up north" when I was a kid. "She'll be able to run," my parents said. "She'll be happy." Sometimes I wonder.
We just told them. Wesley, at 11, was old enough to understand. Samantha at 6, not so much.
Wesley did a good job of eulogizing her, sitting on the coffee table, tears fat in his red eyes. He said it was good at least she got to go out and explore. Maybe we would see her again someday. She was a good cat, he pointed out. On that, we all agreed. He expressed regret as well, silly stuff, like how he wished he had never kicked her out of his room at night when she was playful and he was trying to sleep.
"If I had known how soon she would be gone," he said, "I would've spent more time with her."
His grandmother was less poetic. "That's what cats do," she said. "They die."
She seemed almost mad about it, mad at pets for dying over the years, leaving her grandchildren and children hurting, even for a short time.
When the kids were asleep, Christine and I compared notes on all of our childhood pets that have died, ended up missing in action or "gone to a farm up north."
Some people will say to me, "My pets are like my kids." I can't say that's exactly right. For me, Cleo was a friend.
We decided we needed a better sense of closure, so we went online and ordered a gravestone. I know. If you told me in my early twenties I would ever be that guy, I would have laughed.
You can spend hundreds of dollars or twenty-five. We went with a cheaper version. I still told myself it would be tasteful. We would put it out in the back yard and plant some flowers around it.
"Cleo would have loved to chew these flowers," we would say. "And barf them up. In the dining room. Remember her special spot?"
The "stone" arrived in the mail. It was stone-like, but somehow also manufactured. It said "Cleo, 2008 - 2012" and had a picture of a black cat.
I wished we could have added that quote from "Watership Down" by Richard Adams. The book is a story about talking rabbits and when one of them dies they have this sad proverb; they say: "My heart has joined the thousand, for my friend stopped running today." Seems appropriate for a lost pet.
I noticed that they had made the marker all grooved and weathered, like a gravestone in an old spooky movie. I'm pretty sure they sell the exact same one as a Halloween decoration in the fall.
With some flowers, though, I think it will look nice. We'll put it near where the tall grass starts, the place where she sat for hours and watched the birds and bugs.
Perhaps, in her own simple way, she was like me, thinking the world seems perfect.
And sometimes, for just a minute or two, it is.
Daniel Dunkle is news editor for Courier Publications. He lives in Rockland with his wife and two children. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on twitter at @DanDunkle.