Thursday, March 18, 2004

Goodbye, Friend... 

My birthday is coming up soon, in fact it will be my 30th birthday. I'm approaching this birthday with a bit of trepidation, not because I'm getting older or anything, I don't give a fat rat's ass about things like that...It's because my 30th birthday marks a very somber milestone in my family. It will mean that we've all spent one full year without the magic of Rita in our lives.

Over all, I've never been much of a pet person. I have a strong dislike for dogs that stems from having been attacked by canines more than once. In addition, I generally have allergic reactions to pet dander and don't enjoy cleaning up after an animal. I had a goldfish when I was...4, maybe...I had some hamsters in elementary school. That was pretty much it. I never liked cats much as I was allergic to them, too. I was certain I'd never have a pet, I didn't feel the need for one.

Rita changed all that. Rita picked us to be her family. Rita showed up on our porch one evening when I was 19. Rita wouldn't leave. Rita, eventually, became my best friend.

We didn't always call her Rita, in fact, early on we mostly called her 'Cat.' Since she didn't seem to have any desire to leave our front porch, we decided that she'd eventually have to eat, so we fed her. 'Cat' eventually was allowed to live in the garage. She soon moved from the garage to the utility room and, after a week or so, when it was discerned that I wasn't having any allergic reactions to her, she was allowed to live in the actual house with the rest of us. 'Cat' was a beautiful gray and white striped animal with wonderful green eyes. She resembled a cartoon cat on a show called "Animaniacs" that was named Rita. I hated the character, I thought she was annoying, but 'Cat' looked enough like Rita that we called her, obviously, Rita. She fit in to our family immediately.

Well, maybe not "immediately." She WAS prone to fits of erratic behavior early on, but that soon faded. My father was convinced that Rita was actually his brother, Jim, reincarnated. Jim had died the year prior from liver cancer, among other ailments. If Rita could help my Dad cope with the loss of his brother, so be it. Besides, she acted as if she knew us right from the beginning. She was affectionate and talkative and recognized all of us and our vehicles individually when we'd arrive back at home. She memorized all of our work schedules and would be ready to run up to the car door and greet when we were due to appear at home day after day. I enjoyed very much how Rita would trot along beside me toward the door, chatting all the way as if she were telling me how her day went. It seemed that she always had quite a bit to tell me about her day.

Rita was an outdoor cat and a very adept hunter. One of my favorite pastimes when we all lived in the house on Hackberry was to watch my friend stalking whatever manner of prey had wandered into our backyard. Whether it were a bird, a chipmunk or whatever, it was never a match for Rita's cunning and stealth. In addition to her homicidal tendencies, she was really quite thoughtful. On special days such as anniversaries or birthdays, she would invariably have a fresh kill to give as a present waiting on the doorstep. Like clockwork, she remembered everyone. She also loved Summertime because she could spend more time outside AND she could choose exactly when she would go out and when she would come in. This was because, years prior, either myself or my sister had broken the screen out of the screen door. During summer, we would simply raise the glass portion of the screen door to get airflow. With no screen, Rita was free to leap in and out of the house at her leisure, moving from one wonderful warm-weather adventure to the next.

Of course, when the weather got cooler, we would have to lower the glass. One afternoon, after having done this, I was lying on the couch watching television. I caught motion outside from the corner of my eye. it was Rita, bounding up the front walk toward the screen door. I surmised that, by the way she was truckin' along, she had NO CLUE that we had closed up her leapin' hole. I couldn't get to the door fast enough to open it, but I WAS there just in time to see little Rita leap, soar majestically through the air and impact the glass part of the door square and hard. The whole door shook. Poor Rita fell backward, landing on her feet as cats are accustomed to, sat back and stared at the door with a murderous glare. As I opened the door, she saw me and sprang back to her feet, never one to be caught in an undignified position. I told her "Sorry, you can't do that again until May." She pretended not to hear me as she wandered off. She certainly wasn't going to admit defeat and she SURELY wasn't going to come in until she was damn good and ready. I loved that about her.

A couple of years later, my parents purchased a townhome. I moved with them, not quite yet adult enough to be back on my own. Rita, of course, moved with us as well. Rita never dealt with change very well and she HATED riding in any vehicle whatsoever. She cried the whole way to her new home and spent her first 3 days there hunkered back in my closet, angrily mewing at everyone who passed by. She seemed to be chastising us for taking her away from HER house. She ultimately mellowed enough to check out the rest of the place and soon enough she was right back to acting as if she owned it. My Mother was deathly afraid to let her outside at this new place, thinking that she'd become confused and return to the wrong home or, God forbid, not return at all. Rita, being an outdoor cat, and not accustomed to being told "no" consistently requested to be let out. We all toed the company line and refused until one day, when my Mom was a little distracted. Rita waited until she wasn't looking and darted outside to experience sweet freedom once more. Of course, my Mom panicked. Rita, seeing as she was more than just a pet, returned to the right home in a reasonable amount of time. We were her family. She knew where home was, no matter what.

Ultimately, I moved out of my parents' home. When I did, I missed Rita, but I got to see her often enough. Rita got a good amount of attention living with my parents anyway, in fact my Dad was unemployed (by his own choice) for a good stretch of time and that seemed to spoil her a bit. She certainly got used to having someone around to play with her, feed her and let her out whenever she wanted. At one point, when my parents went on a cruise, My wife and I were charged with looking in on Rita to see how she was doing. One particular night, We were over watching TV and I decided that I was going to read the newspaper. After a section or two, Rita got up from where she had been sitting and walked over to me. She mewed, I gave her a pat on her head and rubbed her ears. She mewed again and I mewed back. I told her I was reading the paper, I'd play later. She then set about destroying the newspaper.

I'm serious about this. She literally grabbed the newspaper with both paws and chewed what she could get to into pieces. I was totally shocked, yet utterly amused at the same time. I'm not sure she appreciated me laughing at her, but she got what she wanted. We played the pen game for a while and then played chase.

late in 2002, Rita's behavior and appearance changed significantly. She got a little slower and clumsier and she grew quite thin. She definitely was not herself anymore. My parents took her to the vet and she got some medicine. She got a little better, then she got a little worse. She fought a brave fight and never really seemed to want to admit that she wasn't feeling well. She'd try and play, but she simply didn't have the stamina. She couldn't take the stairs very well anymore, which prevented her from sleeping upstairs with Mom and Dad. She spent a lot of her time downstairs, in the dark. Ultimately, she spent a lot of her time laying on my Father's chest, close to his heart, for as many hours as he would let her. In March of 2003, my wife and I were getting ready to drive to Kansas to visit some friends. We stayed at my parents' house the night before our departure and I decided that I'd better let Rita know that I loved her, as I didn't know if I'd have the opportunity to do so again. I sat with her for a while and chatted with her. She chattered right back like the good little girl she was. I told her as I got up to leave that I loved her very much and I was going to miss her. She looked at me for a few moments and then turned away. It was almost as if she didn't want to admit that she wasn't going to be there when I came back.

While I was out of town, on my birthday, I was later told, Rita came out of the bedroom upstairs looking for my Mother. She stumbled and fell a few times, but ultimately made it to my Mother's lap. It was obvious that something was very, very wrong and so my parents took Rita to see the vet again. She had been in and out of the vet's office a lot recently and she had been on a lot of medication. unfortunately, none of it worked like it was supposed to. The vet ran some tests and finally diagnosed my friend with cancer of the liver, the same ailment that had done my uncle in so many years prior. She was too jaundiced at that point to be cured, and so my parents were suddenly faced with very hard decision. They soon decided that they would have to put their third child to sleep.

Rita got to lay next to my father's heart one last time before they took her away. Both my Mother and Father were heartbroken. When my wife and I returned from Kansas a couple days later, There was a message on our phone asking me to call my Dad. I called and asked what was up and he said "we had to...on your birthday, we had to..." and he started to cry. I knew that Rita was gone. I cried too. We both cried together. There was nothing more to do but cry. Rita was a very good girl and an important part of our family, but she had to go away. I still miss her terribly.

My parents go looking at cats every sunday, to see if they can find another that will be as perfect an addition to our family as Rita was. After a year of searching, they've come up empty handed. I'm convinced that, while their search will go on, they won't find what they're looking for. As for me, I don't want another pet. After all, I never had a pet, I had a very good friend who's, unfortunately, no longer around. I do look forward, however, to the time when we'll be reunited. I don't know quite what happens after we die, but I certainly hope that wherever I end up, She'll see me coming. She'll run up to whatever vehicle I arrive in and she'll trot in along side me on the way in, filling me in on what she's been up to since she got there.

I know she'll have some wonderful stories to tell me.

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