Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I Still Miss My Friend... 

Friday will mark my 37th birthday, not a milestone per se, but my birthday does mark a milestone of loss in my life and, however trivial it may seem to others, it's never far from my mind. I wrote this in 2004 and why I felt an inexplicable urge to revisit it 7 years later, I don't know. All I know is that I am. So...Here.
As a means of confession and also "setting the table," I must admit, I've never been a "pet person." I have a strong dislike for dogs in general which stems from my having been (viciously) attacked by canines on several occasions. To complicate matters, I have marked allergic reactions to pet dander and, to be fair, I don't enjoy cleaning up after any sort of animal. Sure, I've had "pets" in my life. After all, who hasn't, right? I owned a goldfish when I was perhaps 4, my sister and I had a steady stream of hamsters given their propensity to die at random times and due to seemingly innocuous incidents. Of all the animals that you can domesticate and name something cute, cats were likely my least favorite when I was younger. My allergy symptoms were always very severe when I was around cats and that led to my utter distaste of cats as a species. I was certain that I'd never have a pet. Truth is, I never felt the need for one.

Sometimes, though, you get proven wrong.

Rita changed how I thought about pets (and cats) in general. Rita picked my family to be her family when she showed up on our porch one evening when I was 19, not yielding or fleeing regardless of what I did or said. Rita was a beautiful gray and white striped animal with wonderful green eyes and, through tenacity and perseverance eventually became my pet and, much more importantly, she ultimatlely became my best friend.

To be fair, we didn't always call her "Rita," in fact, early on we mostly just called her 'Cat' or some variation thereof. Since she stubbornly refused to leave our front porch, we decided to feed her. EVENTUALLY, we allowed Cat to live in the garage. Because of her charm and also incessant scratching at the door to the utility room, she soon was allowed to live in the utility room and, after a week or so, when it was determined that, oddly enough, I wasn't having any sort of allergic reaction to her, Cat was allowed to live IN THE HOUSE PROPER. Following this development, we all decided that she would need a proper name and, since Cat resembled a character on a TV program called Animaniacs that was named Rita, that's what we called her. In all honesty, I hated the character, on the show, she was painfully annoying, But "Rita" fit so "Rita" stuck. Rita fit in to our family immediately.

Well, maybe "immediately" is a bit hyperbolic, she WAS prone to fits of erratic behavior early on like random claw assaults on people's heads or appendages, but with stern discipline and time, offensive behavior like 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 and my dad was taking the loss rather hard. As oping mechanisms go, though, Rita was fun for the whole family, 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 us when we were due to appear at home day after day. I enjoyed very much how Rita would trot along beside me toward the front door of the house, chatting all the way as if relaying the events of her day. It seemed that she always had quite a bit to tell me.

By nature, Rita was an outdoor cat and a very adept killing machine. One of my favorite pastimes when we all lived in the house on Hackberry was to watch Rita stalk whatever manner of prey had wandered into our backyard, be it bird or chipmunk or small child. Regardless of species or size, it was never a match for Rita's cunning and stealth. In addition to her homicidal tendencies, she was quite the thoughtful maniac. On special days, she would invariably and proudly have an offering of freshly killed prey waiting on the doorstep. Like clockwork, she remembered everyone, never forgetting a birthday or anniversary. Rita 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. She was afforded this luxury because, some years prior to her arrival, either myself or my sister (definitely my sister) had broken the screen out of the screen door during one of our misguided attempts at "fun." Being lazy hillbillies, we opted not to fix the screen and, during the summer months, we would simply raise the glass portion of the screen door to get airflow, leaving a large void in the door. Unhindered by mesh, 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, as the weather got cooler, we would eventually have to lower the glass. One particular afternoon, after having done this, I was lying on the couch watching television. From the corner of my eye, I saw movement outside. Sure as shit, it was Rita, bounding up the front walk toward the screen door. It was immediately obvious that she had NO CLUE that I had recently closed up her "leapin' hole." Like a slow motion scene from a horror movie, I shouted "NOOOOOO" but I couldn't get to the door fast enough to open it. I WAS there just in time, however, to see little Rita leap gracefully, soar majestically through the air and impact the glass door like a dead-weight bag full of sand. The whole door, nay, the whole HOUSE shook on impact and poor Rita fell backward, landing on her feet as cats are accustomed to. She then sat back and stared at the door with a patented murderous glare. As I finally opened the door, she 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," constantly and loudly requested to be let out. We all did my mother's evil bidding until one fateful day, when everyone was somehow distracted and the sliding glass door was uncharacteristically open. Rita seized the moment and darted outside to experience sweet freedom once more. My mom, of course panicked. Of course, in due time, Rita returned to the right home. We were her family. She knew where home was, no matter which building was home.

Ultimately, like you do, 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 long stretch of time and that merely served to spoil her almost completely. 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 checking up on Rita now and again, you know, just to see how she was doing. One particular night while we were performing our semi-cat sitting duties, I decided that I would read the newspaper. After I had finished 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 and clawed 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 slower and clumsier and she grew quite thin. She definitely was not her graceful and majestic self any longer. My parents took her to the vet and were given medicine to administer to her. Rita's condition improved for a few days, then it began to decline again. Rita fought a brave fight and seemed to not want to admit that she simply wasn't feeling well. She'd try to play, but didn't have the stamina that she once possessed. Complicating matters, Rita couldn't take the stairs very well anymore, which prevented her from sleeping upstairs with Mom and Dad, something which she greatly enjoyed. She spent a lot of her time downstairs, alone, in the dark. Ultimately, when she could muster the strength to crawl up onto the couch during the day, 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 Rita 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 came to the realization 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 would go looking at cats every sunday for years following Rita's departure, to see if they can find another that will be as perfect an addition to our family as Rita was. Ultimately, my parents inherited their current cat, Abigail, from their neighbors son who, ironically, was dying of cancer and could no longer care for her. Abigail is a good cat but really...Nothing like Rita. I'm convinced I'll never come across another cat like Rita as long as I live. Going forward, I've decided that I don't ever want another pet. After all, I never had a pet in the first place, I was fortunate to have a very good friend who's 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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