Having pets is one of life's pleasures. They worm their way into our hearts by being adorable when they're little, endear us with their antics as they grow up, and, in their adult years, de-stress us by being a warm, soft body to stroke as we turn to them for comfort.
When our four daughters were growing up, we had a houseful of creatures and critters for them to play with and care for. The girls frequently found and brought home a variety of unusual creatures to add to our menagerie of domestic pets. Turtles, snakes (the wild ones weren't kept for long--ohhhhh yeah, turned loose pretty quickly), wild mice -- you name it. The baby birds were usually kept in the barn in secret. The girls knew I would insist that they leave those alone, so why even tell mom about it? (One poor baby was out there in a shoebox for two weeks before I even knew it existed.)
Because of the wide variety of creatures in our household, one would think that we wouldn't get too attached to any one of them over the others. After all, when one would die, leave, or otherwise be lost, there would be another right there to take its place. Easy come, easy go. But that was not always the case. Some of the animals over the years really stood out above the others and had qualities that made them especially memorable. One cat in particular was born on our property when the girls were very young and grew up with them over the years. To say the least, he soon carved out a place for himself in our family's collective heart.
Duncan was a small, scruffy looking, bushy gray tabby cat that had a cute, squished little face. As a kitten he was smaller than the other cats, but had a sweet temperament and soon became a family favorite. Our daughters would carry him around all over the place draped over their little arms, his tiny legs dangling and swinging as the girls scampered through the grass and swung freely on their swing set. He was one of a hapless trio of kittens that was a part of the "great science experiment" conducted by a five-year old researcher to "see if kittens could swim." (I won't tell you which daughter came up with that one.) Rescued by mom from a bucket, cold and drenched to the bone, we all still wonder to this day how he ever survived that ordeal.
Over the years, the girls grew older and Duncan grew older with them. Though usually not allowed in the house, I would sometimes find him under the covers, snuggled up next to one of girls in bed when I would check in on them at night, both of them warm and toasty and fast asleep. It was obviously a sneak job. Not always, but sometimes, I would just leave him there. Perhaps at that time they needed the unconditional love and comfort that only he could provide.
About a month ago, I looked out the kitchen window to see Duncan curled up at the base of the old elm tree in the backyard, soaking up the afternoon sun in his favorite place. I had seen him there so many times over the years, but that day the sun was just right, the resurrection lilies were blooming behind him, the birdhouse hanging over him. I thought the girls would enjoy seeing pictures in that setting of their beloved old pet, so I grabbed the camera and tried to sneak up on him, undisturbed. He soon woke up and saw me, and of course started walking toward me as I snapped away. I must have taken a couple dozen shots just to catch that familiar squished-up face, more than I've taken of him at one time in the entire seventeen years that he has lived with us.
Last week on a Sunday afternoon, I got into my car to run an errand as I've done countless times before. Pulling slowly out of the drive I felt a bump, and I remember thinking, What was that? Almost as quickly, an awful realization came over me, and I checked the side mirror to see if my premonition was true. It was. There was a cat lying in the driveway, and it was Duncan. I stopped, flew out of the car to him, and simultaneously tried to wrap my mind around what had just happened. I think he sought out a place of warmth, and in his old age simply couldn't wake up and move out of the way fast enough. There was nothing I could do.
Breaking the news to our daughters was one of the saddest things I've ever had to do. They're all in their twenties now, and one of the last of their beloved childhood pets is gone. To add to the grief of losing a cherished pet after so many years of memories, I must bear the added burden of knowing that he died as a result of my own actions. Yes, it was an accident, but that knowledge doesn't ease the sadness or the guilt. The wonderful veterinarian who saw us on a Sunday reminded us that he had seventeen wonderful years with a family that loved and cared for him. And friends to whom I have told my story have shared with me similar experiences that they have had or know that others have had. I truly appreciated their comforting words. It helps to know that others truly understand how heavy your heart feels and how hard it is to live with knowing that there is nothing you can do to change what happened.
He's buried under his favorite old elm tree, and my husband marked the spot with stones until our girls can come home and say their goodbyes. The pictures are comforting, but we'll sure miss that squished-up face. Perhaps I was meant to take the shots when I did to document his last days with us. How strange that things like that happen when they do.
Good-bye, precious Duncan. You were a wonderful pet.