A few months before our first son was born, we owned a couple cats. One of them, Forest, my wife had had for years. She’d raised him from a kitten. He was a pretty wild cat, the kind who liked to jump from the ground up onto your shoulder even though he weighed 5+ pounds. He’d stabilize himself with claws, and whether you were wearing a shirt didn’t really make a difference to him because that’s apparently not a thing cats worry about. Some days we’d find him sitting on the top of a door because it was the highest place around from which he could lord over his domain. Somewhere along the way, he got an infection in his gums and needed to have his teeth pulled. Once he figured out he couldn’t bite things anymore, he learned to box. Hard. He could really, really whack something with this big murder mittens of his, it was impressive.
We didn’t have kids so we were really, really emotionally invested in our pets. We loved them, they put up with us, it was the perfect relationship you could have with a cat.
Living in Los Angeles, we had to keep them indoors, and this was a challenge. Just outside was this magical, mystical land of smells and sounds and the cats WANTED OUT. Lizzy made a couple half-hearted attempts but eventually settled for the inside life. She’d sit in the window sometimes, but she seemed to accept her lot in life. Forest, however… Forest was not a quitter.
Being a big, dynamic cat, he had a lot of energy and muscle and inertia. Being a little crazy, he also eventually worked out A System.
I remember one day watching him tear around the apartment in circles, faster and faster like some kind of superconducting kitty supercollider. “What the hell are you doi-” I began when he straightened out his path and beelined for the standard-issue armored metal screen door so many LA apartments have.
BAM! He slammed into the door at just the right angle and… it opened.
He’d figured out a way to pop it open by hitting a lower corner and, faster than you can swear, he was gone. A couple hours later, he swaggered back, covered in dirt and so happy with himself. He’d braved the outdoors and was ready to eat. We pulled him in, brushed him off, and thought that was that.
That was not, of course, that.
Once in a while, we’d hear a big BAM! and sure enough, he’d have let himself out. Without AC, the door was our primary ventillation so we pretty much HAD to use the screen like this, but it was unnerving. He kept coming back, though, so it eventually just became a part of life.
Until the day he got him by a car.
We were devestated. Absolutely shattered. Our emotions were so tied up in our pets, we were destroyed by this and we cried. We turned inwards, held each other, and grieved and it was so rough.
After a couple days, it still hurt almost as much and I was surprised when my sister called me one morning.
“Hey, you guys doing ok?” she asked. She sounded sad and I was really moved. We’d tried to play it cool about the cat, but family knows these things.
“We’re hanging in there”, I told her, but she could hear in the roughness of my voice that I wasn’t really that ok. It had been three days since he died, and I still couldn’t quite believe it.
“This is really tough”, she assured me. I agreed, and for the next couple minutes we had a nice conversation where she was asking after our moods and how we were ‘handling things’. I agreed it was hard, she talked about how little experience we had with situations like this, I was impressed at how much sympathy she had for us and our departed cat.
But the wheel of time turns, conversation progresses and passes and eventually… things start to break down.
After a few minutes of about 99% heart-felt platitudes and recognition of shared grief (I was moved at how strongly she felt about Forest dying, she’d maybe met the cat once), I could tell something was wrong. A conversation is… kinda like a machine. There are gears and springs. The movement in one area causes action in another, and a good conversation will have people bouncing these forces of ideas and thoughts back and forth smoothly so that at the end, both feel fulfilled and something productive has happened. The machine turns smoothly.
Today, there was sand in the gears. Also, some of the gears… were the wrong size.
The conversation machine was starting to tear itself apart from the inside out, and both of us were obviously confused. The responses we were giving each other weren’t landing quite right and both of us were getting a little upset because we didn’t understand why this was happening. Finally, one response was just a little too wrong, and my sister was the one to exclaim:
“Ben, what are you talking about?”
This is a question that’s about as welcome in the middle of a an emotional talk like this as a sheriff showing up in the middle of a wedding ceremony with a stack of warrants. It’s proof that something has gone horribly wrong, that somewhere along the way something terrible has happened and two people are very much not on the same page.
“I’m talking about our cat Forest… what are YOU talking about?” I’m absolutely gobsmacked, we’ve been on the phone for almost 5 minutes. What’s going on?
There’s a moment of shocked silence on the other end of the phone, then I hear: “Oh Jesus Christ, Ben, turn on the TV.”
Super puzzled, I hunt for the remote. As I’m picking it up, I ask “what channel?”. This time, she responds immediately.
“ALL OF THEM”.
It turns out, she was not calling about our dead cat. This was, of course, 15 years ago today.
Our grief took a very unexpected turn that morning. I can’t add anything that a million better writers haven’t already captured about the events then or the years of worldwide change that followed, so I won’t try. From a personal perspective I will say… that in the following months, we had our first child, then shortly after, our second son was born. As happens, our own priorities changed and while we still really like our pets, our kids are obviously the vessels into which we put the hopes and optimism for the future that felt so distant that September morning. We still like our cats (A LOT, don’t get me wrong), but when one dies or disappears, it’s just a fact of life. It’s a brief interruption and then… things goes on. The people and animals pass in and out of our lives and we continue and I couldn’t tell you even what YEAR some of our beloved pets have died now or how old our cats are or any of the other little things that used to seem so personally important.
In one of those strange ways our brains work and associate global things to the personal, when it comes to remembering that our cat Forest died on September 8th, 2001, I’ll never forget.