Archived Story

Lessons learned from Whiskers

Published 8:21pm Wednesday, December 26, 2012

It felt weird, walking up the driveway at my parents’ house at 10:15 on a weekday morning.

My mom had called an hour earlier with grim news. “Something is bad wrong with the cat,” she said. “You need to come say goodbye.”

Whiskers was originally mine. As a child lobbyist, I pressed for the privilege of owning a cat for years, but the president of our house, my dad, was allergic to them.

My paternal grandmother, however, was the Chief of Spoiling Me, her only grandchild. And when my parents and grandmother moved in together, with my grandmother living in a separate four-room apartment behind my parents’ rancher, I knew the time was ripe. I redoubled my efforts. The cat would live with my grandmother, I proposed, and I would be right there to help take care of it. My parents eventually caved. My grandmother never had to be convinced.

The four of us went together to the Newport News SPCA that day when I was 10 years old. I had my heart set on a completely black cat — even as a child, I had a morbid sense of humor.

But alas, there were no completely black cats there that day. The cat that I would name Whiskers, a black-and-brown tabby kitten, was the closest. She charmed us by mewing pitifully through the door of her cage. She was about 9 weeks old, SPCA staff told us, and had been purchased from a pet store a few days prior to her arrival at the SPCA. For some reason, the family who bought her decided they couldn’t keep her.

It was all the better for me. My parents signed a few forms, and Whiskers became a part of our family.

Whiskers taught me about rejection, because she never wanted to sit in my lap and allow me to pet her, as I’d always imagined my cat would do. She taught me about balance, when she climbed over my grandmother’s shoulders and down her back as we tried to give her a bath. She taught me about loss, mystery and thankfulness, the few times that she went missing for a few days and then somehow returned with no clue to where she had been. She taught me about joy, the first time she saw several inches of snow and gleefully played in it, her ears sticking up out of the snow as she tossed it like a mischievous child whose mother left the flour out. She taught me about contentment, when she would purr at the simple pleasure of a rub behind the ears and a sunny spot to relax.

Whiskers had been my idea, but she was never really mine. She was my grandmother’s constant companion, even while I was living there. When she got older and would acquiesce to sitting in my grandmother’s lap, she still wouldn’t tolerate mine when I visited.

We were incredibly blessed to have her in apparently good health for more than 18 years, until my grandmother woke up on Dec. 19 and found Whiskers dragging the rear half of her body and lacking bowel control.

I knew from my mother’s description on the phone that what I had been anticipating and fearing for several years, because of Whiskers’ age, would become a reality that day.

My grandmother couldn’t bear to come with us. My mom and I packed Whiskers up and took her to the veterinarian, who said it appeared she’d had a stroke.

As we waited for the doctor to prepare the awful needles, I continued to rub her behind the ears, but there was no purring this time. She didn’t appear to be in pain, but she was clearly scared and confused. I was grateful for the compassion in the doctor’s voice when she softly announced, “She’s gone.”

It felt weird, carrying a tiny cardboard casket up the driveway at my parents’ house.

My grandmother, ever the traditionalist, wanted to view the body before the burial. She rubbed her behind the ears one last time and then watched from the window as my mom and I dug a hole near an azalea bush.

Whiskers is teaching me again, even in her death, about all the things she taught me in her life. I’ll forget the lesson about rejection and try to be more balanced, thankful, joyful and content, in her honor.

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