If you've been keeping up with this blog, you know that I recently returned from The Great Train Excursion (Lesson 70). It seemed nothing other than a full circle moment that I would return home to a dead cat named Amtrak. Yes, my friend of 20 years passed on to the great ball of catnip in the sky. I hope as he crossed through those pearly gates that he found fields of tall grass, chock full of mice to hunt for all eternity.
Now we had the matter of how to sneak this cat past my father. My beloved lab Molly had recently died and my mother and sister and I sniveled over her untimely death for weeks. My former Coast Guard, GE shop guy dad is not the most warm and fuzzy of chaps. His idea of sympathy is a punch on the arm while telling you to "suck it up." After he was tired of our tears, he issued a "No more pets!" ordinance in my household, effective immediately. Dad had one daughter in college and another on the way there, and worked every second of overtime he could to help us through. There was some overtime available around that time and in the manufacturing business you take what you can get when you can get it. Since Dad had us rolling in the dough, we thought we'd try to name the cat a train name and see how he did with that.
Choo choo---no, too cute. Sparky ("electric"--get it?)--uh uh, too playful. General---nope, too old sounding and this was a wee kitten, probably taken too soon from its mama. "Amtrak!" one of us exclaimed. I'd love to claim the credit for this one, as I am the clever one with words and really good at naming pets, but I honestly can't remember if it was my idea. Nevertheless, the name suited this scrappy cat perfectly.
We did what women in the family do best when they band together--we ganged up on my dad and stood our ground. It doesn't happen often as we are generally respectful of his wishes, but when we do--look out! He was no match for us, so Amtrak took up residence on Firman Road.
Karen and I grew up and moved on getting married and such. My dad tried to stuff that cat in every single moving box we had, but Amtrak would escape. You just can't move cats. Either one of us would have taken him, but Amtrak became an outdoor cat, a strong mouser and feared by every chipmunk in a mile radius. His roots were here and he needed to stay.
In 1998, I moved back for good, back to my roots like Amtrak. I realized that my hometown wasn't boring and it was a great place to live. My parents subdivided their lot, and like many people do in my area, I settled in next to them for the long haul. My parents became empty nesters and found themselves on the go more than they had anticipated. I think Amtrak got lonely over at my parents' house and he kept coming over to mine. He'd hang out with me on my front porch, and he eventually wormed his way into my house. Occasionally I'd find him on the back of the couch, snoozing in the sunshine, but most often he was outside. He has a heart like mine. We long to be outdoors and do so as often as we can. Eventually I started buying food for him--the really good stuff because I figured he wouldn't live that long. There are many dangers like coyotes, and cars visiting the park nearby my house, so I knew eventually something of that sort would get him.
WRONG! Amtrak's decision to move in with me was 13 years ago. I cannot imagine how much I spent on expensive cat food over the years. Here is a little longevity hint your vet may not tell you, Cat Lovers. Amtrak only ate Purina Kitten Chow his entire life. He must have developed a taste for it and never would eat anything else. He'd get a regular bowl of that every morning as he wound around my feet. When I'd come home from work he'd greet me and I would give him an extra little wet food like Fancy Feast. It always made me laugh as I peeled back the lid on that smelly can and looked at the fluffy, long haired white cat on the label, being served his dish on a silver platter. I'd scoop the food into the bowl of my ratty, gray cat, who was covered with burs, mud, and the blood of the day's kill on his chops.
Since I've been home this summer, I could see that Amtrak was eating less. His back was becoming bony and he was developing that skin sag that you often see on older cats. He was sleeping more and moving around less, so I knew his days were numbered. I broke the news to my mom, sister, and my kids to tell them I didn't think Amtrak had long left. A vet visit would have probably been warranted, but I prefered not to upset the old guy and wanted him to die at home. When we left last week for the Caboose Hotel, Amtrak wanted to go out. I knew we would not be back for the night and I wouldn't be there to let him in. If that wylie coyote came around at night, I didn't think Amtrak would have the strength to outrun him anymore. I didn't think getting eaten alive would be so great a way for him to die, so I sat down and had a heart to heart talk with him. All the while I talked to him and scratched him between his ears just where he liked it, Amtrak gazed out of the sliding door window. He didn't want to go to the doctor and couldn't tolerate regular cat food let alone any medicine. I understood that because I am the same way. Amtrak wanted to go outside and brave the elements. He needed to go to where he loved. I scratched him one last time and opened the door. I am not one much for goodbyes, so I gave him a little boot in the butt to get him moving across the threshold to lock up. "Godspeed, My Friend," I told him. I had a feeling that was the last time I'd see my cat. I was sad because I figured he'd go out to the field across the street to take a try at one last mouse. I knew I'd never find him. I wiped a stray tear, grabbed my purse, and got into the van with some sadness in my heart.
We returned the next afternoon, and the first thing I did was hunt for Amtrak. On the three acres with two houses, two garages, a barn, and an outbuilding, trying to find him would be tough. I had no sooner had the washer going when I was summoned to the driveway. Ellen spotted him while she was riding her bike. Amtrak was laying on his side underneath the oriental grass that decorates my garage door. A nice shady, cool spot he chose to take his last breath. Good job, My Friend. Eloise is well pleased.
I took the above picture of him about a month ago, preparing for this blog post. It was my kids first real brush with pet death--we had some others that died but they were too little for the deaths to have made an impact. So I did what only Eloise would do--I wrote his kitty obituary, posted the picture on it, and passed them around the neighborhood. Natalie hand delivered them. "Kitty dead. In the ground. Dead." in her matter of fact autistic way.
He is buried beneath his favorite tree in the back yard where there are plenty of bird nests and the squirrels have made their homes. We placed some tiger lilies on his grave, and Ellen is working on a marker for his resting place as we speak.
For you childless or petless readers, you probably think I am nuts. But pet death is an important milestone in life that nearly everyone is touched by in their lives at one time or another. If you are old and never owned a pet yet, then I encourage you to read either Old Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows. Both will touch you deeply and help you understand that humans really do grieve their pets.
When the girls were young, we went through a string of cats---seven in one year. Strays kept showing up or people kept bringing them to our house. They knew a sucker named Eloise lived there, I guess. We'd no sooner get the first series of expensive shots done and they would be gone--a couple disappeared, one was found along side of the road (Floyd--my favorite!), and one got run over by a school bus on Natalie's birthday--"Kitty squished" she said that time. I tried to find any pet death stories I could at the library and found a couple, but thought--heck, I could write one better than that---so I did. The story below written in blue was my handiwork from years ago when Ellen asked me, "What happens to cats when they die? Do cats go to heaven?" I combed that Bible and could not find a difinitive answer, and she was little, so I wrote this for her and read it to her at bedtime for many, many days. I am no poet, but you are all badgering me to share my stories more often, so here you go. Enjoy.
A Tale of Tails by Eloise--circa 2003
My child of mourning, fear not, said I
Hear this story to hush your cry
For your dear departed feline friend
Now an angel in the end
“tis the story that all true cat lovers know,
Is where the cats and kittens go
When a cat’s life with a family has passed,
Lies a secret place for all kittens and cats
This tale of tails as told to me,
By a wise old cat beneath a tree.
Nose to nose my friend and I
Sat underneath the Northern Spy
He told to me of secrets deep
Now I tell you for you to keep
So weep not my child, calm your fears
HELP ME HERE READERS! I never got the right line here. I am open for suggestions. Ellen was little and never caught the break in rhyme and rhythm.
The old gray cat did tell me this
Of the sweet young feline sorely missed.
He spoke with a voice kind and good
"Come dance with us in tall dark wood"
Over the bridge and through the hollow
The trodden path you shall not follow
Where the long tall grass that sways in the breeze
Meets the gray and spindly trees
Beneath the bush where the shadows land
And old and broken tree stump stands
On the top knock once, knock twice
You will be greeted by two fat mice
No longer will rodents be your foe
Together you’ll join, tail to tail you’ll go
We’ll walk erect and join our paws
Together we’ll fight a noble cause
To protect the families that loved us so
Over the hills and fields we’ll go
By day we sleep, by night we fly
To comfort the waking child’s cry
We circle her bed and say a prayer
And blow sweet kisses in the air
Never wake afraid your dear ones will
As you guard them while all is still
Come with us, get your wings,
Learn to do cat-angel things.
Over the creatures great and small
You soon will watch over them all
Dry your eyes and hush your tears
For pets will stand guard for many years
So close your eyes sweet child of mine
You'll meet again one day in time
Don't laugh--it's bad, I know. I stink at math and am worse at poetry, but the girls liked it and that is all that matters. I hope Amtrak who is now buried "where the long tall grass that sways in the breeze, meets the gray and spindly trees," also is enjoying himself now, too.
Also enjoy the posted song, "When I Die Young"--originally done by The Band Perry, but this version is Idol contestant Lauren Alaina singing it. I saw The Band Perry (who is awesome--a sister and her two brothers) open for Tim McGraw a few weeks ago. I give my props to them, but I have to tell you, that youngun' Lauren really did a kick butt version of it and I like her singing this song better. Amtrak certainly didn't die young, but I was coming up dry on songs about dead cats. This was the best I could do.
Rest in peace, Amtrak.