This week, Steven Denlinger is leading his high school journalism team to NSPA’s Spring Convention in San Francisco. In his place, senior editor Kara Fohner offers a Guest Column previously published in The Lenoir News-Topic.
EVERY TIME I walk into my parents’ house, I glance around. For years, a small-boned Siamese cat with a round belly would be curled up neatly on a rocking chair or a small end table, or she would be lingering around the pantry in the kitchen, whiskers pointed forward, yowling expectantly for her next meal.
It has been months since we buried her, but I still look each time I visit. Grief is funny that way, unbound by the constraints of time.
I first met Sooki when I was 12 years old. Most of my other early memories dissolve like sugar when I try to recall them, but Sooki I remember with clarity.
WE ADOPTED HER from a breeder in Akron, Ohio. It was my birthday, and although I suspected my parents were going to get me a kitten, I didn’t know for sure.
The ride into the city was about 30 minutes, and I spent it tingling with a growing sense of anticipation.
We went to a cramped, dirty house, and I emerged carrying a tiny, snow-white kitten with a soot-colored snout and tail, and inky ears and paws.
Fleas crawled in the roots of her fur, and when we got her home we whisked her straight to a backyard tub, where my mother doused her in water and lathered her with flea shampoo.
Sooki slept in my bed with me – often curled in a soft, white ball beside my head. I would fall asleep to her purring. When I was happy, she was content to sit nearby, her motor softly whirring and her blue eyes narrow with pleasure. When I cried, she would pad into the room, purring softly, and settle her plump body next to mine.
GROWING UP, I couldn’t imagine her dying. I knew that it would feel, emotionally, like losing a limb. There would be an extension of myself that would die with her, a part of my childhood that I would never get back.
Besides, she had the spirit of a tiger. This was most clear when we tried to bathe her or give her medicine.
I vividly remember one afternoon when I carried her into the bathroom and my younger brother, Josh, who was then a teenager, soaked her and tried to shampoo her.
She howled and snarled, claws out, scratching and writhing.
“Hold her!” my brother yelled.
“I can’t!” I screamed, struggling to grasp her slick, wiggling body.
“She’s getting away! Hold her!”
Sooki climbed the shower liner, her claws shredding the plastic into strips as she screamed, before hurtling away, a soaking wet ball of fury.
My family had several cats, but Sooki was always the queen. The smallest cat in the house, she had a will of iron, even later in her life. Last year, my family adopted another cat, Jack, a young male who tried to bully the other cats into submission.
It didn’t work on Sooki. When Jack approached her, she sat stoically, a fat, immovable lump of beige-colored fur with pointed ears and large, glowing eyes, glaring steadily at him. If he came close, she hissed or snarled loudly, warning him away with unsheathed claws. Daunted, Jack gave up, turning instead to torment Mitzi, who cried piteously and scampered away.
WHEN I MOVED away to college in late 2010, Sooki stayed with my family. By then, she was edging into her later years and had stomach problems. She threw up multiple times a day and required round-the-clock feeding.
Sooki stayed with my parents after I got married, too. I didn’t want to leave her behind, but she was ailing then and required care that I, with a full-time job, couldn’t provide.
But when I visited my parents, I made sure to spend time with her, crouching to pet her and listen to the soft rumble of her purr.
LAST FALL, MY parents warned me that Sooki’s time was drawing near. She didn’t want to eat, and when she did she couldn’t keep food down. She was 14 and rapidly losing weight, becoming gaunt. For the first time since she was a tiny kitten, I could see her spine. The veterinarian didn’t know why.
I spent her last afternoon with her on a warm October day, sitting in a closet where she was curled in a small, limp ball. She purred, and I petted her, feeling the angles of her bones beneath her thin coat. Her meow, which was loud in her prime, was almost silent, but she still purred, as cats sometimes do when they’re in pain. When we took her to the vet, wrapped in a towel in my arms, she didn’t fight at all. She didn’t even cry.
My birthday present, my childhood friend, was fading.
THE VET, A middle-aged man with a kind smile, carried her away, and when he returned, she fell asleep slowly. I couldn’t stop the tears.
My mom turned to the vet.
“This must be the hardest part of your job,” she said softly.
He quietly disagreed. Witnessing the loss of an animal reminded him of why he became a veterinarian.
“It’s an affirmation of the human-animal bond,” he said.
We wrapped Sooki in a light blue fleece blanket and tenderly laid her in a box. We buried her in the flower bed behind my parents’ house as the sun set behind us. My dad read a poem, the best one my mom could find. The lump in my throat wouldn’t allow me to speak.
I will probably always look for her when I visit my parents, my eyes drawn to the spots where she would typically sit. She is never there, except in my mind’s eye, where she strides proudly into the living room, her sleek, black tail in the air, her coat thick and healthy, her eyes the same shade of blue as my own.