“I found her, guys! Laney’s in the basement!” I yelled up to the boys the other night, calling off our brief search party for the cat. One of them had left the back screen door open, which made me frantic at the thought that Laney might have gotten out again. She’d done so the week before, disappearing for nearly five agonizing days that I spent mostly wandering around the neighborhood looking under bushes and crying behind my sunglasses.
At almost 15 years old, Laney had been steadily losing weight and slowing down. Her breathing was becoming labored. She didn’t run around anymore, didn’t chase the dog, didn’t help herself to the dog’s food. She didn’t even tease the boys with a swish of her tail. She mostly just slept and wandered from favorite spot to favorite spot in the house, doing her best to avoid the kids.
Sometimes I wondered whether she was thinking about a previous favorite spot in a previous house. This place in PA is the tenth home we’ve shared with her. When we got her we were renting a tiny one-bedroom apartment on Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa, a place so small her litter box was shoved in the only closet we had. She was just a few months old then and weighed a hair more than a whisper. She was the runt of the litter and squeaked instead of meowed. That squeak never left, not even when she ballooned up to 17 pounds years later.
I’d finally approved Chris’s repeated requests that we get a cat despite my two initial arguments against:
- I’m a dog person. I grew up with dogs, love dogs, and had regarded cats the way one regards Jehovah’s Witnesses: with suspicion.
- I’m allergic to cats.
Thankfully those very valid points were no match for the cuteness of a kitten. My itchy, watery eyes fell in love with Laney Bug pretty much right away, based on one astounding fact: She liked to play Fetch. We’d throw a toy, a milk jug ring, a crumpled piece of paper, anything really, and she’d scamper after it, grab it in her mouth and run back, dropping it at our feet. I had no idea cats were cool enough to play Fetch. This changed everything.
Chris was the longtime cat lover, but Laney was pretty much mine from Day 1, solidified for life the following year when Chris got sick – not because I was the only one who could take care of her, but because she was the only one who could take care of me. For weeks after his second surgery, and then again during his chemo treatments, he camped out on the futon in the family room of a sprawling ranch we’d rented in central Florida. The slightest movement around him brought either pain or nausea, so I couldn’t sleep next to him. For most of those months I slept nearby on a little armchair that folded out to a single bed. After every long day was done, I’d flop onto my stomach on that little bed, exhausted and worried, and Laney would climb onto my back and sleep there. It was the greatest comfort to hear that purr and feel her, like a weighted blanket, holding me, night after night.
The day she heard us say the word “remission” she went back to her favorite spot under the bed; her job was finished. Over the years I tried off and on to coax her onto my back; she’d never go. But I never forgot that feeling. Years later when she turned the new chaise longue (and the new couch, and the new recliner…) into a scratching post, I was fairly quick to forgive. (Chris, not so much.) She had taken care of me in that way animals do, without a word or a contract or the hint of anything in return. I just couldn’t stay mad at her.
I thought about that as I walked up and down the alley last weekend calling her name. I was feeling guilty as much as worried. I should have paid more attention to her. I shouldn’t have let her wander outside. I should have taken her to the vet to get her breathing checked out. I should have loved her more when I had the chance.
But I hadn’t done any of those things. I was always too busy with the boys, and work, and life. And in the rush of chores and deadlines and dinner and “MOMMYYYYYY!!!”, it’s startlingly easy to walk past an old cat a dozen times a day and only bend down to give her a rub behind the ears twice. I thought about how so often she’d squeak when she saw me breezing through the room, and how often that squeak would stop me in my tracks long enough to make sure she had food, water and access to the basement (where her litter box was) … but not stop me long enough to scoop her up and give her a minute or two of affection. “I can’t pick you up right now, Lane,” I’d say, thinking I’d have to wash my hands and change my shirt if I did, and I just don’t have time… (Yep, still allergic.)
When I admitted just looking for her wasn’t working, I made “MISSING CAT” signs with her picture and we walked around the block posting them. By then it had been four days since she disappeared. I knew she couldn’t run fast, or far, if she was in danger. The boys were worried too, and I told them we could add Laney to our prayers that night at bedtime. “Dear God,” Evan said immediately. “Please make Laney OK. Amen.”
The next morning when Chris opened the back door to let the dog out, Laney Bug was lying on a sunny patch of the sidewalk, waiting for us. It felt like a miracle, her coming home. Safe. Alive. Unharmed. Ohhh the love she got that morning. And afternoon. And night.
I didn’t want to go through the agony of losing her again, which is why I’d scrambled the boys into action to search for her right away this time, just four days after she’d returned. With relief, I walked down the stairs and over to where she was sleeping. I could hear the boys’ footsteps bounding toward the basement, happy Laney was safe. I reached out to stroke her soft fur. As soon as I touched her, I knew she was gone.
“She’s sleeping, shhhh,” I whirled around, shuffling the boys back upstairs before they could feel the stiffness of her body, see the shock on my face. Chris was out that night so I swallowed the sadness for nearly three hours, until the boys were both tucked in bed asleep, and then I let the grief wash over me. I rewound the last 14+ years, then the last week, then the last few hours. I knew then that last squeak, just a couple hours before I found her dead, wasn’t for her dinner. She just wanted me to look at her, to love her, one more time.
I don’t know where she went for five days last week, but I’m eternally grateful she came home to say goodbye.
I loved you, my sweet Laney Bug, and I miss you so. I hope I cared for you half as well as you cared for me.