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Another Empty Nest

Walking into my home, I am struck by the quiet that greets me.  Long used to our daughter having left home for college and then a job away from home, I am not mourning my child.  I am grieving the passing of our seventeen year old cat that has left our nest pet-less for the first time in over thirty years.

We named her Cinder for her coal black fur.  We picked her from a litter of kittens that a student in my class had in her home.  We had never picked a kitten before.  Cats had wandered into our lives, and we had adopted them, but we had never before deliberately chosen a kitten to join our household. Our last cat, Tiger, a large orange tabby, had passed away after a long life of love and purrs.  After a year, our daughter started crying out of the blue saying she missed Tiger.  My husband and I looked at each other, and our still mournful dog without a furry companion, and decided it was time to add to our household.  Since our daughter was seven, we thought we should adopt a kitten so they could “grow up” together.  And so, Cinder came into our home with her coal black fur and green eyes.  Her calm demeanor as part of her litter pack became slightly aloof when she was separated from her litter mates.  We joked that the one cat we chose to join us had personality challenges as she spit and hissed at our puzzled dog, Gypsy (who had only had experience with a friendly cat companion).  Then there was the “incident” when she was with us a few months.  She liked to sleep on the mantle above the gas fireplace in the upstairs master bedroom.  One day we were downstairs when we heard a huge commotion coming from the empty second story of our home.  Evidently, Cinder fell from the mantle in her sleep and landed on metal fireplace tools that fell on the tile around the fireplace causing a huge ruckus.  In her panic, Cinder went racing to the stair landing and did a “kamikaze jump” in front of our horrified eyes to the wood entry below.  She landed with a splat, legs sprawled out, and raced around the house as we chased after her.  When we were finally able to check her for injuries, she did not have any broken bones, but she never ran the same way again.  It wasn’t her gait that was the biggest change though, her behavior became skittish as she seemed fearful of any slight noise or disturbance.  We seriously thought that some brain damage had occurred, but she was a family member now so we accommodated our fearful feline companion.

Cinder and Gypsy, our dog, lived parallel lives of uneasy respect for a year before another feline joined our “ark”.  Going back to Indiana for a family reunion, our daughter spied a small kitten that had been abandoned in a Wendy’s fast food restaurant parking lot.  The humane society was full, and we fell in love with the small gray bundle of fur, so “Wendy” returned on the plane with us from Indiana.  Shall we just say that Cinder was NOT pleased with her new feline playmate.  Every attempt Wendy made to try to play with her, or even cuddle, was met with disdainful hisses  and menacing growls.  I declared the household full with one child, one dog and two cats.  And so, we settled into the full nest years full of laughter, barking, hissing and purrs.

But life changes and time marches on.  Gypsy started slowing down, and soon had trouble rising to greet us.  When our daughter was in middle school, we made the difficult decision to put down our first “baby” that had loved us through years of infertility.  She left a great hole in our family, but we still had two cats that would greet us everyday…one gray furball that would come running to welcome us…and one cinder black feline that would tentatively appear once she had determined that her world was safe enough to emerge.

Both cats were cried over as our only child went to college, and I began the difficult adjustment of life with long term parenting.  A gray ball of fur in my lap and a sleek black feline on the couch next to my head helped ease the loneliness of the quieter household.  And so we adjusted to our new lives as parents of a college student.

Then, one day, heartbreak.  Wendy started making strangled cries and couldn’t seem to walk.  We bundled her into a blanket and rushed her to the vet.  After over a thousand dollars in tests with no diagnosis, we knew we had to end her suffering.  We brought our daughter home from college to say goodbye to our friendly bundle of playful purrs.  Then, we were down to one.

The ironic thing was that our aloof “child” seemed thrilled to be an only pet.  Our skittish girl became snuggly and content without competition to threaten her serenity.  She settled quickly into life as a lap cat, blissfully spending her evenings curled between us on the couch in the evenings.  When we came home, we would call to her and she would meow her greetings as she came to meet us.  Even though she was a single cat, she warmed our empty nest and our hearts.  We made her the promise that we would not disturb her with any unwanted furry siblings in her golden years.  Our chosen kitten would live out her days as a beloved only pet with our constant attention and adoration.

But life changes and time marches on.  Cinder aged, and her sleek fur turned gray.  She jumped to her favorite spot on the couch with difficulty and then had to be picked up. She walked around with a confused and frightened air, and often forgot where her litter box was.  We warned our daughter that her Christmas visit home would probably be the last chance to say goodbye and we prepared to let go of another pet.  The vet reassured us that she seemed to be in heart failure, and at almost eighteen years old she had lived a good life, but anyone who has had to make the decision to put a pet down knows that you always second guess your decision.  Cinder went peacefully, almost as if she was grateful that we were letting her rest, and we returned to a silent and empty house.

How is it that a few pounds of fur can warm up a 2500 square foot house?  So light that I could easily hold her with one hand, she curled into a small contented ball that took up maybe a square foot of space but her passing made the house feel large and less welcoming.  Walking into the house, I had to stop myself from calling out to greet her and settling into the couch at night my fingers reached to stroke her silky fur and found empty air instead.  Well meaning friends have suggested we add another pet to our household, but newly retired, we know that it would not be fair to a pet (or ourselves) to take on the responsibility of settling in a new animal right now.  There will be a time in the future, but we’ve agreed to wait.

In the meantime, life changes and time marches on, and there is a paw print shaped hole in my heart.


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