I regretted adopting the cat within fifteen minutes of her arrival to our home. For nearly two years, I didn’t clean a litter box, I didn’t find cat hair on pillows, and I didn’t have long strips of clear tape stuck to the side of the sofa to serve as a scratching deterrent. It felt good. I loved walking out the door for a weekend away and not having to make sure the cat hadn’t escaped behind me. I really loved going on vacation, and not being that neighbor, the one who’s asking others to come by and scoop poop, fill a water bowl, set out food.
It just didn’t seem right to have these kids writing about the old cat in their school journals as if he were still alive. Did they really think he was still alive? It is a bit ambiguous when a cat disappears one evening and never shows up again. Yet, with hills nearby and coyotes on those hills, and neighborhood cats disappearing all the time, it wasn’t overly ambiguous. They had been told about the cycle of life, about nature and pecking orders, and they had seen a lizard meet its demise at the paw of that cat just a few days before her own disappearance. They understood that, while we didn’t know for sure, it was almost as close to sure as one could get. I knew they understood this by the way they repeated the story: “he didn’t come home, and we’re pretty sure a coyote got him.” I knew they understood it because they sometimes used the words, “our cat died.”
Then the journal writing began arriving home among the mess of other school papers. “We have a cat named Kenny. I love our cat. Our cat takes care of me when I’m sick. Our cat. . .”
Never did they write, “our cat is dead,” or “our cat disappeared and we think a coyote got it at night.” Never once did they write, “our cat was.” Someday, when this all blends together in my mind, I will look back at those journal entries and believe that the cat was still alive when they wrote those things.
If we are lucky, and if life works the way it is supposed to (although it sometimes does not) and illness and death is reserved for those who have lived long, wonderful lives, these conversations about the cycle of life are theoretical, and they only occur in the spring when school reports on metamorphosis are assigned and research is done on caterpillars and butterflies.
Unless one has a pet.
The lessons learned with a pet are obvious, yet no less important because of their obviousness: how to adopt an animal that had no home, how to care for a living creature, how to train an animal, how to give and receive unconditional love, how to be responsible. At some point, these kids may learn something about the cycle of life—again—and maybe it will make more sense this time, to the extent it ever can make sense. Even though I find having a pet this time around to be a bothersome chore, I hope that lesson will be a long time in the future, but when it comes, I will try my best to teach it. For now, I clean a litter box and care for this cat, the subject of school journal entries, our living lesson on life.