January 12, 2010

Maybe It's Me: Tinkerbell, or, Calico Covered Memories

Preface: I wrote this a year ago, but had to pull it from the internet because I entered it into the Real Simple magazine contest.  I, very sadly, didn't win.  On the plus side, exactly one year after I wrote it, the work can legally come back to e-publication. 

I hope you enjoy . . .

It's my favorite piece.

In the small, sterile room I reached out to reassuringly squeeze my young sister’s hand as we watched with broken hearts our childhood pet of fifteen years being put to sleep.

Despite not living at home for several years, despite knowing for days that this very event was about to happen, neither one of us were prepared for the gravity of the situation. This one small creature’s life had tied in several bigger creatures’ lives for many years, and suddenly she was going to cease existing – at our hands, nonetheless.

Even after the doctor had euthanized her and verified that her heart had stopped beating it all felt unreal. As we petted her still warm body, scratching behind her ears in hopes that maybe she would once again lean into them and rub her head on our hands like she used to, I couldn’t emotionally comprehend the fact that we had just put her down.

When does something surreal enough become real enough for us to feel?

For my sister’s sixth birthday my parents surprised her with a long-haired, green-eyed calico kitten. My dad wanted to name her Beer, but within seconds of seeing the small animal my giggling blonde sister announced that her name was Tinkerbell.

Soon after we realized that Tinkerbell was not as old as the person who had given her to us had claimed. She was much younger, and as a result of being taken away from her mother so early, Tinky was inept at several basic cat abilities and later on with feline social skills as well. She quickly attached herself to our mother who patiently taught Tinkerbell how to eat, clean herself, and go to the bathroom.

A couple months later, my dad got another cat: a blue-eyed Siamese that we named Sammy. And while Tinkerbell hissed, scratched, and despised everyone, she found companionship in Sam. The two would be inseparable for the next fifteen years.

My sister and I spent the better part of our youth harassing those cats. While Sammy would let us put baby clothes on him, Tinky proved to be an excellent Attack Cat. The only loyalties she had were to our mom and Sammy, so we frequently would rile her up – mostly just by trying to pet her – and then we would throw her into each other’s bedrooms, running away as fast as we could for fear she might try to scratch us. Some of the best scars I have come from the nails of that seven pound critter.

Even though she mostly hissed at us and tried to gouge our eyes out, she is in the background of the majority of pictures and memories I have of my youth and teens.

After my parents divorced when I was eighteen, my dad soon remarried and took the cats with him to his new home. Tinky immediately reattached herself to my stepmom, again, I suppose, seeking out that maternal protector. In her older age, though, Tinkerbell became a touch friendlier. When I would visit my dad and stepmom, she would come up to me and let me scratch behind her ears and underneath her chin. Until, that is, she decided she had had enough, at which point she would proceed to hiss at me and try to rip my nose off.

And then as she turned fourteen years old she got very sick. It didn’t just happen overnight. It was a depressing and slow process which began with large tumors that had grown in her belly. Soon her fur began falling out and her weight dropped significantly. Every time I visited she looked just a little worse and seemed to let me pet her just a little longer than she had previously. It was difficult for me to watch as she began struggling just to breathe. A few months shy of turning fifteen, she wasn’t able to jump onto my parent’s bed at all anymore. She couldn’t keep her food down and the tumors in her belly had begun to burst and bleed.

We stood outside in the cold January air and watched my dad get out of the truck with the cat carrier, my stepmom moved slowly, unable to speak through the tears. “I asked your dad to keep driving,” she finally whispered. “He wouldn’t.”

While we waited for the doctor to come in my dad cracked jokes and tried to make general small talk about the weather and my car, his job and their weekend plans. My father is a man who keeps his emotions to himself, he’s always been like that, so it was unsettling to me when, after the doctor finally came in, my dad burst out, “But how do we know!? How do we know it’s time? How do we really know!?”

The doctor looked at my dad, smiled gently, and said, “If she’s having more bad days than she is good days, than it’s time.”

And Tinky, with no fight left in her, let the vet lift her from her carrier and rest her gently on a fleece blanket.

My sister stood in the corner, eyes locked on the floor, silent tears streaming down her face. My stepmom whispered soothing words through sobs to the cat with the sad, understanding eyes. And my father, always the sarcastic jokester, looked older than I had ever recalled him looking as he watched his feline friend of a decade and a half suddenly stop breathing within a matter of seconds. As tears unabashedly fell from his face, he kept one steady hand on her body as she slipped away.

As we got back into the car, my dad said quietly, “She was the last connection I had to my old life. Everything else is gone.” I thought about that the entire car ride home. I hadn’t realized it before, but Tinkerbell had been there through all these life moments, all these waves of changes that had happened through the years. Not just for me who literally grew up with her, but for my dad who first got her when he had young kids he was raising and lost her when he had adult children living on their own. He had her through his own father’s death, through his divorce, through sickness, through financial hardships; season after season, she was there. She was this one tiny constant through everything for him for fifteen years. I began to realize what a huge moment this actually was for my dad, and how much he must have been reflecting on his own life and subsequent mortality.

“How long is the life span of your bunny?” My dad asked as we got back to his house, where Sammy, nearly fifteen years old and going blind, looked confused as the gray carrier that earlier had housed his friend now only contained a blanket. My father absentmindedly picked up his charcoal cat, who began desperately meowing, and rubbed his own face against Sam’s fur. “Eight to ten years, right?”

“Yeah, something like that,” I answered quickly, unable to look at my dad or Sam.

“Just think – by the time he dies, you’ll probably be married and have kids.”

It was that simple passing statement that made me realize that I really wasn’t a child anymore. That I, at some point in that small, sterile room, holding my sister’s hand, had crossed into adulthood. Tinkerbell wasn’t just my dad’s last connection to his old life; she was the connection to my old life, my younger self, as well.

While the idea of marriage and kids seems like a million years away, the truth is, my dad is right. I got my bunny, because after living by myself for just a few months I realized how lonely I was. I was severely missing everyday interaction with another living creature, that I thought getting a pet might help. After all, two of the characters in the majority of my life’s plot had been animals. One of which had just been reduced to nothing more than a memory: a calico covered memory.

I haven’t had my bunny for long; he’s still a baby who pees everywhere on everything. As I write this, I’m watching him hop excitedly around the living room. Maybe it’s me, but I can’t help but wonder what heartbreaks, what job opportunities, what new apartments, what friends, what sicknesses, what other deaths he’ll be there for; his wide brown eyes staring up at me through major life events and memories to come.

It’s all very surreal.

But tonight, with the last strands of calico fur that I’ll ever pick off are matted to my shirt, it’s real enough to feel.