About a month ago, I was talking with some of my friends at church when my wife Shannon came into the room crying and asking where Kevin was. I wasn't sure what happened, but I soon found out.
Jane had been substituting in Primary, a class for children. During a game where everyone gets to ask a question, she asked if anyone had seen our cat, who had been missing for two days. All the kids became quiet. Apparently they all knew about a dead cat along the side of the road near Friday Station, the next community up from ours. One of the kids' dads, Kevin, knew the details and location. So Shannon made her way toward Kevin with more questions.
Kevin confirmed that it was an orange cat with a white belly. It had been hit along the parkway and someone scooped it off onto the shoulder. But when I drove to the area to look for the cat (Skippy), with a shovel and garbage bag in my backseat, I couldn't find him.
I walked all over Friday Station in my tie and sunglasses looking for the cat, hoping to find him so we could bury him. I walked on the north side of the road, near the grass like Kevin had said. I knew my children would be waiting for news at home. I walked on the south side and in the grassy meridian and circled the cul de sac. I walked up the sidewalk, the same place I had walked before to see if I had somehow missed him. There was no sign, no bloody spot on the road, no skid marks. I looked carefully along the shoulder dirt to see if someone had buried him. Nothing.
Jane had given me the cat on my birthday. For the past ten years I'd half-joked about getting a cat or dog, but she was always opposed to it. I'm not sure why I wanted a pet. It seems so childish. But she finally did get me a little orange and white cat, despite all her objections.
We watched it grow from a kitten, where it would struggle just to go up and down stairs, to nearly full-cat size, with the ability to jump up a six foot fence, walk nimbly on top, and then leap off to the other side into the unknown.
The cat had a biting problem, and continued to occasionally bite our two youngest children (despite our squirt bottle technique). As an attempt to mellow him out, we had him neutered. We also sent him outside more to help him get his energy out.
When Skippy matured, he started spending his nights prowling the town. He would go out at about 8 pm and come back at 5 am, waking me up with meows. He did rid our house and garden of mice, which is partly why Shannon got him.
I suppose cats lives are short, though Skippy didn't quite make it to one year. The cat always liked Shannon more than me. She was his mother and she accepted him as a member of our family. Shannon teased me that the cat was my only son, because our household is decidedly female, with three daughters and one more princess on the way.
After about a week of losing Skippy, I talked about possibly getting another cat. Shannon felt this was sacrilege. "If I die, would you marry someone else within a week?"
I wasn't sure how long we needed to mourn a dead cat. Maybe 2 months or so? Shannon was also due next month, so now wasn't the best time to get a cat.
We all felt a bit empty inside, especially driving past the place where Skippy was hit. Having not seen his body, I was left to imagine the car screeching, Skippy's head getting crushed. Or Skippy limping off the side of the road and bleeding out. Not a pleasant thought.
One day Shannon noticed some mouse holes near the edge of her garden. They're actually called "voles" where we live. Voles are faster, smaller mice that burrow all over your yard -- and eat your garden vegetables. To get rid of the voles in her garden, she bought some rat poison at the store and asked me to dump it down the vole holes on the edges of her garden.
Jane is 8 months pregnant and eats routinely from her garden. There was no way I was going to put poison in her garden, despite the advice an older gardener might have given her. Shannon wouldn't open the poison herself, so without my willingness to do it, she didn't have a whole lot of options. The poison remained in our garage.
I saw another mouse that week and told Shannon. Shannon loves her garden. I told her a cat could get rid of the mice. She indifferently agreed to another cat, but she insisted that the cat be strictly an outdoor cat and a champion mouser.
It's hard to find a strictly outdoor cat. I called around, but the local Humane Society said all their cats were indoor cats (I still find this fact odd). I checked the classifieds, but driving out to different locations seemed like such a hassle. I queried for "mouser" or just "mouse" -- not much came up. I guess all cats are pretty good mousers, so there's not much point in stating it. Every owner touted that its cat was both a great indoor and outdoor cat. Probably trying to appease both requirements.
The Humane Society referred me to our local animal shelter, and last Saturday on a whim, feeling the need to get out of the house (because we all had just gotten over the flu), we drove down to check it out.
To enter either kennel areas at the animal shelter, you have to step on a wet rag to sanitize your feet on the way in and out. The smell inside the cat and dog kennels is overpoweringly pungent.
Of the 20 cats on display, only 5 were fixed. (If a cat isn't fixed, you have to pay an extra $50 to get the cat fixed.) Of those 5 fixed cats, one had bug eyes, three were old, and one was too young. The shelter workers didn't know the history of any of their cats, since they were mostly strays. Whether a cat was indoor or outdoor, mouser or not, they had no idea. Interestingly, three of the kittens were orange and white, just like Skippy. They meowed exactly like him too. Even more coincidental, one of the orange kittens was actually named Skippy. But we weren't getting another kitten.
I asked the clerks how frequently they brought in new cats. One of the clerks said each week they receive 60 to 80 new cats. Sometimes owners come and pick them up, but most of the cats are strays. When they're first brought in, the cats are kept in a holding bay for five days of monitoring. If a cat is mean or wild or diseased or has other problems that make it unsuitable for adoption, it doesn't pass the first test. The cats who do pass the test are promoted to the kennels, where they stay for one week. If by Tuesday the cats aren't adopted, they're put down.
Wow, what a piece of information to know. I could return next week, and all the cats I didn't choose would most likely be euthanized. Those three orange and white kittens, just like Skippy? They probably wouldn't make it past Tuesday before 60 to 80 new cats arrived, eager for adoption rather than death.
Unfortunately, I didn't like any of the cats. I realize that my rejecting them means they would be furnaced (or however cats are put down), but I guess that's how the system works.
As we were about to leave, a young couple came toward the shelter carrying a calico cat. The lady had red eyes from crying. The young man said, "We're here to drop off a cat." My three kids and I wandered over to check out the cat. The cat had light green, alert eyes and looked curiously around at all the other cats in the kennels.
"She's a hunter," the lady said. "She's strictly an outdoor cat."
My kids were going nuts hearing this. Jane, sitting in the corner reading a magazine, hid the magazine over her face and started laughing because she knew exactly where this was going.
The lady explained that Amelia (the cat's name) was starving in a park when they found her as a kitten. They could feel her ribs. She had learned to be an outdoor hunter cat from the earliest days of her life just to survive. She was now about a year old. She's friendly to kids, the lady said. And she will help out if you're working out in your yard.
The clerk said to me, "Maybe you should take that cat." She was right. I figured the chances of someone bringing in an outdoor, hunter cat, whose history we could know, was almost beyond coincidence.
The only problem was that she wasn't fixed or vaccinated. Well, if you pick up a cat from an animal shelter, you have to pay $50 to $100 for these services, but the lady dropping off her cat (because she was getting married) was happy to give us $30 as a contribution toward the vaccines, and we no longer had to pay the animal shelter fee.
Within an hour of releasing Amelia into our backyard, she already trapped a fat vole in one of our window wells. She didn't actually kill it, but she played with it all afternoon.
Jane insists on not touching the cat. When the cat took a nap in the heat, Shannon said it must be pregnant. (It wasn't.) Shannon won't let it in the house, nor hardly look at it. I'm not entirely sure why, but I think it has something to do with replaceability.
When we visited the shelter and saw three orange kittens just like our old cat, and learned that the shelter gets 60 to 80 new cats each week, it made me look at our old cat's death in a new way. As much as Skippy was unique, he was also replaceable. A couple of days after Amelia joined our family, the emptiness and sadness for the old cat mostly disappeared.
While waiting for my wife to pick up a few groceries outside a supermarket last week, I watched new people go in and out of the store. Families, couples, children -- happy and energetic. As soon as one would disappear into the store, another little family would appear on the sidewalk, just like the previous. One would come, another would go, and so on.
To some extent, we are all probably replaceable. Just like those cats in the shelter. If your cat dies, there are three more just like it waiting for adoption. Yes you'll probably feel empty and terrible inside for a while after it dies, but you can get another one that more or less replaces the previous cat. It won't be the same, of course. Each cat has a unique personality and behavior. You have a history and set of memories peculiar to it. But if it were to disappear one day, and never return, could you go down to the animal shelter and pick out a new one, and replace the void? I think so.
With humans, I doubt replaceability is so quick or easy or even possible. Our connections are deeper and our experiences more emotional. It takes people years to find friends or companions. Shannon and my kids aren't replaceable. But at least with pets, one cat is not so different from another.
I realize that seems shallow. It fails to celebrate the unique nature of each living creature. The thought is strangely both uncomfortable and comforting. But in my experience it's mostly true.
Here's a picture of Amelia.
You can see that her back is turned to me, as it was for much of the afternoon. It appears that my discussion about replaceability has been one-sided. While one cat might more or less replace another, the same might not be true of owners.
If you liked this post, you will also like Jane's Old-fashioned sorrows are (maybe) easier to bear in old-fashioned settings.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.