"What's this?" I asked.
"I don't know," Kristi said in her-sing-songy-just-open-it voice.
Inside the bag and beneath the tissue paper was an antique-looking plate with beveled edges and the picture of a cat on it.
I love it, because I love cats.
Just 3 days later, I had no clue that one of the cats I love the most would be leaving this life.
Her name is Belle, and my mom received her for a Christmas gift in December of 1998. Just a tiny little calico kitten then, she lived indoors until she was old enough to brave the outdoors. She ran around our house and got lots of attention. She slept in the laundry room, and my mom would often find her fast asleep in the sleeves of our dirty clothes. She would do a "kitty check" before tossing the laundry into the washing machine, just to make sure.
She lived inside for quite awhile. We didn't get her spayed the first year, and consequently, she went "into heat" the next Christmas. For anyone who has been through this, cats in heat are not the most pleasant to be around, especially when you're trying to celebrate Christmas together as a family. So we put her outside and said "Good Riddance."
This resulted in 4 beautiful baby kittens just 2 months later on March 1, 2000. Belle gave birth to 2 black kitties, 1 black & white, and 1 orange. We found homes for 3 of them and kept the orange male, calling him Pumpkin.
Belle and Pumpkin were mother and son, and did just find living outdoors together. But to anyone around, it was clear that Belle was the favorite. As a classic female cat, she walked around high and mighty and with attitude. You earned her respect and love. She LOVED to be vocal about everything. She "talked" to us all the time. My favorite activity was to imitate her meow exactly, and then she would meow back. We would continue this until she would end up tilting her head up with a series of low, satisfied meows, her eyes slightly closed with contentment.
I called Belle "Bellsie" or sometimes just "Sa." Don't ask me how I came up with that latter nickname. I loved Belle-- as a little girl, when Belle still lived indoors, I made a makeshift "leash" out of one of my purse straps and hooked it onto her collar so we could take walks outside.
Belle was also a nice buffer to have around for when my first childhood cat and best friend-- Whiskers-- died. Whiskers was a big gray cat that I had known my entire childhood. I used to have picnics with him and dress him up in clothes. I would bring him inside when I was a little girl and take naps with him or let him lay on my lap in bed while I read books. Even though I always got in trouble for bringing him inside, I did it anyway, because I loved him so much.
I made up a middle named for Whiskers, and I assigned him his favorite colors. I drew pictures on the garage floor by his bed with chalk, and wrote stories about him all the time.
When he turned 18 years old, we found out he had a cancerous tumor on his eye. Before long, it was clear that Whiskers' quality of life was deteriorating, and he was in pain. Against my wishes, my parents made the appointment for him to be euthanized.
But even though I didn't want to see him go, even as a little girl, I understood it was better for him to be put down. It made me sick with sadness to think about it, so I would go outside into the garage and talk to Whiskers. It was winter, so the heat lamp was on overhead, and he would always be curled up and sleeping on a bright blue blanket.
They say that animals help lower your blood pressure, and I believe it to be true. I can remember talking to him when I was sad, and telling him my many woes. Even though he could not talk back to me, I knew he understood my little girl stories, and all I really needed was a listening ear. I can remember crying to him, telling him I loved him and I didn't want him to die.
But I knew he had to die. And letting him die was the nicest thing I could do. So on March 14, 1999, we took him to the vet. I can remember going outside and sitting on a car bumper with my sister Tasha, and staring at the green fence behind the vet's office. I can remember thinking: This is one of Whiskers' favorite colors. Green. Also, the color of his eyes.
I can remember the vet telling us, "He went right to sleep." And the card that came in the mail a week later from the vet's office, offering their condolences. It was signed from everyone at the vet's office.
I can remember mourning him for weeks... months. I was 12 years old, and this was one of the biggest losses I had experienced. Whiskers had been a part of my entire life.
However, as I said, Belle softened the blow. She was around, and although she did not come close to replacing Whiskers, she was a new treasure to be enjoyed.
Eventually, Belle was just what her name means... a beauty. A beautiful creature that helped mend all of our hearts and help us move on.
Within the past year, it suddenly hit me how old Belle was becoming.
"She's 13 years old," I told my parents. "She could die within the next few years."
My mom scolded me for being so morbid, but I couldn't shake the feeling. I loved Belle, and what if her time to die was soon?
It came sooner than anyone of us expected.
No one is exactly sure how it happened.
We had been gone on vacation, so no one was around the house to observe her for almost 2 weeks. Upon return, my parents didn't notice anything out of the ordinary; in fact, the day before she was found sick, my mom said she saw her laying in the front yard by the pine tree, and she stooped down to pet her.
Very early the next morning, my dad heard her meowing outside of his basement bathroom window. It sounded stranger than normal, so he went outside to investigate. Belle was curled up in the corner of the house, trying to keep warm. Seeing that she was cold and weak, and thinking she just needed to warm up, my dad carried her into the garage, placed her in the heated dog house that the cats share, and covered her up.
At lunch time that day, my parents checked on her again. Her condition had not improved. She was still very cold, and could hardly lift her head. This is about the time I was called.
"Taryn," my mom said. "I think Belle is dying."
We made an appointment to see the vet, and I came home to see her.
When I arrived, both of my parents were sitting on the basement room floor with her. She was laid out on a giant pillow and covered with a towel. She couldn't lift her head or do anything. She was still purring, though, and every once in awhile, she would lift her head just a little bit and meow. It was weak, but it was Belle's meow-- her "Hi, I'm here," meow.
Seeing her like this, my eyes filled up with tears. I think my heart knew what was coming before I could mentally process it. When my parents explained to me that if there was nothing we could do...
I knew what would have to be done before they could speak it.
I buried my head in her fur and sobbed.
We took her to the vet. My dad carried her on the giant pillow to keep her comfortable. The vet came in and checked her. He tried to take her temperature, but it would not even register on the thermometer.
"That's not good," he told us. A normal pet's internal temperature is normally over 100 degrees. Belle's wasn't even discernable.
Her paws were cold to the touch, and she was so weak.
"It could be a number of things," the vet surmised, "But I'm afraid that if we treated her, it would kill her."
My mom nodded with understanding, and then spoke the inevitable.
"That is a good option," he told us. "Do you want a moment alone with her?"
Much to my surprise, I nodded my head no.
Almost as soon as I made the decision, I regretted it. I regretted it because what I really wanted to do was to take Belle home with me, to put her under a heat lamp inside and cover her up with blankets and let her get better. I wanted her to recover and live another 3 or 4 years, be able to lay around on our porch in the sun, sit in our grass, welcome me home when I come to visit, let me brush her and talk to her. I wanted all of this but knew I couldn't have it.
So I stood close while they searched for a good vein. She was so dehydrated that they couldn't find one.
"She doesn't want to die," I said, sobbing.
And just like that... she was gone. She didn't look like it, but she was. I pet her fur, and I could still almost feel her purring, feel the soft rise and fall of her belly.
We took her home and buried her in our backyard, right next to Whiskers.
It was a beautiful day outside-- my favorite kind-- with the bright blue sky and sunshine. Even on the saddest days, God has a way of smiling on me.
Immediately, I went inside and dug out our old photo albums. I flipped back to 1998 and collected an assortment of pictures with Belle.
I was astounded at all of the other lives and events that Belle had overlapped... my Grandpa and Grandma Schupbach. My first day of Jr. High. The end of Whiskers' life, and the beginning of Kitty's. She was alive for every single birth of my nieces and nephews.
The rest of the day was hard. That evening, I picked up the phone and called my mom.
"What if we let her go to soon?" I asked, beside myself. "What if we should have waited. Brought her home, to see if she got better? Maybe she just needed to warm up. Maybe..."
"Taryn." My mom told me all the things I knew to be true but couldn't yet accept.
That she was old. She was in pain, and she was very sick. There was no "coming back" from a temperature that couldn't register, and that we did what any pet owner who loves their pet does.
I hung up the phone and I cried. I cried for Belle, for the life she had, for how much I will miss her and already do. I cried for all the memories that she helped me create. All of the people and events she was connected to in my life.
Then I felt foolish. Why cry as if this was a death in the family? It's a cat, not a human. But despite her feline makeup, it felt like she had the impact of a family member.
It's true-- she didn't hold my hand on my first day of school, but she was there to send me off. She didn't attend my High School graduation, but she was at the party. And she may not have bought me Christmas presents every year... but she was there to help me open them. She can't grill a hamburger, but she was more than happy to eat the crumbs that fell off the table at our family events, and put up with all of the grandkids who "pet" her on hot summer days As much as we try to say "Well, it's just an animal," it truly is more than that. At the end of their life, we mourn not only who they were as an animal, but all of the moments they were there in our lives. The good ones, and the bad ones. The important ones, and the ones that weren't so monumental. The days that the sun shone, and the days that the rain poured.
I used to think that "All Dogs go to Heaven" was a silly phrase that someone made up to comfort small children. As I get older and learn more about the real Heaven, I realized that God has made it a perfect place for everyone. It is an amazing, happy, loving place, a place where He places the finest of gifts and the pleasures we enjoyed on Earth will be there in their most perfect form in Heaven. In my heart, I think this includes cats.
I know that animals do not have a soul, and that my experience in eternity does not hinge on whether I get to be reacquainted with my pet cats. What I DO know, though, is that God is a big and mighty and loving Lord, and that He allows us to go through times of loss to refine us. He gives us blessings, and at times, He takes them away.
Luke 12:6 says "Are not give sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God."
I love it that we have such a personal God. If a sparrow is not overlooked, then neither was Whiskers, or Belle. God knows each of those felines and who they were in my life... and that's all that matters.
Love you all!