Sharon K. Tschannen
She was standing at the open screen door staring out over the soybean field and wiping the tears from her swollen red eyes.
"Lukie, I'm so sorry. It's all my fault. Please come back," she muttered.
How long had she been standing there, feeling so totally helpless? A sense of overwhelming loss and loneliness settled over her as cobwebs would over the keepsakes in the attic. The final chapter of her past life, as she knew it, was approaching an end. Everyone whom she had loved and shared life with within this house was now gone. She felt like an elderly person who lived alone and was afraid she would forget the sound of her voice because she had no one to talk to.
For the past year her family life consisted of just herself and Lukie. Abandoning her watch at the screen door, she rambled about the house. She dabbed at the tears in the corners of her eyes, she saw him everywhere: on the hearth of the fireplace... the back of the couch...under the end table...behind the plant stand. She yearned to see his face outside the screen of the kitchen window waiting to be let back in. On an evening in 1986, sitting on the ledge below the kitchen window, was where he had first won her heart. With his neck stretched and his big blue Paul Newman eyes, he tried to focus on the figures on the other side of the glass. He pawed at the window and meowed. He was so irresistible she could hardly keep her mind on the dishes.
"If you want him, Mom, why don't you just go over and ask John if you can have him?" asked her daughter Allie.
"Oh, I couldn't do that," replied the mother.
"Why not? John's a veterinarian. He wouldn't let a Himalayan cat like that outside without a reason," she persisted, very convincingly. Seriously considering the suggestion, the mother replied, "I don't know. I'll think about it."
After finishing the dishes in almost total silence, Allie, who was to return to college soon to continue her studies to be a veterinarian technician, slipped out the back door. She would attempt to acquire the seal-point colored fur ball for her mother. Moments later and grinning from ear to ear, her voice quivering with excitement, she held out the kitten. Her arms were extended as its hind legs dangled in mid-air and its claws extended to grasp anything coming into contact with them.
"Here, Mom, he's yours. John said he has feline leukemia, so he can't be sold at the pet store. If you want him, you can have him. John didn't have the heart to put him to sleep."
The mother reached out and the act of accepting the kitten produced a enormous sense of pure delight that radiated from her face. Placing him slightly over her left shoulder and just under her chin so that she could feel his soft fur on her face, she stroked him behind the ears and under the throat. He began to purr and snuggled closer under her neck. "It's settled then," she said. "And his name is Lukie."
"You must always keep in mind though, Mom, that John said he could live three months, three years, or to old age. You must accept him on these conditions," cautioned Allie. She was trying to make this point perfectly clear to her mother.
"Thank you, dear," she answered as she hugged her daughter, slightly squashing Lukie between them. "I accept him even with the conditions of his illness."
During the next twelve years he became a bonafide member of the family. He enjoyed complete freedom of the house and soon realized that he was master of his domain. Only occasionally would he venture outside alone. He was afraid of everything, from the softest noise to the slightest breeze.
The children would laugh at their mother because she would catch grasshoppers and, closing Lukie in the utility room, would then set the grasshoppers free, one by one. Lukie found the grasshoppers a good source of entertainment. And when he grew tired of the entertainment, he enjoyed an exquisite treat.
He didn't have the prowess of a outdoor cat. Everyone laughed at him the day they caught him sitting at the foot of the flowering Chinese crabapple tree. He cocked his head as the neighbor's kitten climbed from limb to limb. That is so cool. I wonder how he does that? Lukie never climbed a tree.
When the husband and father of the house died, it was apparent that Lukie sensed the loss also. Not understanding if animals grieve the way humans do, everyone remarked that Lukie acted very strange. Strange was the only word they thought applied.
Cats, like dogs, sometimes prefer one person over another. So, even though the mother kept his food bowl brimming over with tasty morsels and his litter pan spotless, Lukie cherished Tom, her son, most. Lukie always sought out Tom's presence and never thought a moment about interrupting any activity or game. Tom liked to sprawl out on the floor of the family room in front of the T.V. to read a magazine or the newspaper. Licking his paw and wiping it over his face, Lukie would then look up. Got him right where I want him. He would zero in on about the location of Tom's knee and slither up his thigh, pausing at Tom's hip. He would flip his enormous tail a few times, and leaving remnants of his fur on Tom's clothes, would continue to edge his way along Tom's chest, around his out-stretched arm and then -- plop! Plop right down on the focal point of Tom's attention.
"Hah, Lukie, you're in my way," Tom would yell. Lukie would blink and look directly into Tom's face. That's the point, kid. The way is love. God is love. God put us animals on earth to help you humans out. I'm teaching you how to give love. He wants me to love you and for you to love me in return. "Okay, you can stay, just move over a hair. Well, make it a hair or two. Ha, ha! Get it, Lukie?"
At bedtime Tom would yell, "Come on, Lukie, let's go to bed." Lukie, waiting to be summoned a second time, I have other things to do but, rats, the kid needs me to purr him off to sleep, I'm coming. After a pause he would then strut down the hallway.
Dispiritedly, the mother one morning before rising out of bed stared at Lukie, who was sleeping with her now. How long had it been -- a year since Tom bought a house of his own and moved out? She didn't feel this way then and, still staring at Lukie stated, "I suppose you'll be the next to go." Lukie stretched and ambled to the edge of the bed. I have a good thing here. I'm not going anywhere.
The mother and the cat developed a real dependency on one another. Lukie would be waiting at the front door every night on her return from work. He listened for the key in the lock. He waited for the door to open. "Hi, Lukie, sweet boy. How are you?" she would ask. He would rub against her legs. How am I? I'm fine, but where have you been? I worry about you when you're late. Dropping her purse on the floor, she would pick him up and snuggle him under her chin. This is more like it.
He sat on the couch when she ate supper: he on one end, she on the other. He watched her tear off a tiny piece of chicken and turned his head. No, don't offer me any of that people food. You know I don't like it.
In the morning while she showered, he kept guard at the door stationed on the bathroom counter. She forgot to turn the fan on again, my coat will be ruined. Curled up with her on the floor in their favorite blanket, they would watch every college basketball game all winter long. When the score was close and she bit her nails and covered her eyes, he would watch in wonder. She doesn't get that excited when I play with my ball.
He sat on the floor and watched her wrap every Christmas and birthday present. He made his way in and out of every shopping bag. Wait! Are all those bags empty? I'll check 'em out for you.
After the fresh smelling clean clothes were folded in neat piles on the floor he would jump into the laundry basket, his big blue eyes teasing. "You are a basket case," she would say to him. "What do you want to play with?" He watched her get out the ball instead of the mouse. I'm a basket case? I asked for the mouse and you got out the ball. Oh, well.
One day she walked into the living room and he was sitting on the back of the couch watching the birds at the feeder. "They're really fussing out there, aren't they, Lukie? There's plenty of seed to go around." He turned his eyes from her and focused on a blue jay pecking the others away. Yeah, but I like to watch'em. I compare this to you watching WCW wrestling on Monday nights. She asked Lukie, as she took the dusty flowers out of the otherwise empty bird-cage. "Maybe we should buy a real bird for inside the house. What do you think?" He would contemplate and twitch his tail. If I hear, "I thought I saw a puddy cat" just one time he'd be dead meat. At night, when all was said and done, he would purr her off to sleep like the soft humming of an electric fan.
One Friday night he sat in front of the open kitchen window and stared out into the darkness as if something was calling to him. She opened the screen and he slowly descended to the ledge. He would stay outside for only a few minutes.
Exhausted, after a long week of work, she surrendered herself to the coziness of the couch and fell asleep. Hours later, she woke up just enough to turn off the T.V. and tumble into bed. Several times during the night when she would turn over, I wonder where Lukie is? In the morning, I wonder why Lukie didn't come in my room all night. She felt stiff as her feet hit the floor, but she managed to shuffle her way to the coffee pot, like Tim Conway portraying Mr. Luwiggins on the Carol Burnett show. As the coffee pot began to produce its familiar perking sounds she began to search the house. She looked for him in all his favorite places first. Not finding him she scanned the entire house. Where can he be? Her nose caught the aroma of the coffee and she ended up back in the kitchen. She thought she saw his fluffy tail lying on the window sill. A wave of sickness would pass over her. She remembered. I didn't let him back in last night! She raced to the front door and fumbled with the locks while silently praying. Please let him be there. She opened the door wide. He did not come running. She called his name. He did not come. She became frantic. He wouldn't go anywhere. It's all my fault. I let him outside all night. She dressed hastily. She put on the first clothes she could grab. Going outside, she circled the house. First, she looked under every bush and evergreen. She called his name at every corner of the house. She could only hope the wind would carry her voice in all four directions speedily to his ears. He did not come. He was gone.
She hesitantly went back into the house for a second cup of coffee. She sat down and began sipping it. What do I do now? She began to panic. The loss and the guilt began to weigh on her shoulders. Did something scare him off into the darkness? Is he lost, scared and hungry? He can't take care of himself. He'll surely die. "Oh, Lukie, I'm so sorry." she said. The tears streamed down her face.
The caffeine was beginning to stimulate her confused mind. She began to feel the pain more fully with every sip she took. "How could I be so careless? How could I let him outside and go to bed?" she asked herself out loud.
With a kleenex in hand, she went outside and walked up and down the fence row. She walked through the bean field and back to the woods. The beans were almost ready to harvest and they begged for a refreshing rain like a dry house plant hanging over a kitchen sink. She would stop along the way and put her hands around her mouth like a megaphone and call out his name. Nothing. She walked down the road in both directions. Nothing.
Even as desperate as she was for help, she didn't know if she should ask God for His. Somewhere in the back of her mind she wondered if God concerned Himself with the welfare of animals. The one truth that she did believe was that God also weeps when we are sad. Based on that truth she prayed. "Please, God, send my Lukie home."
She circled the house one more time and went inside. She plopped her sweaty and exhausted body on the couch. Wiping the sweat from her forehead, How can I be so distraught over a cat? Is it because the reality is that I am totally alone now? That the one living link to a house full of laughter and sharing is now gone. I can always get another cat. But that isn't the issue here. The issue is I don't want that part of my life to be over. And I don't want to lose Lukie.
The ring of the phone startled her out of her self-pity. Nervously she put the receiver to her ear. "How are you, Mom?" asked Allie.
She could only cry.
"Mom, what's the matter?" Allie asked alarmed.
Muffled cries carried over the phone line to Allie's ear.
"Mom! What's the matter?" the daughter begged.
"It's Lukie. He's gone!" she finally managed to blurt out.
"Gone! How can he be gone?"
"It's my fault. I let him outside and went to bed and now he's gone."
"He'll come back," Allie stated encouragingly.
"No, he won't. He didn't leave. He wouldn't. Something had to happen to him." she argued.
"I'm sorry. I guess that's all I know to say, Mom."
Allie recalled the time she had told her Mother how sorry she had felt for the little old ladies when they had to be told that the best thing for their pet would be to put it to sleep. This was one of the draw backs of her vet-tech job. Now her Mom was one of those sad, but not so old ladies.
"I know you are, dear. I'll be okay," she promised.
"I'll call you later, Mom. He'll come home. You'll see. Good-bye."
In one pathetic rage she stormed into the utility room. She dumped the litter box and the food from his bowl into the bucket. She opened the garage door and gave them both a heave, slamming the door quickly so she couldn't hear the racket they made hitting the concrete.
She went outside again for the last time and walked through the bean field and down the road. Her head hung in despair. This is so stupid, go home! She knew she wasn't going to find him.
The darkness was beginning to dash all hope of his return. At 9:30 the phone rang. It would be Allie checking on her. In the middle of a sentence the mother paused. She heard. "Meow! Meow!"
"I hear something. Hold on," she said with excitement.
"Meow! Meow! Meow!"
Just as she reached the kitchen counter -- those beautiful blue eyes appeared on the ledge. She yanked open the screen so that Lukie could enter. Unaware to her, his blue eyes showed signs of aging and illness. She grabbed him up like a fox would a hen and held him close. He began to purr. She picked up the phone and said hurriedly. "It's him. He's home. I'll call you back."
"I'm glad he's home, Mom."
She opened the drawer. She took out his brush. Tenderly, she ran it through his tangled fur. An unfamiliar smell tickled her nose. She couldn't detect what it was. She picked him up and held him close. While she muttered a thank you for his return, her tears fell on his coat as if to cleanse it clean. She was so happy. "I'm so glad you're home," she said, crying. Purring loudly, You're glad? Not half as glad as I am, dear. I know God will take good care of you, but I'm not so sure Mother Nature is taking care of me.
She dialed Allie's phone number.
"Hi, dear, I need to apologize for earlier. You know when," she said.
"That's okay, Mom," Allie answered.
"And this will never happen again. The next time, he dies on my terms. It will be up to me to dictate the time that he is put to sleep. I know the loss will be every bit as painful, but I won't have the guilt over the fact that he suffered because of my neglect."
His heart pounded harder than normal and his bone marrow had shut down, Oh Yeah! Poor dear. That's what you think.
Lukie knew, and she didn't, that the leukemia virus had become active; five days later he died.
From the neighbor's enclosed porch next door, Ann called out, "Simon, come quickly."
"What is it, Ann?" asked Simon. He was walking a little slower today than he had yesterday.
Pointing out the window she said, "Look next door."
He peered out.
"In the fence-row. Under the big oak tree. What's she doing?"
Crouching lower, he shaded his eyes and answered. "Looks like she has a shovel. The grounds too hard to dig. It hasn't rained in weeks."
Showing her concern, Ann asked her husband. "Maybe you should go over and see if you can be of any help."
"Looks like a private matter to me," he said. "But, okay, I'll take Spot out and throw his ball a few times to see if she will ask for any help. You sit down and relax."
While throwing the ball for Spot, he watched his neighbor struggle. Her foot slipped off the edge of the shovel and she almost tumbled forward. This was a difficult assignment, indeed. She slapped at mosquitoes on her arms and legs. Simon brushed one off of his arm. He would have waited until morning to do this thing if it was up to him.
He patted Spot's front shoulder blade and tossed the ball high in the air for a little variety. As he turned to see if Spot could catch it, he caught a glimpse of her. She was clutching a neatly wrapped bundle to her chest and standing perfectly still, as if she didn't want to part with it. She knelt down and gently placed the bundle into the hole. She struggled in the effort to stand back up. Reaching for the shovel standing against the tree, she began to scrap the dirt back into the hole. Her actions were much slower now. The shovel had more weight. She was unconscious of the mosquitoes on her arms and legs.
"You're thirsty, aren't you, Spot?" Simon asked. He filled the bowl with water from the outside hose. A plastic bag blowing in the light breeze caught his eye. He looked closer. She was crouched down, distributing the black potting soil over the hard clay dirt.
"Does she see you, Simon?" asked Ann.
"Yes, she saw me, but I'm coming back in. She didn't want or ask for any help," he said. He opened the door and Spot, chewing on the saturated ball, entered first.
Still curious, Ann rose from her chair. She peaked at her neighbor through the blinds on the window without touching them. She watched her gather rose petals and marigold seeds from a flower-bed and sprinkle them over the black soil.
"Look, Simon, she's putting the shovel away and locking up the shed," said Ann.
"Yes, dear, whatever she was burying, or I mean, planting, must be done," answered Simon as he joined Ann at the window sill. Before closing the blinds he watched her walk toward the empty dark house. Her shoulders and head were drooping. She entered and disappeared into the darkness. He pulled the blinds.
Ann was preparing to close the door and shut out the evening dampness when Simon approached her. They stood at the door. "Don't you feel it, Ann?" asked Simon.
"Feel what?" asked Ann.
"There's something strange in the air tonight. I can feel it. I can sense it. I don't know what it is. But I do know one thing. I have a real desire at this moment to tell you something I haven't told you in a long time." He said all this solemnly.
"And what might that be?" she inquired.
"I love you, Ann."
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