He was only a cat. Right? Just a cat. Not like a dog with all its unconditional love, cuddly coat, and endless loyalty. Or an actual person, God forbid. Just a cat.
At least, that’s what I thought. That's what we thought.
A few weeks ago (has it already been that long?), we lost our senior, black-as-night cat, Coalbalt. Forgive the spelling … a moniker provided by a 6-year-old can’t be perfect.
It’s not that we weren’t prepared to lose him, he was likely thirteen or so. There were many moments in the last year when we had to look extra close at his slumber as we grabbed assurance that, yes, he was still breathing. Just a heavy sleeper in his old age. And then there were the walkabouts. The days during which we’d have no idea where Coalbalt had gotten off to and a low-level fear would arise that he had walked off to die away from those he loved.
Years ago, we learned that he went a few streets over to spend time with another family. We discovered this when Coalbalt brought their actual cat home to spend time with us. Turns out Coalbalt was two-timing us under a pseudonym, Suko. This wasn’t the last cat Coalbalt brought home. Just two months ago Coalbalt started knocking on my husband’s office window, mid-afternoon, to beckon him outside. Turns out Coalbalt had a new friend, borrowed from just next door, and he felt the right thing to do was share a meal with him each day on our front porch.
It makes sense now, of course. Coalbalt wanting to make sure that Rich still had a feline friend to care for after he was gone. I believe in things like that, though it may be silly.
The night we had to make that most difficult decision Coalbalt was out and about though, thankfully, close to the house. He’d stopped the long wanders last year as old age started to make his joints stiff and offer a slight stagger to his stroll. He was just out back when my husband heard a meowing cry that required attention. We knew immediately that he was hurting, though not why. We knew immediately that he needed to go to the Emergency Vet. We knew immediately that Coalbalt would be coming home.
He was just a cat. Except he wasn’t.
Coalbalt represented a time in our family history during which a previous life was coming untied. Coalbalt was a source of comfort as a first marriage peeled apart and when a father was so determined to protect his children that he skipped over the grief that comes with divorce and upheaval. Coalbalt was the ball of fluff that our daughter deposited endless tears into, inadvertently teaching herself to keep her emotions locked behind her bedroom door.
We weren’t surprised that Coalbalt died. We were, however, blindsided by the amount of emotion that poured out afterward. It was as if Coalbalt himself had his finger in the emotional dam, keeping all of those forgotten feelings from crashing through. Feelings that, held back, became collectors of anger and confusion and protective walls. Walls that we have spent a decade trying to break down via counselors or shrinks or mentors while we waited for it “to be the right time” to really dig in.
Dang it if that cat didn’t just quietly pull back the curtain as he slipped onto that Rainbow Bridge.
I have never seen such tears from my husband. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen tears at all - he often worried that if ever he did start crying, he would never stop. We arranged for our daughter to come home from college for the weekend as the cracks in her voice told us that she should not mourn her beloved cat alone.
We wondered if we were being extra. Were we? No. She arrived and fell into our arms, something she’s never been good at and worth every hoop jumped through to get her right where she needed to be.
Suddenly, it was “the right time.” Weekend talks took us back to the losses - the marriage, the security, the normalcy of then. Rich and our eldest spent hours together just grieving. She was old enough when her family fell apart to remember the moments of awful, yet they had remained well buried until … Coalbalt. Rich, too, kept those feelings well hidden - always choosing to drive the emotional bus rather than experience the ride.
Suddenly, it was time.
He was just a cat. But, goodness, he stood for so much more.
And to leave us with this last gift. Oh, Coalbalt, thank you.