“He’s very old, you know, and he’s been sick for a long time.”
David nodded. “Do you think it hurts?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “He can’t move very much. Maybe he’s not feeling much of anything.”
“No,” David said. “I don’t mean does a heart attack hurt. I mean when we put him to sleep will that hurt?”
I’d received a call from Mama several hours before. Something was desperately wrong with Gorgan. He could hold his head up and was walking, but only with this front feet. The rest of him was just dragging on the ground. He was incontinent, and his beautiful strawberry blond tail was covered in it. “I tried to tell David it was time to put him to sleep,” she said, “but he wouldn’t hear of it. He says you should be here.”
I had gone back to college at Indiana University in Bloomington, several hundred miles away from my mother’s home in Angola, and had left my son, David, and my long-time furry friend, Gorgan, in her care. Never mind tomorrow’s test; I left immediately.
“Well,” David insisted. “Does it hurt? I don’t want to hurt him.”
He was too big a boy to hold on my lap. I went over and sat on the floor next to the two of them. “Shirley tells me she thinks there is pain,” I said, “but it lasts for only a second and then is gone.” Shirley was the one who was always called to put an animal out of its misery. Mama had called her a month before when she’d found a badly injured raccoon on the road. Shirley hated having to shoot anything; she’d given up hunting. But she was very good with a gun. And she always came.
“David,” I said, “I know you’ve loved Gorgan a whole lot.”
He nodded. He was crying, too. He moved closer to the cat, cradling its head in his arms. Gorgan closed his eyes. Maybe he was aware he was being held.
I had to continue. I had to say this just right.
“David, when you love a pet,… since we loved Gorgan, we provided for him, right? It’ been our responsibility to feed him and keep him safe and ….”
“I know,” David said. “He couldn’t feed himself if he didn’t live with us. He doesn’t know how hunt very well.”
“David,” I rushed on. “When we provide for our pets all their lives, and we keep them from dying when they would have died if they’d been wild, then sometimes we have to provide for their deaths, too.”
Then we just sat and looked at each other.
“You know when I fell off the steps and hit my head?” he asked. “That hurt a whole lot, and then I passed out, and then I woke up and it still hurt. Gorgan won’t hurt anymore because she won’t wake up. Because she’ll be dead. Right?”
“That’s right.” I was whispering.
I’d found Gorgan at the Humane Society. He’d been my present to myself the day I’d found out I was pregnant.
“We’ll bury him, right?”
“Right.” Gorgan batting the Christmas walnuts out of the bowl on the coffee table and into all the corners in the living room, and the baby crawling after them and stuffing them into his mouth.
“And flowers will grow where he’s buried.”
Gorgan and David falling asleep together on the porch in the sunshine. Gorgan waiting on the steps for David to come home from school, David scooping him up in his arms. Gorgan, always the klutz, up a tree, David scolding him, helping him down. Gorgan later in life on his morning lazy stroll through Mama’s garden.
“He likes yellow flowers best, you know.”
“I’ll get some seeds,” I said. “You can plant them.”
We sat and looked at each other. Gorgan was asleep. We waited for Shirley.
A version of this story was published in April 1983 in Cat Fancy Magazine.