A week ago Monday, around 6:30 PM, I went outside to move the car from the street into the driveway. When I was done, I saw a cat laying on our side, on the lawn. I walked closer.
It was my cat, Gabby. She wasn't moving.
"Gabby?" I said. Then, I said, louder, "GABBY?"
As I knelt beside the cat, Regina flung open the door.
"What's wrong with Gabby?" she said.
"She's dead," I said.
Regina ran outside and felt for a heartbeat.
"Oh my God, Neal! She is dead!"
Elijah ran outside, screaming, "Gabby's dead! Gabby's dead! Oh, no! Gabby's dead!"
We looked at the body. There didn't appear to be any major injuries. A thin trickle of blood had leaked from her mouth, and she'd urinated on the spot where she'd passed.
"No," I said.
At that moment, an extremely tattooed man came walking up our driveway, heading toward the house behind us. I noticed that his earlobes had been elongated. Black discs hung down from both of them. With him was a woman carrying a long-haired little boy. They were going to visit our neighbors.
"How's it going?" he said.
"Not so good," I said. "Our cat just died."
"WHAT?" he said.
He rushed to Gabby's side and felt her.
"Oh, yeah," he said.
He placed a hand on my chest and gazed at me with deep sincerity. It wasn't creepy at all, but because I'm not used to deep sincerity, I thought it was at the time.
"She's a blessing to you," he said, "and she's in a better place now."
"We lost a cat a year ago," said the woman. "We'd just moved to Florida and she was our guiding spirit."
They were weird, but also very kind.
"I had her since 1995," I said. "I've known her, or knew her, longer than my wife."
"Cats are sent here to protect us from evil," he said.
I wanted to reply, "I don't know about that," but I wasn't in the mood to get into a theological argument with a helpful hippie. Instead, Regina said, "I think she was hit by a car."
"She died loving you," said the man.
"No doubt," I said.
The next hour is a bit of a muddle in my memory. Our neighbors behind us provided me with a shovel and a large shoebox. I put Gabby in the box and went into our backyard, where I started digging a hole under the big banana tree. My movements were laconic at best. I was thinking about how Gabby would always drape herself over my shoulders while I was typing, and about how she wasn't going to do that anymore. I also remembered how she shredded my roommates' favorite plant the day I adopted her, setting the stage for many years of naughty behavior. For a while, I had a black plastic stick with a feather on the end. I'd wriggle it in front of Gabby's face, and she'd lunge for it. Then I'd whirl it around in a circle, and she'd lay chase. Then, I'd wriggle it again, just below her chin, and then suddenly whip it up several feet in the air. Gabby would leap several feet in the air, providing amusement for many years' worth of stoned partygoers. She hadn't done that for years, but she still had a pretty good vertical leap.
From behind me I heard, "Let me help you."
It was the hippie.
"Huh?" I said.
"I'm a professional," he said.
I wanted to say, "what? You're a professional gravedigger?" But, again, he was very helpful, so I didn't.
He took the shovel from me and began attacking the ground with a jackhammer motion. His body type (lanky), level of tattooedness (high), and general speed of motion (spastic), called to mind Anthony Kiedis of The Red Hot Chili Peppers. I've never seen that band live and haven't ever really been a fan, but I thought of them anyway as the hippie priest attacked my cat's grave as though he were performing a lunatic encore at the Wiltern.
He handed me the shovel silently. I tried to place Gabby's box into the hole. It didn't quite fit. So I poked the shovel around the edges to create a few extra inches of room. From behind me, I heard,
"Hey, Neal, you need a drink?"
"I'm cool," I said.
"You need some bud?"
"Hell, yeah!" I said, and I started to dig faster.
A few minutes later, I scooped the last shovelful of dirt onto my cat's grave, and patted it down. Less than one hour before, she'd been alive. Now she was in a box in my backyard. Life went away that quickly. Man.
The smoke would be there. My family needed me now. Or I needed them. I went into the house where Elijah was watching an episode of Curious George on TIVO, sat down beside him on the couch, and immediately broke down sobbing.
Regina rushed me out of the room.
"Get a grip on yourself," she said.
"How can I?" I said. "My kitty is dead!"
"You need to be strong for your son."
"You fucking Protestants and your repressed emotion!"
"This has nothing to do with me being a Protestant. I just don't want you upsetting Elijah."
A few minutes on the bed calmed me. Then we switched our focus. We were concerned, at first, that it would be tough to get Elijah through Gabby's death. But he moved quickly through several odd stages of four-year-old grief.
1. Laying in bed at night, listing all the family members who are still alive.
2. Asking what Gabby is doing in heaven. Asking what a soul is when we tell him that only Gabby's soul is in heaven.
3. Asking how Gabby can eat underground.
4. Pronouncing "We have a dead cat!" upon entering the schoolyard the day after Gabby's death.
5. Less than a week later, asking if we can eat "Gabby stew" for dinner.
I think the kid will be fine.
As for me, I miss my little Gabby. She was a good companion in the days when I didn't have permanent female company. She saw me through the writing of four books, the editing of another, and the composition of countless newspaper and magazine articles. She moved with me from Chicago to Philadelphia to Austin to Los Angeles. She also left little pools of barf everywhere and consistently tore holes in my clothing with her claws. Basically, she was a cat. But she was a sweet cat, and she was mine, and there's a hole in my life without her, even though I now have to do a little less cleaning.
Gabby used to sit on my laptop. Sometimes, I'd leave it open, and she'd sit on the keyboard and really screw things up for me. For 11 years, I made it a habit of running into my office and making sure my laptop was OK. Now at least once a day, it still occurs to me that I should check. But she isn't there.