This morning I write while trying to hold back the tears. I cried plenty last night as I cradled dear old Smoke on my lap. But I know the hardest step is still in front of me. My beautiful Smoke is rapidly deteriorating and it’s time to say “goodbye.”
Before Smoke came along, I kept a wall around my heart. I hadn’t done so consciously, but several years of poverty, despair and hopelessness had taken a toll on me. Over a four-year span, I lived in five states, seeking career opportunities, and ultimately, just surviving. Somewhere during those awful years, I learned how to disconnect from people. It was a protective device – I couldn’t take one more hurt, and the way to avoid hurt is to avoid people. Sure, it wasn’t a healthy way to adapt, but it was my unconscious defense mechanism.
In October 2001, I made a career move that brought me to Williamsburg, Virginia. Here I finally found some stability and a place to call home. In March 2003, I visited the local animal shelter – it was time to find a cat companion. And that’s where I found Smoke, a big cat with a healthy appetite who had been languishing there for the better part of a year. I was smitten. Only then did I realize the extent to which I had built a wall around my heart.
Smoke and I quickly bonded, but if you’re a cat lover, you know what comes next…MORE CATS! I was traveling frequently for work and figured Smoke needed a friend, so I went back to the shelter to find the obnoxious orange Mr. Brett (formerly “Bartholomeow”). Smoke was NOT happy. But over time, we opened the house to the wild Gracie kitten, stray Dolly (she arrived with a Dolly Parton personality) and the latest addition, Angel. But Smoke was the QUEEN. She let every cat know that she was #1. And she let people know she was the central attraction – she’d plop herself down in the middle of a room full of people, making sure everyone had to walk around her.
The thing is, opening my heart to Smoke gave me a glimpse into the possibilities. Could I open my heart to a child? So a year later, I found myself at an orphanage in Ukraine, looking into the eyes of a little girl who would become my daughter. Yes, I could love again, even if it hurt.
As I look at old Smoke sleeping by the fireplace, I know this is likely my last day with her. I’ll miss her terribly. But I am so thankful she walked into my life. I don’t know that I’d be the same person if I hadn’t found that beautiful face looking out at me from her cage. So thank you, Smoke for 15+ years of wonderful companionship. See you on the other side!