21 Writers on Animals They Have Loved and Lost
Edited by Barbara Abercrombie
Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: New World Library (April 1, 2011)
With insight, wit and warmth, 21 remarkable writers speak to the lasting influence of their beloved pets in Cherished: 21 Writers on Animals They Have Loved and Lost.
All pet parents know how bittersweet it is to discuss our friends that we have loved and lost. Such stories often bring both tears of joy and tears of sorrow at the same time. Editor Barbara Abercrombie says she created this smart collection of commiseration because "grieving for an animal can be a pretty lonely place."
The idea for Cherished stemmed from Barbara's loss of her 26 year old horse, Robin. She says, "I wrote about his death on my blog, saying how much I had loved him and how hard I was grieving for him. After a veterinarian friend suggested there should be an anthology of such pieces about the love and loss of an animal, I realized this was the kind of book I wanted to read - how other animal lovers got through their loss, how they made meaning of it."
Animals teach us a great deal about love and relationships while they are here, but often it is not until they're gone that we realize just how much they have taught us. In Cherished, writers put the depth of the grief felt after their animals' deaths into words, along with the lessons learned from their lives, how these animals changed them and the joy they left behind.
Pet owners everywhere should own a copy of Cherished. In a time of grieving, these writings can provide a comfort like no other. All royalties from Cherished will be donated to the Best Friends Animal Society, an organization that I support and hold dear in my heart.
The following excerpt is the editor's own story from Cherished...
WINESBURG by Barbara Abercrombie
The sign said, “Kittens for sale,” and I thought, why not? I’d just had lunch with my Aunt Helen, complete with cocktails, so I was feeling awfully good and not overly practical as I swayed into the dingy pet shop — though the word practical wasn’t really in my vocabulary. I was nineteen years old, had just dropped out of college to become an actress in New York, had very little money, and lived in a railroad apartment that had a front window held together by duct tape.
I picked up one of the kittens — flea-bitten, ribs showing, coal black, and much too young to have been taken from its mother. It needed to be rescued. After two daiquiris on a hot September afternoon this seemed like a terrific idea. Why not? I paid the five dollars, took the kitten home, gave her a bath to get rid of the fleas, and came up with a name for her.
“Winesburg?” said one of my roommates as the kitten climbed our curtains.
“As in Ohio,” I said. My current boyfriend was in a Broadway play based on Sherwood Anderson’s book Winesburg, Ohio.
Besides curtain climbing, Winesburg loved to hide under the beds, then reach out for passing ankles and hang on with her claws. (I ended up buying my roommates a lot of new stockings.) Winesburg’s favorite trick was to grab the end of the roll of toilet paper between her teeth and then race from the bathroom through the rooms of the long narrow apartment, unfurling toilet paper like a banner behind her.
“I don’t find this cat TP-ing the apartment very funny,” said one of my roommates as she unwrapped the chairs and couch.
Granted, Winesburg was not a cozy, cuddly little kitten, and yes, she was kind of crazy and wild, but we were a good fit.
We traveled a lot — on the train up to Westchester to visit my family on weekends, and then, when I got acting jobs on Broadway, to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., for out-of-town tryouts. Winesburg loved the excitement of escaping from hotel rooms, and then, hissing and spitting, she’d hold armies of housekeepers and bellmen at bay as they tried to capture her. When I played the ingénue in a cross-country tour of Pleasure of His Company, starring Joan Bennett, Winesburg attacked Miss Bennett’s poodle, Tinker Bell, and my parents had to come take my cat back to Westchester for the remainder of the tour. “It’s not like she’s an easy cat,” said my mother as Winesburg’s cat carrier was loaded into their car.
After the tour I found an apartment I could afford on my own, and while it was being painted, Winesburg and I camped out at my friend Nicki’s place on the fourteenth floor at Park Avenue and Eighty-sixth Street — much more posh surroundings than we were used to. Late one night I couldn’t find Winesburg. “How the hell can a cat disappear from the fourteenth floor?” I cried.
Nicki and I looked at each other, suddenly horrified. We knew exactly how — the windows had no screens and there was only a ten-inch ledge under them. We raced down to the street. The doorman assured us that no cats had fallen out of the building that evening. I calmed down and thought about how Winesburg was Houdini. She was a master of hiding in strange and unlikely places — and it was a big apartment. That’s what had happened; I figured she’d come out when she was ready.
At dawn the next morning the doorbell rang. It was the couple across the hall. The woman was holding Winesburg. She apologized for waking us so early and asked if this was our cat.
“Yes, yes,” I said, grabbing my beloved. “Where was she?”
“She came through our window last night and got into bed with us,” said the man. “Let me tell you, it was quite a shock.”
That ledge was only ten inches wide. How brave she was!
WHEN I MARRIED MY FIRST HUSBAND, a lieutenant in the navy, I followed him to Vietnam on a tourist visa, and of course Winesburg came too.
“You brought the cat with you?” said my new husband, looking aghast when Winesburg’s crate arrived with me at Tan Son Nhat International Airport. “Winesburg came too?”
“I wrote you about finding kitty litter in Saigon —”
“I thought it was a joke.”
“My beloved cat is not a joke,” I said, briefly wondering why I had married this man.
The three of us checked into the Continental Palace Hotel in Saigon, Winesburg none the worse for her twelve-thousand-mile trip. A week later we moved into a rented house at 64B Hung Tap Tu across the street from the French embassy. It was impossible to keep Winesburg inside, and she roamed the neighborhood — down the street to the Buddhist school and over to the embassy. “La chat noir est à la recherche d’un amant!” the guard would say when I’d come looking for my cat, the black cat who was looking for love.
Winesburg and I lived in Saigon for almost a year, until the war escalated and dependants had to be evacuated. Though I had come over on a tourist visa and paid my own way, I qualified as a dependant, and one morning a very young officer, his uniform crisp as toast, was sent to the house on Hung Tap Tu to notify me of the evacuation plans. Apparently it was a very big deal — the generals’ and admirals’ wives were being evacuated, and General Westmoreland would be at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in person to say good-bye.
“What about my cat?” I asked.
“Your cat, ma’am?”
“I have a cat. She has to be evacuated too.”
“Ma’am, we have no arrangements for cats to be evacuated from Vietnam.”
“Then I can’t possibly leave.”
He struggled for composure. “You must leave.” He had dropped the brisk military tone and was pleading. “This is an evacuation. You can’t stay. It’s a war.”
“Then somebody’s got to resolve my cat issue.”
“The navy will look into it,” he said and fled.
We’d be going home via Hawaii — which posed another problem. Even if I could get Winesburg on the evacuation flight, she wouldn’t be able to land and change planes with me in Honolulu because of the animal quarantine restrictions that were then in effect. Eventually, at my expense, arrangements were made to evacuate Winesburg home to New York in the other direction — on Air France via Paris.
WINESBURG SURVIVED VIETNAM and the evacuation and went on to live in all the apartments and houses of my first marriage. She sat on every table and desk I wrote on, slept in every bed, was jealous when my babies were born, and suffered the addition of other cats and Newfoundlands to the family with initial outrage and claw swipes. But she was always First Cat. The cat with the longest history, the most personality, the hottest temper, and also the most beautiful. By the time we moved into her last house, she had mellowed. She was deaf by then, and every morning she would slowly make her way to the pool to sit gazing at reflections in the water. Watching her, I’d think what a long journey we’d had from our New York apartments and the house on Hung Tap Tu to Palos Verdes, California.
Winesburg died on September 26, 1977, at 4:30 in the afternoon. She was nineteen years old. Her kidneys were failing, and she couldn’t stand or drink water. I prayed that she’d die at home, but she began to suffer, and late in the afternoon I rushed her to the vet. He said her heart was going. He shaved a patch of fur on her front leg. I held her and he slipped the needle in. And she was gone.
I didn’t know how hard it would be after. How final and silent. How gone she would be. I felt as if a family member had died — but this was a family member who had known me much longer than my husband and children had known me. The link to my past was gone. I felt as if she took those years with her. Half my life in fact.
I went to bed and cried for three days. I saw her everywhere — in shadows, in dark sweaters tossed at random, in glimpses of our other animals. Finally I got up and went on with my life, but I continued to mourn her for a long time, feeling very much alone and even embarrassed at the depth of my grief. This was before support groups were thought of for dealing with the deaths of pets, before sympathy cards that acknowledged the loss of an animal, a time when well-meaning friends suggested that I get another black cat right away.
As I write about her today, I dig out old journals to find her stories. I email my ex-husband, who apparently has managed to wipe his memory clear of Winesburg. I call my friend Nicki, who had the apartment on the fourteenth floor, and she says, “That was the meanest cat I ever met, sneaky too. She ruined all my stockings. She was crazy.” Then I email my brother, who writes back, “She was vicious! Remember, once she even scratched Mom? She only liked you.”
I have absolutely no memory of Winesburg ever attacking my mother. She certainly wasn’t a vicious cat; she was high-spirited. Perhaps not an easy cat, not cuddly and cozy, but memorable and beloved. And oh, how fiercely I loved her. Even after all these years I can still feel that love in my heart. But here’s the thing about losing an animal that I have had to learn over and over again — when I let myself grieve I come to the end of it. And finally the tears open my heart to the animals who follow.
From the book, Cherished. Copyright © 2011 by Barbara Abercrombie. Reprint permission granted from New World Library.
About the Editor: Barbara Abercrombie teaches in the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension. Her essays and articles have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, The Los Angeles Times, The Baltimore Sun, and United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine. She is the author of two novels, Good Riddance and Run for Your Life. Barbara lives in Santa Monica, CA. Her website is www.barbaraabercrombie.com.