This is a story about failure. It is about two people who didn’t fail very much during the course of their life facing up to that very fact. That’s the problem with success: as wonderful as it is, when something, even a small thing, goes catastrophically awry, its importance becomes magnified. (The use of the word catastrophically is only a partial pun.)
This is also the story of Zachary (pictured). Of all of our rescue cats, he was the most willful – he never allowed us to pet him, and he was the one who was most interested in scampering outdoors, and the one least likely to return. I’ve written about his disappearances before, but he always came back. He would eventually appear in the front yard, plaintively mewing, his desire for adventure losing to his desire for regular meals.
He disappeared five months ago when we opened the door to let the cats enjoy the summer weather. Zachary went out, and then came back in. He went out, and then came back in. But then something happened that we never reckoned on: the territorial neighbor cat came in and scared everybody out. Rose came back. Max came back. Zachary never did – at least, not in the way that we wanted.
We were sitting in a lecture sponsored by the University of California at Berkeley about free speech when my phone buzzed. “Zachary Has Been Found!” the subject line read. The message – sent by the company whose chip he’d had implanted – told us to call the number of a local vet. But even in that short time, by the time I got through, the veterinarian told me that Zachary had been brought in by a family that found him in their yard. But he was too far gone – from some internal malady, the doctor surmised – and he’d had to euthanize him.
From the highest high to the lowest low in a matter of minutes.
We left the lecture and raced to the clinic. It had a room set aside for mourning, and one of the technicians brought Zachary’s lifeless body into us to say good-bye. It was one of the first and last times we had been able to pet him. We’d never even been able to hold him on our laps when he was a kitten. His fur was still lustrous. He was thinner than when he’d left, but he’d obviously found nourishment somewhere. As with any pet, even one that didn’t love us, it was hard to say goodbye.
And the fact that he didn’t love us was the toughest part about saying goodbye to Zachary. Thankfully, we got the closure of holding him one last time. We’d never have to peer in to the bushes, wondering if he was lurking there. We’d never have to wonder if he’d died alone and in pain. Nevertheless, the sad fact was that we’d failed him. We’d fostered feral cats before, and seen them become remarkably affectionate. Our most loving kitty, Billy, wandered into our yard two Decembers ago and never left. He goes out, but he always comes back. Why wouldn’t Zachary come back? We couldn’t have loved him any more than we did. Why did he choose the noise and the unfamiliarity and the uncertainty of the world over a house full of cat toys and Fresh Catch? For two people used to succeeding at most of the efforts they’ve put their mind to, the failure to nurture Zachary stings.
Our friend Barbarah is more easygoing about these things. She texted that Zachary was still wild at heart and was following his spirit. Indeed, he did live the last months of his life on his own terms. That’s somewhat inspirational, but no less sad in the end.
The day after Zachary passed away, I drove to the gym. When I opened the car door, there on the pavement, right where I couldn’t possibly miss it, was a penny, the legendary symbol that a loved one is sending a message from beyond. That rascal. Even though he’d slipped away from us, he made sure we knew he was still waiting for us at the Rainbow Bridge.