A.J. was a cat, Bombay, black, sleek. He and his mom, Juande (pronounced Wanda) joined our family when he was a few months old. Juande was a best-in-show winner, past her prime. A.J. was one of her offspring born with the “wrong” features (although my family agreed his too-pointy face was perfect). The man who bred cats (“Harvey”) was glad to unload his over-the-hill beauty queen and her un-showable son.
When we picked up our new pets, Harvey explained that he’d send us Juande’s Best In Show certificate only after he received notification that A.J. had been “fixed.” We brought our cats to the vet for their shots, took care of A.J., and forgot to request our certificate. Harvey, who was ethical and responsible, contacted our veterinarian when he hadn’t heard from us. The vet assured him that our cats were well cared for and that A.J. wouldn’t be having kids any time soon. Harvey sent proof of our family’s one and only pageant winner. We were all amused, and congratulated Juande. She gazed at us in complete non-comprehension and fell asleep.
A.J. was goofy. He ran in exuberant circles. His life’s mission was to hunt and ingest all things plastic. He darted out the front door at every opportunity and explored our garden, happily batting at flowers, chewing and spitting out leaves, chasing shadows. When A.J. and Juande weren’t playing with their houseful of humans, they happily scampered around, jumped on pillows, pounced and wrestled. Tired out, they groomed each other then fell asleep, their paws intertwined. On colder nights, they crawled under the covers with us, their little heads peeking out side by side.
The love among pets and their humans is like none other. In relationships involving only people, love is transporting and wondrous in its layered complexity. With A.J. and Juande, the uncomplicated purity of our shared love took my breath away.
Then A.J. became ill with kidney disease. Treatment failed. He was suffering, and nothing eased his pain. I held him as the doctor put him to sleep, then eased him unconscious, then stopped his heart. He died gently, curled in my arms.
The uncomplicated purity of my grief matched the uncomplicated purity of our love, and the same was true for Juande. I became her new A.J. She followed me around the house. She slept in my lap during the day. When she wanted to play, she pounced, careful to avoid biting or scratching. At night, she wrapped her paws around my hands and curled against me. As a writer, I work at home and unless I held her constantly, she cried.
After a year, like many people who lose a loved one, she became more independent. She began to sleep on her favorite blanket, with or without me nearby. She stopped crying when she wasn’t in my arms. Every morning after she ate, she ran in exuberant circles around our living room before settling down to nap.
One day, to my surprise, I found Juande chewing and spitting out a plastic bag, acting like her quirk-ball son. I liberated the bag and she began vigorously licking my hand, grooming me with an intensity I hadn’t seen since she groomed A.J. We looked at each other.
“I know,” I whispered, “I miss him, too.” She fell asleep purring. I opened my laptop, and began writing this essay.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with over forty languages spoken among the students. The story deals with homophobic bullying, racial and economic diversity, the power of friendship — and was written in gratitude to Hollywood High School with its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. This novel was written to fight the stigma of mental issues, and with deep respect for the human capacity to heal.
Click here to read reviews, buy one of Amy’s novels. https://www.amazon.com/Amy-Kaufman-Burk/e/B00R0S66Y4