“He’s very old, you know, and he’s been sick for a long time.”
David nodded. “Older than 10, like me. Does it hurt?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe he’s not feeling anything.”
“No,” David said. “I don’t mean does a heart attack hurt. I mean when we put him to sleep will that hurt?”
Mama had called me that morning. Something was desperately wrong with Gorgan. He could hold his head up but was walking only with this front feet, the rest of him just dragging on the ground. He was incontinent, and his beautiful strawberry blond tail was covered in it.
“I tried to tell David it was time to put him to sleep,” Mama said, “but he wouldn’t hear of it. He says you should be here, make this decision.”
I had gone back to college at Indiana University in Bloomington, several hundred miles away from my mother’s home in Angola, and had left my David and my long-time furry friend, Gorgan, in her care. Never mind tomorrow’s exam; I left immediately.
“Well,” David insisted. “Does it hurt? I don’t want it to hurt.”
I sat on the floor next to the two of them. “Shirley tells me there is pain,” I said, “but it lasts only for a second.” Shirley was the one who was always called to put an animal down. She’d retired, declaring she never wanted to see another animal die. But she always came.
“David,” I said, “I know you’ve loved Gorgan a whole lot.”
He nodded, cradling the cat’s head in his cupped hands.
I had to say this just right. “It’s been our responsibility to feed Gorgan and keep him safe.”
“I know,” David said. “He couldn’t feed himself if he didn’t live with us. He doesn’t know how to hunt very well.”
I rushed on. “Putting a pet down is…. We provided for Gorgan all his life. We even keep our pets from dying when they would die if they were wild. So, sometimes we have to provide for their deaths, too. We owe Gorgan this.”
Then we just sat and looked at each other.
“You remember when I fell off the steps and hit my head?” David asked. “That hurt, and after I passed out and woke up again, it still hurt. Gorgan won’t hurt anymore because he won’t wake up. Because he’ll be dead. Right?”
“That’s right,” I whispered.
I’d found Gorgan at the Humane Society. He was my present to myself when I found out I was pregnant.
“We’ll bury him, right?”
“Right.” Gorgan batting the Christmas walnuts out of the bowl on the coffee table and into all the corners in the living room, and the baby crawling after them and stuffing them into his mouth.
“And flowers will grow where he’s buried.”
Gorgan and David falling asleep together on the porch. Gorgan, always the klutz, up a tree, David helping him down. Gorgan later in life on his morning stroll through Mama’s garden.
“He likes yellow flowers best.”
“I’ll get seeds,” I said. “You can plant them.”
Gorgan shut his eyes and sighed. We waited for Shirley.
A shorter version of this memoir was published in April 2018 by the Oregon Humanities magazine. The issue was dedicated to works on the theme “Owe.”