“His mandible is broken, hanging down in two pieces,” the vet says.
“The lower jaw,” she adds.
So that’s why he’d looked so casual in the street. Almost relaxed, like he didn’t feel a need to close his mouth.
“And he’s definitely blind in one eye. The other one has corneal bleeding, so that one might go, too.”
I steady myself against the metallic table and flash back to how my cat, Sparrow, had looked on the ride here: his eyes dull white swirls, like cream on coffee. The realization hits me like wind: There is no going back, this is a turning point, it’s done.
My head roars and the details fold in on each other – broken cheeks, blood in the sinus cavity, brain swelling. “I need to get outside,” I blurt, barely able to hear above the swoosh-swoosh in my ears. I stumble out the side door into the parking lot, pitch toward the car. In the passenger seat, every muscle trembles, my breath whining in my throat.
I’d dreaded this day for so long. In my twenties, my then-husband, Peter, and I doted on our pair of cats. Phillip was a brown tabby with bewitching yellow eyes (the Sean Connery of Cats); Cora was black-and-white, completely ordinary except for how she made the planet spin and the sun rise and set. Nothing was off-limits in our quest to give these cats the best life: catwalks, hours of daily play, special videos, carefully prepared food, even a cardiologist for Phillip’s heart condition.
We didn’t just want happiness for them. We wanted them to be safe, too. We’d settled in a tightly packed suburb crisscrossed with heavily trafficked streets, but even if we’d lived in the country, they would have stayed indoors.
“If you lived on a dirt road, you’d let them out, right?” my brother-in-law asked.
“Would you let your dog roam free in the country?” I retorted.
If your pets were safer inside, why would anyone choose to make them less safe by letting them out?
But that was twenty years ago. In the years since, I had moved to a quiet, wooded neighborhood. Peter and I had welcomed two boys, Arthur and Felix. Cora and Phillip had passed away, and Peter and I had divorced, amicably but sadly. I had a new partner, and together we’d adopted a pair of boy kittens, one black and lithe, one dark blond and rotund. Robin and Sparrow. And we let these cats outside – not because we didn’t care to keep them safe, but because now I valued their fulfillment over their protection.
My evolution as a cat owner had everything to do with the day I brought my one-day-old son home to our house on the hill. Peter was behind the wheel, his mouth set, eyes fixed, keeping us well below the speed limit. I was in the backseat staring at Arthur, shifting my gaze from his belly to his face to monitor the speed and consistency of his breathing. We didn’t talk. When we got to town, I turned from my son to peer out the window. People were bustling down the street, unchanged. The arthouse movie theater was in its same old spot on the corner. The grimy bottle redemption center offered lottery tickets and beer.
And here was our baby, now part of this ordinariness. There was nothing special about him; he was subject to all the same rules. Despite our vigilance, someday he would be dead, guaranteed. This truth was as real as his cries for milk and comfort, his warm cheeks, his fingers curling around my thumb.
As the first shaky days of parenthood settled into months and years, a new identity took shape. I was learning I needed to expose my sons to danger every day. Just crossing an intersection with one on either arm, or putting them in the bath, was potentially lethal. And to cut them off from the myriad ways they could be harmed was to wreak another sort of damage. By the time the boys were bookish grade-schoolers and Mark and I adopted Robin and Sparrow, I’d made an uneasy peace with the job of letting them foray into the world so they could one day leave us for good. It was unpleasant, it was unfair, but it was the cost of doing business as a parent, the sky-high price of admission.
When we adopted Robin and Sparrow, I realized how fully I’d changed. Instead of turning ourselves inside out to give them a joyful but well-controlled existence, I wanted to love them up and let them go. I wanted them to chase bugs, nap on a warm rock, dig in the dirt, chew on grass. We slowly acclimated them to an indoor-outdoor lifestyle. Predictably, they loved it. We loved it, too. Each night, we’d turn on the porch light and call into the shadows, and each night, they’d trot out of the dark and rub against our shins. That is, until the day Sparrow played a game of chicken with a car and got his head bashed in.
In the vet’s parking lot, struggling for emotional purchase, I’m minutes away from hearing that Sparrow is dying. Half an hour from telling my children their cat is gone. In an hour, I’ll find that although my neighbor washed most of it from the road, blood has seeped in to the porous asphalt. It maps where Sparrow was hit, his valiant effort to cross back to our house, and the point where his body took over and he sat down, blinded and concussed.
Although this nightmare is exactly what I’d feared twenty years before, the very reason I swore never to let Cora and Phillip leave the confines of our home, I’ve been a parent too long to blame myself for Sparrow’s death. It’s not my job to protect my cats, my kids, or even myself from the endless parade of dangers that come with being alive. My responsibility is to embrace not the safest life, but the most fulfilling. In the vet’s parking lot, telling them to inject the meds that will quiet Sparrow’s death gasps, I face this: to build your life around taking care of another, you must be willing to endure moments like these.
The next morning, we went about our routine. I got the boys ready for school and sent them off with their too-heavy backpacks and lunch boxes filled with healthy food they wouldn’t touch, their hair scruffy, faces still round and soft. Then I fed Robin, kissed him mightily, and opened the front door. He stood for a moment and sniffed. It was sunny but cool, teetering between the fullness of summer and the decay of fall. He twitched his tail and jumped off the steps, his fur ruffling in the gusts. From the window, I watched him hurry down the path, picking up speed as he disappeared into the woods.