all my pets are dead
We met at opposite ends of life — I was an infant; he was an almost-dead cat — but he’s a Junot legend, and so I must begin here.
He was an orange tabby that my toddler sister called Bwat because her tongue lived in her mouth all wrong. Molly and Matthew carried Brat around like a floppy pillow, like he couldn’t know pain.
But then he turned up sick like most living things do, and the vet said Brat needed experimental surgery, or he needed to be put to sleep. My parents knew that experimental actually meant expensive, and since Mom had recently been laid off, they couldn’t afford to save Brat.
Mom and Dad told Molly and Matthew about a place called Cat Heaven, and everyone said goodbye.
Six weeks later, however, the vet called back. They’d performed the surgery anyway, and surprise! Brat was alive! And did we want him back? Dad walked in that evening to Molly’s Bwat is back Dad! It’s weally weally Bwat!
My parents had another talk with Matthew and Molly and explained that cats have nine lives.
Sox the Kitten
At four years old, I was old enough to sit quietly on the vinyl floor and sort the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle — edge, edge, middle piece, edge, corner, middle piece, middle piece, middle piece — but I didn’t understand enough to move beyond that step in the process. It was summertime, Molly and Matthew were in charge, and I felt sick.
I abandoned the puzzle, or the sorted and unsorted pieces rather, and found my way to our worn plaid couch. Dad came in through the front door shortly after and said there was a surprise on the porch. Sure enough, there was a little white kitten in a box, ready to pounce should we give him the opportunity.
A few things happened: I became confused about how the kitten came to be on our porch. To me, Dad walked in, had some kind of vision, and then we all made the discovery together. I’d only entered our backyard through the door in the living room; it seemed impossible that he could have planted the kitten on the porch without first walking through the house. I also wondered if he’d let us keep her, and how it was that she was a boy. Cats were supposed to be girls, and dogs were boys; everyone knew that.
I was in the bathroom when my sister ran in to tell me we were naming the kitten Sox, if that was okay with me. Because, you know, he’s white, and socks are white. I thought she was a genius.
Molly and I treated Sox like one of our baby dolls: we dressed him up in girl clothes, gave him water from a bottle, and pushed him around the house in toy strollers. He even slept in a baby carrier. Matthew hated that we emasculated the cat, but we didn’t know what that word meant, so we just kept doing it.
When Sox turned one, we had a party and invited our cousins over. Molly baked a cake, and everyone wore blue Mickey Mouse party hats. Sox wasn’t really in to it, so we strapped him down in the baby carrier and made him participate and take pictures with each of us.
Lucky the Kitten
In the mid-nineties, Mom and Dad owned a set of abandoned apartment buildings that they planned to fix up and rent out. While we were there one weekend, we found a kitten in one of the units. She was small, and her cry was weak though constant. Mom said we couldn’t just leave her there, so Dad went to the store to find kitten formula (which I now believe was just milk) and we nursed the tiny kitten with one of Sox’s bottles.
MawMaw was staying with us that night and suggested we call the kitten Lucky. We built a cage out of boxes and baskets in the office and took turns feeding and petting her. I took extra turns to tell her stories. I remember wanting to sleep next to her, but Mom said no.
When I woke up the next morning, I remembered Lucky immediately and ran to the office to play with her. She and her cage were gone.
Lucky must have already been on her ninth life when we found her, Mom said.
Dad had buried her while we slept.
Duff the Guinea Pig
Matthew and Dad walked through the door with a large cage made of wire and mesh, a big bag of cedar chips, and a tiny box with holes in the sides.
But where is he? I asked.
He’s in the box, Stupid!
I was troubled. I didn’t actually know what a guinea pig was, but I didn’t expect him to arrive the same way light bulbs did.
Can he breathe in there? He can’t move around! Do they just live on the shelf at the store like that? Dad explained that the animal had only been put in the box so he wouldn’t get lost in the car. I nodded; this seemed logical.
When the creature finally made his appearance, however, I wished he’d go back in the box. He didn’t look like a pig at all. He was a brown puff of fur, and his toenails were long and sharp. Why did Matthew want this creature that clearly belonged in the swamp?
Matthew named him Duff and they lived happily in their blue bedroom for a couple of years. Then Matthew lost interest, and Duff was banished to the corner in Mom’s sewing room.
I liked him more then. I’d sit and feed him cabbage and tell him about my day at school and dance class. I’d ask him about his cage and why he liked eating cardboard more than cabbage, but he wasn’t much of a talker.
I can’t remember how Duff died, and when I ask the rest of the family they say, Duff? Duff who?
What I do remember is holding the box — much larger than a light bulb then — while Matthew dug a hole in the backyard. I asked why he’d put a brick in the box with Duff. He looked up from his work confused.
I didn’t, he said. That’s just what dead Duff feels like.
Brownie the Bunny
Since I’d been the only one troubled by Duff’s absence from the sewing room corner, my parents agreed that I was old enough to have my very own guinea pig. I was ten. I saved all fifty dollars of my birthday money instead of having a birthday party.
Michelle, guinea pigs are like a dollar, my brother later informed me.
When we got to the pet store, however, I saw the bunnies and fell in love. I picked a brown one with floppy ears and named him Brownie.
He was a sweet bunny at first, but as he aged, he got a little crazy. Brownie lived in Duff’s old cage, but sometimes when Mom wasn’t home, I let him run around the house. He started chasing Sox and often tried to bite him. Sox hissed back but was obviously afraid. When I placed Brownie back in his cage, Sox would jump up and sit on the top for hours, swatting at the bunny through the wire bars. I just thought that’s how best friends played.
Then Brownie started chasing me around the house. And he growled when I tried to catch him. I didn’t know bunnies could growl, and I didn’t like it.
We moved Brownie to the porch, and occasionally, still let him run around out there. We didn’t worry when his cage broke, because even if he got out, he didn’t know how to get down the steps. He was safe.
I woke up on a Saturday to whispers near the back door: Does Michelle know yet?
During the night, a pack of dogs had found their way into our back yard and tipped over Brownie’s cage. Dad discovered the bunny’s body in the neighbor’s yard fully intact except for a broken neck. I said I didn’t care, but I felt guilty.
I should have taught him how to get down those steps.
Sox the Little Sister I Never Had
With each new pet, Sox became an older, and surprisingly tanner cat. He didn’t like the additions to our family, though I suppose I can understand his problem with Brownie. He soon stopped going downstairs altogether and took over my room and the adjoined room we called the attic.
Sox and I grew up together: we played Polly Pocket together, organized beads and crafts together, and both tired of playing with baby dolls around the same time. I told him my secrets, and when I was afraid, he meowed saying he understood.
The Unnamed Iguanas
One year, Matthew decided he was ready for a cooler pet. We pulled out the old aquarium where countless fish had lived and died, and my parents got him an iguana for his birthday. It totally creeped me out.
What are you going to name him? I asked from the doorway, not wanting to get too close.
I don’t know yet.
The next morning the iguana was dead.
He must have been sick or something.
Dad took Matthew to get another one, and we joked that maybe we shouldn’t name this one just yet. That iguana died two days later.
Scout the Beagle
We got our first dog when I was in fifth grade and my brother was a senior in high school. I’m not exactly sure why my parents didn’t want us to have a puppy before then, but I suspect it had something to do with the fact that cats have nine lives and dogs have only the one.
We chose a beagle with big ears and named her Scout after our favorite movie, To Kill a Mockingbird. We took her with us on the boat that summer and even tried to put her in a life jacket. We were amused by her “doggie-paddle” and even more amused when Dad told us that’s how the non-stroke got its name. We decided that despite the years of cats and small rodents, we were actually dog people.
Unfortunately, Scout wasn’t a people-dog and she kept running away. The first time she disappeared, we were devastated and put up lost dog posters all over the neighborhood. Three days later someone called us to retrieve her. She was only mildly excited to see us.
We installed a shock-collar fence, but she learned that the shock only lasted an instant. I suppose, to her, the shock was worth the escape. She continued to run away and our neighbors continued to bring her back.
One Friday afternoon, as we packed the car for a weekend trip, she disappeared again. No one realized she was gone until we were ready to leave, and we couldn’t stay to look for her. For months we put up fliers and hoped she’d turn up like before, but she didn’t.
She was really gone. We should have named her Boo.
Zoey the Replacement
After Scout left, we didn’t get another dog right away. Dad was offended that our first one didn’t like us very much. On Christmas Eve, my parents came out with a shaking hat-box (Dad had dropped it a moment before). When we opened it, we found a pudgy little rat terrier looking up at us, and Scout was forgotten. (Sox was not impressed.)
We had no idea what to name her, but by then we knew names were important; they meant something. Our extended family came over to our house for Christmas day, and everyone took turns gathering around the Encyclopedia of Names.
I suggested Abigail, a name I’d always loved, but Matthew said, It’s a puppy, Michelle! Not a little sister.
Everyone said it was a shame we’d already used Scout, because this new puppy actually looked like a Scout, and our old dog was really more of an Alice.
We finally decided on Zoey, but our friends each had their nicknames for her: Fat Dog, Zoe Pup, What Do Y’all Feed Her, and I Thought They were Skinny.
Sox the Cat
In his later years, Sox became something of an old lady. (Molly and I may have had a hand in this during his formative, baby-doll years.) He had become my cat; everyone else had outgrown him and his not-so-subtle snobby attitude toward our other pets.
I realized he was getting older — we both were — and I was beginning to understand that there would come a day when he wasn’t my cat. There would come a time when he wasn’t anything at all. And that scared me.
I decided that I didn’t want to hear the words Sox died. When I moved away for college, I told my parents not to call me if he died. I asked that they write a letter instead.
But that letter never came.
When he was fifteen our vet told Mom that besides a bit of cat acne, Sox was actually in really good shape, and when he turned sixteen, my parents decided he should spend his glory days in the backyard. He needed a little sunlight in his life.
I was worried.
What if he was attacked or eaten by a bigger animal? (I still felt guilty about Brownie’s untimely end.) And what if, after sixteen years, he just ran away?
But Sox remembered the porch, and he didn’t leave.
When he made seventeen years, my parents threw him another birthday party. They put candles in an expensive can of cat food, and Mom made party hats for everyone including Zoey (who hadn’t even realized we had a cat until recently). My siblings and I couldn’t make it to the party but my parents sent us photos and a video of them singing Happy Birthday to my old-lady-boy-cat. He was so embarrassed he wouldn’t even look at the camera.
Zoey the Fat Dog
Zoey wasn’t really like any of the pets we’d had before. She knew us, and we knew that she had no idea she was a dog. When Dad got home from work, Zoey greeted him at the door. If he was in a bad mood, she knew, and she’d walk away. If he yelled, she’d tiptoe to a room on the other side of the house, careful not to let her nails click against the tile. If Mom came home in heels and work clothes, Zoey knew she was getting fed, but if Mom had on tennis shoes, Zoey would bark until she was leashed and out the door for a walk.
She also knew enough to know that I was the youngest and thus had absolutely no respect for me. The family liked to joke that they’d come home one day, and I’d be missing, and they’d discover that the tiny dog had dragged me behind the couch. I did not think this was funny and kept my door closed to that whiny dog at night.
Sox My Best Friend
I was twenty-two when Sox died. I was home for the summer, sleeping in the bed I’d slept in with Sox at my feet for most of my life. Matthew had taken Sox to the vet that morning for a check-up and learned that our longest-surviving pet was in kidney failure. They put him down right there while I slept late, and by the time I returned the call I’d tried so hard to avoid, Sox was in the ground at our property in the country.
I’ll wait for you to get here if you want to say goodbye.
I didn’t. I didn’t go to Matthew. I didn’t help either of us say goodbye. I didn’t want to feel the heaviness of that box.
Instead, for the first time in seventeen years, I simply existed in a world that Sox did not.
Zoey Our Little Sister
The summer after Sox died, I was home, packing for the big move to Baltimore. Zoey started acting a little funny, but I still didn’t fully trust her so I didn’t pay it much attention. Soon she couldn’t jump on the couch, she didn’t want to go for walks, and she didn’t want to eat. Fat Dog did not want to eat. We knew it was serious.
The vet said kidney failure and my parents knew it actually meant suffering and they remembered Sox and they knew it was the end.
Zoey’s ears folded back, and we were all suddenly shocked how much we cared for one another. Twenty-three years of dead pets didn’t prepare me, nor did it seem to prepare anyone else in the family: we spoke to Molly (now living in Arkansas) on the phone, Matthew stopped by for a few hours before work, and I stopped packing to sit with our dog, our weird little sister, and my parents cried.
A couple things happened: First, I was consumed with confusion over this hurt. It hurt deeply and it didn’t let up even when the logic broke in: she’s a dog. She wasn’t even that great of a dog as dogs go. And there wasn’t anything we could do for her.
But it didn’t matter; it just kept hurting.
Finally, I cradled our puppy in my arms and I told her I was sorry she felt bad, because it always made me feel better when Mom did that for me. And I told our small, fat dog that she was a good dog, and we loved her, and she would feel better soon.
Her ears were still back when I walked away.
Wrapped in her favorite brown blanket, Zoey is buried next to Sox beneath the oak trees in the country. Some days I forget she’s dead and that Sox is dead, and some days I remember quite suddenly that I had a bunny named Brownie that was attacked by dogs once and couldn’t run away. And my brother still doesn’t know who Duff is. Was. And honestly, we may never know what was up with those iguanas.
And suddenly I’m twenty-four, and all my pets are dead, and I’m what they call an adult, still sorting the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle — edge, edge, middle piece, dead pet, edge, growing up, edge, middle piece, middle piece, childhood, corner.