Supposedly, bad things come in threes. In the First World War, the myth goes, a soldier didn’t dare light three cigarettes on a match in the trenches at night, because that gave an enemy across no man’s land just enough time to find him in the scope of the rifle. The British short story writer, H. H. Munro — a.k.a., Saki — was actually shot by a German sniper on the Western Front in 1916, and legend has it that his last words were, “Put that damned cigarette out!”
This year my family has watched three of our cats die. We had five felines in January. Today we have two. The latest to go was BK2, the second of the cats we adopted who had lived in our barn before migrating into our house and our hearts. The name stood for Barn Kitty 2; it wasn’t a reference to a fast food chain or some angioplasty-inducing combination of steer, pig, and cheese.
Readers may recall that the first of our cats to die was Dorset. She succumbed to old-fashioned old age at 19. She was followed by Dalvay, who was done in by cancer at 15. Finally, last month, BK2 died of Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, or the cat equivalent of HIV. We knew BK2 had FIV days after we brought him from the barn to the veterinarian in 2001. But he was a bruiser: 15 or 16 pounds of muscle back then, and we adopted him with the knowledge that he wasn’t going to live to a ripe old age. He was 8 or 9 when he died. With cats that mysteriously appear in your barn, you tend to ballpark the age.
BK2 resembled a Maine coon cat: He had that vivid M of darker fur on his forehead, and wild shocks of brown, black, and gray hair everywhere else. His face was the shape of a football. From day one BK2 was charming as long as you didn’t try to touch him anywhere other than the top of his head or his ears, which had triangular dings from myriad cat fights. By the time he died, he would happily offer my wife and me his stomach to rub and there was little he liked more than to hang around a steamy bathroom while one of the humans in the household took a hot bath. His purr was an earthquake-like rumble, but his meow was a freakishly high falsetto for such a big lug. He was the closest thing we ever had to a dog.
When BK2’s condition began to deteriorate rapidly — a car gaining speed as it bounces its way down a steep cliff — and the end came into view, I remember standing in Montpelier and talking to the veterinarian on the phone and thinking, “If he dies, your reaction is not going to be pretty.” My cats have always nurtured my soul the way pets add warmth to everyone’s lives, but I work at home and so I spend an awful lot of time with them. Frequently I wrote with BK2 in my lap, though toward the end he seemed happiest dozing on whatever papers were piled on the floor beside my desk chair.
And yet when he died, I simply felt numbed. When I wrapped the animal’s body in a towel and dug a hole in our yard, I kept expecting the waves of despair that separate grief from mere mourning. But they never came. The fact is, my wife and I loved BK2 as much as we had loved Dorset and Dalvay, and the only explanation I have is that three cherished pets in well under a year is more than the soul wants to shoulder. And so, apparently, I had built a stout seawall against the tide and gone about my life. Bad things come in threes, and now we were done. We simply had to be.
Still, I miss BK2. Someday, I imagine, that sniper will indeed note the flicker of the match as it passes my face. And then all that grief inside me may finally emerge.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on October 5, 2008.)