I pull into the veterinary hospital parking lot. I’ve been down this road too many times here lately. This time it’s with a stray. A very sick stray. I check in with the receptionist and already I’m choking back the tears and fighting the lump that’s in my throat. “Will you be taking Gabe back home with you or would you like us to take care of the arrangements?” I quietly reply that we will be taking him home. I take a seat in the waiting room and all I keep thinking about is Abraham and how he must have felt when he was asked to offer up Isaac as a burnt offering.
You see, Gabe had only been my cat for four days. He was young and about one year old. He came to us the day after an ice storm. The day after I prayed to God to bring him to me. He was almost an exact replica of the cat I owned and loved for almost 20 years who I had lost to mouth cancer and old age just 3 months previously. I had seen the stray–now named Gabe– on Halloween day and neighbors told me he had been hanging around in some woods down the street since the end of August (about the same time I had put my cat to sleep) and he was being fed occasionally by neighbors. He immediately took hold of my heart, because he was a big gray and white beauty and a clone of my much-loved and still very missed cat. I only saw him once. Then he disappeared for almost six weeks–until I prayed him back into my life the night we had an ice storm.
So the day after I pray, he comes. He’s cold and he’s hungry and he’s all full of love. Even though it’s winter, I pull engorged ticks off of him. I can tell he’s been stressed by the cold. It’s done a number on him. I bring him into the house and he eats and he rubs on my legs and bunts under my chin. He’s starved for love about as much as he’s starved for food and a good warm house to sleep in. I name him Gabriel– after Gabriel, the angel sent by God at Christmas time. A very appropriate name. We will call him Gabe. I fill his empty belly with warm food and fresh water and make him a soft bed. He prefers to alternate his sleeping between my husband’s lap and my lap. He purrs all night. I’ve missed that sound. Happiness starts to find its way back into my heart and I begin to feel the sadness and grief lifting.
The next day I think Gabe’s nose doesn’t look as pink as it should. I check his gums and his conjunctiva. He has clean healthy teeth, but mild gingivitis. I worry because I’ve seen this before. I take Gabe to the vet. The shiny silver needle enters his vein and the syringe fills red. Gabe voices his displeasure. I comfort him and I tell him it will be okay. We wait. But things won’t be okay because we find out this stray cat is infected with feline leukemia virus. He’s also got a heavy parasite load. The vet asks me what I want to do. I haven’t thought that far. This wasn’t supposed to happen this way. I tell him I will take Gabe home for now, that I need time to think. I tell him to deworm Gabe, that we should make him comfortable while I think.
At home, Gabe sleeps all the time. He wakes long enough to eat, then he’s back to sleep. He starts drooling. He’s no longer bright-eyed. He doesn’t play. He’s not grooming and this worries me. A cat who doesn’t groom is a sick cat. His hair coat loses its shine and begins to take on that unthrifty, greasy appearance. The cold snap and ice storm he endured took its toll on him– stressed his already immunosuppressed little body. The vet visit stresses him further. He can no longer compensate. Gabe develops ulcers on his tongue and in his mouth. And he drools brown fetid saliva. He won’t wash his face and he wants no part of me taking a damp cloth and cleaning it for him. I snuggle with him. I hold him close. I tell him he’s a beautiful boy. I do the only thing I know to do for him… I love him.
The next day he’s worse. He refuses food. He’s weaker and he’s drooling more of the brown saliva that smells like death. I know what must be done and it pains me. I plead to God to not let this be happening… that I don’t think I can go through this again, so soon. It doesn’t feel fair. I prayed for this cat and God not only answered my prayers just hours later, but He sent almost an exact replica of the one I was missing and had loved so hard and for so long. I tell God I need this cat and he needs me, that we’re a perfect match. But Gabe stops eating and he looks at me with eyes that say all is not well.
The next day I’m back at the vet. The technician lays a soft warm fleecy blanket on the cold metal table. She tells me how it will happen and what to expect. She does not know I’ve done this more times than I can count. She doesn’t know I’ve been on the other side of the exam table where she stands consoling distraught clients.
Again, I watch the sharp shiny needle go into the thin-walled barely visible blue vein. I whisper my goodbyes to Gabe through blurry tear filled eyes. I tell him I’m sorry. I tell him he deserved a better life than what he got. Gabe drifts into eternal sleep. The stethoscope reveals a forever silent heart, and his still warm body is placed in a small white pet coffin. We take him home.
I try to make sense of this but I can’t. I’m angry. I’m angry at people who don’t care for their animals–who throw them outside and leave them to fend for themselves. I’m angry at God. Why did he answer my prayers with a sick animal? He had to have known my heart was still broken from the loss I had just experienced with my cat. Again, I go through the ritual of washing and disinfecting food and water bowls. I mop all floors and wipe down sinks with a dilute Clorox solution. I wash Gabe’s bedding and blankets and towels. I go outside that evening because I’m smothering and I need to breathe the cold fresh air. And then I see little paw prints in the snow– Gabe’s prints he had made the night before. Paw prints in the snow fading in the distance. It was as if he was saying goodbye to me. They fade in the dark until they’re no longer visible. I stand in the cold and the snow and I sob until I heave. It was his first snow and his last. I cry for an animal who never seemed to have a chance.
The next day, my husband, not exactly a lover of cats, lovingly digs a hole in the backyard for Gabe. He comes and gets me when he’s done and he gently lays Gabe, who’s in the little pet casket, down in the dark brown ground. My husband asks me if I want to say anything. I read the same readings from Genesis that I had read just a few short months ago when I buried my 19-year-old cat. I read the same prayer and a poem for animals. And I weep for this cat I’ve had for only four days. I think I see my husband’s eyes shining with wetness too– this tough med/surg nurse husband of mine who has seen more than his share of death. He shovels the wet dirt on top of the casket and finishes the burial. We shiver from the cold, and holding hands, we walk back down the hill to the house. I’m sad and bewildered and confused and I’m telling my husband about all these feelings and how I just don’t think I will ever understand any of it.
And then, a red glint catches my eye on the ground. I stop walking. It’s mid December and it’s just rained and there’s an ocean of wet, dead brown leaves on the ground, but there’s something red that gets my attention. I stop. My husband walks on to the house. I look down and there on the ground in the sea of brown leaves is a brilliant little red leaf. And it’s in the shape of a heart. A perfect. red. heart. It’s there right on top of all the dull brown leaves. I look around for more red leaves but there are none. Just the one.
I bend over to take a closer look at the red leaf, shaped like a heart, and something powerful fills by soul. I feel warm and loved. Right then and there, through that leaf, God himself put the answer into my heart and I knew as sure as I was standing there why Gabe was sent to me. Love was the reason. It was that simple. He was sent for me to love him. He was sent to give me love. I needed him and he needed me. We needed to help each other. I went back later and I got that leaf and I pressed it between the pages of my Holy Bible.
I’ve always believed that God speaks to us in unusual ways and sometimes in ways we could never imagine. He spoke to me that day through a leaf– at a time when he knew I needed to hear His voice. Some people might say I’m crazy and that it was just a leaf. But it wasn’t just seeing that heart-shaped leaf, it was the powerful feeling of God’s pure love that filled MY heart when I saw it.
Sometimes God will ask us to do things that we don’t want to do… Things that are difficult and that we don’t understand. We will all have trials in this life and it is during those times that God will ask us to trust Him. And it’s not easy. I think we grow the most when we struggle through these difficult times. God knows that. He shows us our faith through these trials. Though I don’t always understand the “whys”, I trust that God’s ways are always best.
Rest in Peace my sweet Gabriel.