Isn’t it funny, the things that haunt us?
Last weekend I covered a summer festival in my newspaper beat town and as I drove to the store afterwards, I noticed something white in the middle of the road. At first I thought it was a plastic trash bag but then realized, with a sick feeling in my stomach, that it was a cat, a white cat tucked up next to the yellow line.
“I should stop,” I thought. But I was in a hurry and besides, it wasn’t really my problem, so I drove around and kept going.
It nagged me, though. I thought of that poor dead cat stuck in the middle of the road, hit over again and again, and it didn’t seem right. I turned around, parked at the side of the road and walked out toward the cat.
I realized even before I even crouched down that it was still alive. It was a large, completely white cat, blood smeared over its head, its tongue hanging out, eyes glazed over, its breath coming hard and fast. I half carried, half dragged it to the side of the road and then stood there, blood over my hands. I had no idea what to do next. Pick up a rock and put it out of its misery? Stay there beside it until it died?
I placed my hand on its back and kept it there, and soon my breathing increased, as if in sympathy, and we were both breathing hard and fast, though I was very much alive and the cat was very much dying.
Finally two young women stopped and stayed with me, and the cat, and as we discussed what to do, a police car pulled up.
“Shoot it, please,” I cried to the officer. “Can you please shoot it?”
He called a local vet clinic, arranged for me to take it there. The women and I wrapped that poor cat in towels and placed it on my dog hair-covered backseat, and I headed to the vet’s office.
But this is the odd part, the part that haunts me. During that short drive, which was less than ten minutes, it felt companionable in the car, the way it always does when you’re traveling with a pet or friend or family. I didn’t know the cat, had no idea if it was a stray or family pet, yet I felt an odd connection and found myself talking to it, too, in that quiet voice we use when someone we know is sick.
I carried the cat into the vet clinic, petted it for a last time and watched as they carried it away. Later they told me that it had been too far gone, that after they called the animal control department and obtained permission, they put it to sleep.
On the drive home I wondered if I had done the right thing. Is it better to die a slower death at the side of the road, in the grass, a breeze on your face and the mountains in the background? Or to die more quickly in an anonymous office wrapped in unfamiliar-smelling towels at the hands of people you don’t know?
For some reason, I thought of that William Carlos Williams poem, the one about the red wheelbarrow, and all the way home, the sun high above the mountains, everything so green and lush and full, I recited that poem over and over, almost as if a prayer.
Since then, I keep imagining that I see that cat. I’ll notice a streak white flit past when I’m out in the yard or walking through the house at night and always, always I recite that poem again.
The Red Wheelbarrow
By William Carlos Williams
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white