ST. PETERSBURG — The cat wasn't all that, just a hungry bundle of fur and need, but when the lights of life and love are going out, the smallest spark makes all the difference.
Something made her shine among the kitty multitudes at the Friends of Strays shelter three years ago. Somehow Richard Blankenship knew she was the one.
She was about 2, but kitten-size. She was gray with a white belly. The card on her cage said her name was Landa.
Richard picked her up. "How about this one?"
Carolyn wanted to look more.
He held on to Landa. He already had lung cancer then. Maybe the cat sensed it, the way animals sometimes do. There was already a connection between them — Richard knew.
He wasn't leaving without her.
She was Richard's cat. No argument from Carolyn. Landa napped in his sick bed. He'd call, "Come here, Landa." She'd come running.
She ran to Richard until he died nine months later.
When Landa herself fell deathly sick recently, Carolyn knew what she had to do.
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Landa wouldn't eat Wednesday, May 28, or the next day. She stayed curled in a corner.
Carolyn took her to the vet on the third morning. Her condition was critical. The vet hooked her to IV antibiotics.
That night, Carolyn sat beside an urn of ashes on the night table on Richard's side of the bed. They were his ashes. Another urn in the living room held the ashes of son Joseph. He had died in 1995 of AIDS. He was 32.
Carolyn spoke to Richard's urn.
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While Richard was alive, the cat ignored Carolyn. "She likes men," Carolyn figured, philosophically. Carolyn was busy anyway. She worked as a news clerk at the St. Petersburg Times. And after Richard's death, she still cared for his 86-year-old mother, Alyen, who had dementia.
A year ago, Carolyn suffered a heart attack and needed open-heart surgery. Last December, Alyen passed away. It seemed life was draining out of the house.
Carolyn held Landa in her lap.
"It's just you and me, kid."
They invented their own rituals. Carolyn said goodbye before going to work. "Be a good girl. Mom will be home later."
Landa waited at the door.
At night, Landa curled up on the pillow and licked Carolyn's hair. She'd get pushed away, she'd come right back.
Landa had become Carolyn's reason to go home at night. When the cat got sick, Carolyn was overwhelmed by aloneness.
All she could think of was those three dreadful French words:
"Coup de grace."
• • •
The bill for Landa's critical care climbed close to $1,200.
Carolyn sat beside her husband's urn. Where should she set the limit? Another thousand? She is 66, about to retire. But in her heart how could she ever set a limit?
On the fourth day she was spared that decision. "All the money in the world," the vet told her, "won't save Landa."
The vet asked Carolyn if she wanted Landa's ashes.
Carolyn had held it together through the placement of those two urns in her home, through her heart attack, the death of her mother in law, the fear of impending retirement.
But she finally lost it on the phone with the vet.
"I can't. I can't.
"I have too many ashes."
• • •
On Friday morning, Carolyn sat in a rocking chair in the adoption room at the Friends of Strays shelter. She wasn't there to pick a cat, she said.
"A cat will pick me."
They placed Aladdin, an orange tom, in her lap. He hopped right off.
They tried Tiffy, a brown tabby. She nestled into Carolyn's lap. Carolyn gently rubbed her ears. The shelter worker said Tiffy had been waiting a year and a half for a home.
Carolyn looked up.
"That's an awful long time without a family."
John Barry can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2258.