Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 24, 2007

This was supposed to be one of those high-school graduation columns in which the writer passes along pearls of wisdom to the class of 2007, whose numbers happen to include my son.
But life often takes us in unforeseen directions. Instead of wry observations about life’s lessons and the road ahead, graduates, let me tell you about a cat.
She came into our life almost 20 years ago, a few months after my wife and I were married.
“I think we should get a cat,” my wife said. “To help us decide whether we’re ready to have children.”
Let me translate: Although my wife was satisfied that I could cope with diminished closet space and panty hose soaking in the bathroom sink, she wasn’t sure how I would react to dirty diapers and throw-up stained shirts. Litter boxes and squishy hairballs seemed a reasonable way to introduce me to the realities of parenthood.
Shortly thereafter, Hunny joined the household. My wife picked her out at the pound, a scrawny, mewling infant with big amber eyes and honey-colored fur. If this was to be a test of my fortitude in dealing with life’s untidiness, my wife chose well. Hunny had, shall we say, a delicate digestive system. I quickly learned to wear shoes when navigating my way to the bathroom at night. As for the litter box ó well, it was a hit or miss affair. I was dismayed to learn that the protocol for dealing with litter boxes isn’t simply to keep shoveling in new litter. Every few months, you’re supposed to empty them, too.
Still, I came to enjoy Hunny’s companionship. In those days, working for the newspaper in Atlanta, I would often get home at 2 or 3 in the morning. Instead of a still, dark house, Hunny would be there to greet me with loud meows, anxious to climb into my lap and settle herself onto my chest, right above my heart, purring like an Evinrude outboard as her white paws kneaded my shirt. Her big eyes would search my face as if to say: “Where were you? I was getting worried. It’s a dangerous world out there. And by the way, watch your step on the way to the bathroom.”
Apparently, I passed the Hunny test. Within a year, our son was born. He had big eyes, too, and equally unpredictable toilet practices. Like Hunny, he was often wide awake when I came home in the middle of the night. He was a colicky infant and sporadic sleeper. One of the best remedies for his nocturnal distress, we discovered, was for me to take him on my shoulder and dance around the house, gently patting his back as Hunny looked on in approval.
Time passed. The boy grew. He ó and I ó mastered spoon feeding and toilet training. We bought a blue backpack, in which he would contentedly snuggle, his fat feet happily kicking me in the kidneys as I toted him through the neighborhood. Hunny usually followed a few yards behind. I think she just wanted to make sure I didn’t drop the kid or make a wrong turn and end up whiling away the day drinking beer and shooting pool.
Pre-K and kindergarten came and went, and then elementary school. Hunny was always there, her hairballs and golden eyes as much a constant in our lives as stuffed animals and Lego building blocks.
Then came 1999, and our move to Salisbury. Happily, boy and cat flourished here. Hunny liked exploring the yard and often still wanted to accompany us on our walks in the neighborhood. By then, however, age had begun to take its toll. Her hearing had declined, and she wasn’t quite as agile as in the old days. I would fret about her inability to hear approaching cars and carry her back to the house.
Elementary school turned into middle school. Video games replaced Legos. Stuffed animals gave way to Grand Theft Auto wall posters. Then came the roller-coaster of high school. I taught the boy to drive. He taught himself to play drums. Hunny, by now completely deaf, her once-bright eyes dimmed by kitty cataracts, passed most of her days sleeping in various sunny spots around the house.
Last December, the boy turned 18. That meant Hunny was now 19, a veritable ancient in cat years. While her ears were beginning to go bald ó giving her a certain Yoda-like quality, my wife observed ó she was still able to jump into her favorite chair for a nap.
Since she’d made it that far, I thought she might purr on indefinitely, like those Galapagos tortoises that live for a century or so. A couple of months ago, however, her hindquarters suddenly collapsed, leaving her temporarily too weak to walk. Although she regained most of her mobility within a few hours, it was a sign that even nine lives can’t stave off the inevitable.
Soon, she began to lose interest in food and ventured less often from her heating-pad equipped box. Still, she would offer a weak meow in greeting and gently purr when picked up.
“She isn’t in any pain,” my wife said.
No, only the ache of a lingering goodbye. A few days passed. On Monday, June 11, my wife called me at work. Hunny couldn’t get out of her box. She no longer purred.
“I think it’s time,” she said.
That evening, with a loving assist from her longtime vet, Dr. Cynthia Almond, Hunny the cat gently left us, five months shy of her 20th birthday. We buried her behind the flower bed, in a spot that basks in morning sun.
The next day, our son took his place among West Rowan High’s Class of 2007.
If you’re very fortunate, graduates, your time on this Earth will be graced by a few cherished teachers who will help guide you through life’s passages. Some of them may even be human.
Chris Verner is opinion page editor of the Salisbury Post.