Try to picture a typical family. What image comes to mind almost immediately? In the most traditional sense, it is safe to assume that the image is going to consist of a father, a mother, a son, and a daughter. If we're talking a real all-American family, they will usually will have a dog accompanying them, typically a golden retriever. Take this picturesque family and throw it out. Think of a regular family, doesn't matter what kind, but for many, that animal companion, of whatever various species, breed, or size, is oftentimes still there. For many people it's difficult not to have had such a member of their family, either currently or in the past. There's simply something unique to be said about having a pet, an animal that takes up residence with you, typically living under the same roof if not outside, and countless people will tell you of their own unique bond they've had with that animal.
It can be said that such a bond was a rare occurence in the McGinnis household, sadly as many of the animals that entered it often met early ends. Before I was born my father Art owned a Collie, a constant companion that I've been told was both protective of its master and lacking in intelligence. She would chase the mailman for blocks, and ignored my mother Jeri outright when not growling at her, even two years into my parents' marriage. To this day Jeri has a very sharp tongue when commenting on her, and shortly after my sister Kate was born and took her first steps, it only became natural in her eyes that the dog would have to go. Relunctantly Art did so, giving the dog to a friend on his farm. Not a week later she was killed by a combine. I've pondered on the irony of literally sending that dog "to the farm", and don't know whether or not it was true or some sort of in-joke between my parents.
As Kate is two years older than I am, she was naturally the first to receive certain liberties, one of said perks being pet ownership. I'm not sure why my parents let her own animals at such an early age. I was almost too young to remember them, but she first owned two birds, cockatiels I believe. I don't have any memory of them living in fact, but I do remember the funeral we had with one of our cousins. Apparently a neighbor's cat had gotten into her room through a window and ransacked the bird cage. The funeral was short and sweet, and before we said goodbye to our feathery companions, our cousin picked up one of them and went on to open and close its beak in accordiance to silly voices he made. It seems morbid in retrospect, but in contrast to my sister's tears I was having a blast! In addition to these cockatiels Kate owned a gerbil that ran away and we never found again, and an aquarium filled with all sorts of fish of many shapes and size. It didn't take long, however, until her fish served to become a new game for me: What fish died today? It can be safely said that after her favorite, a bluish-purple beta fish, died two days after she got them, her interest waned on the others, only feeding them when reminded by our mother.
The summer before I entered the second grade, Kate confided in me that she heard our parents whispering about something big for us. As per usual I was curious. What could it be? Something for us? A present? That's a child's favorite thing! Naturally something of this magnitude, something to be kept a secret meant one thing and one thing alone: an animal had to be involved. Naturally we assumed a dog, so we spent that afternoon thinking of names for our soon-to-be new friend. Kate was fond of names of movie stars she fancied, but I preferred less conventional names. Names of inanimate objects or names most people wouldn't normally name their kid if they wanted to give them a decent childhood.
"What about Jack?" My sister asked.
"After the boy in Titanic?"
"No..." Kate looked down in defeat. "I just really like that name." Seeing as how I was as indecisive then as I am today, and with so many names out there it seemed daunting. I assumed Kate's name was going to win out anyway in the end, so it seemed fruitless.
Not long after that my mother took me out for a drive. I assumed to the grocery store or the bank, I didn't feel the need to ever ask. Instead of either, however, she drove me to a little farm not far outside of town. "Huh." I thought to myself. "Do we know these people?" Apparently yes, as the thin, sunburnt woman who came to greet us worked with Jeri. The two chatted as we were brought closer toward the front porch. As I looked around I saw that countless animals littered this small farm, from birds to dogs to cats. On the porch was a small sea of fur huddled around dishes of water. Honestly I've never seen so many kittens in one place at one time. Should I ever see such a sight again I'm not sure if my mind would snap or my heart would burst from overdosing on how adorable it was. But for the sake of preserving a speck of my masculinity, I'm going to go with neither. Jeri and her friend stepped back, asking me which of the animals I wanted. I'd be lying if I didn't look up past the kittens for a split-second, wanting to take home with us one of the many geese roaming around, but I knew better. Again my inability to decide on anything took its course. It must have fascinated my mother's friend, watching a soon-to-be second grader place a finger on his chin, hum to himself and scan the massive litter for several moments, the only noise being the constant mews in the air.
I'm not sure what struck me to it, but a lone white cat, one with a single grey spot on the top of its head, finally attracted my attention. He didn't seem as ambitious or rough as the other kittens playing did. We're just alike! I thought to myself. So we had this little white cat put into a cage and we drove home. The silent persona had been a ruse, however, as that cat howled and wailed the entire drive, only stopping the moment we took him out once back home. It was during this drive, when Jeri asked me what I wanted to name him. For the first time ever, I didn't have to think twice: Snap. It just seemed to stick instantly. Snap the Cat, and as a child I was convinced that we'd be best friends.
Snap, it turned out, wasn't a very friendly cat. It became obvious that as many cats do, he merely tolerated us as a family, giving us the honor of petting him only in exchange for food. We did get to pet him often, however, as he was very fond of food. As he enjoyed being outside more than he did inside, we didn't see much of him, often forgetting about him completely until walking out the front door to find him waiting to have more food. It was like this for many years.
By the time I entered high school, however, something shifted in that damn cat. His toleration of me seemed to become something more akin to how a friendly cat might actually act. Attention now demanded of me, he often found himself nestled in my lap when working on homework or on my chest while sleeping. Any shirt of mine that had color on it suffered his wrath of white hair. I tolerated it, as it didn't take long before I realized that this newfound attention was solely mine. He still ignored everyone else if not avoiding them altogether, which gave me a realization. Yes, this cat was undeniably an asshole, but for anyone who has ever been the sole receiver of anyone's attention, human or animal, it's surprisingly flattering. Wherever I walked in the house, and sometimes out in the yard, that cat would follow me. As he was so large he made Garfield appear to be on Weightwatchers, I wouldn't say that he could meow. Groan would be more appropriate. While he followed me around, he would make this droning groan sound, and never continue until I said something back. My family would ellicitate eye-rolling moans whenever I talked to Snap as a result. My God, I realized as a teenaged boy, I'd become just like, yet still the antithesis of, an old crazy cat lady.
From the moment we got him, my father told me almost immediately: "If this cat ever dies, I'm telling you he ran away." Yes Art McGinnis liked to cut to the chase sometimes. But Snap never did, at least when he should have while we were younger. There's just something dangerous about little children vying for the attention of a small animal, usually for the latter, what with the pulling, dragging, improper carrying technique, the works.
Junior year of high school marked the foreclosure of our house, along with the seperation of my parents. Kate was away at school, but even seven hours away, she was intent on taking sides. Taking to Jeri's side and insistent that I join her, it seemed unfair for me to do so. Afterall, these were my parents, both human beings with their flaws, and I had helped both of them move into their new homes, so it seemed counterproductive to dislike either one. Jeri, a tiny woman herself, found a quaint little house that she turned into a cottage, and Art, a bearded man standing at 6'5, got a plain white house not four blocks from our old one. Judging from what we knew of his history with moving vehicles, Snap was the last thing in the old house to take with us in the move. Driving those four blocks to my father's new place took roughly three times as long as it should have. Snap, in a panic, with his tail flaired so that it looked like a Christmas tree coated in snow, clang to me with his pudgy, clawless paws. Howling just as he had as a kitten, he sat in my lap and watched the neighorhood move by, certain he was going to die I'm sure. Then he tried something I found quite daring of an animal his size. While I've never read it in any driving pamplets or brochures while at the DMV, I feel as if a twenty-plus pound cat balancing itself on one's shoulders might be considered a driving hazard. I tried to move him off but he didn't budge, his fat body was so tense. So with a sigh I stopped trying and thought to myself: "That's one block down."
At Dad's house Snap never was quite as comfortable and confident as he was at the old one. He became more dependent on my attention, rarely leaving my side whenever I was there. When I would let him outside he never left the back stoop, whereas before he'd wander the neighborhood for up to two days. He'd sit there, staring out, and only if the door was left wide open. If I was outside with him, grilling, having a smoke, or doing yard work, he found the confidence to wander the backyard, but never beyond its invisible boundary. It was strangely sad, having known this cat to have once been aggressive and yet aloof, receptive only so long as he got what he wanted.
In early 2012 Snap received the fleas from hell. Vicious critters that dug down deep in his lower back and refused to leave. They had matted his fur with eggs and blood, and just as he did whenever did felt sick, Snap hid from us. For two days my dad and I couldn't find that cat, but whenever one set foot in the cold and dark basement fleas were sure to bite at your ankles and embed themselves in your socks. Snap had been given baths before, but when we gave him his numerous flea baths, rather than bite and moan and groan, he was strangely compliant. Perhaps he was taking some quiet satisfaction in ridding himself of those little insects, as they seemingly exploded once in contact with the special bath soap. Snap's problem was held in that the basement always seemingly called to him, even after a thorough spray and later bug bomb both kept us from entering for several days. Those fleas always found a way of coming back. He could at least find relief in his flea baths however.
That fall, not long after I returned to school, Dad fell extremely ill. We were all aware of a cancerous lump in his side, unattached and shrinking with his regular treatments. It sprung up elsewhere, however. It hit hard and fast, weakening him to the point that he needed a walker just to get around the house, and, not long after that, he could no longer do that. Thankfully he had sisters, nieces, and nephews to help him when I wasn't there on the weekends. We talked on the phone often during the week, when I asked him the big question.
"Hey, how's Snap been?"
"Snap? Uh...yeah, um...I let him out the other day, and...he hasn't been back! So yeah...sorry buddy. I'm sure he'll come back around!" I smiled, leaned back in my chair, and thought back on what he told me his go-to plan in such an event would be.
"Ohh okay Dad. Well I hope he comes back too!" My words oozed with mock seriousness. Typically I would think I'd be crushed by this news, but it's funny how an ailing father somehow outweighs a cat in importance. So that was it, my cat of thirteen years was gone. I didn't know for sure how, nor did I really care at that moment. I'd like to think that normally would have been the end of it, Snap's demise a mystery forever. Yet that cat lingered, not in spoken word but there became an aura of tension I couldn't place my finger on whenever I came home. The fleas were still there, and going downstairs required both a hazmat suit and a quick hand at shutting doors, should the little bastards sneak upstairs and plague my father.
Shortly after we transferred Art from home into hospice, the McGinnis clan was seated at dinner. Conversations were relatively upbeat despite the situation, when finally my Aunt Mary turned to me. A white-haired woman with a smile almost always present, she threw her head back at one point and sighed. Then, turning to me, she had about her this uncharacteristically anxious look.
"Connor, I'm so sorry about Snap. He was so sick and…" She jerked back when a foot swiftly kicked her shin. Across from her sat her daughter, Lisa.
"Shut up Mary. Shut up." She hissed. Mary blinked and looked back to me. She said nothing and returned to her food. I cocked my head in bewilderment. Knowing full well that they put my cat down, I thought of saying something, but didn't. Again, I found myself snickering that my family had found itself in the midst of a cover up. That would be the last time I heard the name Snap until visiting another aunt, Maureen of Minneapolis, roughly two months after my father had passed. Nearly breaking into tears, she apologized that no one had told me that Snap was sick, that his fleas threatened my father, so they put him down. Then, as she sat with hands grasping one another, as if pleading for forgiveness, I shrugged.
"Yeah I know."
"Yeah I already figured you had him put down. Wait...are you crying?" The mystery had been solved. In a rather anticlimactic fashion mind you, but solved no less. I suppose with the truth exposed I was glad he wasn't sick anymore, but perhaps what gripped me hardest was a sudden wish that I had been there been he was put to sleep. The only human he actually liked, the human who picked him out as a kitten, there with him in his final moments. I only feel it would have been appropriate.
I know people who mourn their pets like they do blood relatives. They post about their loss online, a sadness that lingers behind them for a few weeks. I even know someone who received a tattoo of their dog's paw print after it was put down. I mean, we had a funeral for my sister's birds when I was four years old, final thoughts and goodbyes included. Just as we do in so many different shapes and forms of mourning, we do so for our pets, those special additions to our family. As I ruminate on those thoughts, I used to wonder what Snap's passing meant to me, if anything. Surely it never hit me as hard as one would assume it would, but with his end I've come to a realization. Perhaps even more so than my own father's passing, Snap's made me believe that he was the last tether I had of my childhood. The home I grew up in, the undivided family, a certain carelessness and happiness that comes with the ignorance of you.
With age comes knowledge, and time can put strain on relationships, even families. Snap had become the sole memento of the old world I had grown up with, an odd musing on a fat white cat, yet...so oddly appropriate.
With this realization, I've come to love those around me far more than I had in my alcoholic fog. My father visits me often in my dreams, as does my dark alter-ego, tame though he might seem. Where these dreams seem mandatory, there are others where this fat, white cat are all but needed. Just as we had witnessed a dehydrated and frustrated deer storm through my father's yard, Snap and I looked at one another before I worked to corral the animal toward a more wooded area. I turned around in time to see Snap dip his head to me, only leaving his perch once I went inside and began to cook dinner. Why, just last night, this fat, moaning white cat followed me in my dreams, never biting nor clawing, but beside me nonetheless.