A listening ear


Grace Vance

Martha lays on a cushion chair.
Martha lays on a cushion chair. Photo by Grace Vance

Last year a piece of my heart went missing.

 But it was my ear that was searching for it.

 It was the time of day when the sun finally settled down, and the Earth shifted into a feeling of comfort and calmness. The warm cup of tea at my side swirled dusty steam through the air, and twiddling birds outside my window ruffled their feathers and chirped their enchanting songs.

At the foot of my bed, a content purr sounds methodically from my cat Martha, her silky fur gleaming as she rolls in the warmth of a sunbeam. Her fluffy figure settles into the soft comforter as she burrows her head and paws into my ankles. I remember her snow and ink marbled coat, the black fur looking as if it were pulled over her golden eyes like a ninja’s mask. I remember year after year, watching her grow bigger from the tiny little kitten she once was.
Even as she got older, Martha and her sister, Mary, loved to play the same games like ‘chasing the string’ and ‘follow the laser’ as when they were young. When the two would wine at the back door during dinner to go outside, I would always call her small, cracked baby cry a “broken meow,” but it was her refusal to use her “big girl voice” and opt for milk over water that always reminded me of her earlier years.
She would snoop around the house, mischievously hovering around a hidden corner for a new litter box. According to her, it liked to relocate on a daily basis. On one of her expeditions, I found her in my brothers’ room, cuddled next to a plush zebra, seemingly sidetracked by its familiar coloring. After that, Martha paraded around, dragging the misfortunate striped toy along with her. We always thought of it as her “baby”, referring to the extended amounts of time she spent caring, cleaning and shepherding it around, just as a mother would.

 One Christmas, I remember ogling over a pink mini couch, constantly begging my mom for one, saying how perfect it would be if I had it, then her, telling me it was too small and I would quickly grow out of it. But I was insistent, and my efforts were rewarded Christmas morning with a soft pink mini couch glowing under the light of the tree.

 In the months that followed, my butt was glued to that couch, always accompanied by a certain midnight and Oreo cream-colored kitty. Martha spent hours at a time on the couch and, with her baby zebra at her side, she would snooze away peacefully, her velvety paws tucked snuggly under her chin. As I got older and grew out of couch-fitting-size it became clear my mother was right, and Martha was more than prepared to warm my side of the couch as well.

Martha’s fur was thick and constantly shedding itself throughout the house. Her large body was no excuse for the excess amounts of hair it produced.  So it was no surprise that every time she awakened from her blissful cat nap and rolled from her beloved corner of the couch, a thick layer of fur would emerge, plastered from where she lay. From there, she would drag her feet and lazily walk away, taking her zebra along by the scruff of its neck.
She loved to hang around during meals because not long after sitting down with a glass of milk, there would come her curious little nose, sniffing the air and peeking over my shoulder. Along with a frisky tail flick, there was more than one occasion I’d turn around to her head in my milk glass.

 Little by little, bit by bit, Martha slowed. Her bright eyes still shined, but they lost their golden sparkle. Each night she’d still insist upon ducking her head under the covers, but underneath the canopy of blankets where she preferred to lie, I could see her plump body start to thin. Every day, a little more food was left at the bottom of the food bowl. And every week, the weight of one question fell heavier in our minds: What was going on with Martha?

 The changes that occurred in the following months were drastic. Martha went from looking like a round, overfed housecat to a frail, weak, underfed stray. Her glowing pink-pale skin yellowed, and she would continuously disappear for days, only to be found lying in various hidden corners throughout the house. My mom suspected she suffered from liver failure, and with my steady eye keeping track of her, I watched Martha retire under my bed, turning to a light pink silver star-studded blanket instead of her cozy pink mini couch in the living room.

Even though she made my room her main headquarters, she still liked to move herself around the house and lye there for hours without making a noise. While searching for Martha during one of her disappearances, I noticed she wasn’t in her usual hiding places. Instead, the cabinet door in the bathroom was angled open, leading to the space between the two levels of our home. The space was utterly impossible to access, and although we weren’t certain, I had a suspicion Martha had nestled herself under the tub in attempt to pass away alone.

 I spent many nights shaken and wide-eyed, thinking about all the places Martha could be hiding. My mind jumped from each scenario, agonizing over what she could be going through. It seemed to only make sense of her to hide under the bath tub. After all, when she and Mary had been kittens, their frazzled mother, Sarah, had panicked and hidden them there. She held them so we could see them, but only just out of reach. We ended up having to call our neighbor with long arms in for the rescue. For Martha, it wasn’t a last resort decision; it was only a part of her earliest memories.

The search became habit. When bending down to tie my shoe, my eyes quickly scanned the area under the couch for any sign of her, and each time there was no luck. She could have been anywhere and maybe not even alive. We rummaged through the whole house, but we each knew where she was without saying it.

I feared finding her dead more than anything.

In the morning before heading to the bus stop, I would sit outside the bath tub cabinet, feebly calling her name. I told her stories and reminded her how much we missed her and that we would get her out if she could just call out. A part of me had given up and felt stupid talking out of lost hope. In the back of my mind I knew she was still down there, scared and dying, waiting for nature to run its course. There was an ambition in me that told me to keep talking to her and keep listening. I kept my ears open, sometimes so fed up in my attempts that my mind would mimic her cry. I’d feel a feat of hope before the devastating reality washed over me, and I realized she hadn’t made a sound, still as quiet as the floorboards themselves, lying alone in a pit of darkness.

 My internal clock counted the minutes, the days and the weeks that she was missing. I’d told myself there was one last day would wait outside the bathtub and listen, one last final day for her to call for help. Taking my time, I moved through my morning routine listening for her. I brushed my teeth, cleaning each tooth with care and made a little extra noise, just to make sure she could hear me. I decided it was over and Martha would show herself when she was ready. Maybe I had been wrong, and she wasn’t down there. Or maybe she really was gone, her body discarded, and she would never get to hear my last words of goodbye.

I turned to leave, taking one last glance at the abandoned bathroom behind me. Slowly, I inched myself toward the door, and further from Martha. Turning the corner, a single foot stepped out into the hallway before a whisper of a cry called out. I froze and listened. A moment went by before another mangled cry sounded, so quiet I could only just hear it. It was as if she knew it was her final chance to be saved. I lunged toward the bathtub cabinet, flinging the door open and yelling to my mom.

Since Martha was stuck between two floors of the house, we decided we would have to go downstairs and cut a hole in the ceiling to get her out. I stayed on the first floor, looking through the bathtub cabinet, while my mother and brother drilled the hole. We didn’t know exactly where she was, so I looked for her figure among the dusty floorboards. Once the hole was cut, they took a step-stool and shined a flashlight through the darkness. We did this for an hour without hearing her. We were ready to give up when my brother’s head emerged from the ceiling, he looked hopeful. He saw her in there, just to the left of where they cut the hole. She had been so close the whole time, but too weak to make a sound.

My mother took a blanket from an upstairs closet, and we carefully inched her fragile body closer. In that moment, everything was clear. It felt like the great weight that had silently settled upon us with each day the she was gone vanished. Despite this, there was still the problem of what would come after this. Martha’s eyes were unbelievably round and wide, and her weak paws clung to our shirts. I fixed my eyes on hers, and I knew that this was the last time she would be in this house.

We gathered her into a pet cage padded with her favorite blanket and rushed her to Noah’s Arc animal hospital. We handed her over to the veterinarians, and were told to wait in the lobby. I remember the pungent smell of chemicals and medicine that was fermented into the walls.

They called us in to see Martha and lead us down a hall and into a brightly lit room. The doctors had stuck an IV into her arm, where they pumped fluids into her and shaved the hair over her belly. I couldn’t keep my eyes from watering when I saw her. They explained that she wasn’t going to make it. My heart wrenched and tears fell. The doctors stepped out of the room and gave us a moment to say goodbye. We told her we loved her and said she was going to be OK, and was heading to a place where she would never be alone.

They gave her a shot to put her ‘to sleep,’ and her eyes froze. She was gone before I could count to five.

 The days had routine and proceeded with their fast-paced tendencies. Much unlike the rest of the world, the inner cat world that inhabited my house was smooth and blissfully frozen in time. If I didn’t keep reminding myself, it almost seemed as if their lives weren’t ever-changing, and my innocent little garage-born kittens would never get older. If I could have preserved those precious moments and kept time from countering in, everything could go back to how it began.

You can’t always help the dying, but you can be the listening ear that hears what they have to say. For Martha, I was that ear, and my family was the one that heard her cry. If I hadn’t been there to hear her call for help, we might have never found her. Or worse yet, we might have found what I feared most, her limp body lying alone in the dark.

In life, it is important to listen. Sometimes I don’t realize I am ignoring someone with everyday tasks getting in the way. Once those distractions are taken away, I truly begin to see who is reaching out to me. When I can see what really matters, maybe I can take others in account before myself and truly be the listening ear.

By Grace Vance

Have you ever had a pet die?