Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Sports column

June 26, 2013

Saying goodbye to a furry friend

BLUEFIELD — How do you say goodbye to your best furry friend?

Especially when that friend can’t speak in a language that you can understand. Or, when that friend leaves this world — and your world — way too soon.

Usually this space is reserved for sports. Today, I need to pay tribute to a great friend, but also to help me deal with such a great loss.

Sports will return next week in this space. Unfortunately, my friend won’t be back.

This is — with the exception of honoring my father after he passed away — the most difficult article I have ever tried to write. Believe me, I just hope I can finish it without my tears clogging up the keyboard.

We all grieve in different ways. Let me just say that if you have a pet, give them a big hug and an extra treat today because you just never know when your last chance is going to come.

We call them pets, but they are really just great friends.

Three weeks ago I wrote a column trying to help the Mercer County Spay Association raise money through a golf tournament to assist in trying to alleviate the problem of over-population of cats and dogs in the county.

That column focused on my girlfriend’s cat, Gracie, who was rescued from the Mercer County Animal Shelter and away from the dreadful fate that many other cats nearly faced on Wednesday.

Who knew that three weeks later, I would be writing about another cat, my own cat, Sneezer, who left this world on Monday very unexpectedly and left me with a multitude of memories, but also a broken heart, and hole that may never be replaced.

I know some readers out there won’t understand. ‘It’s a cat, get over it and get another one’, but it just isn’t that easy. Anyone who thinks it is has never owned a pet, or — in my case — had a pet own them.

My family had numerous pets over the years, and I grew close to most of them. Believe me, I always cried when they passed, especially when I had to scoop them up out of the road, but I had never had an animal to call my own.

Sneezer was my first. In reality, I was Sneezer’s human to call his own.

When I came to Bluefield in 2005 to become sports editor, my search for a dwelling place took me to all the usual places, but a simple note found on a bulletin board at the local hospital led me to the small garage apartment that has been my home ever since.

This has been a great place to live, even with those 17 steps to the deck and the lack of air-conditioning. What it did have was … Sneezer.

Memories grow hazy over time, but I can still remember sitting in a chair with the door open and I felt a brush against my leg. Staring at me was a small orange cat with the most beautiful brownish/green eyes you have ever seen.

We were instant friends.

I have always loved animals, but I have moved so much that I never bothered getting a pet of my own.

Sneezer actually belonged to my landlords, who lived in an adjacent home. They have since moved, but when they left a few years ago, Sneezer stayed with me.

By then, we were the best of friends.

It was that first winter of 2005 when I realized how committed I was to him. It was a cold, snowy evening and I had leave for work. I put him outside and left, feeling so guilty that I called my sister — who had a cat survive for 22 years — for some advice.

I wound up turning around and putting him in the house. The next day I purchased everything a cat owner needs, bought more toys, always made sure he had his ‘buffet’ of food and he had a new place to call home.

There was a time, until the neighborhood began to change, when I left my door to the deck open so he could come in and out at will.

Perhaps my greatest times came on our walks. Most people take their dogs for walks, my cat took me for almost daily strolls.

I used to walk all over Bluefield Virginia, partly for exercise and partly to relieve boredom, but one day Sneezer decided to walk with me. I eventually had to stay off the main roads and go to a nearby cemetery, and that became our place to be.

For years Sneezer would follow right behind me. When he was younger he would walk with me, with the distance always varying on how far he wanted to go. Sometimes he would just lay down and wait for me to finish, and then accompany me back to the house.

There are just so many memories I can’t possibly record them all, but it got to the point where I always knew he would be there when I got home, no matter whether it was returning from work or a long trip somewhere else.

He often brought visitors, which I could have done without, including at least two snakes, chipmunks, mice and birds, most of which he had to carry up 17 steps to give to me.

Sneezer loved life. He loved to hunt, eat, sleep, play with his toys, go for walks, and even serve as the ‘unofficial’ neighborhood cat, but he was fiercely loyal to me. When he first met my girlfriend, it wasn’t a pretty sight, but he grew to enjoy her rubs, much like I do too.

One of these days I plan to marry that woman, and Sneezer was going to be coming with me. I had spent less time at home since I met her, but he seemed to understand. He just waited for me to come home.

Unfortunately time really does fly and we all begin to show our age. It shows faster in cats, and I noticed a few changes in him, but all seemed fine. I took him to a vet on Monday for preventive maintenance, not expecting any issues other than listening to him meow all the way down the road.

Something, though, went terribly wrong, and tragedy took him from me. Since then I have tried to figure out if  I could have done differently — and thankfully so has the vet — but nothing will bring him back.

I still expect to see him when I get home tonight. He isn’t there, but in my mind, I can see him everywhere, as I did today when I took a walk and cried most of the way thinking about my friend.

Unfortunately, Sneezer won’t be back. I always enjoyed my time with him, always confident that he would be there for me, and he certainly trusted in me. It just didn’t last nearly long enough.

If you have a pet and you are reading this, please take the time to make today special for your furry friend. As I found out the hard way, you never know when your last chance is going to come.

I often wondered if my affection for a cat was normal, and now that he is gone, I wonder if my grieving is natural. After all, I am a 49-year-old man, and crying isn’t the macho thing to do.

Yet, I don’t mind admitting that I have cried my eyes out for the last two days, and I am sure it will continue into the future. Some might not understand, and even call me weak for grieving so much for a cat.

To me, it would be weak not to.

My heart is broken, and may never completely heal. Sneezer was more than a cat, he was the best friend anyone could ever have.  

—Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph, who lost one of the best friends he will ever have. He encourages feedback at bwoodson@bdtonline.com

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