My cat didn't come when I called for her yesterday.

Usually she comes right away. In this respect, she has always been more dog than cat, except that she's quiet. I call her name and suddenly she materializes on the porch like a silver tabby genie, blinking at me with knowing yellow eyes. I stoop down to pet her, and she purrs as I pick out broken bits of garden leaf from her fur.

We've had this little morning ritual for almost 16 years now, the cat and I. It's what the two of us do before starting our day.

Recently, the years have begun to catch up with her. She's growing thin and frail-boned, even though she still eats. And her fur is falling out so that she looks like a victim of feline pattern baldness. Also, her breath is bad — a telltale sign of inevitable kidney failure.

So, I do what I can to make sure she's comfortable and cherish our morning routine even more than usual, knowing that soon she'll be gone.

Watching a pet fail is always hard. You realize you'll be saying goodbye soon — not only to the pet herself but also to that piece of your life you shared with her.

In this case, I'll be saying goodbye to my children's childhood. We brought our cat (she was a large-eared kitten then!) home before our last kid was born. That means she's pretty much seen it all — first smiles, first tooth, first step, first day of kindergarten, little league baseball, a year in New York, favorite books (the Redwall, Goosebumps and Lemony Snickett series), favorite board games (Candyland, Sorry!, Clue), favorite computer games ("Oregon Trail"), favorite cartoons ("Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," "Ghostbusters"), favorite TV shows ("Saved by the Bell," "Fresh Prince of Bel Air"), trick-or-treaters dressed like robbers and football players.

She was around for all the teenage stuff, too — fender benders, midnight phone calls, calls from the school informing me that my student had been "missing or absent" for one period or more that day, strange golf carts turning up mysteriously in the backyard, dances, "The Simpsons" and "Futurama," girls wafting through the kitchen with clean-smelling hair, boys shooting pool in the basement, violent games of church ball, boating trips to Bear Lake, broken arms and broken knuckles, stitches, graduations, mission farewells.

And now! Marriages!

We're in a different place as a family now. That last kid — the one I was pregnant with when our cat came to stay — will be a high school sophomore this fall.

Anyway, when the cat didn't come, I was sick at heart. Had she taken herself off to lay down her old bones? Although she'd been well enough the day before, the possibility seemed likely. I searched for her in all her favorite places as the day came and went.

No cat.

This morning, though, the cat was sitting on the front porch as though nothing (nothing!) at all had happened. Apparently she'd taken the Fun Bus to Wendover for one last spectacular weekend without letting me know. Which is fine. She has a right to do whatever she wants to at this point.

Meanwhile, I'll savor the reprieve and enjoy the feel of sweet sun on her fur.

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