Although the elderly couple wore anxious expressions as they carried their burden into the waiting room of the veterinary clinic, they managed to project an air of desperate optimism. Their story had to have a happy ending. If it didn't, what would they do?
The cat, hunched in the double-decker plastic laundry baskets they carried between them wasn't crying out in pain. The cat looked around alertly, which seemed to rule out deep shock or fatal injuries. My friend Paula articulated my thoughts. "He doesn't seem to be in shock. What happened to him?"
The gray-haired man swallowed, appearing to blink back tears before he spoke. "He was outside today. He just loves to go outside and we think that somebody in the neighborhood shot him."
His wife nodded in agreement, never taking her eyes off the cat in the baskets.
After a few sympathetic murmurs, the other people in the waiting room went back to their respective worries about their own pets. I did the same, wondering why I had to wait so long to retrieve my cat, Benjamin. "How long does it take to carry a cat into the waiting room and accept a check? Are we going to have to stand here for two hours just to pick up Benjamin?" I complained to Paula.
It had been a tough week for me and all I wanted to do was hurry home to the soft comfort of the couch and a mindless TV program, but now my mind would not sink back into comfortable self-absorption. The tense, anxious expression on the lady's face as she watched over her cat made me realize how minor my own troubles were. Every time the cat moved, I could track its movements by the lady's concerned grimaces and the way she pressed her lips tightly together. Her husband sat staring straight ahead, a stubbornly cheerful smile on his face.
"He just loves to go outside," the elderly man repeated.
Eventually the crowd in the waiting room thinned out, until there were only a few people left, including me. Even the minutes ticking away could not distract me from the lady's face. Now her lips moved as if she were praying. Finally, the vet called the couple's name. They carried the cat in the basket between them as carefully as if it were their hearts in their hands.
After the couple disappeared into the consulting room, I relaxed and even resumed my soundless tirade against the wait. Naturally, the cat would be fine. Wasn't that a foregone conclusion, modern veterinary medicine being what it is? Besides, the cat hadn't screamed or carried on at all. Somehow it's easier to associate fatality with noisy rebellion, instead of silent acceptance.
A few minutes later, a vague feeling of unease jarred me out of my thoughts. I glanced at the consulting room door. The elderly woman stood there, her face crumpled in grief, all the more terrible because it was silent. Her heart shattered into pieces all over her face, but her voice didn't keep it company. I stared at her, spellbound at the agony in the absence of sobbing or screaming. The lady stumbled blindly past us. As she went by, Paula reached out and hugged her. "I'm so sorry," Paula told the lady.
I watched the lady stumble out to her car and slump into the passenger seat. Where was her husband? Why wasn't he out there with her, comforting her? Nobody should have to sit outside alone in a car on a bleak rainy day sobbing with a broken heart.
I stared at the consulting room door. It remained closed. I wanted to rush out to the car and comfort the lady, but I stood glued to the spot, What could I do? After all, the lady was a complete stranger. What right did I have to intrude on the privacy of her grief? To a degree I could put myself in her position, imagine how I would feel if the cat in the basket had been Benjamin. Still, I could not completely imagine her shock and pain at losing her pet, because mine was still alive.
Suddenly, a squeal shattered the silence of the waiting room, sounding like a scream of torment, a protest at being trapped in a prison of pain that was worse because it was not comprehensible. The rational part of me cautioned myself about being too emotional about the scream. Perhaps the sound was amplified by my own emotions. Perhaps it wasn't even the injured cat crying out. But in my soul, I knew it was the cat, emitting a final cry at the injustice and cruelty that have existed as long as humans and animals have co-existed.
The consulting room door opened quietly. The elderly man walked toward us, shoulders bowed. He held the empty baskets in front of him as if he were scooping in memories. The waiting room was so quiet that I heard people breathing and the sound of a stifled sob.
I wish in some magical way the last protest of that cat could resound forever in the ears of the person who shot it. I wish the desolate faces of the elderly couple could be permanently superimposed over the life of that person. I wish that person will be forever hunted by the inhumanity of those two empty baskets and the stifled sobs of the elderly couple.