When I was twelve, my father shot and killed the family cat. I didn’t see him do it, but I heard about it from my older sister, who had sworn to our oldest sister to never speak of it to me. Because I was the youngest of three sisters, important family information was handed down to me like clothes, but by the time I received it, it was slightly embellished. According to Cathy, my informant sister who was five years my senior, our father had had enough of the nocturnal male cat noises, which had become more frequent as Chippy got to the age when he needed to be neutered.
My father had a stressful job. He created a successful heavy equipment company out of a dusty piece of land and a few tractors. He made million-dollar deals over the phone, sometimes at seven o’clock in the morning hunched on the toilet with a pot of coffee brewing in the bathroom. My mother would wake up an hour before him, plug the coffee maker into the bathroom outlet, and set the pot on a small wooden table with the telephone beside it. By the time the coffee started to percolate, he would begin conducting business. I remember the few times I used that bathroom growing up (it was off limits to us), I was so amazed by all the numbers, unfamiliar words, and names written in pencil and pen on that wooden table. It resembled a table I once saw in an old pizza place that had the names and dates of all the customers who had sat there carved into it. My father did a lot of company business in that bathroom.
He was also a troubled sleeper. The only deep sleep he ever got was after about seven martinis and even then he would wake up in the middle of the night, light a cigarette, and mumble and pace the house. One summer morning when my sisters and I were watching television in my parents’ bedroom, we noticed a deep black divot burned in the carpet. When my mother explained that our dad sometimes got up in the middle of the night, smoked, and apparently fell asleep with a lit cigarette, we were absolutely horrified that she would allow such behavior. When my oldest sister Carolyn was caught smoking in the upstairs bathroom, my mother grounded her for 6 weeks. But apparently our mother’s wrath toward cigarette smoking did not extend to our father, because when we questioned her she merely answered, “I’ve given up on that.” For my father, sleep was, as he put it, “a precious commodity,” and the cat, whose male prowess was still intact, had become more restless than my father at night.
The cat, Chippy, would choose a room, usually one where someone was sleeping, and let forth a throaty cat howl that was quite terrifying. The first few nights we all thought he was dying, but my mother insisted that he was simply asserting his maleness and that she just hadn’t gotten around to making the appointment that would fix the whole problem. My father, in the meantime, held Chippy directly responsible for blown deals, missed meetings, and broken contracts. He had to get some sleep, and according to my sister, he told my mother that if she didn’t do something about the cat, he would.
Chippy wasn’t our only pet. We had three other cats and two small dogs that were pretty much cats in dog suits. So I guess my father figured one would not be missed, or maybe he was so sleep deprived and overstressed that he was not in his right mind when he did it.
My mother says that the day my father killed the cat, she began planning for the time when I graduated from high school when she could divorce him. My mother believed that facing high school with divorced parents left deeper and longer lasting emotional scars on a teenager than living in a house of hate. I never thought mother felt much affection for my father, but the day he killed the cat, I knew she hated him.
The only person my mother ever told about Chippy was my oldest sister, Carolyn. The two of them carried the burden of this secret for several years, all the while my mother hating my father and my sister hating the burden. When Carolyn finally told our other sister, Cathy, and Cathy anxiously passed it on to me, there wasn’t a female in the house who spoke kindly to my father. In my mother’s world, every bad deed went punished and unforgiven, and my sisters and I learned that tenet at a very young age. I guess the summer he killed the cat, my father lost three daughters and gained four angry wives.
Within a few years my parents divorced. My sisters, adhering to tradition, never forgave him. I don’t think he ever knew the impact killing Chippy had on our family. I believe he saw what he did as a necessary inconvenience — inconvenient only because it took a chunk of time from his already overloaded day.
I will always look on what he did as horrific, but I realize now that he battled internal demons all his life. It’s a safe bet that he was bi-polar and more than slightly depressed. Sadly, there was no help for him back then, and my mother valued raising her children more than nurturing her marriage.
My father died twelve years ago, a fact that I learned about, naturally, from my older sister. He moved to Australia when I was twenty. I often joked that he went “down under” literally and figuratively. He wrote one letter to me, when I was 40, asking for forgiveness and understanding. He said the years of his heart pumping alcohol instead of blood had numbered his days, and he didn’t want to die believing he was hated by me for divorcing my mother, leaving the country, and just generally being a lousy father. Of course, I had experienced a bit more of life than when I last saw him, and I realized that whatever mistakes he made were not mine to judge. I wrote back and said I remembered laughing with him a lot and what a wonderful story teller he was, and that I like thinking about those things. I told him I loved him and hoped he could find some peace.
I didn’t mention Chippy.