The last time I know for sure I saw Tabasco was Monday morning. As has been his routine for this summer, he slept outside and the minute I was up in the morning, he would be at the living room window, loudly demanding to be let in and fed.
On Monday, I greeted him at the door as I always have. "Good mornin', Buddy. Hungry? Look out, I can't get your food if you keep getting in my way."
His return greeting consisted of several sharp "Yeowp" sounds and then his signature diesel engine purr the minute I reached down to pat his back and tug on his long tail.
I know he was around during the day on Monday. Sprawling on the kitchen table while I tried to eat breakfast. Sprawling on my bed while I tried to make it. Sprawling on the back of the couch finally, settled in for a nap that lasted the rest of the day.
Walt remembers letting him out late Monday night.
He hasn't been home since.
Tabasco. My seventeen pound marmalade monster. Born in this very room to Cooper who has been his constant companion for the last fifteen years. They go out together. They come in together. They share a food bowl.
He's never been gone for more than twenty-four hours before. Just a couple of weeks ago he was gone for a full cycle of the clock, but showed up the next morning, hungry and demanding as usual.
I've looked for him. Wandering the roads, searching reluctantly for a glimpse of his wild orange amidst the wilder green of the countryside. My eyes constantly pull toward the living room window, drawn by movement that is only hope. Every time I pass my bed, I almost see him there. I hear his insistent call, but when I go to let him in, there is nothing to see but brick and mat and a shimmer in the air.
I've known this day was coming. It doesn't help. I've hoped that my old cats, when their time comes, would wander into the woods to relinquish the last of their nine lives. What was I thinking? No goodbye. No last cuddle. No gentle sending off. Just these empty places in my life that this one large cat filled to overflowing for fifteen years.
The year that Tabasco was born, I found myself with a total of nineteen cats. Two litters of new kittens, plus a nearly grown litter I hadn't quite found a home for, plus assorted adults. I joked about believing that the more cats I had, the easier it would be when one died. Of course that didn't work. I didn't even fool myself very well with the illusion, but it seemed possible. Over time, I either found homes for the cats, or the coyotes got them, or the road out front claimed them. I was only able to bury two ultimately. The rest just left one day and never came home.
I grieved each, no matter how long they'd been here. No matter how much easier life became with one less cat. No matter how much happier the remaining cats seemed to not have to share their humans and the attention they bestowed.
Over time, the cat population here settled to four. Everyone was neutered. I stopped bringing kittens home. Tabasco and Cooper regularly chased off hopeful feline visitors. The final four figured out how to avoid coyotes, cars and neighborhood kids.
And finally, this summer, I realized that I have four old cats. Tabasco's mom, Cooper, and her archenemy litter-mate, Emma, are almost sixteen. Grace was born to another mom around the time that Tabasco was born to Cooper. I've never had old cats before. I've never had any animal who lived to a ripe old age. I've never gotten used to the pain of losing any of my animal friends.
I'm trying not to imagine Tabasco's end beyond a peaceful sleep. He was so alive and so ornery the last day I saw him, that's hard to cling to. I wish I wasn't imagining his end at all. I'm trying not to lose hope too soon. He could come home still. Emma was gone a full week once and marched up the driveway on the seventh day - hungry, peevish, but otherwise no worse for the wear.
I don't know when I'll stop looking for him. I don't know when goodbye becomes a certain thing. I don't know what to do with this pain. I do know that my heart hurts. I would give just about anything to feel the hard bump of his head under my chin and the soft drape of his body curled under my arm, the pulse of his purrs soothing me to sleep like the swooshing of water on a beach.