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Sister William Jane, my second grade teacher, informed our class one day that under no circumstances would our pets ever enter the Pearly Gates.

"Animals have no souls," she looked sharply at us above her dark rimmed glasses. "Only human beings have souls and are permitted to spend eternity in Heaven."

My best friend Marla Marrone suddenly made a gasping little sound and slid low behind Murray McCarty to weep softly. Filled with rage, I glared at Sister William Jane with all my might. She took absolutely no notice of my indignation, however, and continued her ponderous sermonizing. I was seven-years-old and a trusting, obedient child. But I knew she was wrong.

No soul? My dog Duchess, a tolerant little dachshund who burrowed under my covers every night to curl up in the crook of my knee, had more soul than Sister William Jane would have in ten life times. I was never so certain of any thing in my life. And nearly 50 years later, I'm still certain of it.

Willy, my mangy little companion of a cat, began to have troubles this last week. After three days of witnessing him coughing up bile and secreting himself away in the privacy of my closet, I took him to the vet.

"I'll keep him here for the afternoon to run some tests," Dr. Hughes said.

I tried not to worry. Willy had scared me before, but he always survived. And he'd been up to trouble in his regular fashion. Just a few days ago, he'd been stalking a family of rabbits in the backyard, and I was horrified to see him carting off yet another dead bunny in his jaws.

"You're a serial killer!" I thrust a finger in his face after he'd successfully decapitated the bunny. "Why do you DO these things?"

He gazed calmly at me with those eyes that can almost speak and licked bunny remains off his whiskers.

I hate it that Willy preys on small animals when he has an overflowing bowl of cat food in the kitchen just steps away. In fact, there's not much about Willy to like at all. He's filthy and smelly and moody. He allows himself to be stroked but never hugged. Sometimes, if you walk too closely by him, he hisses for no apparent reason. And he deposits his dirty coon cat hair on the furniture, the carpet, and even in the vents.

But Willy is devoted to me. I don't know how I passed his litmus test. John feeds him and cleans his litter box. Willy, however, loyally follows me every where - even to the bathroom. And at night, he curls up next to my head as I sleep, leaving in his wake a ball of Willy hair.

But I find it comforting, somehow, to sleep between the reassuring bulk of my husband on one side and the warm little weight of Willy on the other. John snores and Willy wiffles - both in a rhythmic duet. I feel safe and loved. And a little anxious in the morning that I might smell like cat.

In 11 years, I never needed Willy's constant companionship as much as I have this last year. Recovering from two surgeries and months of muscle expansion in my chest, I prowled the house during the lonely pre-dawn hours when it seemed everyone else in the whole world slumbered. But Willy always kept me company. His reassuring little presence was constantly nearby.

"Willy?" I'd whisper in the darkness. And he unfailingly answered with the little chirrup that always sounded exactly like a raccoon.

So I tried not to worry that Dr. Hughes was keeping him for tests. Willy would surely always be there. But last evening when the phone finally rang, Dr. Hughes didn't have good news.

"Willy's kidneys are in bad shape," he said. According to the blood tests, two thirds of my cat's kidneys had shut down. The very best scenario, Dr. Hughes explained, was that Willy was afflicted with a kidney infection. He could possibly rally, but then he would require treatment twice a week at the vet's office to flush out the toxins from his damaged kidneys. It might offer him a little more time. But that was the unlikely scenario. In all probability, Willy was headed for a slow, painful death.

"Can I call you right back, Dr. Hughes?" I was reeling with the abrupt news. "I need to talk to my husband and my son."

We were all of like mind. Willy suffered great distress visiting the vet just for his rabies shot. How could I force my ailing cat to endure trauma with a twice a week visit to the vet? Hardly able to speak, I called Dr. Hughes back. "I think we've decided to let Willy go," I choked.

John was still at work, but my sweet boy Tommy accompanied me to the vet's. Dr. Hughes brought Willy to us in a little sitting room away from the office and allowed us time to say our goodbyes. I stroked his thick grey stripes and looked into his frightened eyes.

"I love you, Willy," I sobbed, as he hid his head in my arm, fearful of his strange surroundings. "You've been the best little cat."

My six and a half foot son sat stoically beside me weeping silent tears and awkwardly patting my back with his big paw of a hand. A few minutes later, Dr. Hughes returned to administer the shot that would help Willy relax and drift off to sleep. With the old Willy spirit I craved to see, he hissed hugely and took a swipe at the vet. Then he nestled against my chest, and gradually I felt his small body relax.

"Willy, Willy, Willy," I murmured in his ear. Outside the window, clouds floated lazily by in the evening sky, and as I held him close, Willy went to sleep peacefully and forever.

The final injection stopped his heart. With one last sigh, Willy's head fell limply into my hand. And he was gone. I kissed his warm little head. "Goodbye, Willy Boy."

A cat is a beloved pet. It is not a child or a spouse or a parent. A good friend buried her 10-day-old baby girl yesterday morning, and my beautiful dear friend, Ellen May, sang for the funeral congregation. Ellen herself lost her own baby Amanda nearly 25 years ago but bravely ministered to the devastated family whose misery she knew so well.

Over the July 4th weekend, two young brothers were killed at a nearby lake in a tragic boating accident, devastating our community.

And Phyllis Dryer, the saintly, much loved mother of 11 children, all who attended our small Catholic school, died of cancer last week.

The loss of our children and our loved ones is a loss that changes our lives forever - a loss from which sometimes we may never recover.

Willy was just a cat - a dear little cat. But he wove himself into the daily fabric of our lives. He drank out of the toilet, lounged in the sun in his favorite window sill, and wrapped his great plume of a tail around him whenever he slept.  He was there when I needed him most.

And he loved me.

In spite of all Sister William Jane's arguments otherwise, I feel sure Heaven has room for every one of our beloved pets - the protective hound who ferociously guarded our babies, the canary who serenaded us in the mornings, the patient horse who carried us across the pasture. And a mangy little coon cat called Willy.

Goodbye, my Willy Boy.

I'll never forget you.

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