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Helping say goodbye

Editor's note: In our holiday series "The Gift of Generosity," the Herald-Leader is inviting readers and writers to share the stories of how they were helped during a time of need. Perhaps it will inspire you to give of yourself this holiday season. This is the second in our series. Look for more stories throughout December.

In a beautiful place overlooking a lake where the ducks skim silently across the top of the water is a tall tulip tree shading a small grave.

On that grave is a bright red single rose marking the spot where a loved one is buried.

That loved one is a family member of mine who died Oct. 6.

Her name is Maggie the Cat — "Maggie Doodle," I called her — who died in an accident in my home at 3:30 a.m. on that fateful morning. I couldn't save her; I watched her die in front of my eyes, held her lifeless body in my hands and placed her on the couch. She was 3 months old.

That moment gripped me with unbelievable pain and grief.

"They" say there are stages to the grief process, and I'm not sure which one I'm in — but the grief and pain are still there. As I write this, it's been seven weeks.

I was emotionally abused during my childhood for many years, abuse that involved cruelty and even death to my pets. It's something that still haunts me every day in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Because of those childhood experiences, I cannot stand to see an animal or a human abused, hungry or abandoned.

I rescued Maggie from a tree in front of my house the first week in September. She was crying for help after two days of being stuck in a tree without food or water. I wasn't sure I could take her in and care for her, what with my two other cats, both rescues, in the house.

But I took a leap of faith, and she became a loving member of our small family.

She quickly learned the rules of the house and fit right in. She greeted me at the back door after sitting in the kitchen window to see when I was coming home. She slept with her nose under my chin, purring loudly in contentment.

Maggie and I were together for such a short time, but she made a deep imprint on my life. When she died, all those years of childhood abuse came flooding back to me.

She gave me so much, so I felt like I had to give her a glorious send-off.

After her death, I wanted her final resting place to be close by, but I didn't know of a pet cemetery in Bath County, where I live.

Someone told me to call Mary Lou Pruden. She had been a couple of grades behind me in school, and I remember her when her name was Mary Lou Elliot.

Mary Lou was gracious and kind and respectful when the request was voiced to her, so I prepared to make arrangements for Maggie's burial. The place would be on Mary Lou's private property.

Two other friends, Susan Harris and her husband, Darrell, agreed to help me with the arrangements.

So on Oct. 11, a beautiful Sunday, Maggie was laid to rest in a handmade wooden casket with silk lining, with mementos from me lying beside her. I wrapped my jacket around the casket and tied the arms, holding her like I used to when she fell asleep. Susan read a verse from a popular poem, and Mary Lou, although she was very sick with the flu, attended the service and read a prayer from St. Francis, the patron saint of animals.

She said I could visit the grave any time.

I miss Maggie more than I can say. I learned that your true friends are the ones who step forward and say, "What can I do for you?" and really mean it.

My prayers are always with Susan and Darrell for their unwavering support. And I will be forever grateful to generous Mary Lou, who gave me a place to go so I can sit and talk to Maggie while watching the ducks skim across the top of the silent water.

I think her grave, a place where I can visit, represents all of my pets that were killed by my abuser so many years ago. I was not allowed to bury them, but I have never forgotten them.

Maggie, that tiny kitten with the big ears, will be forever missed, and my heart will always have an empty place in it because she is no longer here.

One's life cannot be planned out; it can only happen.

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