“Daddy, how long do kitties live for?” that was the question posed to me by my youngest daughter, Abby age 5 one day on the way home from church.

The “kitty” in question was Toby, our lovable, but eccentric pet.

“I don’t know sweetheart” I answered, “cats can live as long as 20 years, but most only live for around 15.”

A slight pause as she pondered this. “How old is Toby?” she countered.

“He will be 15, this December, honey” I said.

Another brief pause as Abby digested that, and then,

“Daddy is Toby gonna die soon?”

And there it was, the real question she had, and the only one I feared. I scrambled for an answer, thinking back to the day Toby came home to live with us.

My wife and I were still newlyweds, She 23 and I 25 living in a city far from our respective families. We were just two kids playing grown-up, still feeling our way around, and Toby, to me at least symbolized that we had indeed, made it. He represented family in a weird way. It was just Tricia and I, and Toby against the world. We practiced being responsible, even trying out parenting skills on him. He was our first awkward steps into the adult world.

I remember how he liked to bite as a baby, so tough and rough, but how if it thundered he would come running into our room to sleep with us.

I remembered bringing him to Nona and Grandpa DeStefano’s house so they could meet him.

I remembered his first Christmas when we had presents wrapped under the tree for him, foretelling many Christmas presents to come when our “real” kids were born.

And I remembered how much we loved him, real, deep, pure love.

He was our family. But, once the real kids came a long Toby slowly lost some of his shine in our eyes. We loved him still for sure, but only as one does with an old, once loved toy from their youth. In our hearts Toby was still there, but up on a faraway shelf, dusty and underappreciated like the Velveteen rabbit.

“I don’t know baby” I answered,” Toby is getting old and we have to be ready at any point for him to go to Heaven.”

Little Abby chewed on that for awhile and said, “Daddy I think Toby’s the most beautiful kitty in the whole world and I want to take care of him so that he can live a long time.”

This time it was I that paused as I realized that to Abby, Maddison, and Ansley, Toby was still as special as he was to us before they were born.

My mind quickly scanned the great memories, and even the hardships of our family’s life, and I realized that Toby was present in all of them. How he always patted after the Easter eggs we hid for the kids, or how we always seemed to have at least one picture of him buried in the discarded Christmas wrapping paper.

I remembered how my children love making him chase a flashlights beam, and how tender Ansley is with him, carrying him around the house like a baby doll. And Toby is always such a trooper, accepting every indignity without complaint.

And I remembered that day before Ansley was born, the doctors tests had come out bad and they had diagnosed her with Downs. The well meaning Doctor saying,”Don’t worry, the kinda Downs she will have won’t allow her to live very long.”

Toby and I rode many miles together in my Nissan, Toby laying in my lap while I thought and prayed to my GOD to protect my unborn daughter.

Thinking through these I decided that Toby is a part of the family, our 4th child and something to be cherished.

“Abby, baby”, I said “Daddy thinks your right, we should be very careful with him so that he can live with us as long as GOD allows.” Abby smiled and quickly changed the conversation as only a five year old can do.

Later that day, when no one was looking, I picked up my cat, the first time in a while. I scratched him high up by his nose, where he likes it.

I carried him around the house like a baby doll.

I even cleaned his litter box (washed, dried, and restocked). Finally, I bought this new cat food that is supposed to be good for older cats, and I threw out the old cheap stuff. I placed him by his food bowl and watched as he ate heartily from it.

Eat Toby, I thought. Strengthen yourself, and live a long time.

And then, even though I know you shouldn’t pray for animals, I did just that. I asked GOD to keep him with us as long as he could allow. After all I knew three little girls that needed and loved him!

Postscript: Toby went to Heaven in late April 2008. Even though our new cat Buckeye is now on the scene, there is never a cat like the first one. Toby was my first Christmas gift for Tricia after we were married. He will always play a special part in our memories.