"Do you want your towel back?" the girl said uncertainly. I stared at her. The last question we'd been asked -- "Do you want to witness this?" -- had perhaps been the most horrible. But as I stared at the assistant at the pet clinic, standing in the hall hesitantly holding our pink towel out to us, the banality of hers made it seem even more grotesque.

"Yes," I said, smiling as best I could, and took it from her. We had gotten the pink towel out to wrap around our cat Gracie as we brought her to the clinic. We wanted to make her as comfortable as we could, and to give her something that smelled like home as she lay on a table being examined by strangers. They were giving it back to us because it wasn't needed anymore. In another room, probably at that very second, Gracie was dying.

We had talked about this day several times, in a hypothetical way. Gracie was not a young cat by any measure. Angela had lived with her almost since high school. She didn't know when Gracie was born -- she'd just walked in the door one day and taken up residence -- but it must have been something like fifteen years ago. Right up until this morning though you would not have been able to tell her age from looking at her. She'd lost a tooth earlier this year and when she jumped up on something she needed a moment to gather her energy, but otherwise she was healthy, active, and playful. Today, then, for us, came out of nowhere.

So often you don't know just what omeone has meant in your life until they're no longer there. I think now that Gracie provided the comfort and security in our home. For instance -- she'd mothered kittens once, and she liked to bathe people with her tongue. Things too: we would look around and find her energetically licking library books, our stereo cabinet, my laptop bag. Crazy cat! It was like she felt that everything needed mothering, that she needed to take care of everything and make it feel all right. On days when we didn't get up at our normal time she would sometimes lick the alarm clock, presumably to make it ring.

Somtimes I would wake up in the night and be plagued with those awful 3 A.M. worries that won't let you rest. At those times I'd shut everything from my mind but the feel of Gracie's small, warm body curled up between us, or the sound of her purring. Calmed, I'd slip back into sleep.

This morning Angela called me at work and told me that Gracie had just had a seizure. Her body had become stiff, her legs stretched out and rigid, and she yowled in pain or fear. She seemed all right now (though a little freaked out), so I told her to call me if it happened again and and I would ask if I could leave work to help her take her to the vet. Angela called an hour later; I could hear Gracie crying in the background. I had Angela call the vet and ask if there was anything we neeed to do. They told her to bring her in right away. Angela picked me up from work and we sped home.

The seizures starting coming closer together as Angela drove and I cradled Gracie in my arms, stroking her and talking to her quietly, trying to draw the pink towel around her as much as possible. When we reached the clinic the vet examined her and told us that she was in shock. First they would try to bring her back to normal and then they would run diagnostics on her. They quoted figures, money we didn't have. But we'd just gotten replacement credit cards that we'd intended to cut up as soon as we received them. There was room on that account but not much room; it was obvious that if the diagnosis was very bad, we might have no choice but to let her die. We asked to be left alone for a moment. Angela rested her cheek against Gracie's side. I knelt and scratched Gracie's head, looking into her eyes. We opened the door and asked them to go ahead and try to save her.

They said we should come back at around four o'clock to pick her up. A few minutes after we got home, however, the phone rang. Since we'd left -- maybe fifteen minutes -- Gracie had gone into seizures twice more. She was an old cat, the vet said, which meant that every one was doing damage to her heart. We had two choices: they could send her to an emergency clinic, or they could put her to sleep. Admittance alone to the emergency clinic would cost over a thousand dollars. It was likely that Gracie would not even survive the trip there; even if we had that kind of money, all it would do would prolong her suffering, frighten her even more, and then she would die anyway.

Angela had to tell them to put Gracie to sleep. Yes, she said, we wanted to see her before it happened.

Gracie came out of the seizures just long enough for us to say goodbye. The vet and her assistants were sympathetic and kind, but everything they said to us was like being stabbed in the heart. No, we did not want to witness her death. Yes, we'll take our towel back. When we left the little room where Gracie was going to die we heard her yowling again, anoher seizure starting. When it stopped I told myself that the vet had just closed the door.

We paid at the front desk. The girl there told us that they did a mass cremation of animals they put to sleep and took the ashes to a nearby memorial park, which was more than we had expected. We went home to our apartment where every corner, every chair, was now unbearably empty.

Gracie had been Angela's best friend for almost fifteen years. She had hunted gophers and mothered kittens. When she played with you, she knew to keep her claws in so she didn't hurt you. When you leaned toward her she'd touch your nose with hers. She tolerated it when Angela picked her up and danced with her. She had beautiful, plush gray fur that furrowed on her forehead so she always looked disgruntled. She would let you kiss her on the top of her head if you wanted. She was skittish around strangers but the times when she immediately wamed to someone, we knew that person would turn out to be a good friend. It was, in fact, her stamp of approval for me that started Angela thinking that I might make good boyfriend material.

I'll dream about her tonight. I'll dream that a small gray cat jumps on our bed and we discover to our surprise that it's Gracie. Right after we left the vet's office she made a complete recovery and ran home to us! It's the happiest dream I've had in years.

There are lots of people for whom pets are little more than property. I almost envy them right now. For us, someone we love has died, someone with whom we've shared our life together since the beginning. Yes, yes, I know she wasn't a person. She was a cat. Maybe all this grief is ridiculous. That doesn't make us miss her any less.

We'll adopt another cat, maybe later this month. We don't want Shere Khan to be alone, and we want to open our home to an animal that needs people to love and take care of it. They can't replace Gracie, though. God got a good cat today.