Sheba creeps with her head down toward the back bedroom door that’s closed now. It’s been closed for months.
The 7-year-old folds herself gently on the ocean mist blue carpet in the narrow hall. She shoves her nose into the slice of air beneath the door.
Nothing moves her, not the cats that pause to look, not Dixie sniffing the food dish in the kitchen, not even the whispered “Oh, girl,” from Maureen Baxter.
The bedroom behind the door was once Kathy Lynn Duffie’s room. It was where she stayed until illness led her to the pastel couch inches from the front door of the Garden City Beach home. It’s where time has stopped with a neatly made bed, clothes hanging in an open closet and a light layer of dust gathered on the dresser.
Baxter talks about her sister-in-law as she clears her throat to cancel the tears that threaten to stop the story.
“She was feisty. That’s a good word for her. She was feisty,” Baxter said of the veteran who died in September. “But, you know, she loved her animals. When I say she loved them, I mean it wasn’t a, ‘These are my pets and I love them.’ She loved them. She really, really loved them. All of them.”
All of them is Sheba the Carolina dog and the 5-year-old black Labrador with a thick middle, graying snout and the expression of a middle schooler trying to understand algebra.
All of them include Mammasita, the 13-year-old calico cat with her chirping purr that can be heard from outside the house. It’s her 7-year-old orange tabby daughter Peanut who can’t seem to close her mouth without the tip of her tongue poking out.
It’s Tipper, whose habit of eating in the middle of the night has left the 9-year-old plump but still agile enough to beat 4-year-old Misty Girl to the food bowl. It’s the crossed eyes of Sammy and her fellow Siamese 3-year-old shy Mikey. And it’s the curious inspections of 13-year-old Gizmo.
And all of them is why Baxter is here rather than with her own rescue cats back home in Pennsylvania.
“This is important. This is how we honor Kathy. This is what she would have wanted. Well, she wouldn’t have wanted to split the them, but realistically we are never going to find someone to take all of them,” she said. “I won’t send them to a place and have them live in cages.”
Baxter said her sister-in-law had written a will, but it wasn’t notarized. Still, she tried to follow the instructions only to run into walls of confusion and regrets.
Duffie had written that her pet sitter would get her Garden City Beach home to live in and take care of the two dogs and seven cats. But, Baxter said with a slight shrug, Duffie hadn’t discussed the plan with the pet sitter who had moved four hours away months ago.
There were other notes about the animals, Baxter said, naming people to take care of a cat or two. But they hadn’t been asked either.
“It was like her to make up her mind and decide it. And if you didn’t agree, she was done. That was Kathy. I said she was feisty,” Baxter said.
And, Baxter said bills for the house and another house in Conway Duffie owns are piling up as she and her husband Ken navigate in an unfamiliar state asking for animal lovers to help if they can.
Duffie was a disabled veteran injured while serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom III. She was a sergeant in the Texas National Guard for nearly 20 years. When she was 50, Baxter said, she was called to serve as combat support in the Army where she specialized in repairing riflescopes.
She suffered a traumatic brain injury when a mortar blew up a vehicle she was in. A few years after the injury, she moved from Texas and eventually set up a pair of homes in Horry County.
Baxter said Duffie endured numerous surgeries involving her head injury until finally last year she was told her brain was “drying up.” She had fallen into a coma recently only to wake staring at Baxter asking about her animals rather than what happened to her.
Because of her brain injury that lead her to false assumptions and her “feistiness,” Baxter said there was a gap in their relationship. But, she was secure knowing they all loved each other.
Duffie died at 62, a dozen years after her injury, leaving Baxter to untangle finances and find homes for the nine souls left behind.
She’s called every humane society and privately funded rescue group only to be told they are overloaded with animals. And she knows the shelters will only be more taxed as the holidays approach.
“We don’t want them in cages. No. We don’t want them on the street. We know they have to be split up, but we want it to be in the right home,” she said pointing to a kitchen cupboard that is stacked with cat food, litter, dog food and toys for all the animals. “All that will go with them to their new home so the transition will be easier for them and the people.”
Duffie has been cremated and the family is planning a memorial for the friends she made on the Grand Strand, including “her PTSD support group and those women she knew at the Barc Parc in Myrtle Beach all named Kathy because they were her family here.” The life celebration will be 1 p.m. on Dec. 7 at the Disabled American Veterans facility off Church Street in Myrtle Beach. Baxter said veterans would be providing an Honor Guard, minister, rifle salute, food, beverages, a table of honor and a commemorative quilt for the service.
“We haven’t decided about the other service in Pennsylvania. It will be more intimate, with family,” she said wiping a tear off her right cheek.
Baxter points to a row of paw prints left on the bottom shelf of a cabinet in the front room of the house. They are from the five pets that died the last year of Duffie’s life.
“I don’t know how she did it. Losing one is bad enough, but five in one year on top of everything else she was dealing with. They were all old and sick. I don’t know how she did it,” Baxter said surprised by Sheba inching her way up from the bedroom door to Baxter’s lap. “Look at her. She knows. She’s got empathy. She’s grieving.”