Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Cats and Dying

Perhaps the first sign that we are growing older is not when our parents or friends begin to pass away, but when our pets do.  Over the last five years I've had a dozen friends lose pets, and most of those pets were as familiar to me as my friends are.  It's impossible to separate the "pet" from the "person" sometimes, people become as intertwined with their pets as they do with a partner, perhaps even more so.

(I have a list of friends that I will forever associate with their pets.  Amy/Steel, Karin/Popper, Lisa/Pablo Diablo, Angie/Voodoo, Donigan/Bella, Sara/Crow, Mike/Loki, Teresa & Eddie/Their Loki, Jeff/Zeus, and the list could go on for quite awhile.  For some of these people I think of their pets first, and their significant others second.)   

This hit home early this morning when my brother Chuck's cat, Lizzie, passed away.  Lizzie lived to be 16 and a half years old, which I think is about 102 in cat years, and she passed away quickly and in my brother's arms.  In some ways, it's the "best way" for an animal companion to leave this world, but that's cold comfort, and doesn't really ease the pain all that much.  Lizzie wasn't my cat, but her loss has had me on the verge of tears for the last twelve hours, as I grieve for her and most especially, the hole in my brother's heart.   

Lizzie, we will miss you.   
 Lizzie was a strange cat, and had a personality all her own.  She loved to hunt Ari and I's socks while we were sleeping, sometimes carting off as many four or five a night into my brother's room.  While "hunting" our socks she'd sometimes growl like she was preparing to take down a squirrel.  Just to paint a complete picture, she didn't just hunt socks either.  I've seen her take down a bird, especially impressive for a de-clawed cat.  She was also devoted to my brother, and would follow him anywhere in the house(s) we shared together for over ten years.  Lizzie (or Elizabeth Chinacat Sunflower to share her whole name) was as complex as any human being I've ever met, and while I often found her cantankerous, she also had a sweet side that most of Chuck and I's friends never got to see.  Through her long life she retained her adorable little kitten face, and remained a tiny little cat, by the time she was "old" she still liked she might have been two years sold.  

Me and Princess.
Two and a half years ago I lost my own cat, Princess, and while Princess and Lizzie were never friends (Princess once guarded the litter box so Lizzie couldn't use it, she was Siamese), I think Lizzie realized my grief.  About a month after Princess had passed on, I remember Lizzie moving into my lap, and sitting there for a good long time, letting me pet her.  It had been the first time I'd petted a cat in what felt like an eternity, and it was something she never really did for anyone but my brother.  While Lizzie was often people shy, she had a kindness and empathy missing in a lot of human beings.  There's a reason our cats have Christmas Stockings, they are a part of our family, and as much a part of our life as any friend or family member.  

(Lizzie also had a strange split personality on occasion.  One summer afternoon she sat in my lap and let me pet her.  Shortly there after she was purring, but at the same time she began to howl and growl at me.  She was the only cat that could be perfectly content and yet completely pissed off at the same time.  As weird as it was, it's one of the many reasons I loved that cat.  That was some exceptional, and memorable, behavior.)  

A lot of the pain I have over the loss of Lizzie is that I can't be there for my brother.  I think our society often has this skewed perception that when an animal passes it goes into the ground and that people immediately move on.  Such is not the case.  Losing a pet is like losing any loved one, and the grieving process can be long and painful.  If the average relationship with a cat or dog lasts ten to fifteen years . . . well that's longer than most friendships and most romantic relationships.  Pets are often the most constant things in our lives, until we have children, and even then a bond with a pet might be one that's not shared with a significant other as a bond with a child might be.

On the positive side my brother and I got to share a lot of things with our cats over the course of their long lives.  Chuck and Lizzie got to watch his Lakers and Red Wings win about ten championships between them (sports matter in my family), and see his Chicago Bears make the Super Bowl, and the Cubs come closer to a World Series than they have in 100 years.  They also got to share several moves around the country, and see my brother completely pull his life together and go back to school.  I'm not sure he could have done that last thing without Lizzie there to share his life and apartment.

(Princess and I got to share two Steeler Super Bowl wins, a Penguins Stanley Cup, and a Celtics NBA title.  The Penguin win came just about two weeks before she passed.  I remember running up the stairs after the Stanley Cup dancing around with her, so glad that she got to "see" this thing that she didn't even know existed.  Yes, I'm weird.  A week later Princess wandered through a group of my friends getting goodbye pettings, and then shortly passed on.)  

I remember losing Princess and the pain that entailed.  I think I cried more over my cat of twelve years (she was six when I got her, she had a long run) than I ever have over any other living thing.  Thirty months removed from the experience I'm still bothered by it.  Religion offers us some solace over those loses, but it's not as therapeutic as many of us would like.  I remember having day dreams a few months after Princess passed on about a tiny kitten meowing on my door step, her face and paws black, her coat tan, a reincarnated little baby come back to me.  Unfortunately, the Wheel doesn't quite turn like that, and that day dream was just that a daydream, however the world does work in unexpected ways.

Evie the meercat.
Nine months after Princess passed I was approached by a friend about a cat that needed immediate adopting.  With a very unclear head (I had just burned myself something awful that morning at work and had a few big blisters) I agreed to adopt this cat sight unseen, without giving my wife a chance to object or any say in the matter (she had vetoed me getting a new cat).   Just like that Evie (short for Evening), came into my life.  While I was hoping for a Princess replacement, I got a far more complex cat who is nothing like my old companion.  Evie has a sweetness about her, and such a gentle nature, nothing like my old demanding Siamese.  But she's also not a lap cat, and only likes to be petted on her own terms.  She also doesn't meow, she makes weird trilling noises and howls that make her sound like she's being tortured.

Sisters-Summer and Evie.   
This past June my wife and I adopted another cat, and since it was on the Summer Solstice, we named her Summer.  Summer is high-strung, demanding, and revels in bossing Evie around.  She also loves Ari's lap, and laying in cuddle puddle's with her sister.  A new cat doesn't get rid of the scar caused by the loss of another animal companion, but it does reflect the continual turning of the Wheel and our Journey in this world.

I came across Princess' stocking last week while putting up the holiday decorations.  The wound was still fresh and it hurt, but I did take some joy in knowing how many years we were able to spend together.  Both Lizzie and Princess had good, long lives, spent with people who love them.  If you are a cat I'm guessing you can't ask for much more than that.

Summer, house guardian.  
The loss of a pet is never easy, and should never be trivialized.  While Lizzie has now passed on, she will live on.  She will live on in our memories, and in our hearts.  Every time I think of my brother I will inevitably think of his cat, and nothing is ever truly gone as long as it's not forgotten.  


  1. This is a beautiful post, Jason, and you're right - our society doesn't take into account the grief you feel when you lose a companion like Princess or Lizzie or Steel. It's been more than 9 months now since we lost Steel and our house still feels sad and quiet and empty without him there. Thank you for the thoughts and the pictures of your family.

  2. Exactly. Almost 18 months down for me, and I still tear up every time I see a grey tabby, boots or not. A house without a cat is not a home.