For cats in the Hart home, Monday is the cruelest day of the week. It was a Monday night in the fall of 2008 when we took Skip to the Vet to be “put down.” Then last Monday, en route to the coast of Maine, our dear Isabelle succumbed to the cancer that made her little more than fur and bones (despite her voracious appetite). We brought Isabelle into our Philadelphia home to fill the void left by Skip, who had been an elegant presence for eighteen years. Isabelle saw us through a number of arresting transitions, from losing a job to moving out of our favorite city. (Thankfully, we still have Cordelia, though hers is a strange comfort since she did not find Isabelle to be a welcome housemate.)
Though a pretentious name it is, Isabelle was actually named not for a queen or writer but another cat. Joseph Epstein wrote an essay almost two decades ago, “Livestock,” about his seven-year-old cat, Isabelle. Because he is one of our favorite living writers and because the essay is full of charm and mirth about the virtues of cats, we decided to give our second pet the name of Epstein’s feline.
As a tribute to our Isabelle, here is an excerpt from Epstein’s essay about his Isabelle:
I hope that I have not given the impression that Isabelle is a genius among cats, for it is not so. If cats had IQs, hers, my guess is, would fall somewhere in the middle range; if cats took SATs, we should have to look for a small school somewhere in the Middle West for her where discipline is not emphasized. Isabelle eats flowers — though for some reason not African violets — and cannot be convinced to refrain. We consequently don’t keep flowers in the apartment. Although my wife and I love flowers, we have decided that we love this cat more, and the deprivation of one of life’s several little pleasures is worth it.
I am, then, prepared to allow that Isabelle isn’t brilliant but not that she isn’t dear. She is, as I have mentioned, currently seven years old, yet already — perhaps it is a habit of my own middle age — I begin to think of the shortness of her life, even stretched to its fullest potential. Owing to the companionship of this cat, I have begun to understand friends who, having lost a dog or cat through age or illness, choose not to replace it, saying that they can’t bear to go through it all again.
Solzhenitsyn remarks in one of his novels that people who cannot be kind to animals are unlikely to be kind to human beings. A charming sentiment but far, I suspect, from generally true. (“I wanted you to see why I work with animals,” says a female veterinarian in a novel by Jim Harrison. “I can’t stand people.”) Yet genuine kindness to animals is always impressive. One of the finest stories told about Mohammed has to do with his having to answer the call to prayer while a cat is asleep on the hem of his cloak; with scissors he cuts off the hem, lest he wake the cat, and proceeds on his way. (With My Trousers Rolled, 30)