Missing (one of) the Cats

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)

Taking Every Cat Captive

Partly to help out a friend, and also to acknowledge the pleasant companionship of our two felines, Isabelle and Cordelia, I reprint below a piece from the Spring 2009 issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal that followed the death of my first and my wife’s favorite pet, Skippie. Despite all their charms, our current cat models cannot compare with the original article. But thankfully they are a pleasant ectype of the archetype.

Soulless but Spirit-Filled

The first time I took notice of pet-death grief was when I ran into a cynical, sarcastic, and thoroughly unsentimental friend during a late night visit to the market for milk. He was clearly down – not full of the one-liners or antics that characterized his banter. When I asked what was wrong, this scruffy hard-edged man began to choke up. He explained that his family’s pet dog – some mix with strong German Shepherd lines – had died.

I was dumbfounded. Not only could I barely process the disparity between this emotional response and my friend’s normal demeanor, but I also had trouble understanding such affection for an animal. Granted, I had no pets growing up and so the experience was foreign. Still, as a person who took delight in all sorts of dogs and cats, and who always intended to acquire one once housing circumstances would allow, I was not completely without emotions for dogs or cats. I had cried as a kid over Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, and even Flipper.

Little did I realize then that the cat with whom my wife and I were then sharing space when my friend’s dog died would have a similar effect on me. When we put her down after eighteen years, I knew exactly how my seemingly cold friend felt. My wife and I cried for days, only consoled by memories.

Of course, people anthropomorphize pets in ways that hypothetical Martians would find strange. (One also wonders what the angels think.) And the effort to detect human ways and feelings in a cat can be as pathetic as sentimental. But even after discounting the human propensity for making creation and its occupants conform to man and his ways, the bond between pets and their care givers (“owner” implies a contractual relationship) is natural and even healthy. And it need not trespass into the eery world of pet cemeteries, the resurrection of pets, or even pet heaven. (Why do people never posit a pet hell? I guess that is where Michael Vick will go.)

Our pet’s remains now lie underneath a couple feet of sand and dirt, and a big piece of slate next to the home where she lived the longest with her peripatetic companions. Skippah arguably had the prettiest face and eyes of any feline we had seen (a faux Maine Coon), and at a playing weight of roughly seven pounds her entire life (except for the end when she dipped below four), she matched her beauty with an elegantly petite frame and bushy tail. She was always solicitous of sun light and at night the warmth of a lap or a lamp would have to suffice. Now what remains of her after six months is likely only bones and fur. Her material existence is virtually nil.

After she died the most palpable feeling was that of emptiness. How could such a little creature fill a three-story town house? It was as if we had removed a big couch from the front room. Upon walking into the home, we immediately detected the hole of not having another living being in the house. This emptiness was not confined to a room or space. The difference pervaded the entire house, from the basement, which was off limits to Skip, to the third floor where she only occasionally slept. In fact, comparing the loss of a pet to a favorite piece of furniture graphically highlighted the spiritual dimension of pet-having, and gave a measure of plausibility to human affection for, in H. L. Mencken’s terms, “domesticated live stock.”

A man may have many warm feelings for a recliner. He may recall watching a favorite team’s championship from the cushion afforded in that chair. He may remember watching his son take his first steps as a toddler. He may even look at various stains on the upholstery and recollect any number of juicy sandwiches or bowls of ice cream consumed from that comfortable seat. But a chair, no matter how many cushions and levers make it a part of one’s domestic delights, is inanimate. It has no life, no personality, no will. Its qualities are fixed and those can be arranged to suit the needs and pleasures of the sitter. The recliner does not change its user. When it wears out, the sitter will find another comfortable chair in which to enjoy reading, watching, smoking, conversing, and eating.

An animal is palpably different. It has a spirit and a personality and these features differ not only from inanimate objects but also from other critters of the same species. A companion of a pet must make allowances for the willfulness of the creature, from managing a cat’s waste to determining whether to leave flowers on the dining room table (and risk an overturned vase and harmful puddle of water). Some of this willfulness can easily be annoying. Even so, the point is that a creature with no more claim to a soul than a much beloved piece of furniture has a spirit and disposition that make it much more like a man or woman, boy or girl than an inanimate object or even a plant. In fact, the remains of a pet have no real use, but the parts of a chair could be turned into other useful objects. (Anyone for a neck tie made from the upholstery to honor the recliner’s memory?)

So even if an animal has no soul, even if it cannot worship its maker, even if it will not be resurrected either for eternal life or destruction – even if it is an it – it is way more spiritual than many of the creations with which humans share the planet. The proof text for this assertion comes from Psalm 49, a passage providentially read the Lord’s Day before we said good-bye to our beloved Skip. Twice in that Psalm of the Sons of Korah comes the refrain, “Man cannot abide in his pomp, he is like the beasts that perish.” On the one hand, this comparison is not meant to convey good news about the happy, well fed, and powerful man who, without his possessions has as much to fall back on as an animal. On the other hand, it does liken an animal to man, the crown of the created order. Granted, the beast is only as good as man without his dignity. But that is obviously an upgrade from those parts of creation without souls or spirits.

The consolation for those who lived with her is that Skip was full of spirit, an endless source of delight, and so fully worthy of affection. The anguish is that the object of our fancy no longer has the spirit that made her so adorable.