Note: Last week, my brother had to say goodbye to his dog. My sister has already finely eulogized him. The pain was especially sharp since the dog was our father’s dog. After our father passed away, Remy was a symbol of our grief and a daily reminder of the basic visceral nature of loss: he awaited our father’s return every day and never seemed quite to adjust to his absence.
I can’t claim by any measure that my response has been empathetic or emphatic enough. Our family has a long history with pets–our lives have in large part been defined and periodized by our animals. Animals, paradoxically, teach us how to be more human. They teach us how to feel fully, to love selfishly and selflessly, and how, finally, to die. For Remy, the case was even more tortured: he died from complications of a lung ailment three years after our father died of pneumonia. I know that this is coincidence, but we cannot help but see some twisted meaning, some correlation in the living of lives and the coming of death.
And this too teaches us about the differences between animal and man. We create meanings for the world rather than just inhabit it. We memorialize pain and loss and by doing so cherish it and the passing of time. But I was estranged from this animal and this passing by space and time. But my story too is bound up like my siblings’ and parents’ in the joy and loss of cats and dogs. So, here it is:
Two years ago I had to have my cat put to sleep—she had a thyroid problem and her body was shutting down. The end rapidly approached as she retained more and more fluid and it became harder for her to breathe. I held her as the doctor administered the medicine; it seemed quick and painless. For the following few days, I lived one of those interminable moments waiting for feeling either to come back or to stop completely.
This may seem more than a bit dramatic, but I have a complicated history with cats. The Family J didn’t always have cats—our mother was allergic and both parents were dedicated dog people. When I was in fifth grade, however, a young kitten showed up on our doorstep. That cute, furry thing was the beginning of trouble. We all fell in love with her. We fed her milk, lavished attention upon her, and begged to bring her inside. When she was still at our house after two days, our mother gave in.
Two days later, she (the cat) ran up to me in the driveway dragging something behind her—I realized to my horror that her intestines were trailing behind her. (She must have been hit by a car.) We lived in a remote area and it was late in the day. My father, without saying a word, went inside, returned with a .22 and carried the kitten into the woods. I don’t remember if I heard the gunshot.
(To some, my father’s actions may seem brutal, but I don’t know if I ever respected him more than I did on that day. He did not hesitate. He did not say he felt bad for himself later. He just did what needed to be done. I miss that father, and the sense that no matter what happened, he would do the right thing.)
Later, another cat gave birth to kittens during a summer that saw one of the worst rash of fleas in New England’s history. The cat abandoned the kittens. I was in sixth grade. Following the advice of a veterinarian, I tried to clean the fleas from each one and to feed them myself. I had seen them born as my brother and I watched the goodwill games. I buried each one as it died. Later in the summer, the same cat gave birth. The flee epidemic had only worsened.
I buried 11 kittens that summer. I learned firsthand that dead animals can still make noises. ( I still shudder when I think of it.) I don’t know where my father was then, why the cat wasn’t spayed, or why neither of my parents even tried to help me with the experience. I know that my father was out of work and the marriage was strained, but it still doesn’t make sense. 11 years old and left to bury kitten after kitten.
My next cat got in a fight with a raccoon and lost an eye. I lost interest in her. I could have been a much better caretaker. I wanted a cat, but I couldn’t commit. Her missing eye was but a symbol for potential loss. (Yes, the drama is high; the self-pity is, well, pathetic.)
So, that much lets you know that I have issues with cats. (So much so that I once cried because I saw a homeless man feeding a kitten a french-fry in the NYC subway.) Losing this cat after so long only fails to unhinge me because in the last year I have buried my father and watched my son be born. This is life. The certainty that we will lose things is what makes them important.
Rest in peace, my friend. Here’s a list of songs just for you.
“True Love Will Find You in the End”, Daniel Johnston
My wife took me to pick out our cat for a 21st birthday present. In the shelter on the North Shore in Massachusetts where we found her, she and her littermates were labeled ‘feral’. We looked at the kittens for about 45 seconds before I saw her. She meowed at me and it was over.
My wife will claim that I was the only one the cat loved, that we had a special relationship, and she is only partly wrong (she did love my wife). But I knew that she was coming home with us from the first moment I saw her. She was vicious to other people, terrible to cats, and an unholy horror to dogs. For years other family members referred to her as the “devil cat”.
When my daughter was born, though, she turned out to be gentle and patient. As a crawler and a toddler, the little girl pushed, pulled and abused the cat. She never scratched or bit and hissed only a few times.
I don’t want this to sound like one of those terrible ASPCA commercials with maudlin music playing and images of abused animals flashing in front of you, but if you want a pet, don’t waste your money investing in the corrupt pure-bred industry. Many animals are just waiting where we—as a human race—put them, in need, incapable of providing for themselves, and looking for true love.
The idea of orphaned, broken animals made me think of Daniel Johnston. If you know his music and story, this makes a little sense, but there is still a leap to my logic. This song is hopeful and sad at once. What good is true love if you only have it at the end? My cat lived almost 13 years and brought us much happiness. I hope we returned the favor.
“Catscratch Fever”, Ted Nugent
No list of songs for a feline would be complete without this classic. True story: the Sister J got cat scratch fever from her cat in grade school (a female cat named mockingly after my father, but whose name changed on a daily basis). One day, during the summer, she complained that she had lumps in her armpits. I told her she had the bubonic plague. She cried. Turns out she had cat scratch fever.
(Another nearly obligatory song is “Kitty” by The Presidents of the United States of America, but it seems too light for the occasion)
“Mighty Mouse Theme Song” or “The Mickey Mouse Club Theme”
I once came home to find my cat playing with a small grey mouse. And I don’t mean ‘playing’ in a predatory sense. It was more “Laurel and Hardy” than “Tom and Jerry”. Several weeks later, I killed the mouse. I don’t think my cat ever killed anything but Fancy Feast.
“Walked Through the Fire” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Once More With Feeling”
My cat, whom I will now refer to as the Phoenix, survived an apartment fire in NYC by hiding under a mattress behind blankets. She inhaled too much smoke—she coughed like she had emphysema for over a month, had several chest x-rays, and had some internal scarring. But she made it. Other obvious options for this song include “Burning Down the House” (The Talking Heads) and “Fire Water Burn” (Bloodhound Gang), but I like this song from the Buffy musical episode. See, Buffy died and came back to life! This song is about that. Kind of. It uses “fire” as a double metaphor of destruction and passion. (It is also a great ensemble number.)
I know that my cat isn’t coming back—we have no magic, no potion to raise the dead—but this song makes me think of her will to survive, my relief at finding out she was ok after the fire, and the time she would spend curled up on my lap as I read or watched television.
I refused to watch Buffy while it was airing on television for no other reason than because I thought that some of the people I knew who watched it were tremendously uncool. After it went off the air, I found myself with nothing to watch and a roommate who owned all seven seasons. Once I started, I was hooked: I burned through every episode over a period of four months. And I watched “Once More with Feeling” three times in a row when I made it to season six. My cat was right there beside me. She never looked down on me for changing my mind.
(Please don’t assume any connections with the next song.)
“Because I got High”, Afroman
Long story short, at some point during her life, it was discovered (like the use of the impersonal?) that the Phoenix was a stoner. In fact, she would frantically sniff and lick anything that possessed the slightest whiff of marijuana. She would burrow into grass-scented clothing as if she wanted to replace her own fur with it. Alas, she did not get to sample that much in her lifetime. Perhaps, “Last Dance with Mary Jane” would also be appropriate.
“Falling”, Ben Kweller
From Kweller’s lyrical and melodic release Sha Sha, “Falling” is a song (“I don’t feel like I’m falling down / Just say hello to the ground”) that nicely juxtaposes irrational confidence with epiphany—who hasn’t had a Jerry Maguire-esque moment, trying to believe that everything is fine just before everything collapses?
When we first moved into our current house, the Phoenix leapt from the open second story and ended up hitting the slate kitchen floor. I can only imagine that she aimed for the kitchen counter and missed. The result: two broken teeth, four pulled and many kitty treats worth of dental work.
“Virtute the Cat Explains her Departure” The Weakerthans
The Weakerthans write lovely songs. This one is from the perspective of a cat. From the first time I heard it, I have thought it cute, elegant and true. Despite the pleasantry of the verse (“After scrapping with the ferals and the tabby / Let you brush my matted fur / How I’d knead into your chest while you were sleeping / Shallow breathing made me purr”) the song is about the cat leaving.
All cat owners know that the title ‘owner’ is a severe misnomer. We are merely caretakers until our cats tire of us or find someplace better to be.