Not Just a Cat
My childhood memories of Sunday School have become a blur of choruses of “Jesus Loves Me” (not the Whitney Houston rendition) and memorizing the Lord’s Prayer for prizes of candy bars and prayer cards. One particular lesson, however, still sticks with me.
The topic was heaven. We were not at an age where we had serious theological debates, but were nonetheless old enough to have some notion of death and the afterlife, at least as much as anyone understands such things. Some precocious child (it wasn’t me) asked if our pets would go to heaven when they died, and I remember distinctly what our Sunday School teacher said as she tried to answer the question. "Only people go to heaven," she said. "The Bible says that animals will return to dust.” She quickly changed the topic, content that we wouldn’t question the authority of statements that begin with ‘the Bible says…’.
I suspect she wasn’t expecting that question, and she was even less prepared for the discussion that should accompany it: the concept of soul. The notion of the human soul is problematic enough, but what about those of our four-legged friends? I remember that at the time, I couldn’t imagine my cat suddenly turning to dust and I also doubted that there could be a heaven that didn’t have puppies and kittens. I still have the same basic reaction as my eight-year-old self; I don’t want to go to any place, especially for eternity, where my pets aren't also welcome.
These days, I’m not religious enough to dwell much on thoughts about eternity, but concepts like love and loss, birth and death have been at the forefront of my mind this past week. I lost my cat Ullrick to cancer on Wednesday. He had been losing weight and eating poorly for the last week, so I took him into the vet. When I made the initial appointment on Tuesday, I had no idea he would turn out to be so sick.
The next morning, I said goodbye to Ullrick at the vet's office on Wednesday with the knowledge that he might not be coming home. I had a feeling that would be the last time that I would see him, and a phone call around 4 pm confirmed that feeling. He had a lump in his lymph node that was inoperable and untreatable. Rather than bring him home just so I could spend a few more days with him, I made the decision to let him stay asleep since he was already under general anesthetic.
Since Ullrick left me, I’ve been asking myself if I made the most of the short time that I had with him. There could have been more walks in the park and more snuggles in the bed, but I can’t go back and change that now. It doesn’t help me, and it won’t bring him back, to dwell on such thoughts, but it can remind me that I have another cat who needs all of the love I can give her right now – and I need all the love that she can give me.
I’ve experienced a whole gamut of emotions – sorrow, disbelief, denial, anger, shock. At times, maybe there have even been hints of reconciliation and acceptance, but I don’t think I’m there yet. It mostly doesn’t seem real…Monday night he was curled up in his ‘puddy basket’ (as in Sylvester the "puddy tat") with his (not-so) little sister, Tuesday was an excruciating day at the vet’s, and Wednesday he was gone. Now it’s Sunday night and I’m still struggling to come to terms with it all. I've spent a large chunk of the last few days curled up in bed with Vessa and looking at pictures of Ullrick.
I’ve been very lucky this week in that I’m surrounded by animal lovers, both in real life and online. I’ve been very touched by the outpouring of thoughts and well wishes I’ve received in my inbox. Mamma Mu was staying with me this week and was a lifesaver in that she went to the vet’s to pick up the empty carrier and pay the bill for me. I’m not sure I could have handled it myself.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the prevalence of “pet bloggers” and humans’ tendency to anthropomorphize their animals. (It’s nothing new; the ancient Egyptians even deified their felines in the form of the cat goddess Bast). Jokes about lack of opposable thumbs aside, there is a human behind every cat, and I think it’s our way of giving them a voice. It’s also a way to express our love for them, because it taps into a community of animal lovers who care for their pets as much as we do.
Although I miss him dearly, I don’t regret a single second of the last nine months I spent with Ullrick. He was still a baby when he came to live with me, and I watched him grow into a handsome cat. I saw his immediate affection for his little sister when we brought her home, and those big green alien eyes always seemed to see right into my soul, as if he could read my mind.
I’m glad I could tell when there was something wrong in his little body, and despite the sorrow, I know that the final decision was the right one. I would have figured out how to pay for it if there was a treatment that would have given him a fighting chance, but I have to trust that the veterinarian would have given me those options had such existed.
I know that sometimes people who have never loved or been loved by an animal might have a hard time understanding how you can be so shaken up over the death of a pet. “It’s just a cat,” they might say.
But Ullrick wasn’t just a cat. You see, he was my cat and I was his person. He didn’t belong to me; we belonged to each other. I’m counting on the fact that if there is a heaven, the souls that belong to each other will be together.