This week we had to put Gremlin, our 12-year-old gray-and-white cat, to sleep. The poor guy had suffered good-naturedly from irritable bowel disease (IBD) most of his life, and the IBD eventually made way for lymphoma.
After Gremlin had taken that last paw-step into the Great Beyond, I went home emotionally and mentally spent. Why do we do it? I wondered.
After all, we know that in the grand scheme of things we’re going to outlive the majority of our cats (some of them may outlive us, but that’s another story). Why do we keep letting them into our lives when we know all too well what the bottom line is?
An Active, Loving Choice
“We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own, live within a fragile circle; easily and often breached,” observed writer Irving Townsend (Separate Lifetimes), a man who cared deeply about animals. “Unable to accept its awful gaps, we would still live no other way. We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan.”
I knew a woman who lost her male Abyssinian to kidney failure. Not only would she not get another Aby, but she also wouldn’t come to see mine because she feared the sight of mine would open the wound back up.
That’s just the human instinct for self-preservation at work. But some of us, like Townsend, are unable to live that way.
What Do Cats Give Us?
Cats open our hearts. They have a way of passing through doors that we thought we had locked.
In The Starveling (1968) by Nina Warner Hooke, a homeless kitten manages to do just that with Miss Coker, an embittered older woman whose fiancé and family were killed by a bomb during World War II.
The story is fiction, but its message rings very true. Cats are now being used in prison programs across the country. In one such program in Yacolt, Washington, inmates with good behavior records are paid to leash-train, socialize and groom cats so that ultimately they are more adoptable.
“This gives you a softer side,” an inmate, Richard Amaro, said. “It makes you feel like you have a kid at home. When I’ve been out during the day, I remember I’ve got a daughter at home waiting for me.”
Originally, horses were suggested for the program. But Eleanor Vernell, the prison superintendent, opted for cats. Cats were different. Inmates would have to work harder to earn their affection.
So they went with cats, and Vernell’s hunch proved correct. Working with felines taught the prisoners responsibility, the superintendent later said in an interview. “It teaches them patience. It teaches them how to bond.”
The Spiritual Connection
Cats have a lot of spiritual clout. There’s nothing new about this; they were considered sacred in Egypt, “ancient Siam, Burma, Japan, Turkey, and probably to some extent China, and even Persia,” observes Georgie Anne Geyer in When Cats Reigned Like Kings: On the Trail of the Sacred Cats.
Even Christianity has allowed cats their own spiritual niche. Julian of Norwich, St. Gertrude of Nivelles, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Agatha of Sicily (who could reportedly turn into a cat) and St. Philip Neri are all associated with them.
Maybe, as Geyer says, “cats reveal us through what we choose to make of them…. We didn’t give them meaning, they give us meaning.” In other words, we find ourselves through our relationship with them. And that’s always a heady experience.
In Sickness and in Health
We take care of our cats, but they take care of us, too.
Puck, Cynthia Wands’s Abyssinian, “has been the unasked-for angel in the house while I fought breast cancer.” He has stayed by her side, resting with her while she recuperated from chemotherapy.
Harley Hopkins, another one of Wands’s cats, used to lie on her bed and “help heal my migraines” 8 years ago. He “spent hours by my side when I had to recuperate from surgery…. He would go outside and find me feathers to cheer me up.”
Pure, unconditional love. That’s why we keep letting them into our lives. And that, not death, is the real bottom line.