There is a place within us that can be reached by intelligence. But there is a deeper one that only the spirit can get to. And that is why those who are “merely completely intelligent” — in science or art, verse or prose — always seem like spies. ~Juan Ramon Jimenez, The Complete Perfectionist
The cats were for my children, who were old enough to care for them when we got them from the animal shelter. I was busy parenting children and teaching full-time. And I had already loved a cat, an extraordinary cat– if cats can be such– and my own. These cats were for my children.
Of the pair, Smokey was beautiful. Soft, fluffy, gray but with dark markings in that grayness as if he’d been over-dyed. Green eyes, pink tongue. Purred so loudly you could hear him across the room, but he almost never cried.
Max was the loud one, and that’s how my daughter noticed him, I think, calling us over to his cage where it sat on the floor. He was alone in there, standing on his hind legs with his little forefeet pressed against the bars. Looking up at us, he meowed and meowed. Pitiable. How could we choose a different kitten when he so clearly was asking to come home with us?
But by comparison to Smokey, Max was, in my eyes, just a standard cat: gray tabby with shorter fur that wasn’t nearly as soft as Smokey’s. Moreover, he was relatively uninterested in us, it seemed to me. Independent and content that way. Ordinary house-cat with outdoor privileges, letting us know if he needed anything and otherwise keeping to himself. Which was fine.
Still, the pair of them were amusing. They played and, in their earliest months, napped together. As they grew into cats and spent more time outdoors, we loved that they rushed to the driveway to meet us when we got home.
Within a few years our menagerie expanded. Now we had a dog, a fish, a rabbit and, for a time, a mouse in addition to the cats. Mostly I paid attention to the dog, who quickly became mine because of all the walks we took together. Otherwise I let the kids attend to our animals– although Max amused us with his ingenious resting places. He would find a new perch and nap there, when it suited him, for a week at a time: in a basket under an end table; on top of an upright pillow; on the otherwise unused desk in our family room where he could, presumably, look out the window. He also loved the boys’ top bunk: the wooden post at one end was soon scarred with the claw-marks he created when climbing his way up.
That damage annoyed me, but only mildly: children need pets, I thought. These were ours. And we weren’t about to declaw a cat who lived, at least part of the time, outside.
The fish eventually died, the mouse (due to outrageous stink) had to find a new home. But rabbit, cats and dog persisted, and I found I didn’t dislike the small busy-ness they created for me: early mornings letting dog out and cats in and then the four of us heading to the kitchen. At this point my children were nearly all grown, one of them out of the house and another on his way, the third virtually also independent. There was something sweet and faintly familiar in this morning ritual: bleary-eyed in the sun-soaked kitchen, pouring food into bowls, seeing to someone else’s needs. Sure, it was two cats and a dog I was serving, not children. But I mostly didn’t mind it.
Over the years, the pets had taken on nicknames, and Max somehow had the most. “Max” became, oddly,” “Mocks” (rhymes with socks) and “Mocksa,” but Bill’s favorite for him was “The Bandit.” This, of course, because of the eponymous film series, a reference lost on all of our children’s friends not to mention our children. But Smokey and The Bandit made perfect sense to Bill, and so Max was “The Bandit” (Bill insisted on the the), and Max answered our call when he wanted to, no matter what we called him, because that’s how he was.
In April 2018, Smokey went missing. Max had been in all night, but Smokey didn’t come home in the morning, and I remembered with a terrible dread the howling coyotes I’d heard the night before. I made signs and posted them around our neighborhood. I went hunting for him in the woods where the coyotes had been seen. I got word from passers-by that they had seen a gray cat here or there; on their recommendation Everett and I drove to a different part of our neighborhood and called down drain pipes and searched along the creek.
Suddenly The Bandit was our only cat, which made that nickname a little sad.
And then, I think it fair to say, he became more affectionate. Rather than curling up by himself somewhere, he sought us out on the living room sofa in the evenings. If a blanket was there, he would hold a small bit of it in his teeth while kneading the blanket with his front paws. If I was in the kitchen, he might come up behind me and lick my ankle, a sign that he needed something. Often as not there was already food in his bowl, but he made it clear that he wanted me to check on that, maybe stir it with my fingers, and then pet him while he ate. He also began to purr.
And maybe this was when I really began to notice him. The way he sat, for example, with this front feet almost always pressed so neatly together. The way, even at eleven years old, he could play with a shadow or a rubber band lying on the kitchen floor. How he always came to the car when we got home and walked ahead of us to the door, throwing himself down at the foot of the steps in the hopes of being petted. His trimness. His athletic bounce as he hurried up the front steps. The way, when he fell asleep next to me on the sofa, he would bend his neck and tuck his forehead against my leg, my arm, whatever part of me was closest. The way, so often when sleeping, he would cover his eyes with a paw.
Now, too, I had time to see him: the precise alignment of stripes on his forelegs, the symmetry of dark lines that extended behind his eyes, the streaks above his eyes that converged into a black patch at the top of his head and then spread out again behind his ears. The muted shades of gray within the paler stripes of his fur and how here, within these pale stripes, he had some hairs that were longer than others.
He was, it turns out, a very beautiful cat.
Last Monday we took him to the vet and had him put to sleep. After multiple visits to determine cause of congestion and rapidly declining weight; after trying to coax weight gain with new food and to defeat infection with medicine, we realized he was battling something far worse than anything we could help him with.
I held him as he died. Held and petted and talked to him, trying to be his last familiar thing in a sterile office. He received an injection that stopped his heart, and then he simply wasn’t there. We were left with a familiar body, beautiful and empty.
And now, of course, we think we see him out of the corner of our eye. Or we think we hear him. The gray blanket abandoned in a heap on the sofa can look, at first glance, just like him. His absence will take getting used to.
If asked months or years ago if I would write a post about my cat, I would likely have said no. He was an ordinary house cat, felis catus. Even the scientific name lacks intrigue.
But I find I have questions now, some of which are perhaps easier to admit at the death of a pet than they would be, say, at the death of a person. Here is as good as any place to ask.
To the scientist, I’m asking: Where did he go?
If the result of evolutionary wonder is merely a beating heart, albeit one that animates a striated and striking felis catus, what expired there? I understand evolution. I understand respiration, DNA, neurons and biological drive. But I do not understand livingness and non-livingness, how life is there and then is gone; and science, so far, doesn’t seem to explain it. There is more to a life than genetic code.
To the theologian, I’m asking: Where did he go?
I’m willing to grant that a cat lacks a soul, that the felis catus might not be in need of a Savior. But I’m not willing to grant a Creator who doesn’t love, who didn’t– through evolution or otherwise, all miracle– draw those stripes with a deliberate and loving hand. I’m not willing to grant that the One who teaches us to love would not then also, someday, bring all that he loves to himself. I believe in a Creator whose eye is on the sparrow and so therefore also on my cat.
And to myself, I’m asking the perennial and persistent question, the one I ask often enough and then must put down because the question itself is not actually endurable: When will I learn to love in a measure commensurate to a life’s deserving? I loved Max inadequately, as I love everything.
Max was not an ordinary cat. Nothing and no one is ordinary. There is no such thing.