"To have reverence for life
you must have reverence for death.
The pets we love are not taken from us
but leave when summoned by the gods."
Adapted from Jim Harrison & Ted Kooser
(From "Braided Creek," a conversation in poetry)
Our eldest cat, our boon companion, was “summoned” this past Friday. He had been ill for some time, and for the past several months we knew he was really in “home hospice” with us. We wanted to keep him with us as long as he was eating, and drinking, managing to use the litter box and eager to cuddle and play. The past two weeks he became noticeably weaker, dragging his right rear leg (he had a cancerous tumor on his right rear hip), and did not want to come out of his cave under the DH’s footstool.
Everyone was home for Thanksgiving, so all the adult children got to see him and pet him one more time. DH, the daughters and I took him to the vet the next morning. The vet agreed it was time – an infection had set in, the muscles were involved, and Spot’s blood circulation was poor. R chose not to remain in the examining room. The DH, M*, and I stayed with Spot while the vet gave him the injections… We petted him and talked to him until we knew he was well into his last sleep.
I often said, if I’d known he was going to stay I’d have given him a prettier name. We met him on my in-laws’ farm, one of a tribe of kittens born in the spring. Most of them had been named by our nephews, but he hadn’t been. Nobody could think of a name for him. He seemed destined to be called “the white one with the black spot” forever. Even then he was a friendly kitten, happy to be held by anyone - and I was a sucker for his pretty green eyes. We took him home as a car companion for another kitten named Lucky, who was a pretty calico. We thought we would be keeping Lucky and bringing Spot back to the farm.
Well. Lucky hated being in a house. She was back on the farm within a week. Spot, however, loved being in a house. What’s not to love? He was fed, no need to hunt for food, and there was always fresh water. So, he had to put up with the hissing of the aged grande dame who was NOT amused that an interloper had been brought into her territory. He quickly learned to avoid or ignore her. The grande dame died a year later of old age. Soon after we brought Minnie home from the farm, and they were happy companions.
I know a cat is “just an animal.” But Spot was much more. We often teased him, accusing him of trying to live up to his name by acting like a dog. Yes, he drank out of the toilet on occasion. He was also an inveterate greeter, happy to answer the door with us to see who was visiting. And he was a big guy - one good friend, another big guy, remarked upon meeting Spot for the first time that he "wasn't a cat but a beast!" Ah, but he was a gentle beast...
Watching a bunny eat petunias through the screen door
But he was also an untrained, instinctive therapy cat. I say that based on an observation by a friend – who trains therapy dogs – that Spot would be a natural, if we ever wanted to have him trained to visit people in nursing homes. He had an unerring instinct for seeking out whoever needed him. His methods were simple and direct. He’d sit on the lap of the patient, lay his head on the patient’s chest, and purr. Sometimes he’d rub his head against the patient, to make sure s/he was paying attention. This was amazingly effective for stressed out parents, snarly adolescents in the grip of one angst or another, and even helpful with the clinically depressed. I don’t think all of us would still be alive without Spot’s gentle ministry.
Wait. Did I just say “ministry” referring to a cat? Yes, I did, for I learned a lot about “ministry of presence” from observing Spot with my teenagers. Without the question-asking skills, Spot’s methods are remarkably similar to what I was trained to do in my chaplain internship: Be there. Pay attention. Listen. Pay attention. Bear witness. Gentle touch means a lot. Make reassuring noises while the patient speaks. Pay Attention.
My prayer is that, if there is such a thing as an afterlife for cats, that Spot is playing with companions - free to run again - free to cuddle and groom - and at the end of the day, free to collapse and dream of doing it all again. And I pray that we all have a companion like Spot in our lives, sometime.