Keening in the Rain
It rained the day our cat was euthanized, the first rain in Northern California in weeks. I drove home from the vetīs sobbing, rain streaming down the windshield, and thought suddenly, "the pathetic fallacy," some vestige of vocabulary learned long ago in some English class. I could barely recapture the meaning. Something to do with nature participating in your emotions, or rather appearing to express human pathos but not really doing so. Irrelevant, whatever it meant. But it felt like a fact to hold onto.
Her name was Bert. Sort of like a boy named Sue. Our son named her after his uncleīs male cat, whoīd entranced him on our visit to Wisconsin one summer. We reasoned it could be short for Roberta, but it wasnīt. She was always Bert. The runt of the litter, she was tiny and frisky and playful when we brought her home from the Hayward Animal Rescue Shelter. Even in her advancing years, she would sometimes tear back and forth in the house at top speed, and loved to follow a piece of string, crouching and leaping as our son dragged it across the carpet. An indoor cat, she stalked the perimeter of the house to protect us from marauding neighborhood tomcats, all much larger than her. Sometimes Bert and the outsider threw themselves at the window, inside and outside, hissing and clawing. Sometimes, intimidated, she hunched below the level of the windowsill, peering at the intruder, hair bristling, keening in that eerie way cats do.
Hardly a milestone. Our cat dying. But she was sixteen years old, our only pet. Our only son left for college five years ago, so Bert and I were together a lot. I talked to her. She talked back. In fact you might say that in old age she became querulous, with lots to say. Complaints when the heat stopped blowing through the grate. Or when there was no sun to bask in on her rug on top of the washing machine. Or when she wanted to be let out of the family room, her "lair" at night, and hop onto our bed in the morning. Not allowed for most of her life, but we relaxed our rules in the last year, when she was suffering from kidney problems and needed comfort. Or maybe I needed comfort, since I knew her end was nearing.
Maybe it feels like a milestone because itīs prompted a delayed reaction to other milestones of the last five years. Did I mention that our son left five years ago? Heīs finished college now and taken a job in Malaysia. Itīs just been us and Bert. Did I mention that my father died a month after our son left for college? Probably not, because itīs still painful and somehow related to the cat in a way I canīt put my finger on. Two friends my age died of cancer later that year. Skeletal, almost unrecognizable in their last months of life. My best friend from college was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. Weīve had health scare after health scare with my aging mother since my fatherīs death, sometimes not sure of her mental health. Sheīs delusional at times, sees figures emerging from the walls, hears the doorbell ringing when no oneīs there, calls the fire department to report nonexistent fires. A hooded figure glides in front of her in the hallway, surely Death himself, but her g.p. treats the symptom with medications. My husband and I have started to take our retirement planning seriously. Iīve begun to worry about my heart. My old age. My death.
We took Bert to the vetīs the last day, and he gave her an antibiotic shot for the infections and abcesses that had developed from her lowered immunity. She weighed only half what she had in middle age. That afternoon she could no longer walk. She struggled to her feet and then fell over, shock and dismay in her eyes. Finally she just stretched out on her side on the floor of my study, eyes glazed, as I stroked her and told her it would all be okay. The doctor wasnīt there when I took her back to the animal hospital. The women at the desk promised to keep her warm and pain-free until the vet stopped by that evening to euthanize her. So I wasnīt with her in her final hour. I wasnīt with my father either. He was alone at the hospitalmy mother was at home sleeping, and I was frantically making arrangements to fly to North Carolina. My mother told me that he was talking to me as if I were in the room the last day of his life. Which hurt more than anything for a long while, knowing that I wasnīt there and he had to imagine me at his side. It helped some when I later learned that hallucinating the presence of loved ones is not uncommon among the dying. It was a fact to hold onto.
So maybe thatīs why Iīm thinking of that psalm "The Lord is my shepherd" in connection with my catīs death. Crazy. I donīt even know if I believe in that comfort and companionship for those who walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Or whose comfort Iīm looking for: my fatherīs, my friendsī, Bertīs, or my own.