This week I lost Annie the Cat. What other name could there be for an orange-haired kitty with a hard-knock life? She came to me about four years ago via my family from the cat shelter and before that from years of street life that had taken one eye and most of her teeth; her outthrust jaw gave her the look of a permanent smile. And the eye wasn’t her only difference: genetically, orange tabbies, like my other two cats, are usually male. Annie was scrappy and small, never topping eight pounds. Yet she was a zany, happy little spirit who gladly accepted her place at the bottom of the orange-cat pecking order eleven hundred miles north of her native Georgia, below the irritable Noel Cowardish polydactyl barn cat, Pitty Sing, (#1) and the obese, Falstaffian roadside-ditch cat, Manchester (#2). On the first night she rode north in the car to my house, she rolled over and over with delight in the hotel bedsheets, purring – the first time she’d ever gotten to sleep on a bed. Then, of course, she got a collar and a spot on the pillow next to my head and her own litterbox and a garden in which to prowl and lounge. If she could have spoken, I always thought, she’d sound like a sturdy little Southern Baptist lady: shoot, y’all, I’m just happy to be here. Grateful for every day the Lord sends. When I opened the door, she bounded across the yard with what can only be described as a skip. Once she hurtled past the hesitant boy cats and tackled a rabbit as big as she was. I’d be hunkered down digging in the dirt and hear her purring before I’d feel her bony little head nudging me to be petted, happy to be outside under the sun, together.
Then, like so many old cats, she went into renal failure. With the compassionate advice of my veterinarian sister — whose clients must be the luckiest on earth — I nursed her along with special food as long as I could. When the decline really hit, it was fast. Jumping up on the pedestal sink to drink from the faucet, as she always had, she struggled and fell with a thunk to the floor. She stopped coming downstairs to eat. I’d find her hunkered, eyes slitted nearly shut, on the bathmat next to the heating vent, or in the little cat nest under my bed – seldom on the bed, anymore, because it was too high to jump. She was cold to the touch, bones palpable under her skin, yet still breathing, not turning her face up to look at me or anything else, just huddled and still.
On Monday, I knew this would be the week. I nearly burst into tears in the co-op when a friend innocently offered me one of her barn kittens. I talked to my parents and to my brother, a soon-to-be-large-animal vet, and to my sister. It was time. So I made the appointment and took her in to the clinic on Wednesday morning.
I had sat with her the previous night, petting her, telling her she had been a good kitty. Before we left the house I dug the hole in the back corner of my yard, near the birdbath from which she loved to drink in the summers, and a splashy clump of hostas, and a young hydrangea I raised from a cutting that should come into bloom this year. It’s been just cold enough here to freeze the top two inches of ground; under that crust, the dirt was black and crumbly and cold.
At the vet’s office, the first thing I saw was another cat carrier at the counter, with a flash of orange-tabby fur just visible inside. “Teenage kittens!” the smiling owner said. I smiled back and then I went and sat between the hog wormer and the dog-food displays and the organic Storm Stress Remedy and took my frail, huddled little cat on my lap and cried. In the exam room, I held her against me, still, while the vet slipped the needle into her vein. I felt her quiver and tense and then go limp, her head fluid and rolling in my hands. The vet listened to her heart, touched me on the shoulder, and eased out of the room. I cried.
Relaxed, Annie’s little body also seemed to have expanded: the ultimate reaction to this passing — I could see it — was relief. “It is part of how we love our animals, to give them good lives, and to stop their suffering,” says my mother, a nurse. “People should be so lucky.” When I think of what she sees every day, and of what will always be my favorite picture of her — lifting her dying father and cradling him against her, rubbing his back — I see how it is that the passage into death is eased by different kinds of mercy.
And mercy is a mystery. I have been sitting with my little pet this week in a space of mystery and love, all mixed. Deaths of animals put you in touch with this space, and the deaths of people, and all the other experiences of loss and grief which are as various as people are. Sitting with the feeling, rather than immediately trying to explain or memorialize or rationalize it away, opens a door in your heart through which something indescribable may be glimpsed.
I have been in classes with students reading their work aloud – deaths of a beloved uncle, a grandfather, a father, a friend – who cried as they read but kept going, and who said, later, that writing about it had saved them from something they could see only in dim and terrible outline. Acceptance, mystery, a diminution of fear: this comes with trying to experience and be in the space where you are, no matter how bad it feels.
I went on to school that morning, still crying after burying Annie in the yard — I pulled the dirt over her with my hands, shutting my eyes so I wouldn’t actually see the dirt falling, blotting out that orange fur — and found notes from my friends. I am in the need of prayer, came the voice in my head, clear as old-time gospel, standing in the need of prayer. And in their words to me, Hindu and Christian and everywhere all around and in between, in the WS Merwin poem below, sent by a grad-school friend, I felt it. I felt that extension of their mercy to me as a kind of prayer, and – humble, small, surprised – I felt myself moved into the space where I believe God lives most, the space of people’s compassion to one another, when you just extend mercy without asking why, hold out your hand and touch and be touched, be vulnerable and moved. In this space, you can see differently, and very far.
Typing these words brings tears in my eyes. As a person whose self-reliance has bordered at times on the illogical, I struggle not to be afraid of the tears, to accept them and let them come and go. Because I have been led over and over to see that particularly at these delicate hinges between life and death and loss and something else, these places of grief for the small and the not-so-small – particularly at such times, when tears arrive, that something else is arriving too. Tears can be – well – spirit nudging, opening, ever so slightly, with ever such compassion. Come on, honey. Let me in.
What is it about the deaths of animals that opens these doors, perhaps in a different way, even, than human deaths? As a farm kid, I’ve seen a lot of them. I was maybe twelve or thirteen when I had to kill with a shovel an orange barn kitten broken in a dog’s mouth; my little brother and sister were watching and crying and the kitten was struggling and there was no other weapon. Once, horribly, we found the prone, flailing bodies of our cattle strewn across the pasture – a grotesque accident, too much fertilizer strewn on one spot in the field that became the hay they ate. Calves trotted uncertainly to drink from the upturned udders and then, too, collapsed. Just this month, bad colic took a good hunting horse we’d raised from a colt, as we’d raised his mother.
As for so many things, I was away at school when it came time for my own horse to go down: my Thoroughbred mare, Shannon, whom I’d evented and hunted for years, had more and more trouble keeping on weight, had started to get the same frail and shuffling look as Annie the Cat. So my little brother, then an apprentice, stood next to our veterinarian, holding Shannon in the middle of her pasture, as the vet gave one injection and then the next. Across the driveway, in a separate pasture, our Walking Horse mare Dolly (raised from a filly on our place, a Christmas gift to my mom) strained across the fence to look. My mother, watching from the living room window, saw Shannon go down. In that moment, the arm of the metronome on the piano sprang loose and clicked back and forth, wildly. And Dolly threw up her head and tail and galloped away as hard as she could go.
I see in my mother’s eyes that she knows something indescribable happened there, something that the animals knew. Even in my unsentimental farming family, we understand that knowledge, and we respect it. Werner Herzog says at the end of his film “Grizzly Man” that when he looks into the bear’s eyes on film — possibly the same bear that tore apart Tim Treadwell and his companion — he sees no soul, no consciousness, only a wild nature completely independent of people. An orthodox-Catholic-convert friend once insisted that animals had no souls, and that was that. “I’m sorry to tell you this, Amy,” he said, “but Pitty Sing isn’t going to heaven.” And then he laughed. I was so stunned I couldn’t muster the logical response: how on earth do you know? We’re not animal-sentimentalizers in my family, far from it. But we’ve seen too many things. “I don’t know whether animals have souls like people do, although I don’t see why they wouldn’t,” says my sister the vet. “I do know that something happens to an animal when it has been loved by a person. Look into a wild animal’s eyes and — nothing. Look into your pet’s eyes and — there’s something there, even if we can’t say what it is.”
A student of mine who’s double-majoring in English and biology is teaching me, now, about bears. Her days of hunting with her father in the north woods of Wisconsin have given her a store of tales she’s expanding by reading Native American lore and talking with a forest ranger who’s a member of the Bear Clan within the Ojibwe Nation: the Bear Clan is tasked with protecting and nurturing plants, because bears are omnivores, feeding on but not destroying plants, spreading their seed as they walk just like bison break and sow the ground with their hooves, designed for that purpose. Bears go into labor while hibernating – they wake up and the cub is there. A skinned black bear looks like a human being.
This student brought me a Native American tale of a “bear girl” who is stubborn, resourceful, loyal and creaturely, protecting her sisters and then giving up her “ugliness” — her bear skin — to become a beautiful woman. Yet when she marries the man she’s been lusting fruitlessly after, she no longer wants him – in the smooth shell of a conventional beauty, the bear girl is lost, diminished. The tale points right at the peculiar beauties of creatureliness, including that within us and that we can know only by looking. And that knowledge, no matter how hard we look, is necessarily incomplete.
Barry Lopez writes: “It is hard to say exactly what an animal is doing. It is impossible to know when or where an event in an animal’s life begins or ends. And our human senses confine us to realms that may contain only a small part of the information produced in an event.” Realizing we only ever have a glimpse of the larger reality at best puts us in a spiritually humble stance before the other, a stance of not-knowing that lets the other be what it is, that helps us learn our own creatureliness and humility. This way, we may adjust the world all into proportion; you are not at the center of it, you are here with others, human and not, knowable or not. The brilliant John Jeremiah Sullivan, in his essay on the eighteenth-century botanist Constantine Rafinesque, evokes this idea too: “Mystery is not despair. The sheer awe inspired by Rafinesque’s vision makes a sufficiently stable basics for ethics, philosophy, love, and the conclusion that a fleeting consciousness is superior to none, precisely because it suggests magnificent things we cannot know, and in the face of which we simply lack an excuse not to assume meaning… Others talk about God, and I feel we can sit together, that God is one of this thing’s masks, or that this thing is God.”
Animals — in a whole and unsentimental way — can be powerful reminders of the spiritual reality that life is a journey through mystery, and that the way to stay in closest contact with it is to recognize that the journey itself is the point. In his fable Crow and Weasel, Barry Lopez writes: “It is your relationship to what is beautiful, not the beautiful thing by itself, that carries you.” If we immerse ourselves in our journeys as they progress, not letting ourselves be so focused on some distant goal that we are blind to the present, we will be regularly presented with thresholds, doors, windows, through which we can walk if we stay present, despite what can be an overpowering surge of emotion, even pain. This is the hardest thing for humans to do; our brain will dodge into past, future, sideways in present, anything to avoid that huddle before the surge. Yet any emotion asks only to be acknowledged, and acknowledging it, being present, takes you through that door in a way that is better although it is hard, especially at the time, to say why. Not for nothing has the Buddhist monastery just outside our town (yes, a Buddhist monastery in rural Iowa) been named “the gate of dragons.” Because the dragons are fierce, and they are real, and they are inside you.
The monastery’s website explains: “The name “Ryu-mon-ji” is comprised of three Japanese characters meaning “Dragon Gate Temple.” It’s an ancient name that comes from a Chinese legend. The legend is that there is a gate in the ocean where huge waves repeatedly rise. The fish that can pass through the waves of this gate become dragons. Dragons are mythological characters that represent qualities of great strength and compassion. The waves there are no different than the waves anywhere else. The waves of everyday life are the dragon gate. How we pass through these waves is our human challenge.”
And how is this most human of struggles figured, embodied, mused upon in our thought? As a creature. An animal, a beast, an other thing humans look upon, thinking, sometimes, that we see glimpses of ourselves, knowing if we are honest that creatures can draw us beyond our limitations, showing us more than we had thought possible of mystery and of love.
Sleep softly my old love
my beauty in the dark
night is a dream we have
as you know as you know
night is a dream you know
an old love in the dark
around you as you go
without end as you know
in the night where you go
sleep softly my old love
without end in the dark
in the love that you know
by W. S. Merwin