A four pound, four-month old frisky feline from a nearby animal shelter joined our family last week. In digging out old kitty toys and setting up for her arrival, I came across an eight-year old receipt for the kitten chow stashed in a basement cupboard. Has it been eight years since Tiger’s inoperable liver cancer was detected?
I was standing in the Hallmark card section of the local Walgreens when the vet called to explain why Tiger had stopped eating and was quickly losing weight. We put him down in the spring, and that Christmas my boys and husband gave me a new cat bed and a card urging me to select a kitten or cat from the local shelter. I shopped with them for a new litter box, cat chow and canned food, and might have gone as far as to visit the shelter’s cat room, but remained cat-less.
I excused resurgent cat longings with comments like, “They’re too much work.” “I don’t want to get tied down to a pet now that I’m an empty-nester.” “I’m too busy.” “Friends and family might not visit due to allergies or sensitivities.” “Who wants to step barefoot in slimy fur balls when you’re half awake?”
Over Christmas break from seminary last year, I nearly succumbed. Two of my friends are caretakers at the shelter and knew I was toying with the possibility of getting a cat. They repeatedly invited me to visit. I’d ask if there were kittens available; they’d give an update and talk about the recently remodeled and now-enticing cat room. I’d ask about grey tabbies, (I like my cars blue and my cats grey) and they glowingly described cuddly newcomers waiting for a home.
The tipping point came when I met Julian Allshallbewell, a sophisticated Siamese with diverging blue eyes. I met her at a Newcomers lunch at our pastor’s home. Named for Julian of Norwich, she was adopted to assist her family in their process of grieving the passing of a pet-loving family member. It was her playfulness and the talk about grieving that persuaded me the joys of cat ownership were worth pursuing again.
Two days later I was checking out cats in the shelter’s new “meet and greet” room. The cat who wouldn’t come out of the corner and the one who clawed a hole in my shirt lost their chance. It was the outgoing, talkative and cuddly kitten who liked chasing feathers on a stick that touched my heart. The next morning I signed her adoption papers.
Now Prisca slides across our floor scrunching the area rug, hops sideways with her back hunched like a Halloween cat and gets locked in the walk-in-closet by accident. She knocks over framed pictures on the dresser at 3:00 a.m. and turns on the blaring clock radio when she pads across it at 5:00 a.m. She is confused that we aren’t nocturnal and turns up her nose at anything but chicken. She’s hilarious, naughty and lovable.
A few people told me the best way for them to grieve the loss of their pet was to get another one right away. Maybe they were right. Maybe I let the pain of loss keep me from experiencing the joys another cat could bring. Maybe I let the normal feelings of sorrow take root rather than holding them loosely and letting them fade. Maybe I didn’t know how to grieve and heal to the place of being willing to risk again. Maybe I only knew the truth that hope could be found in the midst of suffering, but not how to live it.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned watching people grieve and experiencing it myself, it’s this–everybody does it differently. Some pop right back to their regular life while others have the wind knocked out of them. Some tell stories about the deceased while others can barely mention their name. Some hold on to the physical possessions of the departed as if the memories themselves were attached while others quickly release them. One time I walked and wailed outdoors during a clearing thunderstorm at the news of a friend’s death. Then when my mom died I felt relief that her suffering had ended and didn’t have a hard cry until weeks later. Some can replace their pet a week later, some eight years later, some like my cleaning lady whose cat died ten years ago never will.
Whatever the reasons behind my cat-less years, I’m now enjoying the insatiable curiosity of Prisca. And perhaps that’s the lesson grief teaches best. No person or pet is immortal or replaceable, but we can learn to treasure the joys of the present moment with the confidence that we will also move through the inevitable pain of loss in our unique way.
P.S. In case you’re wondering, I threw the unopened, past the “sell by date” kitten chow away.