I and Pangur Ban my cat, / ’Tis a like task we are at; / Hunting mice is his delight, / Hunting words I sit all night.
’Tis a merry thing to see / At our tasks how glad are we, / When at home we sit and find / Entertainment to our mind.
’Gainst the wall he sets his eye, / Full and fierce and sharp and sly; / ’Gainst the wall of knowledge I / All my little wisdom try.
So in peace our task we ply, / Pangur Ban my cat and I; / In our arts we find our bliss, / I have mine and he has his.
—A fourth-century monastic poet, quoted by Thomas Cahill in How the Irish Saved Civilization
♦ ♦ ♦
A tail is quite essential for your acrobatic talents;
You would not be so agile if you lacked its counterbalance.
And when not being utilized to aid in locomotion,
It often serves to illustrate the state of your emotion.
O Spot, the complex levels of behavior you display
Connote a fairly well-developed cognitive array.
And though you are not sentient, Spot, and do not comprehend,
I nonetheless consider you a true and valued friend.
—Data the android, on Star Trek: The Next Generation (“A Fistful of Datas,” 1992)
After I met Monica Bell and decided to ask her on a date, her friend Robin Tanner said to me, “Wait till you meet Monica’s cat, Spot. She is so cool.” Pet dogs were the tradition in my parents’ home.
My primary experience of the feline world was of a cat biting my hand sharply enough to draw blood after I had given it a few unsolicited strokes. She had been lounging on a brick wall of our home’s carport, and as a young boy I found her response both impertinent and ungrateful.
I was not eager to meet Spot, but I knew better than to think we could ever reach an “It’s me or the cat” moment.
Now 27 years into being married to Monica, I am incredulous that I imagined any such husband-or-feline ultimatum would ever be necessary. Spot turned out to be more than cool. She was, as Monica has often said, all heart and loved greeting our guests with a posture of happiness and trust.
We had to bid Spot farewell in 2004, and about a year later we adopted three adult cats (Rain, Spunky, and Scarlet) to fill the void. A worker at the shelter had named them, and we guessed that all three had known enough grief without answering to still other names. All three lived up to their names, in fact: Rain was depressive and an introvert; Spunky was upbeat for most of her years with us; Scarlet was melodramatic, much like Scarlett O’Hara of Gone With the Wind.
We have now lost the last of that trio to disease. On Monica’s birthday our family vet paid us a home visit and put Spunky down before her failing liver made her any more uncomfortable.
The cycle of grieving for a cat is familiar now: dread of the loss, heartbreak as she takes the sedative and we say our goodbyes, a nagging disorientation at no longer seeing her dash through the house and up the stairs, and (now, for me) yearning for the day when we decide the time is right to adopt again.
If you’re tempted to think Adopt a child, fool, I’ve beaten you to the thought. Neither conception nor talk of adoption ever came to fruition, and that is probably the largest black matter in my emotional and spiritual life.
It’s no longer a question for me of whether a cat is a substitute for a child. A cat is a poor substitute, yes, and I hope the comparison does not drive many readers to eye-rolling. I do not wish to become one of the cat-christening fatalists in The Children of Men or the recipient of a Crazy Cat Person Starter Pack (a box of six or more kittens). Still, I know that my emotional life is incomplete without another living being at home who depends on me for daily sustenance.
More important, I depend on this other living being — for making a warm lap warmer, for lowering my blood pressure, for making me laugh, and for reminding me that a creature with a rather shorter lifespan than a human can nevertheless be a vessel of beauty and grace.
For much of the past decade, when I looked at the color patterns in our cats’ fur I saw the flourish of an artist. An agnostic might call it the work of nature and an atheist more likely would call it a happy accident. Even while I grow accustomed to no longer having a cat to call by name, I say with joy that there is more to the story than that.
Doug LeBlanc’s other posts may be found here. The featured image by Monica LeBlanc shows Rain in a moment of feline mindfulness, 2006.