A week ago today, I was awakened at 6 AM to strange guttural sounds. At first, I thought it was coming from outside, then my dog downstairs, and as I leapt out of bed, I knew instantly it was my beloved cat.
There, on the closet floor, just under the hanging clothes, my cat of 15 years lay on his side as he struggled to breathe. I got down next to him, gently caressing his head, saying, “I’m here.” My voice caught in my throat and I called to my husband, “Bill,” and the way I said it Bill knew. He quickly came into the closet and sat down beside us, gently petting Kitay.
A minute later, Kitay, my Furry Fur Fur, Paw-Paws, and Best Friend, had taken his last breath. His eyes were still open, his mouth slightly ajar, but he had died the way I had always hoped he would, with little pain and quickly, in the bosom of his home and family.
Bill gingerly placed him on the folded towel I had grabbed from the closet, and together we carried him to our bed and put him on top of the quilt. He looked as if he were just sleeping. I must confess I kept putting my ear to his still warm body thinking I detected just the hint of a heartbeat and the rise and fall of his furry body, something I was so used to sensing as he curled up next to me each night.
There’s something about cats, their languid bodies and beautiful positions they’re able to assume both Gumby- and sphinx-like. With their balletic leaps and silent athletic jumps onto a bed, couch, or whatever comfy surface above calls to them, they seem other worldly and majestic.
In our 15 years together, I think I only took my cat to the vet about five times; he was that healthy. The last visit was six months ago when he was peeing excessively and I learned he had stage two kidney disease. I put him on special food and he improved.
Although these last few weeks he seemed to be declining somewhat, he was still his old self, purring under my pets while being my constant companion, sleeping buddy, and best kitty friend.
At his sudden departure, I felt a hole in my heart and an ache tinged with a longing for something I couldn’t articulate but deeply felt.
Fifteen years ago, my neighbor Kimberly had found a mewing Kitay, then a baby kitten, alone at the end of our block. She arrived on our doorstep, arms outstretched, baby Kitay in her hands—an offering I couldn’t refuse.
Back then my kids were 14, 11, and 8.
The intense ache that I’ve felt since Kitay died last Thursday has been both a keen longing for my cat back, and, I think, though I’m not quite sure, for a time gone by, a time filled with busy kids, a bustling home, and a whole future ahead of us.
I felt a similar feeling when my beloved dad died in 2019. Of course, the loss of a pet and a father are two different things, yet I felt that same longing to actually have my Dad back while simultaneously grieving over a time in our past I could never get back.
How does one survive loss?
I happen to be reading an incredible and timely book right now, All The Beauty in the World. Maybe it’s serendipity, but the beautiful memoir and gorgeous insights on art and life, beauty and suffering, are helping to nourish my soul.
Back in 2008, when Patrick Bringley, the author, was 26, his older brother died at the age of 28 from cancer. The staggering loss of this brilliant and beautiful son and older brother left the family bereft.
Bringley quits his “dream job” at the New Yorker, a place that has become superficial and unfulfilling in light of his brother’s death, and takes a job as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY, where he works for the next 10 years seeking to make sense of his beloved brother’s death.
What makes this book so moving is Bringley’s reflections on dozens of paintings and other pieces of art he daily encounters in his job as a guard. Talking about Alfred Stieglitz’s photograph of his wife, Georgia O’Keeffe, Bringley writes, “I think that sometimes we need permission to stop and adore, and a work of art grants us that.”
I’m reminded of my dad’s same advice to us as we grew up—to stop and marvel at the little beauties of the world—a beautiful rose in his yard, a conversation over a cup of coffee, Claire de lune on the piano, and a gorgeous line of poetry, as he would recite from memory to us:
“Once or twice this side of death
Things can make one hold his breath
From my boyhood I remember
A crystal moment of December.”
I would go on to memorize the entirety of Robert Coffin’s poem, Crystal Moment, which captures so achingly and beautifully the juxtaposition of life and death. Where there is beauty, there is suffering; where there is life, there is death.
Amazingly, I was at the side of my dad and my cat when they each died. These final sacred moments are emblazoned in my mind and in my heart.
In the book, as Bringley describes Vermeer’s portrait of a dozing maidservant, he is moved to see that the artist captured “that feeling we sometimes have that an intimate setting possesses a grandeur and holiness of its own.”
It was how I felt with my dad. And how I felt with my Kitay.
Shortly after my dad died, and now with my Kitay, I feel as if life has slowed, even though I’m staying busy. I find myself noticing things more deeply and observing things more closely. I feel grateful and more keenly aware that our lives are made up of moments. It’s up to each of us to make the most of them—to stop and adore and feel the grandeur and holiness of both life and death.