When our daughter Sophia turned four, Laura her mother and I decided to get her a new pet. We had had a fat, blubbery cat named Samantha whom Sophia would knead like dough, or lie on top of, and Samantha was old and tolerant and never snapped. But we had been borrowing her from Laura’s parents, and there came a time we needed to return her.
But children need animals to help build empathy and learn gentleness. And now that Sophia was a little older, with a greater capacity to be empathetic and gentle, it was time to seek out our next pet.
Which turned out to be petS. Initially, two cats, because we knew that a kitten would do better with another. But the litter of available kittens we found ourselves inspecting one day turned out to have three boys in it, all brothers, all astoundingly different-looking. We also learned that one of the kittens had already been named: “Bozo”–because his black and white facial markings were vaguely reminiscent of a clown. But he held himself with great sobriety, and I found myself angry at the insult. I found myself with a desire to take all three kittens out of that insensitive environment. Bozo!
Over my dead body.
So three kittens came home with us. Each of us named one of the kitties. Sophia named one Zena (after the Warrior Princess) but we had made a mistake about the kitty’s sex and so, with apologies to the Warrior Princess, we went from Zena to Zeno. Zeno was white with orange spots on his body.
Laura named one of the cats Cuddles, and Cuddles had grey and black tabby features.
As for the cat I named, or rather re-named: from the ridiculous “Bozo” to something Shakespearian and elegant: Puck
Zeno, Cuddles, and Puck: our three boys.
(Cuddles isn’t in this picture–can’t find one of him!!!)
Reflecting on all this I am aware of how full their personalities were. They enriched our human lives but their value far transcended that. They had worth and dignity that was inherently theirs. Relationships between and among each other that had nothing to do with us, and we could only watch and observe and wonder….
Zeno emerged as the alpha male. He and Cuddles were buddies but this circle of love did not include Puck. Puck was a loner. Puck was a more classical tomcat and enjoyed a good street fight. He also liked hanging out near the neighbor’s woodpile, and the neighbors loved this because their mouse problem was quickly resolved. Puck liked to be outside at night and come in to sleep during the day.
But back to Zeno. One of the things Zeno loved to do—this was when we lived in Texas—was to find a mound of red ants and pop it, watch the stream of enraged red ants flow up to the surface, and then eat the ants. He would eat them! He’d come home with lips that were swollen beyond belief and I would look into his eyes and they were inscrutable cat eyes. I mean, do you not realize what you are doing? Getting bitten by red ants can’t be fun! But he would keep on doing it.
Who understands the world of a cat’s mind?
As for Cuddles, well, he was a lover. He loved to be the baby and be taken care of. But he was also a big game hunter and loved to bring home presents. Once we were hosting a potluck party and right in the middle of it he brought a field mouse still alive and kicking. His contribution to the dinner.
Another time it was the middle of the night and I suddenly awoke to the sound of animal screaming right beside me at it was a half-mangled but alive bird that Cuddles had brought into my bed to show me love. I cannot tell you how bloody and gross the whole thing was.
That was the day I gave Cuddles a nickname: “Darth Cuddles.”
Our boys went with us when we moved from Texas to Chicago so that I could pursue Unitarian Universalist ministry. We lived in an apartment on the University of Chicago campus and it was a big change for all of us, but all of us eventually adapted.
For the cats, one of the adaptations had to do with the Turkish carpet that sat outside the entrance to our kitchen. For humans it was a carpet; for cats it was the Thunderdome. (Remember that old Mad Max movie?) The cats literally had an elaborate game going on. Only two cats on the carpet at one time; the third was on the outside, looking on. Watching and waiting for his turn. Two cats on the carpet, and the fighting was brave and magnificent and would go on and on until, suddenly, without any warning they would both run away, off the carpet, outside, GONE.
The cat off the carpet would be as startled as we were.
Another story has to do specifically with Zeno. We were lucky that all three of our cats enjoyed human companionship and did not flee at first sight of a person. But sometimes they would go overboard. Zeno, for instance. Right outside our apartment at the University of Chicago was a bus stop, and everyday around 2pm Zeno would walk out there and sprawl his body on the pavement and let people love on him. He would laze and lollygag. By 3pm, invariably there would be messages on our answering machine saying stuff like, “Hello, your cat is on the corner of 59th and Woodlawn and would you come pick up your cat?” People were concerned. But when the answering machine was delivering its message, guess who was right there listening in with the humans?
We would laugh—we would look at him—he would look back at us with those inscrutable eyes.
The lives of our pets. Mysteries that are far beyond our knowing.
Zeno was the first to die. Congenital heart stuff. And that was when Cuddles, in his grief, decided to build a relationship with Puck. He missed Zeno so much…. Puck really didn’t want a “relationship” but Cuddles was insistent and tried to teach Puck the art of mutual grooming. Puck would get impatient and pop Cuddles on the head. Cuddles would put him in a headlock and lick him.
Puck was going to become a cuddle buddy whether he liked it or not….
And then Puck died, and my sweet Darth Cuddles was so very sad. He would go looking for Puck. But his days of being a Big Game Hunter were over, and he wouldn’t stray very far from the front door.
He lived years beyond Zeno or Cuddles, and who can know the private world of an animal’s grief?
And then it was his time to pass beyond this life. Our daughter Sophia was the one to make the call. He was suffering and she did not want that for him.
Because we wanted her to learn empathy and compassion, that’s why we got the cats in the first place. And the cats did their job. They taught her well.
And meanwhile, we witnessed the mystery of their personalities and relationships with each other unfold. Valuable far beyond any service they gave to us.
There is a song from the musical “Wicked” that goes
I’ve heard it said,
That people come into our lives
For a reason
Bringing something we must learn….
So, let me say before we part:
So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you.
You’ll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart.
Our beautiful boys: you are a handprint on Laura’s heart, and Sophia’s, and mine.
21 For The Beauty of the Earth
BENEDICTION AND INVITATION TO PERSONAL BLESSING
Please join hands for the benediction.
In her book Gilead, Marilynne Robinson talks about blessing the animals. She has the main character, the Rev. John Ames, reflect on the experience. He says, “I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays the mind. For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to me to be a real question. There is a reality in blessing… It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is one of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.”
After the example of the Rev. John Ames, let us together bless the animals. Repeat after me:
My mysterious life
MY MYSTERIOUS LIFE
Honors your mysterious life
HONORS YOUR MYSTERIOUS LIFE
I see and bow to your sacredness
I SEE AND BOW TO YOUR SACREDNESS
Blessing to you
BLESSING TO YOU
If you should wish for your animal companion an in-person blessing, I will be standing out in the entry way just beyond these doors, to offer that—to touch my hand to your pet and say personal words of blessing.
As we go out into a new day and a new week
take with you these words,
from medieval Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart:
If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature—
even a caterpillar—
I would never have to prepare a sermon.
So full of God
is every creature.
And so may it be!
Go in peace!