WHEREVER Love is, there are quite often strains of Divine Grace in evidence, if one knows how to look, and almost without exception, mystery. A dear friend once shared with me an idea I’ve not forgotten, having to do with a special role played by pets in our lives. At the time, he was undergoing a Hellish torment, for his Mother had recently passed away, and she had meant the world to him. My God! How he loved her! And how could he not, she who had taught this loving man so much of everything that he knew about Love? His grief in the wake of her passing was almost too much to bear.
You may note that the word “almost” in the sentence preceding is quite obviously critical, and it applied to my friend, he explained in so many words, because of a cat he had loved. She had been his first. “Paul, I’ve been thinking about something. About pets, and why they come into our lives. I know it’s for a reason, and there’s definitely some deeper purpose behind it all. And I’ve realized that a big part of it is… they come to help teach us about death. Because we love them, and… you know, their life spans are shorter. So they usually die first.”
“So, through them, we experience the realities of love and death. And we learn. Many times, it’s our first lesson. And that knowing is not like something we can ever forget. It. stays with us.”
MY friend had loved this cat for many years, well before I’d known him, and been loved by her. She had been not just any kind of loveable cat, but one that seemed made especially for him. How she delighted him! And even more she had stuck with him through thick and thin, like the bravest kind of soldier. And that is saying a great deal, because in those days that dreadful uninvited guest known as AIDS had crept into the party to wreak its boundless havoc, and its dark and murderous shadow lay long and deep upon the land.
Suddenly trapped like so many others in an excruciating Hell all his own, he wrestled in mortal struggle with its relentless and unpredictable attacks. Episodic illness would spring from the blue like a vicious predator, clutching him hard with cold bone fingers that burned like fire. It was no fair fight; my friend was weakened already by raging fevers that unaccountably came and went, and often struggled to simply keep down any food or drink at all, before the explosive diarrhea would hit. He survived some of these skirmishes only barely, the breath knocked out of him and feeling as if he’d washed up on some hostile alien shore far away from home, left with neither any energy at all, nor the first clue as to how he might begin finding his way back.
There’s really no describing the horror of it, to anybody. But the cat saw it all, serving as steadfast “witness.” To one utterly alone that is itself no small miracle, but the gifts only began there. She stood by him, always, in that subtle yet most definite manner of being “present” sometimes unappreciated by those likely to announce that they just aren’t “cat people,” who lack either the patience or willingness to understand. Why overlook any form of love, ever?
Not once did this cat turn away, no matter what, and neither did she ever desert him in his most forlorn hours of greatest need. When that shiftless dark shadow again moved in for the kill, merciless and meaning business, she would not leave her station at his side until he had won another tentative round. And there she would remain until he had fallen at last into that hard-earned fitful sleep belonging to the bloodied victor, too battle-scarred and exhausted at heart to feel…anything at all. But still: a victor.
In those awful months, throughout those interminable and dreadful years, the night had never seemed so dark, nor its shadows as long and ominous. But still the cat remained in place, zen-like, missing not a thing yet still purring gently, and soft to the touch. Somehow in her gentle way, without effort, she kept loneliness safely at bay from him as no other Human ever could have.
IT turned out that my friend, thank God, was one of the survivors. But nothing lasts forever, and there came a day when the long-faithful cat had lived out all the days of a good, full life, and her hour arrived for a rest richly deserved. And though by the Grace of God my friend was by then back on his feet with the sun shining above, the life force once nearly depleted within him once again strong and all around him, he felt sick at heart and weaker than even a tiny candle flame in a loud and howling wind. And no one else could hear it, at all.
It wasn’t so much that he wanted to die, when the news of the cat’s condition began to really sink in. Truth was, he was just tired in the heart of his heart: tired of fighting for his life, tired of enduring still more funerals, and all of the rest. Really, he just wanted to go with her. He yearned so badly to protect her, to comfort her and keep her safe, to return in some small measure all that she had so freely given unto him.
But that was not to be, for her time had come. There was nothing to be done.
SO my friend took the opportunity to spend one last night together alone with her, there in the very bedroom where they had fought and played side by side, dreamed and prayed, and known love. That evening his heart shattered like glass inside of him, once and then over and over again, more times than he would have imagined possible. He wept and he wept until he could cry no more. He cried out to the Heavens in a voice grown hoarse, he pleaded. Finally words left him altogether and he could only whimper, broken.
And all the while, he touched his beloved tenderly, for she was by then in some pain. He looked into her knowing eyes, helpless, and was comforted. For even still she did not, would not turn away, and her eyes saw all, yet only smiled back. Though her systems were surely forever shutting down, she was fully at peace, and could feel only blessed. In her eyes, my friend saw only love’s light.
So there she lay in her usual place, exactly as if things were normal and she were not perched precariously on the keening edge of a bottomless dark abyss. She stayed close-by as always, her bearing still regal and resolute, purring like a loud motor with her entire being. But inside her poor tired body was falling gently apart, and he knew that tomorrow she would purr no more. And neither would she be there by his side to keep vigilant watch over him as he slept, or greet him with joy upon his awakening. The very idea was unthinkable! But all that was tomorrow, damn it!
He took those hours to caress and to love her, to sing softly into her ears the old songs she loved best and had always known, some from the Soul of Cuba and others born on the charts in the USA. (Astonishingly, the cat was bilingual!) He said his (“even if they AREN’T forever”) Goodbyes, and Adios, and expressed to her as much of his gratitude and love as he was able, and could humanly bear.
There must remain some mercy after all, because he finally passed outwhere he lay, utterly spent, his head next to hers. Looking down at his tear-streaked face, she nudged in ever so gently closer to him. Just before passing into a deep sleep herself, with her last waking thought on that last evening, she prayed simply “Keep my Daddy safe, God. And comfort him, because he still believes that death means we’ll be apart.” Her tail (grown quite thin) grew still and wrapped close about her as she shut her eyes and gracefully, quietly, gently, followed the one she loved into dreamland.
And it was exactly because he loved her so that the following afternoon she was set free, and suffered no more. Yet it seemed that his had only just begun. There was no measuring the depth of his sorrow. The times most cruel arose in the very dark of night, when from time to time he would dream of her, and feel her sleeping peacefully just by his side as before, happy, healthy and warm! More than half-asleep, heart swelling with joy, he would reach out to pet and greet her… but she was not there. He found there only her favorite blanket, cold to the touch. In the ruinous desolation of such moments it seemed to him as if even its soul had likewise taken flight and fled away from him.
Sometimes he could only weep. He was inconsolable. No one was able to really understand, at all. And how could they?
IN that relentless way of happening that life sometimes has, it came to pass that within the space of eight or nine months his Mother died suddenly. The huge heart within her breast gave out without warning, widowing the helpless husband of many decades who had lived for her, and utterly shattering yet again the tentative heart of my grieving friend.
You see, he and his Mother had shared a sacred relationship, always, too powerful by far to be captured rightly by any presumptuous words. One night he’d called me at 2:00 am with shaky voice, apologetic for the hour, but terrified by his high fever and body’s uncontrollable shivering. He asked if I would come pray with him, hold his hands and sit, oh, it didn’t really matter, just come! He lived only a short drive away, and I was there in minutes. His exhausted, sweet Mother met me at the door, and saw me upstairs to the bedroom. She was short and heavy-set, her shape almost circular, or oval. And at one point I had watched her climb on top of her son, balanced upon the burning flesh of his chest in an effort to draw some of the killing heat away from him.
It was an unforgettable sight, and a blessing to behold. To this day, I doubt that I’ve seen maternal love expressed more purely, under such urgent circumstances. There was nothing she could do, really, but she was doing all she could.
I will always be grateful to have been there that night. Because of it, I understood the real depth of the love they shared just a little bit better, and thus its attendant loss. There are times when such understanding might be the best one who cares really has to offer.
And though it was true enough that in the wake of his Mother’s death he was devastated all over again, this time… it was different. He later told me, “If I hadn’t lost [La Gata] when I did, I just cannot imagine any way on Earth that I could have possibly endured the loss of my Mother.” It was exactly as if his beloved cat, in her passing, had bestowed upon him some great final gift worth more than any treasure. Who can say? The entire matter remains fully mysterious, as I suppose it must be. Besides, any “explanations” might well be completely beside the point, or even counter-productive. Some mysteries are sufficient, left alone.
Ad yet: the miracle remains!