On Cats and Mortality – An Uplifting Tail

Posted on October 28, 2012

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On reading the blogposts by @johntomsett and @headguruteacher I ended up having a few twitversations with people about mortality and resolved to follow serendipity (see my previous post) once again. But I had concerns on two fronts. The first was that both posts were so well written and so eloquent in their expressions of loss, grief and remembrance that the humble part of me felt there was no way in which I could offer up something of relevant merit. The second concern was about the glass-half-full nature of my blog and my concern that it has been quite heavy-going recently. I have no problem with addressing the darker themes in life and try to bring lightness to them, but I just wanted to write something celebratory about life and felt an account of the day my brother died might make that a challenge. In any case the 30th anniversary of that event is in January and I’m not entirely sure I know what I want to say about it just yet.

And then serendipity threw me a lifeline. A day spent settling in my two new kittens, Felix and Dinky, brought memories of the three cats I have previously owned flooding back to me and, probably as a result of those earlier readings/discussions, memories of their deaths were to the forefront. In particular I remember the razor sharp feeling of sadness that came with the death of my first cat, Sarah.

Now the first thing I have to do whenever I talk about Sarah is apologise for her name. It’s a particularly ineffective one for the pornstar name game where you put the name of your first pet with your mother’s maiden name. The end result is supposed to be your pornstar name; in which case mine would be Sarah McElroy!!!!!

The story of Sarah’s name is simple; we inherited her from a terminally ill old lady at the age of 1 (the cat not the woman) and didn’t have the heart to change her name. We tried to use the diminutive Sez but even that wasn’t particularly catlike, so Sarah she was and Sarah she remained through my late childhood and teenage years. And Sarah suited her. She was an old cat in a young cat’s body, which seems to be the way in my life with cats: Mozart was the same and the two newbies seem to have that temperament leaving only Chandler as the crazy kitten even into his cathood.

Most of all, though, Sarah was MY cat. My younger sister dearly wanted her to be loyal to her but such is the contrary way with cats that the harder she tried to win the affections of Sarah, the more Sarah rejected her and embraced my less enthusiastic demeanour. I’ve always rather loved it when a cat comes to seek me out for a cuddle; the best compliment you can get from these fussiest of furry companions.

It continued this way even through to my university days, when Sarah would suddenly start going in to my abandoned bedroom a week or so before I was due to arrive home for holidays. Cats simply DO have that sixth sense and nobody will ever convince me otherwise. The scientific and rational amongst you may claim that other factors were influencing thi behaviour but my mum always said that it was Sarah’s behaviour that reminded her to start getting my room ready, not the other way round.

All of which brings me to the point of this story. It was my third and final year of university and I had spent most of the autumn term fearing that I wouldn’t see Sarah again. She had been incredibly poorly for weeks but somehow held out for the whole term, and against family were convinced that she was holding on for one last visit from me. I can’t say I disagree with them having spent the next week with her. She was a shambling shadow of the cat I had known: sleeping pretty much every moment of the day, barely eating in the whole seven days, mewing incoherently and confusedly, breathing shallowly and painfully at all times. And in all that time she never once left my bedroom. I barely slept and cried so much during that week.

But still she survived. I had to leave for a New Year’s sojourn in Belfast with my girlfriend and it was a reflection of how ill Sarah was that we had not once considered that she would survive until the day I had to leave. I took heart that she had clung on so tenaciously and made the decision to leave. It was the last time I saw her.

Having hidden it from me while I was away, my family had to tell me about the circumstances of her death and burial once I returned.

A family united in freely-flowing tears we bawled as they told me that the pain had become uncontrollable for her the night after I left and how they had taken her to the vets.

We sobbed as they told me how they had agreed to the lethal injection, had stroked her as she slept her final sleep and had curled her into a natural sleeping position; ball-like with one beautiful stray paw outstretched.

We wailed as they told me how she had slept one final night at the foot of my bed before a neighbour came to slice the sod of a rain-drenched garden, turning the topsoil and then cutting the clay that lay beneath to prepare the final resting place of my beautiful cat.

And then we wept as my mum told me of the difficulty of finding a compatible quasi-coffin for the corpse, one that would provide some civility in the ritual of burial. She told me how she had finally happened upon a large shoebox that was absolutely perfect, except in one respect: the beautifully outstretched stray paw would not fit within the box. And so my mum told me how she went to the kitchen drawer for the breadknife……..

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And please now tell me that you just thought the same thing I thought at the time. Please now tell me that you thought my mother had revealed a wholehearted heartlessness in her approach to cadavers. Please tell me that you too had thought that she had mutilated my much-missed moggie.

I literally drew a breath and said “you didn’t…” before I realised that the breadknife, with its serrated blade, was intended for use on the shoebox and not Sarah. And then we laughed. And cried. And snorted. And spilt snot. And laughed. And cried. And snorted. And spilt snot. And laughed again. I don’t think I have ever laughed and cried so much in a single day, and I don’t think I ever will.

Which brings me to the point of this post, of something I learnt that day about the death of anyone or anything dear to you, including my brother Paul. I learnt that to laugh about the dead is the most cathartic thing in the world, and that sometime we lose sight of that in the terrible circumstances of death and mourning.

We laughed so hard that day, the three of us (mother, daughter and single son), that it became about more than Sarah. It became about Paul. It didn’t take long for us to start talking about him alongside Sarah after that. And for the first time in almost ten years the stories were funny ones. You know, the ones that begin with someone eagerly saying “and do you remember that time when he…”

Nearly twenty years later we tell the same stories about Paul and about Sarah. Sometimes we even remember brand new ones, coagulated from conjoined partial stories that fire up the sleeping synapses of our memories of him and of her. We may remember them differently from the ways in which they actually happened, but who cares about historic accuracy when you are conjuring up the long-dead in the furnace of your imagination?

The important thing in all of this, and the optimistic point of my post, is that we keep people alive when we remember them, when we talk about them and when we recollect their contribution to our lives. But we make them dance and sing for us when we remember the good times, when we laugh and joke about them, and when we picture them as flawed figures in the fullness of the felinity (or humanity).

So thank you Sarah for your life and for the way you unlocked joy after your death. Rest in peace (not pieces).

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