Lately it seems so many people around me are saying goodbye to their pet animals. Since fresh grief triggers latent old grief, it’s a particularly tender time right now.
It’s been almost a year since our sweet gentleman left us. It still hurts.
I don’t want it to still hurt, but it does. This is highly illogical for someone who believes in an afterlife, even for animals. If I believe that we emerge back into pure positive non-physical energy when life on earth ends, what’s to be sad about? But this simply isn’t an intellectual thing. It’s an emotional thing, and logic and reason hold no power in the domain of feelings.
Marcel started as a concept being discussed between me and my husband, who wanted to get another cat to supplement our one cat household. Our older female black cat had died a year and a half before, and I was still resistant to getting another cat. I was happy with our one female tuxedo cat, Jean. But Aaron wanted another cat. We agreed that, when the time came, we would get a male cat from the shelter, maybe another tuxedo cat like Jean. Aaron started surfing pictures of cats at the animal shelter. Marcel’s picture scrolled by. I asked him to go back.
There he was, a proud pink-nosed grumpy looking tuxedo male cat named Marcel.
My husband reminded me that it was Sunday, and if we didn’t go to the shelter today, we wouldn’t able to go again until Wednesday when the shelter reopened to the public. I told him I couldn’t talk about it right now and went off to the grocery store. It was too soon to get another cat. How did we know we would get a good one? Jean was happy as the only cat in the house. I didn’t want to disrupt her good thing.
Twenty minutes later in the produce section of the store, I was gripped by a sudden compulsion to get home right away so we could head to the shelter and get Marcel. This sense of urgency moved me through the store and got me home, where I loudly announced that we needed to go to the shelter as soon as possible. We had to get there before someone else got Marcel. Pleasantly surprised with my sudden change of heart, Aaron grabbed a cat carrier out of the basement. We loaded up the car and headed to the shelter. Walking into that place, we looked like we meant business.
We’ve come for Marcel and we aren’t going home without him.
The guy behind the counter at the shelter looked up at us with mild boredom.
“We’ve come to adopt a cat.” Aaron announced.
The guy shook his head and said we were out of luck. Due to the current remodeling at the shelter, most of the cats had been sent out to foster homes. He suggested we look at the pictures of cats on their website.
“Where’s Marcel?” I asked.
The guy raised his eyebrows, and said, “Marcel? Oh, he’s here. Do you want to see him?”
He had been at the shelter for a few months. Found in Lincoln Park, looking like he was on death’s door. Probably two or three years old. They opened the cage, and he jumped down to play a little and interact with us. It didn’t really matter. He was going home with us anyway.
Marcel chose to spend his first month at our house inside a carpeted little cat hutch, which pretty much mimicked the cage he had lived in at the shelter. He was withdrawn and shy, with enormous dark eyes. He liked to bite. Never swiped at you with his paws, but he was a hell of a biter. Not much of jumper. From this I deduced that he had spent a lot of time in a small closed space. He was nervous; perhaps he had been abused in his youth.
He was also gorgeous and handsome and incredibly sweet.
A few weeks after we brought him home, Aaron had to go out of town for work. He made me swear not to steal his cat while he was gone. A few mornings later, I awoke with a bout of vertigo. After telling work that I wouldn’t be in, I laid back down in bed and woke a little while later to feel a small furry body next to mine. Marcel had come upstairs from his cat hutch and was lying beside me. This was the first time he had ever come into the bed, and his timing feels intentional, like he came to comfort me. Just the memory of this fills me with so much love that my heart might burst.
Marcel and my husband gradually rehabilitated each other from their wounded pasts, and Marcel eventually stopped biting and relaxed into his new situation. Our vet told us that he was probably older than what they estimated at shelter, more like seven years old. We never really knew what his back story was, but it probably wasn’t good. We were happy just to give the guy a loving home.
He never learned to use the cat door. He never jumped up on anything.
He loved lying under the Christmas tree. He loved lying in the garden. He never ventured far from the house.
He tolerated Jean, and she tolerated him.
He loved to lay in the living room with his lizard brothers. He was never a lap cat. He always kept to himself. He didn’t like to be held.
He was a fastidious grumpy looking man who enjoyed his solitude and his Temptations treats.
We only had him for a year and a half. He always had a sensitive stomach, but nothing too concerning at first. When the vomiting increased, he went through a round of antibiotics and seemed to get his appetite back, but a couple of days after taking the last dose, he was lying beside me in bed again. He had only done this one other time before, during my vertigo. This was the beginning of the end.
You already know how these things play out.
We took Marcel to a specialist clinic for an ultrasound. Aaron and I dropped him off and headed back home, almost entirely in denial about what would happen next. The clinic called an hour later; it wasn’t good. He had multiple masses in multiple organs. Nothing was operable. We decided to ease his pain and returned to the clinic to say goodbye to him.
I have never felt such unity with my husband than when we spent our last moments with Marcel. We had no doubt that we were doing the right thing, and we walked bravely into that clinic, knowing we would not be taking our sweet boy home with us.
The staff showed us into a small gently lit room, specially designated for such purposes, where we sat down on the sofa and waited for them to bring Marcel to us. The doctor, a petite young woman, came in with Marcel, who looked alert and happy to see us. The vet softly told us we could have as much time as we needed as she placed Marcel in Aaron’s lap, where he began to purr.
There you are, just the three of you, and one of you is headed over to the other side, and the other two are straining to contain the immense pain this is causing them, because they know it’s the right thing to do. Time stops, and there is only that moment when you know it’s the last time for everything, the last purr, the last touch of their fur, the last kiss, the last breath.
There was this enormous cracking open in the boundary of time and space, and only two of us were left behind in that dimly lit room. My heart was cracked open so wide in that moment that I didn’t think I would survive.
He was free from his pain, but it would take us much longer to get relief from ours.
And this I understand: that the relationships we have with our animal companions are about something true and it’s the purest form of love.
I meditated on this as I processed my grief, wondering if I believed that Marcel went on, why did I grieve so much for him? It was really for myself because I could no longer be with him, or touch him, or kiss him. Like all grieving humans, I wanted a sign that he was okay.
I mediated on Marcel one day and this is what I got.
He was very grateful for being able to spend his last years with us, and he did very much appreciate the kindness. He particularly enjoyed our garden. A huge old soul, he was really only passing through, but he decided to stay a little longer when he came to us, until the cancer took over and he had no choice. He was grateful but slight amused with my hysterics. Only love and gratitude emanated from him, and perhaps a slight grumpy impatience with us for lingering in our grief.
Then I saw this. It makes me weep every time I remember it.
Like an out of body experience, I had a fly-on-the-wall view in that room where we said good bye to Marcel. I saw a man and a woman holding their beloved cat, and the vet hovering over to administer the shot. But then I saw something else. The room was flooded with angels, there to receive him as he crossed over. But not just this. Even more angels had assembled there just to witness the massive outpouring of love beaming out from us to Marcel as we handed him over to the other side. A roomful of angels called there to simply witness our love for this small creature.
The love we share with our animals is pure, timeless, and ineffable.
This why when we often say there are no words when we are trying to express grief. Language is for humans. Our pets play along with that, but our real mutual language is that of the heart. They teach us to tune back into our hearts. I am grateful for the help.
This post is dedicated to all those who have lost a loved one, four-legged or not, and for my old friend Marcel, who showed me and my husband how to love again.
I’ll see you again on the other side.
Note: the blog is going on summer break while I focus on book-writing. See you in September!