Today, I’m in mourning. There’s a weight on me that feels like the dense pressure in your chest they say is common with a heart attack. I’ve cried more in the last few days than I have in years. My emotions go from disorientation to shock, from guilt to a sense of peace. I’m in mourning because sometime last night, I lost one of the best friends I’ve ever had.
This friend was my cat, Figaro. Now, before you roll your eyes and go off in search of something less melodramatic, let me first tell you a few things. I too was floored at how deep my reaction was to Fig’s diagnosis a few days ago and his passing early this morning. Why was I so impacted by the thought of his death? Then, I reminded myself that, as a combination animal-lover and introvert, I have very few close friends, especially ones with whom I’ve had intimate, daily contact for over 11 years. And, Zolla and I have no children, so our connection to Fig was definitely, parent-child. Among all the pets we’ve ever owned, Fig has always been the most special. I won’t bore you with why, but just believe me when I say it’s true. And so, out of the blue, the idea of his passing struck me at least as hard as any other human death I’ve ever witnessed.
At one point after the vet told me he’d die very soon, I even began emulating his physical symptoms, almost like E.T. and Elliot. Like Fig, my throat had swollen, I was very lethargic and rigid. At the end of the day last night, I was even working on a fever and other severe symptoms. While I didn’t sleep much, it was at some point just before dawn when my symptoms subsided. And, I knew he was probably gone.
I know there are many people who are losing or have lost human loved-ones to cancer, etc., and I would never claim you should place this on the same level. The point is, you shouldn’t, but for whatever reason, I have. So, whether you’ve lost a pet like this, or a human loved-one, perhaps you’ll find some helpful parallels here. Call me silly, but this event has simply given me pause to consider the implications of the life and death of any loved-one.
The question that hit me with the shock and speed of Fig’s death was how it was possible to reconcile the immense joy I’ve felt with him in my life and the vile pain of watching him fade away. It feels so offensive, almost incomprehensible that such extremes should be part of the same relationship. The feelings written down in art and experienced by others was finally hitting home for me. ‘What was the point,’ I thought, ‘of experiencing such joy with another (even an animal), if that person was just going to be ripped away by sickness and death?’ It just didn’t make sense.
One thought, of course, is that it’s not supposed to. You can call it one of life’s great mysteries. Or, you could get more specific and say that God never intended death and suffering. All that was the result of man (and subsequently, all those under man), separating himself from his Creator. So, if I’m to focus on godly comfort and faith, maybe I should just pray for a pet heaven, or buck up and rejoice that God has it all in control.
Well, I do believe that such thoughts can be helpful, but I don’t think mourning itself is meant to be that simple. One of my favorite movies is “Shadowlands,” the story about how the writer, C.S. Lewis, meets and marries a woman, only to lose her to cancer. At one point before her death, his wife wants to speak to him about her illness and passing, and Lewis, of course, objects. But, she tells him, “We can’t have the happiness of yesterday without the pain of today. That’s the deal.” And, later, after he has lost his wife, Lewis repeats the sentiment in this way: “Why love, if losing hurts so much? I have no answers anymore: only the life I have lived…The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.”
While I don’t believe that God caused the pain and suffering that comes with this fallen world, he has decided to enter into both the joy and the pain of our life and relationships, and that somehow sanctifies both. Sure, there will be a day without sorrow and pain, but that day isn’t today. And so, while I’ll never call sickness and death “good” (it is vile and evil), I will call it part of the hand we’re dealt when we choose to enter into relationship, to love another and to be loved. In this sense, we should embrace mourning with as much devotion as we embrace joy.
Part of being human in this fallen world is that we’re a mixed bag of life and death, love and hate, joy and pain. Just as they conclude in the movie above, the quality of joy we have with one another in life would perhaps seem a little less precious if there were no cost, if there were no limitation or end to it. Life, love, relationship, then becomes a frail and wondrous thing to be valued above all other things. And, we must experience pain and death, I think, to catch a better glimpse of that.
I woke up at one point early this morning to see that the bathroom light was on, the door closed. My wife, Zolla, who loved Figaro as much as I did, was in there penning a poem for him. Later, we placed him in his box, wrapped him in a towel, and set near him a small teddy bear, some play-string, a jingly ball, and some cat treats. And, before also placing the poem in the box, Zolla read it to him aloud:
Here lies Figarodeo,
Coolest cat I’ve ever known.
You loved singing along to “Strangers in the Night”
Elevator rides, staying in the garden all night.
The finger game,
Making the bed,
Following us on walks,
Sleeping on the edge.
The “spot of the week” was your
Favorite place to nap,
Except when cuddle emergencies would strike,
Then it was sprint…tackle – straight to a lap.
The only cat I know who would
Always come around
To greet you for his nap pickup,
To get carried upside down.
A force to be reckoned with
10 pounds of fluff.
We learned to respect when you
Had to be tough.
“Don’t touch me” kitty
We dared not embrace.
Big stray dogs
Out of the yard you would chase.
You were not just a cat.
You were our very best friend.
If animals go to heaven,
Surely we will see you again.
No more “Figgage.”
No more fluffy kitty
With the beautiful face
And gray tipped hair that made you so pretty.
I didn’t think we would have to say goodbye so soon.
An enormous chunk of our hearts is going with you.
The pain and the happiness. That’s the deal.