I wept over my dead cat

Sunday Star-Times - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

On the day Princess Diana died, I watched the news on CNN and cried. How strange to learn, 20 years on, that her sons did not.

In the ITV doc­u­men­tary, Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy, Prince Harry ad­mit­ted that he didn’t shed a tear un­til Diana’s burial at Althorp Park, and re­vealed that he’s only cried once in the two decades since.

I’ve wept more this week for my dead cat, Mr Pants.

Grief, huh? It’s a Charyb­dis of com­pet­ing emo­tions: long­ing, loss, shock, re­gret, guilt, em­pa­thy and de­spair. The English philoso­pher James Martineau (1805-1900) de­scribed grief as ‘‘the mem­ory of wid­owed af­fec­tions’’. It is joy in­ter­rupted, love short-cir­cuited.

Grief can man­i­fest as a sucker punch to the guts or a soft-fo­cus brain fog, like the mist that rolls up our val­ley in win­ter, ren­der­ing the Hunua Ranges as a series of murky sil­hou­ettes. Thus while the left side of my brain knows that, ra­tio­nally, Mr Pants was just a cat, and that there are plenty more where he came from (the SPCA), the rest of my body feels his ab­sence in my bed, on my lap, against my leg as I write.

Mr Pants, aged 15, was my favourite cat. He was also my hus­band’s least favourite. Aban­doned at birth, he was as mad as a bag of in­con­ti­nent frogs and sus­pi­cious of ev­ery­thing ex­cept me and soft fur­nish­ings. Mr Pants was an ob­ses­sive wool sucker (the fe­line equiv­a­lent of thumb-suck­ing) and no faux-fur cush­ion or po­lar fleece throw was safe from his suck­ling. He also peed on any­thing left on the floor at night, from dis­carded bath tow­els to my hus­band’s best shoes.

He never did ad­just to coun­try life. For weeks af­ter I moved to Hunua, he cow­ered un­der the bed up­stairs, emerg­ing only to for­age from a bowl of cat bis­cuits on the land­ing. That had to stop af­ter we caught a pos­sum climb­ing in our bed­room win­dow to do the same.

He was al­ways a nervy, skinny cat so I wasn’t too wor­ried when Mr Pants started los­ing weight this win­ter, how­ever the vet di­ag­nosed thy­roid dis­ease and pre­scribed daily meds. For seven days, I forced pink pills past his unco-op­er­a­tive phar­ynx but his con­di­tion only wors­ened. He grew so lethar­gic that he couldn’t even bother to hiss at our gorm­less bor­der col­lie.

When the end be­gan, he was snug­gled up in my arms. He had a mi­nor seizure, then a ma­jor one, so I bun­dled him up in a blan­ket and set off for the af­ter-hours vet. We didn’t make it. As I hot-footed it up the mo­tor­way, he breathed his last raspy breath in the pas­sen­ger seat be­side me.

When peo­ple die, it’s nat­u­ral to cry. But when pets sud­denly de­cline, some spouses (mine) of­fer to ex­pe­dite the process with a shot­gun, while oth­ers vote for eu­thana­sia. When my grand­fa­ther had to move into a rest home, my grand­mother waited less than 24 hours to kill off his beloved cat, Blos­som.

The death of a pet of­ten marks the end of an era: child­hood, ado­les­cence, mar­riage, an empty nest. My mog­gies were my fam­ily long be­fore I was some­one’s mother, some­one’s wife. As well as my con­stant com­pan­ions, when I was still sin­gle my cats were ef­fec­tive con­tra­cep­tives as none took kindly to strange men in my bed.

When pets die, there’s no process to fol­low. There’s no statu­tory be­reave­ment leave, no death no­tice in the paper, no bor­ing In­ter­flora bou­quets to send, no whisky to drink at a wake. Yet ac­cord­ing to The New Zealand Com­pan­ion An­i­mal Coun­cil’s sta­tis­tics, more than half of New Zealand house­holds own a pet, and in many fam­i­lies, cats and dogs out­num­ber chil­dren. There are 1.419 mil­lion do­mes­ti­cated cats, much to Gareth Mor­gan’s dis­may, and 543,972 dogs reg­is­tered on the Na­tional Dog Data­base. What’s more, they’re all go­ing to die. We out­live our pets as a mat­ter of course. I’ve al­ready farewelled nine cats and half a dozen work­ing dogs. I’ve buried them at the feet of crabap­ple and fig trees, and un­der to­tara totems. Last sum­mer, we had our old dog Gypsy cre­mated. She’s in a blue card­board box on top of our pantry.

As for Mr Pants, my hus­band buried him in my hosta bor­der. I’ve or­dered a ma­ture dove tree (Da­vidia in­volu­crata) to mark his grave. It’s one of a kind, the only mem­ber of its genus, a botan­i­cal ec­cen­tric with ghostly white petals that wave in the wind like starched hand­ker­chiefs, flag­ging the sur­ren­der of an­other cool cat to the soil.


‘’The left side of my brain knows that, ra­tio­nally, Mr Pants was just a cat, the rest of my body feels his ab­sence in my bed, on my lap, against my leg as I write...’'

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