I wept over my dead cat
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...’'