She was quite a little girl
Her name was Ratzinger, an unusual name no doubt, particularly for a cat, but she was an unusual cat, to say the least. She came from the Guardian Angel Rescue folks who always sets up shop in front of the Petsmart on weekends, seeking to adopt out dogs and cats who have been abandoned, dumped, some of them abused in the process, all of them neglected and forgotten.
We needed a cat to catch the rats who were taking over our yard. Seems when you maintain a small semitropical jungle for a yard, rats come with the territory. We had tried the humane mouse traps, glue traps, everything short of poison. We already had two cats, both of them kept indoors, so the agreement I negotiated with my partner was that Ratzinger would be an indoor-outdoor cat who slept outside at night to catch rats.
She was a beautiful animal, orange tabby, gold eyes, and six toes on her feet. I told people she was a Hemingway cat since there seemed to be a lot of those six-toed cats in the flock to which he left his mansion in Key West. But regardless of her origins, she quickly lived into her name, Ratzinger. It was intended as a double entendre, the zinger of rats on the one hand, redemption of the name of the Roman cardinal with the morbid obsession over matters sexual on the other. During the five years she graced our lives, Ratzinger brought the remains of 34 rats to the door, often left on the mat. (I cannot tell you how disgusting it is to step out in bare feet, enroute to pick up the weekend New York Times, and to come down on the remains of a rat.)
What I hadn't anticipated was how bright she was. Ratzinger was a highly extroverted animal. We had put a tag on her with her name. About a month after she arrived, she disappeared for three days. I went into major mourning, my kitten taken from me. As it turned out, she had gotten caught under the house in a glue trap for the rats, extracting herself only at the cost of one of her extra digits on her left foot. I knew then a couple of things. One, that she was an extraordinary animal. Everyone in the neighborhood knew she was missing, knew her by name and helped look for her. Ratzinger had simply made her acquaintance with all the neighbors. But I also knew that Ratzinger's presence in our lives was not a guaranteed thing and that one day I might lose her.
Ratzinger spent her days in the yard, often sleeping in the sun or on top of the fence by the door where she could keep an eye on our coming and going. The minute our car doors had slammed her little voice could be heard, prancing across the driveway like she owned it. Ratzinger was self-possessed if anything. She frequently joined the dinner table on the nights the Francis-Clare Community met in our home and more than once I held her across my shoulder during parts of our eucharist. Somehow, she just seemed to fit in, one of G-d's most wonderful creations that we celebrated in our eucharist (which literally means "thanksgiving").
This past Easter season, I began to notice that Ratzy was not doing so well. She seemed listless, lacking in energy. I put off taking her to the vet thinking she just had a little bug, she'd get better. But she didn't. One night I noticed she was having a difficult time remaining atop the aquarium where she often slept. She insisted I let her out, something she often did by ringing the bells strung from the back of the front door. I obliged her, but when I called her later that evening, no Ratzinger. Ten o'clock, midnight, 2 a.m. came and went, no Ratzinger. I cried myself to sleep that night, afraid she'd gone off somewhere to die.
It was that night that I knew she would not be with us much longer. I was back up at 6 a.m. the next morning as the sun was coming up, out into the yard, choking back tears, calling her name. A flood of relief came as I heard her little bell. She came from the neighbor's house across the street, one of her favorite hiding places. And off we went to the vet. I left her with the good doctor, hoping for good news. The doctor's ashen face when I arrived that afternoon told me there would be no good news that day.
Somehow, one of her kidneys had failed. The other seemed to be sufficing for the time being. That was the good news. We began talking about a kidney removal. But her iron count was very low. Her HIV test had come back equivocal. More tests needed prior to the surgery revealed her heart was enlarged and her lungs were filling with fluid. She was so miserable that afternoon when I came to get her. She seemed to know her daddy was absolutely heart broken. We sat on the cold floor of the vet's office and I sobbed. And I knew, this was the second time she'd left and returned. The third time would be goodbye.
About $1200 later, we emerged from the vet's office with special food, iron supplement, a diuretic which she had to take twice a day and a syringe to force feed her. She was down to 8 pounds and would die of starvation if I didn't force feed her. For awhile, she was good about letting me do all of that. She tolerated the force feeding and meds well. She began to rally, gaining back weight, showing spark, even fussing at the other cats. Then one day, about
a month after the doctor's visit, she began to decline again. She wouldn't eat despite my locking her in her carrier with food, water and a box.
On the Fourth of July afternoon, my parents had come to town. I was headed to my brother's to see them and have dinner. Like I had done many times before, I had Ratzinger on the floor, syringe only partly full of food and water mixed up. Suddenly she choked. She leapt from my arms, up on the counter, gasping, eyes wide in terror. She leapt from the counter to the floor, convulsed a couple of times and died. I have lived through many hard times in my life. But this one 30 second interval of watching her sheer terror is probably the hardest thing I've ever faced in my life. I screamed at her to breathe, tried mouth to mouth, Heimlich maneuver, tried to help her now erupted heart to begin beating again. Nothing. She died in my arms as I rocked her, crying, aching. I have rarely felt the urge to die quite as strongly as I did that moment.
I tried to go to my brother's for dinner but I was too distraught. I excused myself early, tears brimming in my eyes, headed home to bury my little girl. I wrapped her in a turquoise towel, dug a hole in the corner of the yard where one day soon Charlie Beagle, now 15 years old, will soon rest as well. I lit a candle beneath the Celtic Cross in my yard, placed incense around
the grave and the bench where I sat cradling my little girl. I poured a glass of wine to celebrate a far too short but joy-filled five years. I spoke to her of how loved she was, of how much she had brought to the lives of all she knew, of how the rats were breathing easier these days, and of how much I would miss her. I sang the song I always sang to her: "You are my sunshine...my only sunshine...." Then I buried her, placing a round paving stone over the grave and surrounding it with border grass and lilies.
I was supposed to go to a Fourth party that night at the home of my friend, Judy, out on Lake Conway. All the Francis-Clare Community would be there. I called, uncertain what to say, blurting out through my tears that Ratzinger had died. They insisted I not stay home alone. So, I went to the party.
I will never forget the sky that evening. It was a shade of orange I've rarely seen before, the result of thunderstorms earlier that afternoon and the setting sun. Across the eastern horizon, a double rainbow stretched, periodically punctuated by long forks of lightning and erratic bursts of Fourth of July fireworks from around the lake. A cool breeze blew in off the lake. It was a masterpiece of nature. Despite the grief I felt, it was one of the most beautiful nights I had ever seen.
Days later, I found in my email a story about rescue animals waiting for their rescuers to cross the Rainbow Bridge into heaven. I smiled. Ms. Ratzinger was not waiting for me to cross that bridge. She had crossed a glorious sky on a double rainbow into heaven that night. As always she had gone in style. There were other animals and people to meet and charm.
It's been over two weeks now since I lost my little girl. There has not been a day yet that I have not cried over my poor Ratzinger. Having recently read The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, I have started looking for lessons that painful events have to teach me. Ratzinger's death taught me several things. One, there are human limitations. Even the best vets and the most profound desires to keep a living being alive are sometimes not enough. My sense of helplessness - powerlessness - as I watched her die was a lesson - sometimes you can't prevent death, you can't make things better. They simply have to play out as they are destined to occur. I've also learned once again that I need to be mindful of the moment, grateful for the loving time together I have with all those many wonderful living beings G-d has graced my life with. I suddenly realized last week that I had been ignoring my other cats almost completely during the time Ratzinger had been so sick. I've been making up for lost time the past few days.
Finally, I realized I'm probably not as OK with death as I thought I was. I don't worry about what happens after death. Concern about heaven or hell don't make much sense to me. I trust G-d with whatever happens. What I've figured out is that I simply have a hard time letting go of those I love, of contemplating being without them. It's not so much attachment as it is aversion to the pain of loss and loneliness. At any rate, it's something I need to work on at midlife with many potential losses staring me in the face.
The statute of the smiling kitten, rolling on its back, arrived last week. I ordered it off the internet from the Better Homes and Gardens site, no less. Andy and Luci both said, "Oh yeah, that's her!" when I showed it to them. Today I put it on the spot where Ratzinger is buried. And once more I cried. Andy says I should be more patient with myself, give myself some time. I know I have survived the loss of animals, friends and family members before. I will survive this as well. Funny thing was that the statue, though concrete, was coated with some kind of stain and a burlap string tied around its neck. I hesitated to put it on her grave, afraid that in the torrid summer weather, even this reminder of her would deteriorate and fade away. Even in death, my grasp of Ratzinger is fragile, fleeting, momentary.
I know this is a bit maudlin. Unlike some of my other posts, this one was for me. I needed to write this even as I've put it off for a couple of days since the statue arrived. For those of us who will never have children, the loss of our animal companions is particularly profound. It's always a devil's bargain to be a pet owner because the chances always are that they will die before you do. The question I find myself asking these days is whether my heart can survive the loss of the animal I am always happy to adopt and bring into our lives. In years past, it was not a hard question. As I get older, I'm not so sure.
I really miss my little girl. One day I will think of her and smile. She was quite a cat. In five years, she managed to completely capture her daddy's heart. There have been times she's seemed like she was just around the corner. I find myself looking for her, waiting for her little bell to signal her procession in. The neighbors have an orange tabby named Crush who looks an awful lot like Ratzinger. In some ways, it's like she's still around, watching, waiting.
For tonight, all I can say is that I'm thankful for knowing her, for being owned by her (humans never own cats!) and for the things she taught me. There will be a day when I no longer cry for her. But there will never be a day when I will not be a better human being for having the far too brief five years I was given with a little extroverted six-toed orange tabby with a big heart and an unusual name, Ratzinger. Thank you, little girl, for all you were and all I became because of you.
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.