The poet Gary Snyder often tells of the moment when he turned away from Christianity and began a search that led him to Buddhism. He was a seven-year old boy and his dog had just died. He asked the minister if the dog would go to heaven and the minister told him no, only people in heaven. He decided then and there that such a heaven wasn’t a place he cared to go to and began scouting out a more inclusive religion. Perhaps he felt some irony when he engaged in koan study in a Rinzai Zen temple in Japan and was given the famous koan, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” “No!” What?!! Well, that’s a matter for another discussion.
I bring this up because in a simple dorm room in Finland, looking out at 10:00 pm light, I received my wife’s e-mail with the heading “Chester.” Even before opening it, I knew what had happened. I’ve mentioned my cat Chester often in these blogs and talked some of his18-year old frailty. And so it happened. My wife came home from dealing with her own mother’s preparation for the end of life and found Chester curled up under a chair. She brought him out to the sunlight, where he tried to stand and then simply fell down and died. She felt that he had waited for her to come home and I believe she was right. She was Chester’s favorite hands-down and no apologies made on his side.
In some parts of the world, giving a eulogy for a cat would make me a candidate for the insane asylum—or at least some hut on the edge of the forest. But when you’ve lived with an animal day in and day out for 18 years, greeting him in the morning and again coming home from work, feeding him, grooming him, tricking him into getting into the cat carrier to go to the vet, listening to his middle of the night meows, dealing with his litter box (gratefully, that only the last year), praising him for his mice-catching, yelling at him for bringing the wounded songbird into the house, comforting him when the raccoon comes through his cat door, worrying about him as his back legs failed him—well, you grow kind of attached. Fact is, Chester lived in the house as long as my kids! And unlike them, was always there 24/7. Never a single day when he was gone from the house. No question he was part of the family and though I cursed his recent presents near the litter box, was always disappointed in his ADD affection for me—five seconds on my lap was average— and wondered what it would be like when we didn’t have to always find a catsitter when we went away, there’s no question about it—I’m gonna miss the guy.
We got Chester back in 1994 after our two starter pet hamsters, Sampson and Snowball passed away. Our kids felt deprived at school circle time when all their friends talked about their pets and we also had been having a mouse problem. After emptying some 18 Have-a-Heart mousetraps (bringing the live trapped mouse a block away to the park, spinning him around to disorient him and setting him loose), we decided that a live-in mouser could solve the rodent infestation and kid pet problem in one fell swoop. And it did.
I remember clearly going to a basement in someone’s house in the Sunset and picking out Chester from the litter of kittens. He came home nameless and when my friend Debby from Vancouver visited, she suggested the name and we liked it. Early in his life, my daughter Kerala found him severely injured in the back yard one day. I was giving a workshop in Alaska and my wife called to tell me that we had to decide whether to operate to save his life. The cost was about the amount of money I was earning at the workshop and we (she) decided an unequivocal yes. The operation was successful and thus opened one of the more colorful family stories we have— my supremely practical, down-to-earth wife calling a Cat Psychic to find out what happened. And paying the fees. The psychic was so good she could talk to Chester on the telephone and told us that a bad man with boots had kicked him. We never found that man, but I believe it did cause a psychological trauma for our cat of tender age. However, we passed on the Cat Therapist and let him work it out himself.
Chester, how you spent your remaining eight lives I never knew—and refused to keep up the relationship with the Cat Psychic to try to find out. But last night, your allowance was spent and I will come home to a Chester-less house. I don’t care what the Christians, Buddhists or pagans say, I hope there is a cat heaven filled with a family that loved you as we did, with bright sunny spots to warm you, mice galore, a yard to roam around in and someone as caring as Karen for you to lie on top of nose-to-nose and breathe your contented purrs.
I’ll miss you, big guy. Thanks for all the years and may you rest in peace.
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