For the past three months, we have had a kitten. I’ll try not to bore you with too many Insufferable Pet Owner stories (are they worse or better than Insufferable Parent stories?) about how cute, charming, playful, affectionate, well-tempered and utterly sweet he is. I’ll just make two side points before getting to my main point:
- Side Point # 1: He is a particularly Loved Cat since both Sam and I are allergic to cats, and had to give away two cats several years ago. This one is a Siberian, a breed that often has lower levels of the allergen that bothers humans, and came from a breeder who specializes in breeding for low-allergen levels. We had a dicey few weeks there at the beginning, but with two visits to the allergist and a slight adjustment of asthma medications, we are A-OK and cat can stay.
- Side Point #2: He has been a blessing for my relationship with Becca, our 16-year-old daughter. Becca really, really, really, REALLY wanted a cat. She has been visibly happier since we got him, which for a teenager dealing with all the usual teen angst is no small thing. And we suddenly have a shared activity. She comes home from school, and instead of closing herself in her room with her iPod, we play with the cat. Or tell stories about the funny things the cat did earlier in the day. Or kvell together about what an incredibly excellent cat he is. The cat has, amazingly, made home into a place where this 16-year-old wants to be. Which makes us all happier.
But enough pet gushing. Here’s what I really wanted to say:
I think about this cat getting old and dying a lot.
Typical morning: I’m at my computer and the cat is sitting on my lap. He’s about six months old, small and still growing. I stroke his soft fur. I smooth his ears back, which he likes. And I imagine him an old cat, kind of scrawny and drooling and not doing so well at getting to the litter box in time. I picture him moving slowly, playing less and sleeping more, trying to jump onto things and not being able to make it. I can see in my mind’s eye what this kitten will look like at the end of his life. I can almost feel it when I pet him.
I never thought about this stuff with our earlier cats. I didn’t think about them getting old, or running away, or getting run over. And when we got them, I didn’t think, “Okay, this is a 15-year commitment I am getting myself into.”
Similarly, when I was pregnant with Becca and she was a baby I didn’t think into the future. I didn’t think about all the things that could go wrong – the genetic diseases, prenatal conditions, infant crises. (By contrast, there was a pregnant woman in my prenatal water aerobics class who was a pediatric nurse who worried about a million ailments whose names I didn’t even know. She knew too much for her own good.)
I didn’t try to imagine what Becca would be like in the future – didn’t try to picture her as a preschooler or teenager. I couldn’t have imagined it even if I tried: I didn’t have a clue what preschoolers looked or acted like! Basically, I read one chapter ahead in the parenting books and lived in the present.
Now, with cats at least, I know. We had one cat who got cancer and had to be euthanized. We had another who was run over. I have friends with old cats and sick cats.
If we’re lucky, of course, this cat will live to a ripe old age of fifteen or sixteen. And if I’m lucky, I will outlive this cat. I will bracket his life in mine – I will know him when he is a crazy, funny kitten and then a staid adult cat and finally a doddering old cat. There are not a lot of other beings that we can say that about. Our parents? Even if we witness the end of their lives, they were around long before we were. Our children? Hopefully they will be around long after us. Maybe our siblings, but our lives move in such parallel tracks that it is hard to have that kind of “bracketing” perspective.
So what’s the point of all this? I’m not sure. It does make the cat even more precious to me.
And I’m aware that this is not a perspective I would have had ten years ago with our previous batch of cats. It’s one of those midlife things: I think about endings now.
Not to get too lugubrious, but…. it makes me sad, and reminds me of the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and his poem to the child Margaret who is saddened by trees losing their leaves in the fall:
It is the blight man was born for
It is Margaret you mourn for.
P.S. On a lighter note, the kitten is named Bowie. That was Becca’s idea, after David Bowie. And he truly is the most wonderful, affectionate, cute cat in the world.
(Speaking totally, completely, 100% objectively, of course.)