If you have ever tried to tame a feral cat, you know how difficult it can be to get them to trust you, even if you have them for a long time. We all associate a cat purring with contentment. While cats purr for many reasons, it is rare when a feral cat relaxes enough to sit on your lap and purr. Cats really trusted Butch. Even the feral cats he tamed would lay on their backs contentedly purring away. I was such a wreck when we married, it seems like I was one of those feral cats he taught to purr. I was recently reminded of our history with cats as I took my granddaughter for an adventure to the animal shelter and watched her hold a kitten for the very first time.
The first cat we shared he brought from home to live with my family. Having had a huge disagreement with his mother, Butch was dramatically living in a tent in the field across the street from our house and eating dinner with us every night. So, his cat moved in with my family. His name was Jeff. Jeff appeared to be making friends with our parakeet, frequently lying next to the cage without bothering the bird at all. Apparently, Jeff was just casing the joint, like Sylvester, waiting until the coast was clear. The first time all of us left home at the same time, Jeff knocked over the cage and had the parakeet for dinner. We came home to find the cage on the floor, birdseed soaking in spilled water, and feathers everywhere. All other evidence had been disposed of completely.
When we bought our first home, we got a little black kitten for our oldest son. One day I opened the back door to let the kitten from outside and found two little black kittens. We never found out where the second one came from, but we kept them both. Butch had been on the road for a few days when the second cat arrived. When he came home, the kitten was meowing to go outside so Butch let him out. He then turned around and found the kitten he didn’t know about sitting in the middle of the room. The boys laughed hysterically at the look on Butch’s face wondering how a cat he just let outside had beamed himself back into the room. Those cats became bosom buddies. They developed a system of hunting birds that was infallible. One of them would act like he was trying to jump up and get a bird off the branch of our tree. The second one would quietly come up the backside of the tree, out onto the branch, and grab the bird while it was looking down at the idiot cat trying to jump up 10 feet to grab him. Then they would share in the bounty.
Despite complaining that he did not like cats, it was Butch’s lap they would sit in. Whenever the boys and I would be gone visiting family we would return to find that the cats now expected to sleep in the bed with Butch. They were very unfriendly when I tried to reclaim my space. Butch would get up in the morning and stir the food in the bowl so there was fresh stuff at the top. Whenever Butch tried to sleep in, rather than stirring the food on schedule, one of the cats would sit on his dresser and push things off onto the floor one by one until Butch got up to stir the food. The cat we owned when Butch died was beside herself missing him. She finally began sitting on the arm of the couch next to me but never on my lap like she did his. Whenever someone would spend the night she would mark all the furniture. I finally had to get rid of her because she became more and more neurotic as time went by. I felt the same way.
Mourning the loss of a loved one is a multi-dimensional experience. First, there is the shock and numbness that is an all-encompassing mass consuming everything in its path. Over time, the layers of the loss become more distinct. The practical, financial, and functional losses are more obvious and are clear early on. We can be so afraid that we won’t be able to fill the gap. Yet somehow, we do, either alone or with help. But the emotional and relational losses unfold slowly and appear to be endless. Holidays, birthdays, seasons, and traditions, each unveil a new dimension of the loss. Becoming us without them is like watching a movie in reverse. One layer at a time, the “us” with them is painfully unraveled to create the “us” without them. Unexpectedly, one more piece of them comes into focus and must be grieved. Others can warn us of what to expect, but no one can predict what our particular journey will include. No one can know what will reveal itself next or how we will respond. As we imagine years ahead, filled with their absence, and the load seems too heavy, only our grieving companions can help us believe there is something more in store for us. Watching them, loving and laughing again, can give us the strength to go through the motions no matter how we feel right now. We could never have imagined how hard this would be until it happened. And now, we can barely imagine a version of us without them that will be tolerable. Our support system is the most important weapon in our arsenal as we battle against what seems like unending pain. Like a life vest, they are often all that keeps us from drowning in a sea of misery.
Even we can learn to purr again in the not so far distant future if we just hang on.