Jul 26, 2010

For Honey: Death Be Not Proud

It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch.
A fearful thing to love, hope, dream: to be—
To be, and oh! to lose.
A thing for fools, this, a holy thing,
A holy thing to love.
For your life has lived in me,
Your laugh once lifted me,
Your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
'Tis a human thing, love, a holy thing,
To love what death has touched.
     - Chaim Stern
This is a eulogy to a pet. If you are not inclined to maudlin pet tributes nor have room in your theology for pets in heaven, then save me the embarrassment and yourself the frustration, and give this piece a skip.

My dearest cat died on Sunday. Honey was 13 years old. I’d held out hope she would be one of those cats that made it to 18. But even if she had, it wouldn’t have been enough time. Not for loved ones. We always want one more day.

It’s hard for me to call Honey a pet. Having been single most of my life and having no children I poured my love and mothering onto her, and she became my child. She became my friend. And she became more of her true self: not just an animal or a pet, but a living soul that has been transformed by Love. Honey taught me a lot about love, and now I’m learning unspeakable grief. (Again, if you aren’t a pet lover, feel free to go read The Five Points Of Calvinism)

I had noticed changes in Honey this past year: she’d lost weight as older cats do; she moved more slowly and started to complain if I picked her up a certain way. It was the arthritis the vet had spotted, I told myself. She’d taken to spending evenings out in the cool of the garden –we moved into a house with a fenced yard and she didn’t have to worry about predators: that’s what I told myself. But my childhood cat had done the same thing the summer before he died. The vet said she was fine, so that’s what I told myself. We tell ourselves a lot of things.

Back in 1998 I was trying to heal from some behaviors, like smoking, drinking and dating awful men. I decided I needed a companion that wouldn’t make me feel crappy about myself; a pet I could be responsible for, stay sober for, someone to love. I wanted a dog. But my landlord insisted: no dogs, only a cat.

So I visited local animal shelters and pet stores for a cat. All I found were cat-type cats: blasé, remote, saw me only as a food source. On my way out of one such shelter, I spied a flyer for a kitten rescue organization. I went home and logged onto their website. A flashbot kept blinking at me: “Find a Home For Honey. Find a Home For Honey.” I called the number.

A woman named Lisa answered. She’d found an abandoned cat in her neighborhood, but already had three of her own and couldn’t take a fourth. I went to meet them.

Lisa had been walking to her front porch when a cat cried out from her bushes. It was starving, matted with dirt and sores. When she washed, fed, and got her revived, Lisa discovered a petite, pastel-colored tabby with soft hair and bright green eyes. She realized it had belonged to some badass neighbors who’d done everyone a favor by moving away. Well, better for the cat. Lisa said she named the cat “Honey” for her sweet disposition. I was waiting to see that disposition, so Lisa let her out of her crate. The cat was timid. But when I reached out my hand to pet her, she affectionately butted her head against my palm. She sat, kneading her tiny paws on the bedspread, waiting for more.

Then she trilled. “Burrup?”
Yes, I replied.
I took her home that day.

The first few days Honey wouldn’t come out from under the bed. Great, I thought: a cat you never see unless you get up in the middle of the night and find it eating or pooping. But a couple nights later as I was watching TV, she appeared out of the dark at my feet. “Burrup?” She trilled, jumped up in my lap and butted her head against my chest.

I spent many a night crying over the mess I had made in my life. Honey parked herself on my chest, purred, and affectionately butted her head against me. I lay there, running my fingers through her soft pastel gray and gold fur until the sorrow went away. God’s love can feel so theoretical. But a warm fuzzy creature that loves you no matter what, that’s love you can touch.

I healed with Honey’s help. I moved cross-country twice, watched my career fall apart, survived a gut wrenching breakup, and a spiritual dark night of the soul. Friends came and went. Family members died. Careers dissolved. Men left. Even God hid himself for a while. But Honey never wandered off. She wanted to stay. No one had done that before.

Honey healed too. She changed from a fearful castoff to a gentle, loving, soul. She became gregarious: if I had people over, she would find a lap to sit on. She was patient with children who tried to hold her in their spindly fingers. She learned to play. She even learned to talk: If she wanted something her voice turned up at the end like a question. She complained shrilly when she was upset. She knew how to con me into a second breakfast by trilling and kneading her petite gray feet.
And she trilled. “Burrup?” She trilled in the morning when I woke up. She trilled when she wanted up on my desk. She sat with me as I wrote. She liked to park herself between my arms as I typed on my computer. If I moved her to the side, she made sure her paw touched my arm. If I were journaling or reading, she’d try to sit on my notebook or book. Wherever my attention was given, she wanted to be there.

I didn’t always get how much being her mom had changed her. I occasionally traveled out of town, sometimes for a couple months at a time. I left her in the care of roommates or family members. I didn’t think Honey would mind. “She’s independent. She’s just a cat.” But a roommate scolded me. “Honey’s not the same when you’re gone. She waits for you. She misses you.” For three years I dated a man who hated cats. When he broke up with me, he cited Honey as a factor. In a panic I offered to give Honey away. Thank God I didn’t follow through. It turns my stomach to think of it now. I vowed to never date a man who didn’t love Honey.

When I met my husband, he was a 50-year-old bachelor who’d never kept a pet. He said it was too hard on him when they died. My red lights went off. “Pet hater.” But the first time he sat on my couch, Honey jumped up in his lap. That was it. Larry came to love her as much as I did. Honey came to belong to Larry too; and we to her.

Last fall I left on a 2-½ month book tour. The night before I left I came out to the garden to call her out of the bushes. She always came when I called. I picked her up and held her close. “Please don’t go yet. Not while I’m gone. Please be here when I get back.”

And she was. But she was frailer. She started vomiting hairballs here and there. It was shedding season, I told myself. I groomed her more. She loved it. She’d stretch her teeny body across the lawn, extending her claws into the grass, rolling around to make sure I got both sides, and purring. She had the loudest purr.

Two weeks ago I left to work on a movie out of town. I asked Larry to take her into the vet again. The vet said she checked out fine. No masses, no lumps. The blood tests came back normal except a hyper thyroid. I shouldn’t have trusted the tests. I should trusted my gut. I was her mom.

At 5am last Sunday morning, Honey bolted us awake with a horrible yelp. We rushed her to 24-hour Emergency vet. A squat tattooed technician gave us a list of tests they would perform for $1,000. “Are you running a scam?” I screamed. “Use your common sense! What does it look like the problem is?”

The east-Indian vet came in. “It doesn’t look good." But what did it look like? I yelled. He would have to run a blood test. That took 30 minutes. Why didn’t I force him to pump her with antibiotics right then? I was her mother. I knew her; they didn’t.

Larry and I went into the lobby. Larry asked me what I wanted to do. I couldn’t make that decision. Larry had to say it. But we knew. We’d known it was coming. It always comes. We went back in. I held onto Honey and stroked her hair. The tests showed she had a massive infection. The vet swam in veiled verbiage, “the prognosis isn’t good.” He smiled. Why was he smiling? Was he nervous? Was it a cultural thing? I wanted him to change places with her.

Suddenly she went into convulsions. Larry nodded. They put a towel around her to contain her flailing body. I reached my hand out to her. She reached out her paw to touch my hand.

And then it was over.

We didn’t own the place we live in. We didn’t own a shovel. We had a dog that was a compulsive digger. We couldn’t take her with us.

They let us sit alone with her in a private room. I stroked her soft hair. I told her how much I loved her, how much God had shown his love to me through her. I told her how much I would miss her, how much it was going to hurt. But I was wrong. I had no idea how much. I asked her to wait for me. I told her I would be waiting for that day I would see her again.

We drove away with her collar and a lock of her fur; that beautiful, soft fur you could run your hands through and forget your sorrow. Why didn’t I get a better look at it? I want to see it now, all those colors. But I can’t remember.

We went to the 8am service. There were only a half a dozen people there. No choir. I didn’t stand up. I mimed the Creed. When they passed the peace, I sat alone in the pew. My pastor sat down next to me and gave me a hug. I couldn’t look up.

But I went forward for communion. As they placed the wafer in my hand, I could hear Jesus words: “Remember Susan. I’ve gone on through ahead of you on this. Death is not the end.”

Was that true? Really true? Just for me? Or for Honey too?

That night a friend sent me a link to Cathleen Falsani's blog. She had blogged on this very issue that morning.

I have spent the week vaulting between inconsolable grief and a desperate need to know that I will see my dear Honey in the new heavens and the new earth. Billy Graham thought it a reasonable hope. CS Lewis suggested that in the same way God breathes his eternal spirit into us, we breathe that eternal spirit into those creatures we have loved. In The Great Divorce, Lewis describes a woman in heaven surrounded by children, angels and her pets.
“Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.”
But was CS Lewis right? What if he was just spinning a fairy tale full of wishful thinking? Well, in Revelation, Jesus rides in on a horse. A lion will lie down with the lamb. Are they just metaphors? I found this online, written by Carol Bechtel, a professor of Old Testament, addressing the possibility of pets in heaven.

     “While the Hebrew word nephesh is often translated 'soul,' it really means 'a living being.' In Genesis 2:7, when God breathes into Adam's nostrils the breath of life, he becomes a living being. This same word is often used with reference to animals (Prov 12:10). So what distinguishes human beings from animals is not that humans have a soul, but that humans are created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27).
     The Bible's promise is about the renewal of all creation. "God so loved the world.” N.T. Wright puts it this way: "The New Testament picks up from the Old the theme that God intends, in the end, to put the whole creation to rights. If we have grown up believing something else, it's time we rubbed our eyes and read our texts again" (Simply Christian, pp.217-219)."
I called my sister. She reminded me of the verse she read when she buried her 14-year-old Calico.
For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to the curse. But with eager hope creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. Rom 8:19-21
All creation is waiting to be liberated from death and decay. Doesn’t that include the creatures we have loved, whom God entrusted to our care? Why not my dear Honey, who showed God’s love to me in tangible way? Did I have to find an explicit verse to be convinced? Not even the Trinity is explicit in scripture.

Is this some ridiculous hope uttered by a pathetic idiot who waited to long to get married and have children? I’ve lain awake at night. I’ve gotten out of bed and flattened myself on the floor, weeping and begging God. “You can make me a pauper, take years off of my life, if you will just let me see and know her again! If she’s not in Heaven, I won't go. I refuse to go!"

The thought came to me: God might be grieved by my begging, that I didn't know him well enough to assume he would have to be cajoled into that. If I could imagine him saying anything to me, it would be this: "Why do you doubt my goodness? Do you think you love Honey more than I do? Wasn’t it I who rescued her 13 years ago? Wasn’t it I who brought her into your life, gave you the holy privilege to care for her, love her, and transform her into a loved, living being? And didn't she redeem you as well? So, why do you think I would abandon her now, after all of that? Why don’t you trust me?" At least, that’s what I believe God would say. Because I believe God is good.

As St. Julian of Norwich said: All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.

As Tom Petty said: The waiting is the hardest part.

This loving bond between animal and man–(between Honey and me), didn’t God come up with it the first place? Isn’t what we experience here just a shadow of the real thing we will enjoy in heaven? Why would God cast away the love we started here, or the creatures we loved here? We might as well believe there’s no hope for us.

This may be the ramblings of a middle aged idiot who waited too long to get married and have children. But I loved whom God gave me to love. And yes, may bastardize St. Paul’s original context: but I know the One in whom I have believed, and I am utterly convinced that he is able to guard all I have entrusted to him until the day of his return.

Take care of Honey, Father. I miss her more than tears can tell.

DEATH, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For those whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and souls deliver.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better then thy stroke; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleep past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.


Kari said...

So beautiful, Susan. I am sorry for your loss.

Claudia said...

When you posted the other poem, earlier this week, I have to admit that it was my cat I thought of first (rather than my husband or babies).

I'm so sorry you lost your lovely Honey, especially so young. Friends of mine from church lost a beloved dog this week, and I was talking to our pastor's wife about it. She said that until you have a pet you can't POSSIBLY imagine how much love they bring, or how much it hurts to lose one. I know that she's right. People always say that kind of thing about children (unimaginable love, blah blah blah), but I learned unconditional love from a cat and it's real, proper love. One of God's very best gifts, indeed. My heart goes out to you.

tmamone said...

Sorry to hear about your cat. I lost a dog a few months ago to cancer. It's amazing how much the death of a pet hurts, you know?

Taking Heart said...

You write best when you are pouring your heart out... and to me this is the BEST of yours I have ever read.

Simply beautiful.

And quite heartbreaking. But so glad she was yours... you were soul mates.

Elle said...

dear susan:

you have successfully made me cry off my mascara with your post. my dog is still alive and just the thought of him passing makes me weepy. thank you for sharing this with the world. honey would be proud.

Jen said...

Reading this brought tears to my eyes. (yes, animal lover) I'm so sorry. Several years ago, I lost my cat in a similar way, and reading this made me think of him. It's hard to grasp just how much we learn about love from our furry friends.

I'm glad you and Honey were there for each other. And I love the idea of "breathing eternal spirit into creatures we love"... it's not an unreasonable hope at all. Perhaps our beloved cats are hanging out and becoming friends right now.

Praying for you.

Carol Whipps said...

I also have lost my mascara reading this. I am so very sorry. My thoughts of losing my two cats are exactly as you have written. They are our friends through everything. I have to move and many people do not allow pets. Some people ask, "Do you HAVE to take the cats?" ... to which I reply, "If you had to move, would you leave your kids behind?". I am truly aching for you, Susan. I'm glad you had Honey, even though her death was inevitable.

Katie said...

This was a beautiful post. My favorite part: "Why do you doubt my goodness? Do you think you love Honey more than I do?" Such comfort and love in those words and I think it does sound like something God would say. I'm sorry for your loss, she was obviously a really great friend.

TomH said...

Thank you for sharing, Susan. I don't even own any pets, but what you wrote made me cry as well. You're such a splendid writer that you can get to the heart of *anything* and make people understand the importance of it. (Not that you had far to go with me, anyway - I love pets; I just can't afford to own one.) I never even met Honey, and now I miss Honey too.

Often when people are grieving, others pray for "peace" for them. But people don't need peace at first; they need to go through the grief. I pray that you're able to let it all out as necessary (and it does seem that you're able to), and that the Lord would just love on you through the process.

Mike said...

I offer my condolences to you and larry, its amazing how attached we can grow to an animal who's love language is one we don't think we can understand, but we definitely can feel. I know what is like to lose a pet, and i know what its like to wonder if you will be reunited with them in heaven.

I like to think that all of our beloved pets that passed on before us are all hanging at the endless kibble bowl, playing and running around (without arthritis; we're made new don't ya think they are too?!) playing with each other, until the day we make it up to heaven. Then they'll give us that "welcome home" greeting we came to love love and expect when we would leave them and come back when they were here at home with us on earth.

The one thing that give me comfort in the uncertanty that is pets in heaven is the faith that when we do get to heaven our hearts will no longer ache, we wont miss things of this earth, we ill be completely fulfilled... but here on this earth and my image of heaven.... i still get to curl up with my puppet dog and my baby dog (two dogs who never knew each other but played a huge part in my life.

Susan Howard Askren said...

I am so sorry for your loss. You have so eloquently captured the feelings I have had when I've lost a beloved pet. I believe like you that we will see our pets again in heaven, for it wouldn't be much of a heaven without them. Blessings

david l. said...

Probably the best Steve Brown Etc. I've ever heard. Ripped the callous off my heart. Began grieving recent losses. Can't wait to read the actual blog.

thank you,

david l

LJ said...

My condolences on your loss. There is something very different about the loss of a beloved pet. I understand your grief. I have been blessed with a half dozen or so cats in my life since I was 11. Each one has brought me inexplicable joy. I will give the two cats we have now an extra hug just for you tonight. You get one from me.

Jenny said...

Sincere sympathy for your loss. Honey's beauty inside and out shines through. Thank you for sharing your love for her in this post.

I just finished reading your book (less than 24 hours after it arrived - I stayed up, and woke up again to read it!), and read about Honey there.

I took much comfort from Ps 36:6 when my beloved cat Benji died: Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your justice like the great deep. O LORD, you preserve both man and beast.


PS I wondered, have you come across not one sparrow - a Christian voice for animals? Website and facebook page too. Ben, the writer, really cares for animals.

Susan Isaacs said...

Jenny: Thank you! I'm still heartbroken nearly a month later. But I am not without hope I will see her again. I know it, because God is good. Thank you for that blog suggestion, notonesparrow. Hadn't heard of it, it's lovely. I just subscribed. Susan

Dan said...

I admit, after reading the first paragraph, I almost surfed away. But thankfully, I read on. It was a graceful, needed challenge on my, I guess it's my theology of pets and heaven.

Thanks for sharing.

Simone Says... said...

i love your tribute to your little honey. she will always be your child. i'm sending so much love and comfort.

when i lost my babies i never thought i'd be happy again. but there is comfort in grief and like you, i poured myself into scripture. i had to deepen my faith. i'm a believer we will see them again. one, if god didn't love and protect animals, why did he have noah build that behemoth arc? and two, genesis 9 verses 8-17 says it all. when my dogs passed on (two separate occasions), there were rainbows in the sky. coincidence? no way.

thanks for sharing honey with us.

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