Jenny Jemima

I buried her in the old flower garden, with a big rock for her headstone and a white lilac beside her. The guys had dug the hole the night before. The hole didn't have to be very big; by the time she died, she weighed so little, six pounds and a bit. When, at the vet's office, I shrouded her small body in a fresh white towel, I tucked her into her favorite sleeping position, curled up tight, chin on paws, tail neatly draped over her nose. I stroked her fur, still silky, but neglected because she'd been too ill to groom. Then I tucked the sides and ends of the towel around her and pinned them into place. She made a very small but surprisingly heavy package. When I transferred her from the cardboard box in which I'd brought her home into the hole in the garden, I dropped some wild violets on the towel. I should have said something, some prayers, some words in memory; but it didn't occur to me. You have to be young to think of having a funeral for a cat. I was too busy trying to get through it all without falling apart.

We'd had her for almost fourteen years, since she was a kitten, and she had been of all the cats I've coexisted with easily the sweetest-natured and most loving. Not that she couldn't be a spitfire: she played a demon game of boogeties through the upstairs banisters, and she could swear like a trooper at the other cats if they bugged her. But when a child (or an adult, for that matter) was in tears or distress, she had a way of showing up, dancing up on her immaculate white paws, rubbing up against you sweetly to bring comfort, calling out "Mrrf?" It is not normally in the job description of cats to be loving, but there are exceptions, and she was one.

We didn't know it was cancer until we took her to the vet: we knew only that she'd stopped eating, wasn't grooming in her usual hyper-meticulous way, and was losing weight. And she was so sad. The vet found the tumor in her mouth, a big one. Holding her two days later, as the sedative shot took effect and she stretched out in my arms, waiting for the second shot, the one that would stop her heart and her breathing, I could see properly, for the first time, how the cancer had eaten away at her lower lip. She must have been in pain, but she didn't say--except for a low growl once or twice, when it must have been getting to her. Animals can't tell you. And sometimes you can't guess.

We had the standard discussion around her death: it is impossible to have known Jenny-cat without believing that she did indeed have a soul--a small-cat-sized soul, but definitely a soul. This may be theologically inaccurate, but none of us gives a good flying goddam. Animals who are beloved and loving are different. Or maybe our Aboriginal brethren and sisteren have it right and all animals have souls, are valued individuals in the eye of the Creator--I wouldn't argue with that.

Who are we, we sinners, to claim that because we have language and build houses, we get a monopoly on this soul-business? That's just another way of our setting ourselves apart from creation, seeing ourselves as superior--and look where that's got us. Maybe it is the purpose of dolphinhood to be as dolphinish as possible, and that dolphins who do this are a delight to God --and maybe the same is true of bedbugs or tilipia fish, or even (shudder!) zebra mussels, although not in the wrong places. We may be little below the angels, but given how unangelically we behave, wouldn't God want a little tender, or comic, relief from us sometimes? Isn't all beauty a comment on God's giftedness in creation, and isn't that as true for the silk of a cat's soft back as it is of a sunset or the Mass in B Minor?

Of one thing, however, I am quite sure: God has his fingers and senses skimming through the universe of his own making, like any other artist, looking for whatever good can be scooped out and put to useful account. I think of my friend Martine, the artist, and her tableful of odds and ends, waiting to be put to creative use in glasswork or enameling. I think of my friend Anne, the writer, storing aside snippets of village gossip and supermarket conversations, nipping them out of our small-town puddle, stowing them in memory and waiting to put them to use. And I trail my own fingers through life, seeing what might be useful. That's what creativity is all about.

I think of God trolling through creation, looking for the good bits, something to create with; and I see this tiny cat-sized soul, this atomie of beloved/loving furperson, slipping into God's hand, and probably purring quite loudly. I can't see God passing up on a bit of love just because it animated a mere domestic shorthair, not a person, not when God needs all the bits of love that are out there. And then God, having delightedly received this furperson, would figure out where to bestow her: he would know what she could become: a grandeur of gentleness, a piece of peace widening gyrelike to absorb and obliterate hurt and disorder. Something along those lines. And the fur of her breast would shine white as a new star, clean as she always kept it, until her illness took her.

Love is love, is love, is love. Surely the human soul is capable of whole prodigies of love--but I've seen, God help me, too much evidence of the opposite. Humans sometimes seem to be in full flight from love, bolting towards selfishness and self-justification and self-righteousness, vices that a cat would never even consider. Yes, we have more capacity for love than cats do. But Jenny's tiny feline capacity for love was so much further developed (for a domestic shorthair) than so many human beings' far greater capacity to love. Which pleases God more greatly: a sprig of catnip, that grows and becomes all the catnip that it can be, or an acorn that just sits there and says "I don't have time for all this dumb oak-tree-growing stuff"?

My Jenny, God's critter (as am I), died in my arms on Wednesday morning. Now she lies out under the white lilac, and I don't like to think what will, in the days and weeks to come, happen to her silky, beautifully clean coat and her huge shining eyes. That's part of the nature of things, but a part one doesn't like to think of for a person (skin or fur) that one's known so nearly, and loved. There won't be a familiar, apparently boneless presence on my bed again. Jenny-cat, who I took as a kitten from the animal shelter and who was part of my life for almost 14 years, is dead. I know; I held her as she died.

But I trust that God makes use of Jenny in ways that I cannot begin to ask or imagine; but that I will learn about in the fullness of God's time, kairos, when I walk along the banks of the River--*that* River. And maybe a small beautifully groomed white-and-black-tabby cat will emerge from the bushes by that River, trotting up with tail firmly erect, and writhe up about my ankles, giving me The Look: Mrrf. I've been waiting. What kept you?

Copyright © 2002 Molly Wolf. Originally published Fri, 03 May 2002
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