My cat Magoo is dying of probable cancer. He is so weak, fading away before my eyes. Last night I lay on the office couch (his preferred spot) with him, crying. So many people have said, “Noooo, not Magoo. He is the best cat.” To know him is to love him, even if you’re not a cat person. Everyone is a Magoo person.
So I will take care of him and pray for the miracle I guess I have expected. He told me a few days ago that he was dying, but I wasn’t ready for it and I pretended I didn’t hear it. No, my spirit said. He didn’t argue, that’s not his style. But I took him to the vet yesterday and I can’t be in denial anymore. I was worried I’d lose him overnight, while he was alone. I don’t want him to be alone.
Why is that? Why do we fear being alone at the moment of death? Is it something everyone fears? I didn’t realize I feared it until just now. The reason I was so insistent on being with my old dog Rascal for his surgery is because, if he died, I did not want him to die alone, without someone he knows there. Surely this is some sort of projection of my own fears onto them.
I have always believed that the animals in our lives teach us about life and death. I have always thought that it’s good for kids to have pets so that they understand this process before the time comes when they must face the death of a beloved human. And each creature I have loved teaches me some new thing or things. We can see the whole of their life spans; in Magoo’s case, truly the whole. He slid into the world under my desk 15 years ago when I was fostering his mama. I was 31, and I think he was the first creature I had ever seen born (not counting my own son, because I was hardly watching that), the first of his litter of five, his eyes squinted shut and his ears pasted to his head, which looked gigantic on his tiny kitten body (thus his name). I have never believed in breeding animals just so your children can “witness the miracle of life,” but I was grateful for this opportunity for my son to see it. I think it’s important for human children to see life begin and end, and not be shielded from either. Is it callous to say, get your kid a goldfish, because he needs to see it die?
But we do. We need to know that death is a sad thing, but not a fearsome thing. Loving a thing that dies creates a call in your spirit, an opportunity to grapple with questions we didn’t know we were asking. Like, why am I afraid of being alone at the moment of my death?
I always said Magoo was a Zen master. When Otto was small he would crouch, butt-end wiggling, getting ready to pounce on then seven-year-old Magoo, who was sitting, dozing (meditating?) in the sunshine with his eyes closed. And eventually the kitten would work his wiggle into a pounce, and Magoo would lift a paw and bat him down while not seeming to move a muscle otherwise. He is the ultimate Taoist, yin and yang in his fur, going with the flow of life and enjoying it all along the way, loving and offering love at every opportunity, making every friend he can gather. Nothing really rattles him.
He meets the end of life with the same equanimity. He never read Dylan Thomas. He knows that his words (meows?) don’t need to have ever “forked lightning.” It is enough to be, and to have been, and to love, and to have been loved.
We humans want to make our indelible mark on the world. We want to have children so that something of us survives. We want to create things, knowing we are brief, looking for something to outlive us. But nothing we can do while here will mark ineffaceably the time we spent here in this body. The epochs are inexorable and even Oyzmandias falls, his features erased by the sands of time.
But our spirits endure. Each moment I am alive, I am sending my spirit out to make a connection. What I create on paper or stone may not last forever in its own right, but if for the briefest moment it, or a word I said, or a gesture I made, made someone else feel less alone, then that spark of memory will come around again. I do not have to wait for death to be reborn. All I have to do is, like Magoo, send my love and my light out into the world. I cannot know where it connects, flickers, becomes something new where it joins the light another creature is sending into the world, but I do know this: where those flickers are, there is no darkness, and we are never alone.
My good friend Ric Finch told me that this post is incomplete, that I should tell the story of Magoo’s final hours, which happened after I wrote this.
Magoo had a fan club. The last two days, half a dozen people came to see him, and he said goodbye to each one, sitting in their lap, his bones jutting out. I think it was important to him, the goodbyes. I think he was waiting until he’d said them before he was ready to go.
He had a rough go of it the morning of the last day and I started fearing that I’d made the wrong decision, that I should have taken him to the vet for assistance in the passing. But I should’ve trusted him and me, that I’d made the right decision. I think I did.
He grew weaker and weaker throughout the day and I finally put him in a little box next to my desk so he could be beside me as I worked. Throughout the day all of my other animals came and paid him respects, checking on him as he slipped away. And I was there at that moment, the same as I was there the moment he came into the world. My hands were on him as he took his last breath and he did go gently, peacefully, at home, surrounded by love.
After he had passed, we sat in the room with him in a little wake of sorts, talking about what an amazing cat he was. Otto, Magoo’s protege, came and moved aside the towel covering Magoo so he could look at him and say a final goodbye.
Otto grieved with me for weeks afterwards. I was sitting one morning, journaling and crying, and Otto came to me and curled up in the space between my body and my journal as I wrote, with his comforting purrs. “I guess you’re the wise old cat now,” I told him. He head butted my cheek. “I guess I am.”
How ironic it is that nonhuman creatures can teach us so much about what it is to be human.