Nine Lives Aren’t Enough

Abe on the way to the next stage

Have you had that experience where you meet someone you take to immediately, where something about their manner, their look, maybe even how they hold their head, has an irresistible charm? And how sometimes that person needn’t have two legs to qualify, but four?

My sweetheart Alice and I were house-sitting for a few days in Sonoma County a bit back, visiting friends and spending time out on the coast for an article about Ft. Ross. We’d arranged to swap houses with a couple in Santa Rosa, them taking care of our cat and us taking care of their cat, Abe, who was 20 years old. Now, 20 years old isn’t merely elderly for a cat—that’s an age where they’ve been receiving feline Social Security for a couple of generations. That’s a venerable cat, a centenarian, one of the ancients.

So we had some trepidation about caring for him—could he get around, could we leave him in the house alone, what if he got sick? When we first saw him, he was sleeping so soundly that it was hard to get a handle on his ways. Not that our noise could wake him, because he was essentially deaf. But when he first rose and came out to us in the living room, that instant appreciation happened: he had a distinctive way of soft-stepping with each paw, a dainty way of gently moving his long, lean frame forward that was delightful to watch. He was immediately curious about us, coming close, looking into our faces, appreciating our petting with a soft squeak.

The squeak was the most his old vocal chords could muster in the way of a meow. But we loved him right off. Abe the cat, Old Abe, Honest Abe. When he wasn’t sleeping his long hours, he was quite alert and notably conscious of human company, looking you in the eye for acknowledgment and conversation, even one held in squeaks, falling on closed ears.

A Cat’s Charm Sticks

He slept on the bed with us that first night, fast friends, and I was afraid I would crush him by turning over on him. But it worked out fine, though his frailness concerned us when we left for hours at the coast. But he was happy when we returned and happy over the days we were there. When Alice and I returned to Santa Cruz, we remarked several times about his charm. We had to return ten days ago to Santa Rosa for a memorial for one of Alice’s oldest friends, a sad thing, but we were happy to see old Abe again and renew the acquaintance.

But we’d been warned that Abe hadn’t been doing that well, having had some respiratory trouble, probably with allergies. So we were more fearful now than when we’d first heard that he was 20. But he was again charming, friendly and responsive, and through the sadness of the memorial, we were happy again to be with Abe. I spent a while sitting with him on the house’s big rug right before we left, petting him and telling him we hoped to see him again.

So when we heard the other day from Abe’s owner that his breathing problems had become overwhelming, and that she had to have him put down, it was a blow. She had cared for Abe as family for all of his 20 years, and indeed he was her family. Her and her husband’s loss is tremendous, but it surprised me how much I felt it. But maybe not so surprising, because as I suggested at the beginning, some people charm you from moment one, and Abe was that guy.

The Soul’s Lasting Light

Despite my long years of Catholic school (or maybe because of them), I don’t believe in a paternalistic God, looking down on the billions of us with loving benignity. But I do believe there is something immortal in us, however it dwells within us, and that it continues on when the body fails. And I also believe that animals have a soul—you can see it when you look, with attention, into their eyes.

And I’ll probably sweat in hell for this too, but I don’t buy the standard concepts of heaven either. But here’s how it should be: heaven is a baseball game in a beautiful old stadium, where the beer is a dime and hot dogs a quarter. The home team is ahead by two runs and you’re feeling good, with family and friends. (And there are no damn Yankees.)

And if we go extra innings, Abe, I’ll get you another beer.

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