Today, breaking from the usual pattern, I want to share with you a very personal thing. As I neared the completion of the manuscript of my fourth book, late in 2012, my cat neared the completion of her life. As my surreptitious co-author, she sat next to me while I wrote most of the articles in this blog, and most of the words in my books. Her name was ‘Snoes,’ a Dutch word that means something like ‘darling’ and is pronounced ‘Snoos.’ My wife and I adopted her only a few months after we settled in our first real home. Unlike many cats – who tend to avoid direct eye contact – Snoes would always look us straight in the eyes. That was our way to communicate, which we refined into a language over time. For almost 15 years, Snoes was an integral part of our family and lives, filling voids we didn’t know existed until after she was no longer with us.
With an uncanny synchronicity, her little body failed bit-by-bit as I completed each chapter of my manuscript. Because I was her nurse – administering daily injections, giving her pills, helping her eat, cleaning her up, making her comfortable, etc. – we grew even closer to each other. My home life became split between birthing the book and trying to make Snoes’ remaining time worth living. Birth and death, hand in hand.
Although her body was becoming a very unyielding tool, Snoes never failed to be by my side, with a serenity that baffled me. Towards the end, her little heart already giving up, we would go together for short, slow walks around the neighborhood every evening. I was her companion and protector against the odd unleashed dog. Despite growing weakness, her interest in these little adventures increased significantly in the last few days of her life. Mind you, the whole thing was her initiative: She would call me, nose pointing unambiguously towards the door, and then drag her little body as we made our way to the quiet, dark streets. Hard as it must have been, she still took every step with a grace that made me feel small next to her. I, a 6’1” (1.85m) man, was tiny next to that enormous little creature. Walking by her side, I watched as she showed me how to live life fully, and with dignity.
Often she would need to sit for a few seconds and catch her breath. She always made these little breaks look like the only appropriate course of action, never a surrender to physical distress. As she rested, she held her head high. Her ears were always alert, scanning for the smallest noises as if they were of great and urgent import. She smelled the air with gusto, her head tilting backwards as though she wanted to take everything in. She was completely in the moment: Every odd vehicle that drove by deserved her unreserved attention; every bush was investigated with the curiosity of a newbie explorer; the cool evening breeze was savored as it caressed her face. Her eyes glistened with renewed openness and innocence. I sensed that she was somehow becoming young again, rushing to reencounter the wide-eyed kitten she once was. Her body was falling apart, but her spirit was untouched; as radiant and fresh as in the day she opened her eyes for the first time. Snoes was coming full circle.
In her last evening, already unable to eat or drink, she humbled me once again by taking me further up the road than ever before in her whole life. Her single-minded determination was surreal; her steps firm and decisive. Her gaze was pointed straight ahead, without the slightest hint of hesitation. Her entire body language was saying: ‘This time, I am not stopping.’ I had x-rays and blood tests asserting that none of that should be physically possible. Yet, there it was. Who was I to tell nature what could or could not happen?
At some point, she crossed a side street towards a little channel that ran along the edge of our neighborhood, past most houses. She had the lead, and I was following next to her. Together, we went past the former boundaries of her world. She had entered entirely new territory; blazing a new trail as though she were rehearsing for the big journey only a couple of hours ahead. She seemed possessed by an urge to go beyond, into the unknown. As she reached the edge of the channel, she sat – exhausted – and looked longingly at some distant houses across an open field on the other side, lit up and shimmering like a row of small Christmas trees. I believe to have seen her sigh. Yes, she had discovered that the world was bigger than she had ever imagined. I watched her in awe and quiet despair, my heart tearing open.
Snoes spent everything she had in that final walk; there was nothing left in her afterwards. Her epic journey of discovery was her final act in this world; and what a fine, grand act it was. I carried her back home in my arms. Later that evening, the vet came to our place to deliver her of her pain; one final time. She passed away serenely, cozy and warm, in my wife’s arms. As life slowly seeped away from her battered body, I looked straight into her eyes, our noses touching, and gave her a final loving stroke. What a magnificent being I had in front of me; so much stronger than me in so many ways; so inconceivably larger than the physical dimensions of her body. I was the last thing she saw as she embarked on another, bigger journey. But this time, to my agony, I couldn’t go and walk next to her…
Yes, Snoes was ‘just’ a cat, and I don’t mean to belittle the larger dramas of life by going overboard with her story. But that feline’s journey showed me what it really means to say that life is an evocative metaphor for something ineffable, a point of view I was defending as I wrote the last chapter of my manuscript. On multiple levels, her story mirrored back to me the essence of what I was writing, as if to show me the true significance of my own message. Book and life mingled together in a strange, tangled hierarchy. Was I really the author or were Snoes and I mere characters in the book? The richness and rawness of the unspeakable shone through Snoes’ final days in pungent imagery and synchronicities, whizzing past the intellect and lodging themselves firmly in the truest and deepest reaches of my being.
Snoes had no philosophy, no knowledge, no books, and no narratives. She lived most simply. Through her, I understood that there is little better we can really hope to accomplish. She never lost her grace – not for one moment – because she was grace. She lived fully while she was alive, never rebelling against what is. And she never allowed me to truly feel lonely. Her journey and passing forced me, in a pungent but loving manner, to put the intellectual rationalizations of my book in perspective even before it was completed. She was a fine teacher, all the way to the end.
Spring 1998 - 2 January 2013