Wednesday, December 13, 2017

RIP Elsie (2001-2017)

Elsie being cute

Last weekend my wife and I said goodbye to our friend, our family member, our cat Elsie.

If you don’t understand why someone would feel intense grief at the loss of a pet or you’re thinking, “It’s just a cat” or whatever, then this post is not for you.  It’s a vast internet.  You don’t have to be here.

But for many humans the loss of a pet is traumatic.

Elsie was with us for over 15 years.  My wife Beth adopted Elsie a few months before we started dating, which I’ve always joked meant that she had Elsie longer than she had me.  As is often the case, the cat picked out her human rather than the other way around.  Beth originally went to the Humane Society to adopt another cat, but Elsie got her attention by rubbing up against the cage.  The decision was made.  Elsie was one year old and had just weaned a litter; Beth was looking to make some changes in her life, too, which included getting her first cat mostly at the behest of her roommate at the time.  Elsie and Beth became best friends.

I met Elsie a few months later, when she insisted on sitting on my lap even though I was allergic (something I’ve since gotten over … more-or-less).  I’ve loved her ever since.  I’ve always liked cats.  My grandma and other family members had cats when I was growing up, but we never had cats at my house.

Elsie turned me into a cat person.  Now I like to say that I’m trying to make the “crazy cat man” into a thing (why should ladies have all the feline fun?).  Elsie taught me that I like dogs, but I respect cats.

Elsie was the coolest cat.  She once played Twister (or at least she spun the wheel).  When she thought we weren’t home, she’d sing (“mow-mow!”) and play with her beloved foam balls.   In her young spry days, she was an excellent jumper.  She could jump onto the top of open doors or the highest shelves.  She always preferred humans to other cats (sorry, other cats!).  She would come running, seemingly involuntarily, to any human who squatted down and looked at her.  She actually liked wearing little pet sweaters in the winter.

When she was really young, she was afraid of the front door, so I used to say she was an agoraphobic cat (I even wrote a short song about it....).  Later she gained a taste for the outdoors.  In Minneapolis we let her wander the neighborhood (at least until she got in a fight with another cat the day before we moved).  In Albuquerque she once got into the crawl space under the house, which was inaccessible to humans.  She emerged ten minutes later, perhaps a changed cat.  I've never known what adventures she had under there.

She loved people food, even things odd for a cat like potato chips, French fries, or even one time frozen corn.  Sometimes her begging was annoying, but it was always at least slightly adorable.  Even last week she insisted on sitting on my lap as I ate a bowl of soup.

Elsie was a pretty well travelled cat.  She followed us on our academic adventures, living in four different states, which involved three cross-country moves.  She got to make an unscheduled stop in Omaha.  She once spent two nights in New Orleans.

In her later years she was an excellent foot warmer and lap sitter.  She loved being scratched under the chin and behind the ears.  Elsie could pick up on her humans’ moods and console us when we needed it.  It’s a melancholy irony that she’s not here to console us now. 

In August Elsie was diagnosed with kidney failure.  I took her to the vet for an IV for a few days, and then we did regular subcutaneous fluid treatments at home.  One could of course debate the ethics of spending time and money keeping a single cat alive, especially given how much good that time and money could do for other animals and humans. 

But what I thought was this: Given how much Elsie had given us over the years and how important a place she occupied in our family, we owed her the same consideration we would owe any family member.  She was, as fancy philosophers would say, morally considerable.

But last weekend it became apparent that our efforts at keeping her alive were no longer yielding returns.  She was suddenly ready to say goodbye.  It was one of the hardest decisions we’ve ever made.

(Another interesting ethical issue: Why are end-of-life decisions for pets and humans thought of so differently?  Do we make such decisions too easy for pets and too difficult for humans?)

A few hours after we said goodbye, I thought of one of my favorite stories from the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi.  After Zhuangzi’s wife died his friend Huizi came to console him, only to find Zhuangzi singing and beating on a tub.  Aghast, Huizi questioned his friend’s odd and seemingly disrespectful behavior.  Zhuangzi responded,

“When she first died, don’t you think I was like everybody else?  But then I considered her beginning, before she was alive.  Not only before she had life, but before she had form.  Not only before she had form, but before she had qi.  In all the mixed-up bustle and confusion, something changed and there was qi.  The qi changed and there was form.  The form changed and she had life.  Today there was another change and she died.  It’s just like the round of the four seasons: spring, summer, fall, and winter.  She was resting quietly, perfectly at home, and I followed her crying ‘Wah-hah!’  It seemed like I hadn’t comprehended fate.  So I stopped.”  
(Zhuangzi, Ch. 18, Translated by Paul Kjellberg)

While losing Elsie still leaves me heartbroken, I am thankful that the universe came together for a brief 16 years to form such an excellent cat as Elsie.  She was one of a kind.  We’ll miss her.  May she rest in peace.