On Saying Goodbye To A Cat (or why Cloud Atlas is the modern Bible)

“I can’t make the casting, I have to go see a cat before it gets put down.”

Sounds like an excuse. A really bad excuse. It wasn’t. But it didn’t seem to have the gravity of a good excuse, even if putting down a family pet surely is up there in the distress stakes.

The cat in question was a tabby called Oscar, my aunt’s cat, but he’d spent a lot of time at the family house so we all knew him quite well. My grandparents, who spend more time at home than anyone else, were particularly enamoured of him and so Oscar was certainly well looked after. For over half my own lifetime. He was one of the constants that anchored my growing up, and I was always pleased to see him. Oscar had been around at one of my sleepovers, and my friend tried to stare him out. For twenty odd minutes. It didn’t work. That friend is now married and a fully qualified dentist. That cat’s seen a lot of changes.

The Curious Cat

After seventeen odd years of decent health, Oscar was now ageing badly. Arthritis, sight difficulties, a touch of dementia, incontinence, all turned up, all ailments that were not going to get better and had degraded his quality of life.

Yet when I went to see him to say goodbye, he seemed perfectly fine. Gave me his usual welcoming nip on the hand, and we just sat there in each other’s company. He’s always been quite calm with me in a way that makes my little cousin sister envious. She is, perhaps, a little over-zealous with her affections and Oscar never seemed to appreciate it. He did appreciate me rocking up and feeding him a tonne of treats. My aunt warned that we’re only supposed to give him twenty or so a day, but she immediately realised it didn’t matter, a horrible intrusion of clear-eyed reality in what was otherwise a “business as usual” day. In fact, it had been so usual that I had begun to question the need to put him down. He seemed happy enough whenever I saw him. But I wasn’t there to see the suffering. The peeing, the shitting, the vomiting, the unsteadiness. All I saw was a cat who just liked a bit of kip in his old age and felt queasy at the idea that in a few hours he was about to get an eternity of it.

Even when you know it’s the best thing to do, there’s something sinister about putting an animal to sleep. Partly because it seems like a betrayal – you know what’s coming, the animal does not – and partly because it makes you wonder about your own ending.

The person in my family who is perhaps the most distraught about Oscar (after my aunt and my cousin) is my paternal grandfather. They were an amusing pair – the old man with an old cat, two old souls loafing about the house and loving it. I wonder if his distress is informed by the fact that  the afflictions for which we ended Oscar’s life so closely mirrored his own. Times like this make me feel that a moment shared, between any sentient being, is the axiomatic block of civil existence. Your life is both unique and universal, and a shared experience is where the contradiction between those two states collapses and gives way to empathy. (That I don’t necessarily think this is limited to humans somewhat reinforces my vegetarianism).
Needing to get home and finish some work, I made sure to run through all of Oscar’s defining attributes that I’d learned over our years together one last time. I blew on his ear, and watched it twitch, I stroked the cold fuzz on his nose, I rubbed a specific part on his neck, til he purred himself to sleep. I gave him a kiss and went to leave. He jolted as I stood up and eyed me wearily, as old animals tend to do. Obviously you don’t know what they’re thinking, but I believe that right then he kinda had an idea about what was coming. All that fuss, all that attention…
Not quite accepting it was the last time I’d see him, I had to repeat my parting glance, and found he was still looking in my direction. No pleading, or anger, just looking. Maybe he didn’t have a clue, maybe he didn’t want to put up a fight.
The cinema has always been my temple, and so seemed the obvious place to dig myself into once I was done with my tasks. I had wanted to see Cloud Atlas, and it was in many ways just the right film for the occasion. I won’t talk about it too much, but will give a couple of impressions. The film was always going to be a glorious failure. The book made the most of the luxuriant form of the novel. It was packed with detail and because it knew you’d have to stick around for a good long time, that detail had time to seep, letting the connections between the stories naturally filter through without them having to be too explicit. The movie, lacking time and needing to use a more cinema-friendly structure builds its momentum through the explicit invocation of those connections. The cut and the cameras gaze are unsubtle compared to a passing line in a book, but such a method in a film would mostly go completely missed because of the primacy of the visual, especially in the eye candy store that this is. I applaud the Wachowski’s for their ambition, even if the movie is sometimes ham-fisted, and falls into that Trap of Good Intentions somewhere between art-house sensibility and studio necessity.

If the book is a love note to civilisation and our need for each other, the movie is more precisely a paean to compassion, the role it plays in enriching our lives and keeping humanity ticking over. The message that’s reinforced across the six narratives (parables, really) is that what survives you after death is not your physical or “spiritual” presence but merely the actions you take, which are always of your choosing – a humane comfort for a God-sick age.

A long movie short, sentient existence is but a continual string of shared moments, stacked on top of one another, that’s best understood outside of your own sphere.

Recalling the moments I’d shared with Oscar, I checked my phone, and found it was just past the time I knew It was going to happen. I had a text from my cousin:
“He went peacefully within seconds :) xxx” – Who could hope for more?
Sleep well, little fella.

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