“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.
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.
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.