The Book of Jean
It was crazy, because John (the cat) (spelled Jean, but) had been fine. Really, really fine. Better than fine, actually, because he could jump up to the top shelf of the cat tower from the ground; and he often bounded headlong into the window because there were birds out there. That kind of thing makes you stronger, if you are a cat.
He knocked over the Christmas tree this year at night. Luke stopped buying me flowers because John couldn’t not knock over flowers. Recently, Luke tried again — but he put the flowers in a glass vase in the bottom of a cast iron pot to “John-proof” them. John scratched everything and bit everything and when Puppy (the cat) was under the covers, John just had to get under there and bug her. “John’s coming to mess everything up,” was a thing we said a lot. He was fine. He was better than fine. He was a perfect wonderful little monster.
And then very suddenly it wasn’t fine. He was fine, and then, moments later, he wasn’t. And then today, he was gone.
This was the first time I ever sat with an animal being put down. When I imagined having to make a decision like that, I couldn’t picture myself ever saying, “YES let me watch the soul leave the body of my favorite living thing.” But when faced with the choice — do you want to be in the room? — the answer was obviously yes. Obviously: as much time as I can have. Obviously: No one should have to be alone when they die.
John taught us a lot in his one year on this earth. Here are some of the Lessons of John, which I will carry with me into the rest of my life.
Ask for what you want. At night, John came in and aggressively stuck his head under our hands while we slept, because he wanted love, and he wanted to be touched, and he wasn’t going to wait to get those things. He never sat quietly by hoping that someone would initiate affection; John was always the initiator. What’s the worse that can happen? Someone can say no and kick you out of the bedroom. There are worse things.
Love BIG and OFTEN and A LOT. These words together are T-shirt cliches, but the way John did it, love was unique and brave. John found his way to you even when it was hard. And he loved Puppy in a way that made me believe in Love As God; they were always together, lying so close to each other (even in summer, when it was too hot for that to feel good) that it was hard to tell where one cat ended and the other began. He was insistent with his love. He wanted it and gave it at the most inopportune times. There are never bad times to demand love.
Be curious. Poke at everything. Push things over; grab things with both hands. See what there is out there. A small apartment is enormous if you know how to crawl behind the printer and find the blue liquid watercolor. John always had blue liquid watercolor all over his fur. He refused to stay still and accept the world for what it was. He always found the undersides of everything.
And don’t take anything too seriously. For the first time in my life, I lived with a cat whom I could practically hear laugh. He’d jump and knock the magnets off the fridge and then look at you with this huge smile on his face; he was always so pleased with his mischief. (The only exception to the “don’t take anything too seriously” rule is bugs. One should take bugs very seriously. All bugs are tyrants.)
John was a cat and not a person, and you can say that I misread him, and he was only following his instincts; cats can’t love, and they don’t have the capacity to take things seriously or not. Here you and I will agree to disagree. John was a person and he loved Luke and Puppy and me, and he filled our lives with light, joy, humor, and grace. I am better for every minute I spent with him.
Luke cried in the waiting room; he cried and became small, and he said, “Sadness is so weird; I don’t understand it.” I don’t understand it. On the way home, against the silence, Luke said, “All we can do is be so thankful every single day for what we have and take for granted.” Mostly, I just stared at him, because the grief and the suddenness of all of it couldn’t attach to words.
They give you a dumb folder when your pet dies. It’s full of all these pamphlets and poems and shit that is supposed to make you feel better. The badness of the folder is kind of funny; all the documents are typed in an offensive script font. Also, when your pet dies, they give you a clay paw print so you can remember your pet. Both of the "burial packages" that the vet offers come with a clay paw print.
“Why would we need a clay paw print?” I asked the poor lady who was helping us. (I was not kind to her ever or at all.)
“Some people really like to have it,” she said.
I don’t need a clay paw print. As though you have a choice in whether or not you carry the memory of your pet with you. But we’re getting the dumb paw print; it’ll come in the mail. We’re getting the dumb paw print, and I looked through the stupid folder, and it was all I could do to laugh — because we humans haven’t figured out this death business yet, not even at all. We stuff words into it and try to get distracted; we make up stories and find silver lining. Sadness is so weird. There is no understanding it.
We came home and read “The Tenth Good Thing About Barney,” which is what I read whenever I lose a pet. You can’t get through it and not cry; it says the things you know but don’t know how to say. It ends here.
“Barney was brave, I said. And smart and funny and clean. Also cuddly and handsome, and he only once ate a bird. It was sweet, I said, to hear him purr in my ear. And sometimes he slept on my belly and kept it warm. // Those are all good things, said my mother, but I still count just nine. // Yes, I said, but now I have another. Barney is in the ground and he’s helping grow flowers. You know, I said, that’s a pretty nice job for a cat."