Our cat Sophia died unexpectedly last month.
I have asked myself a thousand times—why? There is no answer, but my mind keeps posing the question.
Eleven years ago Dave found two tiny feral kittens on a construction site. We brought them home, not knowing how they would adapt to humans if they lived. We held them and talked to them and named them for Italian movie stars: Sophia and Gina.
Sophia had Siamese features: seal-point markings and slightly-crossed, blue eyes. Energetic and full of curiosity, she was always on the prowl for her next meal. She followed me up and down the stairs, countless trips each day from my desk to the kitchen and back again. Last weekend cutting up potatoes and carrots to go with a pot roast, I glanced a dozen times at Sophia’s spot on the floor expecting to see her, sprawled out, watching me.
Trying to make sense of my sadness, I returned to a book I had read a few months earlier. The Philosopher and the Wolf. Dave discovered the author, Mark Rowlands, when he heard him interviewed on public radio. I was skeptical—keeping a pet wolf is a bad idea—but there was something compelling about his story. Rowlands bought the pup, named Brenin, in Alabama and quickly realized that if left alone the wolf would destroy his house. And so began Brenin’s life as the philosophy professor’s constant companion, attending university lectures and rugby games for several years until they moved to Europe.
Using those shared experiences, Rowlands explores the human relationship with animals focusing on the areas in which humans have traditionally considered themselves superior—intelligence, morality, and understanding of death. It was the final chapters of the book I reread.
Brenin, like Sophia, died of cancer. His was a long illness, gravely sick at first and then recovering his health (to a degree) for a few months. Rowlands describes a day when the wolf was feeling better and wanted to go out for a run with him, a practice they had had to discontinue months before. It would be their last run, but for a brief time Brenin was back to his old self.
Like most if not all animals, wolves do not understand the concept of death, of nevermore, as the end of life. For them there is only the moment with no memory of the past or anticipation of the future attached to it. Although Brenin was dying of cancer, in that moment he felt good and wanted to run.
Sophia’s end came quickly. During the last two weeks of her life we shuttled her back and forth to the veterinarian’s office as he tried to figure out what was wrong with her—examinations, x-rays, blood tests. She didn’t exhibit any obvious symptoms, was just a little off. The most worrisome sign was that she had, a couple of times, refused her food.
On Sophia’s final Monday we took her in for an ultrasound. Dave and I held her while the veterinarian shaved a large swath of her belly. The image showed a shadow, a mass. We left her at the clinic for a needle biopsy.
I picked her up a few hours later, surprised to find it was the spunky Sophia who emerged from the cat carrier, meowing and ready for lunch. She butted her head against my leg, purring as I opened the can. Sandwiches for us, oil with bits of tuna in it for Sophia. It didn’t end with the tuna. She ate dollops of Gerber’s baby beef and spoonfuls of chicken cat food that afternoon. A feast.
Tuesday was a long day spent biding our time. Sophia came to the kitchen, but turned away from her food after a bite or two. Mostly she napped under our bed while we waited for her test results.
It happened quickly on Wednesday. The diagnosis of carcinoma came with a referral to a local veterinary surgeon. Within an hour Dave and I were meeting with him while he examined Sophia, walking us through the possible scenarios. We opted for surgery; he thought she had a fifty-fifty chance.
We went home. More waiting. The surgeon called us from the operating room. The cancer had spread to most of her organs. She would only have days to live. We asked him not to wake her, to let her die peacefully without pain.
I have reexamined every moment of the two weeks trying to find a path we could have taken that might have resulted in a different outcome. But it’s to no avail. Every path leads back to Sophia under the bed, probably in pain, with too little energy to race me up the stairs anticipating a treat.
It’s been four weeks. Although it gets a little easier each week, the kitchen still feels lonely.
Rowlands buried Brenin in a clearing near a beach in France where the two of them had spent time walking and running.
Dave and I had Sophia’s remains cremated. We put her ashes, returned to us in a black tin decorated with red flowers, on our kitchen table.