The cat’s meow grows silent

Many of you know my cats in a vague, general sort of way. You know from this weekly chronicle that the five of them are inveterate losers in the great game of cat and mouse: The mice must all be named Jerry here because the mice always win at our house in the center of Lincoln. You know the cats play turd hockey when they are bored. And you know they are capable of spraying hairballs with fire hose-like intensity.
But you don’t know them individually; you don’t know their quirks. You don’t know why we keep them around.
Last week we lost one to old age. Dorset. We had had Dorset for 19 years — which is two years longer than I have been writing this column. She was a slender gray cat who looked a bit like a Russian Blue. Her fur was lustrous and soft, and her carriage could only have been called regal. Still, she was affectionate and gentle, and she was the only one of our cats who would stand up — fur prickling, back arched — to the interloping cats who appear on occasion on our front porch because they have heard the humans here have hearts as soft as butter by the woodstove and absolutely no spines when it comes to a stray. Dorset arrived at our house as a 6-week-old kitten in early 1989, and died nearly two decades later in the very same room where she first emerged from the blanket in which she had traveled from Franklin to Addison County. When she died, she didn’t weigh a whole lot more than she had as a 6-week-old.
In between, she gently kneaded my back on the floor of the den when I would read there, devoured dozens of beanbag-sized sacks of catnip, and slept often on my lap in my library when I would write. Perhaps as many as one in seven of the columns you have read over the years was penned with her in my lap.
Gary Kowalski, the minister at the Unitarian Universalist Society in Burlington, has taught me much about the souls of animals. He has done this through his books and over lunches on Church Street. And one of the things that I have come to suspect is that not only do animals have souls, sometimes an animal is the corporeal manifestation of something a human soul needs. They come into our lives on occasion when we need them most. Dorset is the perfect example of this.
In early 1989, we had lost a cat named Cassandra to cancer. Cassandra was 5 when she died, and my wife was devastated. At the time this left us with three other cats, but Cassandra had been our only female, and she and my wife had a particularly tight bond. Consequently, my wife remarked a month after Cassandra had died that she would only want another cat if it were female, gray, and came from an animal shelter or a barn. The very next day a friend of ours, Sue Gilfillan, mentioned that she had acquaintances in Fairfax, and a cat in their barn had just had a litter of kittens. Gray kittens. Might we be interested? The rest, as they say, is history.
Lately, however, Dorset had reached that stage where life had become a burden for her. She was deaf, largely blind, and could barely navigate stairs. My wife and I hydrated her intravenously every day, and some mornings there would be seven jars of baby food open as we tried to find one she might nibble. She was a skeleton draped with a pelt.
And so Julie Moenter, who is both our friend and Dorset’s veterinarian, came to our house. It was time for Dorset to join her older siblings in that lovely, carpeted cat condo in the sky where the chairs and the couches are scratching posts and the grounds grow nothing but catnip. She was in my arms when Julie administered the shot that would send her there, and so I asked the veterinarian to be sure with her aim. She was. A moment later Dorset died peacefully in one of the places in this world where she was happiest: My lap.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on February 3, 2008.)

Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of eighteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Guest Room. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, and The Double Bind.

10 thoughts on “The cat’s meow grows silent

  1. Michelle Demers says:

    Just wanted to offer my condolences over the loss of your dear Dorset. As a cat-lover myself, I understand the sadness of losing one of your sweet furry companions. I loved the image of Dorset sitting on your lap while writing. My cat likes to do the same, though it always seems awkward to write while she’s on my lap. And how do you avoid all the cat hair that seems to settle into the keyboard? 🙂
    It’s good that you have your other kitties to fill in the space that Dorset left.
    Thanks for your column.

  2. Marti Sterin says:

    I couldn’t find your email addess but wanted to share this with you.
    We currently share our home with six cats including two from the shelter and three fosters that we couldn’t part with.
    I hope that it helps.
    The Rainbow Bridge
    >> Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.
    >> When an animal dies that has been especially close to
    >> someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge.
    >> There are meadows and hills for all of our special
    >> friends so they can run and play together.
    >> There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and
    >> our friends are warm and comfortable.
    >> All the animals who had been ill and old are restored
    >> to health and vigor; those who were hurt or maimed are
    >> made whole and strong again, just as we remember
    >> them in our dreams of days and times gone by.
    >> The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing;
    >> they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.
    >> They all run and play together, but the day comes when one
    >> suddenly stops and looks into the distance. Her bright eyes are intent;
    >> Her eager body quivers. Suddenly she begins to run from the group,
    >> flying over the green grass, her legs carrying her faster and faster.
    >> You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally
    >> meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again.
    >> The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the
    >> beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet,
    >> so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.
    >> Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together….
    >> Author unknown…

  3. Holly Wilkins says:

    I don’t like to start the day crying, but that’s what happened as I’m belatedly looking at yesterday’s paper.
    I’m so sorry for your famly’s loss.
    Holding Dorset as she slipped from this world to Kitty Heaven was the final act of human kindness. I can only think that it must be so comforting for a kitty or pooch to be at home, not at the vets’, and have their beloved human’s touch and voice and scent surround them as they leave.
    I try to take comfort thinking of my departed pets pooping and peeing and destroying furniture in wild abandon and joy 🙂

  4. Barbara says:

    Thank you for sharing the beautiful story of Dorset–she was a very lucky cat to be part of your family. My sympathy goes to you, your family and to your other cats. I know Dorset is missed and will always be remembered.

  5. "Kristi" says:

    Thank-you for the sweet, albeit heart-wrenching, article “The Cat’s Meow Grows Silent”. I found comfort in reading it and knowing there are other people who love their pets just as profoundly as I do mine! My two best four-legged kitty friends passed away recently, too: The first was 21 (!) years ‘young’–and truly owned ME :-); the second oldest ‘adopted ME’ during the time of my sister’s dying from cancer. He passed away in September at the age of 16….an extremely, extremely difficult reality for me to accept. My kitties truly were my best friends and I grieve their passing away deeply. Though the hurt of having to say “so long” to the sweetest kitties on earth, what a tremendous loss it would’ve been to have NOT shared such wonderful years with those furry, four-legged companions from Heaven! We are so blessed and learn how to love, accept and appreciate all the wonders of this world God so kindly bestows upon us. Human beings can and should learn much from such unconditional love and compassion animals freely give to us! My heartfelt sympathies to you and your family in Dorset’s passing on…I believe that one day, we will all be reunited in Heavenly green fields of flowers, butterflies, and all our loving pets who took care of US so well on earth. ~~”Kristi”

  6. cheryl says:

    I, too, have had too many beloved cats die and felt much empathy as I read this column. I held it together until the last line…
    “A moment later Dorset died peacefully in one of the places in this world where she was happiest: My lap.”
    My sympathies to you and your family.

  7. Lisa says:

    Chris, what a wonderful article. I can’t stop crying!
    Yes, pets definitely do come into our lives at the most opportune times. It seems like fate intervened when you took Dorset into your home.
    Several years ago, after my beautiful D’Artagnan died after being hit by a car, I had decided that I when I was ready, I would get another male grey and white cat and name him Oliver (I am extremely partial to grey cats with white on their chests/paws).
    One day, a few years later, a co-worker told me that his wife had found a litter of kittens in the parking lot of her workplace and they were just about ready to adopt out. I told him that I was only interested in a grey and white male and that I would call him Oliver. He told me they had one. Then he went on to say that they had been calling him Oliver! Whatever, sure, I did not believe him. I figured he just made that up so I would take him. I went to visit and instantly fell in love with the boy. Took him home and it was great. One day I called the vet’s office where they had gotten their first set of shots so I could get the second set taken care of. I said that I was not sure of the date they were brought in, but gave my friend’s name and said that there were four cats (one had died) and they were named Dorian, etc. I did not mention the name Oliver as I did not really think it was true. Then the person who answered the phone kept reciting the names and said – Oliver. I started laughing. She must have thought I was crazy, but when I explained the story to her she laughed, too. Think, a grey and white male cat named Oliver – just as I had planned. Oliver and I had almost two wonderful years together. He was diagnosed with FIV (kitty AIDS) but beat it the first time (the vet started calling him the miracle kitty) but he could not beat it the second time around. Oliver, too, was in my arms when the vet gave him the shot on April 1, 2006. He knew that he was loved and was never taken for granted for a second of his short life. We are truly blessed to be able to have these wonderful creatures in our lives. Thank you for writing this.

  8. Jessica says:

    My heart goes out to you both. Losing a beloved cat is on the same level as losing a human, as far as I’m concerned.
    We lost one of our 4 cats, Pete, to cancer this past December. A month or so before we even knew he was sick, a little stray kitten started hanging around our front porch and following us around. I think we would have lost our minds if she hadn’t made her appearance when she did. She lives inside with us now.

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