Selected entries from the Enchiridion of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus which are on my mind as of late:
7. Consider when, on a voyage, your ship is anchored; if you go on shore to get water you may along the way amuse yourself with picking up a shellish, or an onion. However, your thoughts and continual attention ought to be bent towards the ship, waiting for the captain to call on board; you must then immediately leave all these things, otherwise you will be thrown into the ship, bound neck and feet like a sheep. So it is with life. If, instead of an onion or a shellfish, you are given a wife or child, that is fine. But if the captain calls, you must run to the ship, leaving them, and regarding none of them. But if you are old, never go far from the ship: lest, when you are called, you should be unable to come in time.
11. Never say of anything, “I have lost it”; but, “I have returned it.” Is your child dead? It is returned. Is your wife dead? She is returned. Is your estate taken away? Well, and is not that likewise returned? “But he who took it away is a bad man.” What difference is it to you who the giver assigns to take it back? While he gives it to you to possess, take care of it; but don’t view it as your own, just as travelers view a hotel.
14. If you wish your children, and your wife, and your friends to live for ever, you are stupid; for you wish to be in control of things which you cannot, you wish for things that belong to others to be your own. So likewise, if you wish your servant to be without fault, you are a fool; for you wish vice not to be vice, but something else. But, if you wish to have your desires undisappointed, this is in your own control. Exercise, therefore, what is in your control. He is the master of every other person who is able to confer or remove whatever that person wishes either to have or to avoid. Whoever, then, would be free, let him wish nothing, let him decline nothing, which depends on others else he must necessarily be a slave.
16. When you see anyone weeping in grief because his son has gone abroad, or is dead, or because he has suffered in his affairs, be careful that the appearance may not misdirect you. Instead, distinguish within your own mind, and be prepared to say, “It’s not the accident that distresses this person., because it doesn’t distress another person; it is the judgment which he makes about it.” As far as words go, however, don’t reduce yourself to his level, and certainly do not moan with him. Do not moan inwardly either.
And a Stoic…well, not quite a prayer, but I use it as one, compiled and rewritten from several sources including Cleanthes and Euripides:
Lead me, o Zeus, and holy Destiny,
T’wherever my post in life’s battle be.
Willing I follow; were it not my will,
Wicked and wretched would I follow still.
Fate guides the willing but drags the unwilling.
Futile though it might be, I bring this up as an exercise to myself and as a reminder to my readers, because I’m going through a bit of a tough time. I’m not writing this to ply sympathies or condolences, but rather as just an exploration of my own thoughts and feelings, recorded more for myself than anyone else. Recently, my husband’s and my cat died. Her name is Isis, and she has always been, and always will be, a Very Good Cat.
My husband grew up at his grandparents’ house, and about…twelve? thirteen? years ago, there was a particular cat that was hunting and haunting the backyard and forest of their house. They would entice this cat with food, and she’d come up and eat from them, and would even hop into my husband’s lap for pets and brushing. She must have been a stray, since she obviously knew the touch of humans and had been spayed, but she seemed to adapt quite well to being taken care of, such as it was. Eventually, after a year or so, on his way home from a party, my husband saw the cat at the back door with a giant bloody gash on her face; apparently she got in a nasty fight and wanted some help. He asked her if she was ready to be indoors again. She looked at him, huffed, and strutted right inside, and didn’t go back outside again. He named her Isis, a large black Maine coon mix with a white tuft of fur on the front of her lower neck; he didn’t know exactly how old she was, but definitely around four years old at that point. She gave my husband many years of support and emotional connection in the times when he had nobody else but her.
She lived in his grandmother’s house for a good long while, and while I was dating my husband before we married, I would occasionally catch glimpses of her, but she was always so skittish and not at all sociable. She’d occasionally stare out the front window or prowl around the house, but she was far from a sociable animal. When my husband and I moved into our current house, we decided to bring her over to live with us; by this point, she was already like 14 years old, and she had feline leukemia virus all her life, though it never bothered her any. We did this because he wanted her to live with us, sure, but knowing she was getting on in years, we wanted to make sure the last part of her life was comfortable, easy, and peaceful, away from the stress of being at his grandparents’ house. After the initial acclimation period, Isis changed dramatically towards both him and me; she was an adorable little attention whore, chirped and chatted, started playing with catnip and feather toys for the first time, and couldn’t get enough of sleeping with us in bed. Even my husband was caught off-guard by how much she had changed, as if she finally got to be a pampered little kitten again, and hand to God did she enjoy it for all it was worth, as did we. She was adorable in every way, even if she did piss on some of the rugs now and again or drank from our offering glasses on some of the shrines around the house.
Over the past few weeks, I noticed I haven’t had to refill her food bowl with kibble up as much as I thought I should. I didn’t pay it any mind, but towards the end of the month, my husband and I realized that we haven’t had to replenish it at all. She really cut back on eating to eating nothing, and we weren’t able to entice her to eat much of fresh tuna or turkey. She had been lying around the house in places we didn’t often see her. She didn’t come up to bed with us when it was bedtime. She was even more lethargic and less playful and chatty than we were accustomed to her being. It dawned on us; she was getting to the last stages of her life. That realization was not easy; on a weekend when everything else was going sideways, this was the last thing we wanted to have to face. Neither my husband nor I got much sleep. We mostly stayed awake evaluating her condition, trying to get her to eat or drink at least a little, and just pet and brushed her as much as we could in between having our bouts of tears. She was getting bonier, and her breath was getting to have a new and unpleasant odor. We took her to the emergency vet (by the time we were able to get anywhere with her, most vets had already closed for the weekend), and they ran some tests on her; we couldn’t get a clear diagnosis, but we did get a prescription for an appetite stimulant.
She still wouldn’t eat more than a nibble of tuna.
Against every fiber in his body, my husband made the decision that it was time. I made the arrangements to take her back to the emergency vet on my way back home from working ceremony, and…I needed some time in the car alone before I could get face going inside my house. I wasn’t aware I could even make some of those sounds.
I won’t recount the whole process of her passing. Suffice it to say that she went quietly and peacefully, bundled in her tortilla blanket, being pet and loved and hugged and brushed. She went out with a soft purr, knowing and feeling that she was loved.
We found out afterwards that it was the cancer catching up to her in force, and there wouldn’t’ve been much we could’ve done anyway besides just making her passing as easy as possible. We did what we had to.
I bundled up her dishes, toys, and blankets and put them in a box, placed under the table in our office where she liked to lie down.
I haven’t been around much death in my life. Bones, rot, mold, and the effects of death, sure; I mean, it’s a natural part of life, if not the most expected, inevitable, and boring part about the entire thing. We may not know what happens afterward with complete certainty, but we know that it happens to everything that lives. But as for actual living creatures dying that I’m aware of, that I care for? It’s different. Last year, my grandmother passed away, but it was hard to feel too sad about it. Sure, there was a touch of grief, but I was far happier than anything for her. Passing away at the age of 96, becoming a great-great-grandmother in her own life, having outlived three of her husbands, having inherited a small fortune from one of them, having traveled the world, having gotten a college education for a woman in a time when that was difficult, living wherever she wanted, enjoying being as sharp and quick as Olenna Tyrell herself, being surrounded by family and comfort all her life, having passed away quietly and peacefully and painlessly…in short? My Nana Jane won at life. It’s hard to not celebrate a life and death such as hers.
Isis basically had that same equivalent status for cats when she went, but…it’s so much harder. I suppose that’s just the nature of it when she’s effectively your baby that you watch out for, care for, nurture, and nourish. It’s not as difficult now as in the days and hours leading up to her passing, but it’s still not easy, especially when you keep seeing motions out of the corner of your eye you expect to be her, hearing creaks in the floorboards you expect to be her, a pair of black boots sitting in a sunbeam you expect to be her, a ruffle in the blankets on the bed you expect to be her.
I’ve been trying to revisit some of my earlier Stoic learning and practices, before I really committed myself to Neoplatonism and Hermetic philosophies. Stoicism isn’t a perfect philosophy, but for dealing with much of the bullshit of life, it affords a fantastic worldview and helps to cool the heart and head from the heat of passion and drama. For myself, I admit that I had Isis in my life a lot less than my husband had her in his, but her death still hurts. We brought her into our home with the understanding and expectation that she wouldn’t have much longer to live no matter what, and we made the choice to give her an easy, good death with the understanding and expectation that there’s nothing else that could be done no matter what, but…it’s so hard to make the leap from an intellectual understanding of something and the emotional acceptance of it. Like SMBC’s The Falling Problem, I could go on for hours about the nature of the situation, the diagnosis and prognosis, what the expected social, emotional, and physical effects would be upon me and my husband, and all the rest…but it doesn’t impact the actual experience of the same thing. Worse, if not outright embarrassingly, all that mental preparation does exceedingly little to absolutely nothing for emotional preparation.
At that point, I suppose it’s less a job for rationalization and more of one for faith. I can’t even really say “trust”, because trust in…what? Isis, for all her love and adorability, is still a cat, and as Wittgenstein once wrote, if a lion could speak, we could not understand him. There’s only so much I can figure out or know about cats and their behavior, so I have to have faith that she knew she was loved and taken care of to the best of our ability until and through her very last heartbeat and breath. I have to have faith in my spirits that they heard my pleas to watch over her, guide her, accompany her, entertain her, and protect her as she uses up the last of her nine lives to go…wherever it is cats go, and that once she gets her spiritual bearings, that maybe she’ll choose to stick around for us. I have to have faith in my gods that they can and do support me to point out to me the strength I have and to give me the help I need to get through this as best as I’m able. I have to have faith that everything really will be alright, even if it doesn’t yet feel like it is. I have to have faith in myself that I’ll be alright, even if I don’t yet feel like I am.
And even then, faith feels like a bandage over a gushing wound; triage is no substitute for actual healing, and there’s no real regimen to heal this sort of pain besides taking my time. I suppose that’s inevitable, too.
I could waste words on how to live your own lives better, spending more time with the ones you love, being more forgiving and compassionate, not taking things for granted, blah blah blah. There’s no point to that here; I’m not in a great state to give advice, and there are more than enough others who have given that same advice in better ways and in more appropriate venues. This is just…a reflection, I suppose, a processing of grief over loss. I suppose I could rewrite that in geomantic terms, by saying Tristitia plus Amissio yields…well, Puella: the compassionate Maiden who takes all in under her roof, the pleasant Hostess who heals and nurtures, the all-accepting Lady of Fortune who shares her love for all until it’s time to move on. Fitting, I suppose. Puella is often described as fickle, but I find that an uncharitable description; it’s only because that fortune must pass over everyone equally, that all things must have balance, and that everyone gets their fair share of time and love before that time and love passes away. It may never feel fair, especially in the heat of the moment or in the cold of the withdrawal, but Puella is the fairest and the Fairest force there is.
It’ll take time, but it won’t take too long. It may be bad, but it’s not the worst thing. It may hurt, but I’ve had worse. Even through the tears and the wailing and the jaw-clenching-so-hard-I-might-shatter-my-teeth, there’s still that glimmer of love and appreciation in the muck and the rot and the ash. I still have, at least a little bit, that happiness we were able to have Isis in our lives for at least a little bit, to love her and be loved by her, and to see things through to the end for her.
Her name is Isis, and she has always been, and always will be, a Very Good Cat.
“If you wish your children, and your wife, and your friends to live for ever, you are stupid; ”
Wise words. You are stupid.
Great piece here, Sam. I really got a lot out of it.
Getting distracted by an onion. Huh.
Sorry about Isis. It’s probably not a good thing that modern people have pets that are surrogate children. But that is what it is and can’t be helped; the loss is just as acute.