Friday, January 14, 2011

Do All Cats Go To Heaven?

Reassurances on the afterlives of cats, and the partial tale of a cat named Bob.

Although thirteen is the number of cats currently in my life (eight in the managed feral colony with which I assist in caregiving, four family housecats, one guardian ghost), this number isn't stable. There are other cats who have come and gone, over the years. Each of them leaves indelible pawprints on my heart.  From each I learn, and with each I grow a bit, in both happiness and in sorrow. With beings such as they, whose life spans are so much terribly shorter than our human ones, the sorrow is inevitable. It's how we deal with it, and with the joys, that counts. 
One cat who lived with us for a little over two years was Bobby of the Golden Eyes, or "The Bobster" as we sometimes called him. He was elderly, and came to live with us
after the spousal unit's mother died. I had loved Bobby since the day I met him, a decade before. In his elder years, his years with us, he lived with Chronic Renal Failure.
Chronic renal failure.  Chronic—it was an ongoing condition. Renal—the kidneys stopped working. Every three days, I hooked this brave little fur man up to a needle and a tube and a bag. I would hold and comfort him while 150 milliliters of saline solution were injected “subcutaneously”, which means, they tell me, “under the skin”. It looked like an IV bag,  the kind you’ve seen people hooked up to in the hospital when you go to visit. Or maybe have had yourself.  It wasn’t an IV though—it didn’t go into his vein, just under the skin. Since it didn't have to go into the vein, the veterinary assistants were able to train me to do the procedure, and I did,  as I said, every three days. Bobby was very brave, and lived two more years than he might have.
I can’t imagine trading those two years for anything. He was an amazing old cat. The family would argue now and again about his age, was he 19, or 20? He was old for a cat, and we willingly accorded him all the priveleges that old age demands.  He had special canned food every day, or  Tuna if he wanted it. Sometimes when his appetite just was not kicking in, he had special kitten food from the veterinarian, which he loved, though not quite as much as he loved Tuna. Tuna was one of his favorites, as was turkey and dressing. 

 His death, poor boy, wasn’t quick, when it came. Perhaps we should have had him “put down”, as they say. I’ve seen that, before, with pets. It’s peaceful and gentle, and they go to sleep quietly. Had he lasted another day, no doubt we would have. But he was so very, very ill. We didn’t want him to be frightened, uncomfortable, on a cold, sterile metal table. We wanted him at home, with us. I still wonder if we did the right thing. If we would have saved him suffering by taking the other route. If the vet could have come to the house, if we lived in a day and age and place where doctors made house calls, we would have done it. It would have been more compassionate, I think, than the end was when it came.
He was frightened. He had grown weaker and weaker over two days. He lay in a box, on his side, eyes open, confused, breathing shallowly. The confusion in those beautiful eyes, that tears at your heart. How do you explain? How do you comfort the dying? Explain that just a few more hours, a few more breaths, and it will be over, the pain, the fear. That I will be right here, at your side until the very end, when I can’t be there anymore, because you are going where I can’t go yet, though I will follow you surely one day.
How do you comfort the dying? How do you communicate to this beautiful creature, whose golden eyes look at you, trusting, pleading, that all will be well soon? And will it? Will it be well soon? What lies beyond, beyond the final breath, beyond the ceasing of brain activity. What lies beyond if you are a cat?
It’s easier, in some ways, with a human loved one, especially when there is faith. Trust in a loving God, belief in an afterlife, in heaven. A place, a state of being, where all sorrows cease, all tears are wiped gently away. You can talk together, you and the dying, of that hope. There is comfort, great comfort, in faith. “Eternal rest grant unto them O God.”  Does it work that way for pets, too? Do all dogs go to Heaven?
It says somewhere in the Bible that the breath of man goes up to God, and the breath of the beast down to the earth. I grew up hearing that passage interpreted to mean than humans have immortal souls, and animals do not. That when an animal dies, she’s gone. All that she was, all her memories, the unique creature that was this bright being who loved and was loved, is gone, forever. I was horrified by that, as a child. Shocked and stunned beyond comprehension. How cruel! How awful! How could I love, much less serve, a God who would let a creature  I loved be gone forever.

It seems especially cruel, too, when now as an adult, I consider the sorrowful and short lives, some filled with torment, suffered by so many animals. The veal calf who stands, unable to move, or to lie down, unable to use her muscles in any way, locked away in complete darkness. This is her short life. Light and movement toughen the muscles, and veal is meant to be tender, a tender, succulent, and overpriced treat to titillate the palate of some moghul of industry. Piles of money, and nothing to spend them on. So we torture a fellow being, this veal calf, who can’t fight back, and reward the torturers with piles of our cash. Somehow that makes us feel better. More powerful. Better. Somehow.
Is that short and agonizing life all there is for the veal calf? Is it not better for her if she were never born?
This idea tormented me as a child. I couldn’t bear it. It kept me up nights, the thought did, once I had had it. I wept and wept into the darkness. I seemed to see them, the great wide eyes, placid and brown, of the imagined calf, trapped in darkness, unable to move. I imagined what it would be like, not to be able to move, not to stand up or to lie down. Not to scratch an itch. Alone. Alone and frightened in the dark. Being raised to be devoured. I couldn’t stand it. And I could do nothing about it.
I could refuse to eat veal, of course, which I did. I have never yet eaten veal, and I hope to God I never do. But this really wasn’t an issue for me as a child, seeing as how my college student father and my secretary mother wouldn’t have had the money to spend on veal at any rate. I was haunted by my own powerlessness.
And then, to think, to think.  To think that our family dog, a beautiful, cranky, eccentric collie named “Heather”, to think that she had no soul? To think that she would die and be lost forever? This soft, doe eyed beauty who slept with me, and played with me, who sorrowfully allowed me to dress her up with a bath towel as a cape, so we could be Batman and Robin, who offered her tummy for scratching and who drank iced tea from my glass when no one was watching—I would go to heaven without her? It was too  much. I almost lost my faith.
The Mahabarata is the great epic cycle of Indian literature, as great, some say greater, in scope than the Greek Iliad and Odyssey of the western canon. I will not retell it here. I couldn’t, even if I would. There is a scene, toward the end, where our hero Prince Steady-In-War (Prince Yudhisthira if you can pronounce it), has come through many travels and travails, through a lifetime of suffering and sorrow, has come at last to the foot of the mountain of the gods, seeking enlightenment. He has nothing left; he was born a prince, one of five brothers, the child of a god. His beautiful wife, his kingdom, his brothers, his mother, his children – all are lost. He has come here at last;  I see him as an old man, weary with life, weary of the world, weary of himself. He has come to the foot of the mountain of the gods, seeking truth, seeking enlightenment, seeking the why of it all, and seeking peace. He has with him nothing but the staff he leans on, and the companionship of an old, blind dog. An old blind dog who has been faithful and loyal through all the years, and has followed his master the world over, and has now come with him to the mountain of the gods, out of love, and out of the loyalty of dogs.
The scene is very poingnant.  Prince Steady-in-War is offered enlightenment, immortality, all that his heart desires. This is what he has sought. “Lay down your staff”, he is told. But he is also told that he must abandon the old blind dog, leave him alone on the mountain to starve, or to be mauled by wild beasts, or to freeze. It is the price of enlightenment. All that you desire, for one small act of disloyalty, to a blind beast who has loved you.  The moment is tense. Prince Steady-inWar stands at the gate to heaven, faced with this choice. I seem to see the loyal dog lie down at his feet, reconciled to his fate, trusting his master. For the tiniest moment we believe – I believed—that the prince will take the deal. There is a pause. The gods on the mountain bend down to listen. But the wrath of the half mortal prince breaks out against the gods who would demand such a thing. Such a cruel thing, such a thing lacking in compassion. In one of the most eloquent passages of all literature, he rages at them, and he has the moral high ground. One can almost see the Vedic gods cringing like chastened schoolboys. He tells them that if this is the price of enlightment, to betray one loyal to you, to leave this gentle creature to a cruel fate, to die alone and in fear, then he will have none of it. Had I read this story as a child, I might have become an atheist.
I was in my twenties, though, when I encountered the Mahabarata. At twelve, struggling with my crisis of faith, it was my mother, not the Mahabarata, who intervened.
Mothers have a strange way of being in tune with their children. Of knowing when something is afoot, sensing when something is wrong in the lives of their offspring. At least my mother did, and I did and do with my own children. Also, I have observed my daughters have this same queer sense with regard to their own children. Perhaps it isn’t a universal thing, but it is certainly a thing with the women of my bloodline, and I have seen it as well with the mothers of my friends, and with friends who have children. The mother’s eye.
At any rate, somehow, my mother knew without knowing that something was wrong. Ultimately, we were able to talk about it. (She was implacable when getting you to tell her something she wanted to know. I am convinced she could have taught the CIA interrogators a thing or two.) So, over chocolate milk and peanut butter cookies, sitting in the shade of our tree-filled back yard, the tale came out. (We always sat in the shade, though I am and always have been an avid sun lover. Throughout her life, my mother maintained that she was allergic to the sun, which I really don’t think is possible. However, she was in truth a natural red head, and did become sun-burned very quickly. As a teenager I would torment her by telling her she was probably a vampire.) It came out that I had heard from some well meaning teacher that this passage which I  mentioned before, about the breath of man rising to God and the breath of the beasts descending to the earth, that this meant animals had no souls, and so would remain dead forever when they died. I sat in the grass, petting the long silky hair of our collie, who was utterly blissful under the attention. I can still see her, beautiful copper canine stretched full length in the grass beside me, half rolled on to her back, eyes half closed in pleasure, grinning as only a happy dog can grin while I petted her and wept.
I mentioned that my mother was a natural redhead. She was also the great granddaughter of an Irish immigrant. These two things together combined to give her the fiery temper of a queen Maeve, or of Boudiccea. I don’t know whether red hair and Irish genetics actually cause a person to be hot tempered. I have heard it argued that it’s really a cultural thing. We believe that redheads and Irishmen are hot tempered, so when a redheaded or an irish child displays temper, we indulge it, rather than correct it. Be that as it may. With my mother the cliché was a reality. She was hot tempered, and when her temper was roused, nothing could move her, I am convinced. She would have died where she stood rather than give an inch. And what I told her roused her temper.
That, she told me firmly, was a blatant falsehood. Of course animals went to heaven, she said, and it was shameless heresy to maintain otherwise. “But the Bible says”, I argued half heartedly, for I really wanted it to be true that animals went to heaven. “The Bible says a lot of things”, she told me calmly. “And it certainly says that animals go to heaven. You go play.” Thus I was dismissed, and back into the house she marched, spine straight and curls bristling. I have always yearned and yearned for curly hair while my mother, whose hair was so curly she often had it straightened, despised hers.
Now, you must understand that this was in the days before the internet. Research was a very different activity then. Today, if I want a quick overview on a topic, something to get me started, I can open my browser, type a few keywords into my search screen, and voila! More to read on any given topic than I can read in an hour or several hours.  It wasn’t so back then. The only computer I had ever seen was on Star Trek. If you wanted to do research on a topic, you went to the library: your own, if you had a collection of books, or to the public library if the search exhausted the resources of your own collection. (I seem to remember Isaac Asimov saying somewhere that it was cheating if you had to go outside your own library for research.) Encyclopedias were collection of real live books with beautiful covers that took up rows and rows of shelves. For really serious research you might go to the university library, which was always a great excitement. There were more books there than you can possibly imagine. I am convinced that I went to college because of the days I spent in the university library with my father, during his student days. I wanted to grow up and be near the books.
So it was a great feat when that night, after supper, I was presented with what was essentially a small research paper, what my father gently called “one of your mother’s white papers.” My mother loved to do research, on practically any topic whatsoever. I have often wondered what another day and age and place might have done with her.  If she had been born after the feminist revolution, say, or a member of the leisure class, with money and time to burn. As it was, she made amazing use of the time and resources which were available to her, and handed me a well argued piece on the biblical basis for animals going to heaven, as they certainly should.
I still to this day remember some of her arguments.  “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing," she quoted, " and yet when one of them falls to the earth, your Heavenly Father knows.” Then the beautiful passage from Isaiah, that tough old prophet, about the coming of the Peaceable Kingdom: “the lion shall lay down with the lamb…they shall neither hurt nor destroy on all my holy mountain.” This proved that there were animals in heaven, she argued. It was also, I realize now, the genesis of a real faith, an adult faith, for me. Isaiah’s beautiful and powerful description of the Peaceable Kingdom, where the lion will eat hay like the ox, where snakes and small children, the wolf and the bear, all will live peacefully, contentedly together. Where swords are beaten into plow shares, and the nations study war no more.  (Can you imagine! No more war!) This is a Kingdom I can yearn for, hope for, work for and live for. And if God is the Good King of that kingdom, then He has my vote, my allegiance, indeed myself, if He’ll have me. I didn’t formulate all those thoughts that night, of course, after dinner with my mother and father in the cozy living room of our suburban house. Back before I was a teenager, back when we all still loved and respected and understood each other. But the seed was planted. It wasn’t until years and years and years later that I read and understood with a breaking heart, “My Kingdom is not of this world.”
I don’t know now, to my adult and educated mind, how my mother’s arguments might seem. I don't know if they would hold up to my critical analysis. The “White Paper” has long since vanished, so I cannot now go back with an adult’s eye to examine the argument. Nevertheless, that night it was enough. Yes, Virginia, all dogs go to heaven. And cats and canaries too, and cows and bears.
Knowing this, believing this, as I did and do, doesn’t stop the tears, or the wrenching pain in the heart, or the rage at such an unjust thing as death. Years and years later, as beautiful Bobby, cat of the golden eyes, lay in my arms, dying, there was nothing I could communicate to him about the afterlife. The Kingdom which is to come. No comfort I could offer, one analytical mind to another. How do you comfort the dying? When the dying is a little old cat, who loves you and trusts you and doesn’t understand this dread thing that has come over him?
You hold him. I held him. You wrap him in something soft, something that smells of you, the human he loves, a favorite sweater, to keep the creeping cold at bay. You stroke him and speak softly to him. You look into his eyes and let your own tears flow, for what could you do to hold them back, at any rate? When the convulsions come, and he cries out in fear, perhaps in pain, you hold him to your heart and rock him like a child and hope it helps. In the end, you pray for the end, for the suffering to stop, for him to be released. And so it comes, ultimately, whether you pray for it or not, inexorable, implacable, that dark spirit which comes for us all. The tiny body shudders once, eyes wide, and then is still. Something is gone.
It’s such a shock. Such a shock. You hold him for a while, stunned. Not all the power or money or knowledge in the world can stave off this moment forever, this moment of Death’s ugly triumph. The moment of mortality. Where is he gone, cat with the golden eyes? Eventually, you put the body, the empty shell, put it down somewhere, respectfully. Wrap it gently in something. Wash your hands. Comfort the other cats, who of course are frightened, not understanding. Or perhaps they ken more than we, poor humans know. They watch with wide and solemn eyes. They crawl into bed with you later, comforting. We huddle together for warmth. We the living. I’m all cried out, and can’t cry anymore. I feel nothing. I feel old and grey. Defeated. I lie in the bed and don’t sleep, staring at the ceiling, floating lost on some awful sea of depression.
Eventually, the spousal unit returns from work. Bobby has been part of his family for twenty years. I look at him in sorrow, and wonder what he feels. I don’t ask. I don’t have to. it’s there in his eyes, the pain, the helplessness. “Remember man that thou art dust…” He goes to the basement for a shovel; I suggest a location. There’s a rosebush in our garden, a rosebush that once belonged to his mother. We transplanted it here, to our house, after mother and father were gone,  and when the family house was soon to be sold. Mother’s rosebush. You’ve no idea how I labored over that bush, and prayed over it, to keep it alive. It’s thriving now, and every year throws out canes heavy laden with blood red roses the size of half dollars. It’s a beautiful thing, a thing of joy.  We choose this, Mother’s rosebush, as a final resting place for golden eyed Bobby. It seemed fitting. We are pleased with our choice.
It’s illegal in the city to bury a pet in the garden, who knows why. So we do it quietly, discreetly. The weight on my heart is palpable, a physical thing. We fill the tiny pit with earth, cover it with leaves. Later, a beautiful quartz stone will go here, but we don’t know that now. The shovel is returned to the basement. I think we order Chinese for delivery. No one wants to cook.
That night, cold February night, I can’t sleep. I’m still in the grip of overwhelming depression. It’s only five months since my breakdown, and I’m on anti-depressants. They don’t use the word “breakdown” these days. It’s a word out of fashion. “Major depressive episode” is the preferred term. It doesn’t matter what you call it, it feels the same. Immobilizes the same. I feel completely unable to cope. To function. I sit downstairs in the living room. In the dark that isn’t dark, for it’s never full dark in the city. Light that might be moonlight but isn’t, it’s electric light from the street lamp on the corner, fills the room with dimness. Neither dark nor light. I sit quietly, listening to the sounds of three am. A siren wails in the distance; a lone dog barks a few times, then quiets. A solitary car revs its engine a block over. I hear the purring and clicking of the clock on the kitchen stove.
Finally, I lie down on the couch, and pull a blanket over my head. The cats cuddle up around me, keeping watch. Despair blows in like a typhoon.

~~This story is a chapter in the upcoming book whose working title is "The Burden of The Phoenix", and is copyright 2010 by M. Dawn Blaloch


  1. Well this wasn't the cat that died a few months ago? The story referenced February....

  2. @ Robin: Thank you! That means a great deal to me. No, the name of the cat who died in October 2010 was "Hades." I'll try to write about him too, but it's still too raw, that wound. Bobby came to live with us in 2006, and died in February of 2009. He had belonged to the spousal unit's father, and been a part of their family since the early 1990's, long before I met them. He was a grand Old Man, and a fabulous mouser, even in his old age.

  3. I look forward to reading the whole book!

  4. Enjoyed this commentary. Lots of emotion in this blog. A Cat Lady salute to you!

  5. For those of you who don't know, Roberta Beach Jacobson is one of my all time favorite writers on all things catly! What an honour to have her reading and commenting here! You can catch her blog at or just do a google search for "cat blogs."

  6. Wow. This brought me to tears. I had a similar experience with a dog of mine a few years back (watching them and trying to comfort them as they died) and just recently lost another dog from my childhood.

    I sure do hope pets go to heaven. I can't imagine it being a place I want to be without them...

  7. All I can say here, besides beautiful, is that the God I believe in, would not deny Heaven to any creature that loves and is loved.

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