This is considerably more transparent than I like to be but involves one of those life events where practical aspects of life bulldozed my conventional spirituality and belief standing. I’m not dismissing either, but if we can’t apply what we believe practically in life and relationships our faith runs the risk of being about as appealing as a gong that fell off the stand onto a cement floor, everyone cringes, covers their ears and runs for cover..
This week I lost one of my best friends. A family cat, Buddy. He had been with me 15 years, survived broken relationships a bitter divorce divorce and was a better companion than most as naturally being a cat, he held his tongue in life’s painful moments as opposed to giving well intended but ill-timed advice. Buddy was my cat. It was my lap he came to on the cold Colorado nights to get his ear scratching and a good dose of love. I had saved Buddy from the pound after he had been adopted and returned due to being sickly. The day I got him I had my heart set on a brown tabby. I went to the pound and all the cats were asleep except buddy, who meowed incessantly. To tell you the truth at first, I didn’t think much of him, but when I turned to leave the pound that day, as I walked by his cage he starched out one of his long black forearms at me and meowed again. This was the friendliest most personal cat I had ever seen, and he stayed that way for fifteen years I had him. I’d like to share how the loss of this little friend promoted an important legacy moment for my family. So, this won’t be a typical blog as much as it will be a heart letter about how my dear cat affected my faith. It’s been pretty tough on our family the last 9 months. We were having one of those seasons when everyone was failing to connect with each other and the demands of life never let up. It seemed at times we were going to be overwhelmed as our family had to cope with significant unplanned medical developments that would challenge our ideas of loyalty and what it looked like to be devoted to each other. Now I know friends as I say this, many of us relate to such dry seasons in a family where being out of the family starts appearing more appealing than been within family! Family members experience this from time to time but this was something unique, particularly as myself and my wife just couldn’t find common ground or gentleness for each other about anything, but for months had no problem finding things to pick and bicker about. We are a blended family by the way, and they’re tough. We have kids from both our previous marriages and one of our own. Now this season had been carrying on for months, and as the time for summer approached when my children came for visitation, we were wondering how we were going to survive the stress. One of the aspects of blended families is getting used to the annual cycle of visitations during the summer. While we’ve pulled it off for years but it always seems to upset homeostasis.
Now myself and my wife were keenly aware that we were stuck in a circle of infighting and we knew we were personally invested in not giving any ground to promote a relational armistice. Each of us had fallen into the pattern of perceiving forgiveness and kindness as defeat and unacceptable acquiescence.
What is it with marriages that we so easily take for granted the ones we live with and swore to protect? How proficient we are at inflicting damage to each other basically do to our personal unwillingness to cultivate forgiveness and instead choose relational debt?
By relational debt I mean that spiritual cancer is growing in the form of resentment that piles up the infractions where our relational lens moves from “how can I help” to “you owe me.” This is where myself and my wife found ourselves after months of bickering and some pretty spectacular blowouts. Of course, our kids were always on the receiving end of the chaos. They always are by the way, taking it in and observing.
I’m afraid I know all too well what it’s like to know the right thing to do, and not want to do it; stuck in the trap of resentment sprinkled with a good dose of self-pity makes a pretty poor household.
About the only constant during this time was our family cat Buddy. Buddy continued to do his thing unmet the bickering and the kids hiding in their rooms and like clockwork between three and four in the afternoon, would expect to be served dinner to which our 9-year-old daughter would oblige him. Similarly, every morning the first person who got up was on the receiving end of Buddy’s expectations to get his 8 to 10 “kitty treats” that after being served would prepare him to return to my office where he slept on a pillow for the better part of the day. Buddy never complained by the way if he got shorted by a few treats from time to time, much unlike us humans. I’m not even sure how Buddy perceived me and my wife’s fighting. He seemed to take it in stride. I’ve always wondered just how smart animals are, and what type of cognitive awareness God has given them in regards to perception about the people they live with. I have the feeling, that Buddy, if he could speak, would probably have told us “are you two so stupid, after overcoming all the obstacles over the last decade that you’re going to regress into a couple self-centered, unbending adults and trample the love you’ve worked so hard to build?”
Unfortunately. Several days before my twins arrived for summer visitation we were still at it and both wondering how the stress of having six of us in the house would play out in our current atmosphere. Neither of us were looking forward to the unknown.
Then something happened I certainly didn’t see coming. Buddy, gave us one final gift although as gifts go, it wouldn’t be perceived that way as these types of gifts rarely are. You see about a week after my twins arrived, Buddy began to get sick, and his deterioration was fast. For the first time in months, I found myself distracted from trying to come up with the latest version of my side of the story in our arguments and more concerned with our cat. All of us felt it that there was something significant in the air, the hostile atmosphere changed significantly and my wife and I were treating each other with more respect, more kindness. The kids could see it too, thank God, and I believe they were grateful for the well-timed reprieve from our bickering, although they were unaware of just how sick Buddy was. All of a sudden Buddy’s routine schedule of feedings and morning fellowship for cat treats were gone. The cat who would join all of us in the family room while we watched a movie together now stayed quietly in my office. By the time we realized how weak Buddy was it was too late. So, in a short period of time we found ourselves taking turns caring for Buddy hydrating him and comforting him as he continued to go downhill. Now my wife had never shown much affection for our cat. I had brought him with me after my divorce and initially he was perceived as “animal baggage.” But over the years and particularly recently, she had grown quite fond of Buddy. The night before he died she spent considerable time comforting our cat amidst a profuse fountain of tears. She was devastated, so was I. Our little cats dying helped myself and my wife see the absurdity of our behavior towards each other in contrast to a sweet family pet who seem to be dying at the worst possible time.
But was it?
I pulled out my camping cot and set it down in my office the last night Buddy was with us and talked to him throughout the night in an attempt to comfort him, I felt pretty bad about not seeing his sickness as more serious. By now he had stopped purring when I stroked him and by morning I had made the decision to call a veterinarian to come to the house to euthanize him. Those decisions suck, there’s no way to wrap a Christian bow around it to make it any better either. During the night, I was praying God would take my cat and relieve what I was afraid would become profound suffering. Buddy died thankfully and mercifully, late morning the next day before the vet could arrive and I was thankful, as I could see he was in great discomfort. The same day me and the kids wrapped him one of my favorite t-shirts and drove him up in the mountains burying him in a place close to where we’ve gone fishing before. Unfortunately, my wife had to work. I never tried so hard as a dad to keep it together….
My how I am grieving the loss of my cat. In fact, both myself and my wife were profoundly unnerved by the incident. In it we realized our grief wasn’t just for Buddy’s passing but that our actions were causing us to witness a slow similar death in our relationship. The hole in our hearts which was well underway before Buddy’s sickness was revealed in all its selfish reality as well as the destructive trajectory we were on in our relationship. My how I see that Buddy’s passing was God orchestrated and an act of grace to grab the attention of two stubborn, broken adults who just couldn’t seem to get on with the business of forgiving each other and who couldn’t help themselves. In that aspect, my friend of 15 years undoubtedly gave more than the than I ever did in return and the timing of his passing seems a selfless act of sacrifice.
The current conversation around our home has changed due to Buddy’s passing. We’ve still had some tense moments, but quickly are able to press into gentleness and not take each other for granted, but instead try to treasure who God made myself and my wife to be, an intended us to become in our relationship with one another. We’ve made a commitment to regularly pray this together each night prior to going to bed. You see I love my wife dearly and I know she loves me as well.
It strikes me as remarkable how much of our Christian faith revolves around animals and how their sacrifices in Judaism was meant to reveal how broken we are and how devastating the reality of being human without God actually is. My cats timely passing was a similar reminder for myself and my wife and a sobering warning for how easy it is to be one day away from losing the things that are most valuable, most precious.
Over the last week during our Bible devotionals my kids have prayed for Buddy and our Washington-based “Cupcake the cat” as well. I hope somehow, that Buddy’s passing and the way my wife and I handled it will communicate a sense of grace to our kids so they will understand how great the cost and commitment is to maintain a healthy marriage. Buddy’s passing also provided opportunity to discuss the resurrection of God’s son and its implications for our lives in our family as well. I’m profoundly grateful to be grace filled by a God who is more patient with me then I am with others and somewhat humbled it took the loss of our family cat, our friend, to shake some spiritual sense back into me.
Thank you Buddy
Love Daddy. Psalm 34:18
J.P. Grier is the founder and writer at SentinelforChrist.com – A network of Christians helping each other to press deeper in Christ.