The Appropriate Weight of Grief: Men, Cats and the Writing Life
My cat died.
I say this not to elicit sympathy, but to merely state a fact: My cat died and I am sad. Which, if you have ever loved an animal, is a perfectly appropriate response. Yet I'm not telling the entire story. I am very sad. I am breathlessly, obsessively, perhaps ridiculously sad over the death of my cat, Bongo.
I have cried every day for the past 16 days since his passing. The days shortly following his death included long sobbing fits, with my nose running and so much saltwater pouring from my eyes that my beard became spongy with tears.
Other days have been short gasps of grief, eyes welling at the sight of a favorite toy or the now barren place by the heat register where he would curl up on cold Michigan afternoons. (A place where my other cat will no longer roam.)
Imagine this: I have even cried as I cleaned out their now only half-filled litter pans. It's quite an image, isn't it? A middle-aged man weeping over a litter box. Before you judge me, I should mention that my other cat was down there with me, yowling and staring at the nook in our storage area where Bongo used to nap. She was looking for him.
Okay, now you can judge me.
I have what many would consider an inappropriate amount of grief for a cat. But I have to ask: what is the appropriate amount? How much am I allowed? No one really says it, but my guess is that it's not a huge allotment.
I have what many would consider an inappropriate amount of grief for a cat. But I have to ask: what is the appropriate amount?
According to the rules that many men still live by, if I absolutely had to grieve over an animal, a large dog would be much more appropriate. Which would seem to indicate that grief is proportional to the size, weight and genus of said deceased animal. Which is a nice way of saying that a goodly part of the world believes that a two hundred pound man should probably get over the death of a 10-pound tabby in about a couple of days. Shake it off, dude. It's a cat.
Yet grief does not work that way. At least my grief doesn't. Which leads me to something else that I've had to deal with since the death of Bongo: my own shame over my grief. I have been hiding it from everyone, including my wife. The fact that men often hide their emotions is certainly no big news, but there is an extra element here since the object of said emotions is a cat, a small, delicate, furry creature.
There is something in my male mind that tells me, I am not allowed to be doing this over a cat. Perhaps it's because men are not supposed to be cat people to begin with. The collective mindset tells us that cats are feminine and dogs are masculine, hence I'm supposed to love dogs.
Why? Because dogs are bigger, sloppier, smellier, not to mention pack-oriented. All of which is to say, more like men. Cats are supposed to be feminine because they're smaller, cleaner, elusive and mysterious. There's plenty for feminists to unpack here, but suffice to say that societal perception of companion animals still feels a lot like Bros before Hos.
Either way, the collective mindset is an idiot. You might even say that the ideas about men and cats are starting to change. You could bring up Marc Maron, the respected podcaster who recently interviewed President Obama. Maron calls his house "The Cat Ranch" because of his fondness for neighborhood feral cats that offer him just the kind of damaged affection that he craves.
When local humane societies want to do "provocative" advertising, they'll photograph a tattooed biker badass on his Harley with his favorite Persian long hair. Which is fine, but they're still doing it because it's a novelty and it goes against a stereotype. All because there's still a strange unspoken (or spoken, depending on who you're with) stigma attached to "men who love cats." They are a notorious Beta male type.
Obviously, I am that type. I am another type as well: A male writer who loves cats. Which presents a decent counter argument to the idea that men are not supposed to love cats. Or that men who own cats are something less than masculine. How can you not think of Ernest Hemingway, the prototypical macho, hard drinking, bullfight-loving writer with his brutally spare style, whose Key West estate was overrun with polydactyl felines? There are countless photos of Hem shamelessly lavishing affection on his kitties. He had nothing to prove. Jack Kerouac adored cats, too.
It's true that there is something about cats that fit with the writer's life. Both cats and writers do a lot of sitting and staring and pondering.
In his autographical novel Big Sur, when Jack Duluoz reads a letter from his mother telling him that his beloved cat Tyke has died, he falls into paroxysms of grief. Fellow Beat William S. Burroughs loved his felines as well, along with poets T.S. Eliot and Charles Bukowski. These guys even wrote about cats.
It's true that there is something about cats that fit with the writer's life. Both cats and writers do a lot of sitting and staring and pondering. Writers love to talk about how writing is a lonely job, which is why a cat jumping on one's desk is a welcome distraction or simply good company during those agonizing hours of writing, rewriting, soul-searching, muse-waiting and whatever the hell else we do.
When I worked at my desk, Bongo used to jump up and nudge me until I would unzip the top of my hoodie enough so he could climb inside and curl up against my shoulder and stomach. He could stay that way for hours. Sometimes I would forget that he was there. I would get up for a cup of coffee and realize that I still had a cat in my sweatshirt.
Which leads me to another reason why the death of Bongo has perhaps affected me in such a profound way. His illness and subsequent death occurred at the same time that I was leaving a job that had subsidized and sustained my writing career for the past two decades. Leaving a long-held job is it's own type of small death. (Not to be confused with la petit mort, which is considerably different.) The fact was that this job had, for the first time since I had held it, seriously sent my writing schedule off the rails.
After a year of not having the time to write, I was severely depressed. Pair it with the crisis of faith that I'd been experiencing about writing and publishing in general. (What's the point of continuing to do this? Why don't publishers want this new book? Does anyone even care?) That's a potent combination. And the fact that these two events -- the loss of a long-term job and the loss of a long-loved cat -- happened simultaneously, well, I guess that could explain some of the intensity of my grief.
None of which is not meant to diminish my love for my cat. As Bongo grew sicker and sicker and I knew I was going to lose him, I thought about my last cat, a sweet tabby named T-Bone that had died about twelve years ago. He was another writer's cat, who curled up on my desk as I wrote Second Hand, my first novel, a love story about the relationship between a junk store owner and an animal shelter worker. I realized that at this point that I possessed only a handful of memories of T-Bone. Of course I remembered him, but I wanted specifics.
Why didn't I remember more about him? I loved him too and I grieved furiously for him as well. So I assembled a list of things that I wanted to remember about Bongo. Somehow it made me feel better to do it while he was alive. It's a long list with many items, but here are a few:
1. Sometimes when he would chirp at me, I would just meow back to him, copying the way he said it, then he would meow back, then I would copy that. We could go on for quite awhile. Most cats don't seem to like when humans imitate them, but he seemed amused by it.
2. Watching him jump onto the fridge. It was almost slow motion. He did it with such ease and grace. And he would do it even if you were standing two inches away.
3. The question mark at the end of his meow when he would walk into a room.
4. How when I held him, he would wrap his arms around me and hold his head tight against my neck. I've never known a cat that would actually hug you.
5. In the middle of the night, he would jump into bed, burrow under the covers, then pop up with his head directly on Rita's (my wife's) pillow, the rest of him still covered, but with both his paws touching her neck.
I just wanted to write about the gifts that this small furry creature had given me. Even then, by using the past tense, I was trying to get used to the idea of him being gone. I don't know if it helped or not, but at least I have this short record of him now. And at least I was writing something.
We feel what we feel. Grief is involuntary. Grief has no proportion to weight or size, genus or gender.
All this might explain some of my extreme reaction to my cat's death, but I have still not answered the question that I posited earlier: How much is a grown man allowed to grieve for a small, incredibly affectionate, inquisitive, playful, talkative Mackerel tabby?
I will now say this: It's a stupid question. We feel what we feel. Grief is involuntary. Grief has no proportion to weight or size, genus or gender.
So why do men, or this man at least, feel it is somehow wrong to grieve over the death of a cat?
The day we found out that Bongo was seriously ill was not a good one for anyone at our veterinarian's office. Which is, I should add, a facility exclusively for cats run exclusively by women. I was stationed in the waiting room, while my wife Rita sat in the car with Bongo. We were trying to minimize the trauma of yet another vet visit. There had been a lot of them since he had started vomiting numerous times a day. Rita had him wrapped in a blanket, but he was still yowling and shivering with fear.
While I was waiting for the receptionist to call Bongo's name, a man in his fifties rushed out of one of the exam rooms. He was walking so quickly, I barely got a glimpse at his face. He was trying very hard to look expressionless, but the redness around his eyes and the rumpled tissue he held in his hand indicated something else.
In a moment, he was out the front door. From where I was sitting I could see him get into a car, but I did not hear the engine start. After ten or twelve minutes, the car finally started up, but then Bongo's name was called. When I walked out to retrieve everyone, the car was gone.
When the vet tech ushered us in, she weighed Bongo and found that he had dropped another half pound. He had not been eating though I had been trying desperately to get food into him. My anxiety over his illness manifested itself in the compulsive opening of cat food tins. Trying one, then another, then a different one -- creamy, chunky, flaked, meaty bits, classic pate, shreds - - all of them, just trying to get him to eat something.
At one point, there were probably seven or eight different types of cat food in our refrigerator, crowding out the human food. Most of the time though, he would give his food a sniff, stand there for a moment, and then just walk away. Or just ignore it. But sometimes, if his meds were working right and he was hydrated, I could get him to lick up the sauce from a dish of Friskies Gravy Lovers. That was a major victory. Still, we all knew. It was not looking good.
I will no longer apologize for my tears, for my outsized, disproportional, inappropriate grief for a small creature.
After our vet told us that she believed that Bongo had cancer of the stomach and intestines, she looked almost as unhappy as we did. "I'm so sorry," she said. "We'll hope for the best, but you should know that he may not even make it through the holidays." Christmas was 10 days away.
We discussed how to keep Bongo comfortable and out of pain. And how to know when it was the right time. I was trying very hard not to cry. So was my wife. We were both not doing a very good job of it. Even our vet looked ready to cry.
"I'm sorry," she said, her voice quavering. "It's not a good day around here. Two euthanizations today. I just got out of one."
"I think I know who it was," said my wife. "There was a man in the car next to ours. He was crying for a long time."
The vet nodded. "He kept apologizing for being upset. We kept telling him that there was nothing to be sorry about."
A man ashamed of grieving for a small furry creature. I am not allowed to do this.
At that moment, I told myself that I would not apologize for what I was feeling. These people, these women, didn't expect it of me. And on the Sunday before Christmas, when Bongo became suddenly and violently ill and we had to bring him in, and there was nothing anyone could do for him, there were many, many tears. But I did not apologize for any of them.
Yet somehow, what I had learned in that vet's office I was not ready to apply to the rest of my life, or at least to the period after his death. I still felt ashamed of my grief. I still thought, I am not allowed.
Bongo's ashes were scheduled to arrive on my very last day of official employment after 20 years. It was not a coincidence that pleased me. By that time, I was glad to leave the job, but this dreaded delivery of my dear cat's remains sucked the joy out of what should have been a good day. That afternoon, the man from the animal cremation company called at about three to tell us that he'd be coming by "to bring Bongo home," a phrase which right there just about brought me to tears, so I had to try very hard to keep it together. I was glad my wife was there.
Before long, there was a knock at our door. When I opened it, a man in his forties with sandy hair and a gentle half-smile was standing on our porch. He spoke in a low, quiet voice, probably having sensed on the phone that he was dealing with a fragile person.
"I have Bongo's remains," he said. "I just need you to sign here."
I signed the paper and accepted a beige gift bag that contained a small white plastic urn with Bongo's name on it. I also saw what looked to be a sympathy card as well as a brochure with a photo of a tow-headed boy holding a cat on it. Above their heads, it said in script: Faithful Companion. I handed the form back to the man, at which point he took a closer look at my name.
His eyes met mine and he said, "Are you by any chance a writer?"
He said, "I can't believe it. I loved Second Hand. It's one of my favorite books."
"Thanks," I said, trying to smile, not really succeeding.
"I didn't even know that you were from around here. Wow. Thank you so much for that book."
Most writers will tell you that it's not often that someone recognizes your name or face from your books. It's another reason why we're always saying that writing is a lonely profession. So for someone to recognize me as the author of a moderately successful novel published fifteen years ago is a strange and wondrous thing. Though I had heard from animal care workers over the years, I certainly hadn't expected to hear something on that day, at that particular moment.
I thanked him again. He shook my hand and walked away.
Later, I told a friend about what happened and without hesitation, he said that it was a sign. It was the universe telling me to keep writing and that what I write can actually matter to people.
I wanted to argue, but then I just decided that he was right. This was Bongo's final gift to me. So from this moment on, I will no longer apologize for my tears, for my outsized, disproportional, inappropriate grief for a small creature.
It's the least I can do.
A version of this post originally appeared on Medium.