Daisy died this morning.
Daisy was a cat, a small gray and orange and white cat. She had come to me more than twenty years ago, when she was just a kitten, rescued from a vacant lot. She lived a long life for a cat, being her own sweet self. Everyone who saw her remarked on her eyes, where were a particularly vivid shade of green. I usually give cats fancier names (Nicholas, Cordelia). But she came to me named Daisy, and the name suited her perfect: day’s eye, a simple, familiar name.
She had been getting older, slower, visibly thinner. Had stopped grooming herself. Seeing her had reminded me of my grandmother, whom I had taken care of before she died, also of old age. It was the same process, in a person and a cat.
So this morning we went through one of the rituals of childhood: the death of a pet. I’ve had many cats in my life, and I hope it doesn’t sound callous when I say that I’m used to them dying. It’s always sad, but part of the natural cycle of our lives. And there is a great beauty in that cycle. I remember thinking, even while taking care of my grandmother, that the human body was beautiful in decay. That death itself could be beautiful rather than frightening. The experience was a revelation to me, and I thought, that’s how I want to die: peacefully, suddenly, perhaps while eating breakfast one morning.
Of course, Ophelia did not have the philosophical tools to understand it that way. She responded purely emotionally, the way I would have as a child. So I told her about Cat Country.
Cat Country is a secret, so you must not tell anyone about it. I’m only sharing it here with you, and you must only share it with friends you trust. Have you ever looked for a cat everywhere, and not been able to find it–but then seen it come out from the place you just looked? It’s not that you missed the cat. It was in Cat Country.
In Cat Country, the rivers flow with milk. The berries that grow on the bushes are chicken or salmon or lamb. the trees are perfect for climbing with claws, and their leaves are like paper, easy to chew and rip. There are birds and salamanders and mice, but no dogs of any sort. There are many insects to chase in the grass, which is particularly succulent. In Cat Country there is a castle filled with pillows, and sunlit windowsills, and dark closets to explore. It is ruled over by the Lady of Cats, who adjudicates any disputes, brushes knots out of hair.
Cats, who are magical, can go to Cat Country at any time. The one thing Cat Country does not have is human beings, so they like to come into our world for what they can’t get there: hands to pet them, laser pointers. When they die, they leave their bodies and go to Cat Country.
I told Ophelia about Cat Country, and by the end, she was telling me what she thought was there, how there were fish in the streams and entire fields of catnip. By the time we buried Daisy and marked her grave with stones, she was all right–still missing Daisy of course, but able to handle her emotional response to death. (I think that’s one thing we are responsible for teaching children–how to handle their own emotional responses. And telling stories is a wonderful way to handle, to understand and create a context for, our emotions.)
Cat Country is a fairy tale, of course, but it expresses what I deeply believe about death–that it is not an end but a transition, and that what lies on the other side is another series of adventures. I believe that nothing wonderful is ever lost, that all the things we have created still exist somewhere, even though the library of Alexandria burned and entire cities have been buried under the earth. Death happens so quickly, and the sense I have, seeing a body just after the moment of death, is that something has left–has gone elsewhere. That was the sense I had with Daisy this morning.
By now, I think she’s probably in the catnip fields . . .