It occurred to me over the weekend that I never followed up the story of the gigantic quaking aspen tree in the dooryard of the house I grew up in. Last summer, my parents decided that due to age and storm damage, it would have to come down. On a day last November I went home to watch it be cut, only to end up frustrated when the tree-removal guys declared it too windy. It’s gone now. The tree was largely hollow, so it wasn’t possible to count the rings, but the tree-removal guys estimated its age at approximately 200 years. So I like to think it provided shelter to native people of Wisconsin before there was anything called Wisconsin. Maybe it was standing while George Washington still lived.
My father wanted to remove the stump, but he’s been talked out of it, and my mother has decorated it with flower pots and suchlike. I’m glad what’s left of the tree will stay for a while, so my young niece and nephew can retain a sense of it even as they’ll be unable to remember how big it really was.
However: we did not go home this weekend to check up on the tree.
Many years ago, at a little radio station in the Iowa countryside, the morning crew arrived one Monday to find a bedraggled cat on the front stoop. Clearly, she had been somebody’s pet, because she waltzed into the office, hopped up on the couch in the reception area, and promptly went to sleep. The office manager took her to the vet and got her cleaned up and vaccinated, then brought her back to the station, where she lived for the rest of the week. At one point midweek, I let her into the studio, where she leaped up onto the console and sat down directly on the computer keyboard with a look on her face that said, “I can do whatever I want and I’m gonna get away with it because I’m frickin’ adorable.” The Mrs. and I had been thinking about adopting a second cat, and so on Friday, the stray came home with me. We didn’t name her right away, preferring instead to let her tell us what her name was supposed to be. That turned out to be Sophie. The year was 1992. She would be with us five months shy of 20 years.
Sophie’s health had been declining for a while. We spent quite a lot of time and money these last three years keeping her as healthy as possible for an old girl, and comfortable. (I joked on Twitter recently that it would be cheaper to sculpt our next cat out of platinum, but the fact is that we have no children, so it isn’t like Sophie’s medical bills were depriving anybody of anything important.) But she took an irrevocable turn around the first of June, and we decided last week that it would be selfish of us to keep a suffering animal around any longer.
It would be a fine ending to this essay if I could tell you that we buried Sophie on Saturday in what used to be the shade of the old tree. But we didn’t—she’s buried near several other family pets down behind the house, in a little-trafficked corner of my father’s cow pasture. There is this, however lacking in symmetry it may be: just as the stump of the now-gone tree will always remind us of all the things that happened in its shadow, our now-gone cat will always remind us of all that happened with her through all the years—the lessons in love, responsibility, perseverance, and patience she taught us, and the companionship we received from this quirky and interesting creature.
We know that animals, because they lack the self-awareness of human beings, do not value their lives the same way we do. But surely they understand that they’re alive. They feel hunger and they feel pain. Precisely how, or even whether, they feel more abstract things—longing, despair, love—we cannot say. So we do not know, exactly, what was going through Sophie’s mind in her last days, or in her last minutes. That’s why it was hard to gather her up that last morning, put her in the carrier, take her to the vet, put her on the table, and watch her drift away. We can only hope that she knew that what we did, we did out of love for her. If cats go anywhere after death—and I have heard it said they go to Hawaii, which seems better than any heaven any religion has yet described—we hope that she knows we love her still.