When my daughter Sophia turned four, her mother Laura and I decided to get her a new pet. We had had a fat, blubbery cat named Samantha whom Sophia would knead like dough, or lie on top of, and Samantha was old and tolerant and never snapped. But we had been borrowing her from Laura’s parents, and there came a time we needed to return her. 

Children learn things from animals. Growing up with animals helps kids develop empathy and gentleness. And now that Sophia was a little older, with a greater capacity to be empathetic and gentle, it was time to seek out our next pet. 

Which turned out to be petS. Initially, two cats, because we knew that a kitten would do better with the companionship of another. But the litter of available kittens we found ourselves inspecting one day turned out to have three boys in it, all brothers, all astoundingly different-looking. We also learned that one of these kittens had already been named: “Bozo”–because his black and white facial markings were vaguely reminiscent of a clown. But he held himself with great sobriety, and I found myself angry at the insult. I found myself filled with a desire to take all three kittens out of that insensitive environment. 

Bozo! Over my dead body. 

So three kittens came home to live with us. Each of us named one of the kitties. Sophia named one Zena (after the Warrior Princess) but we had made a mistake about the kitty’s sex and so, with apologies to the Warrior Princess, we went from Zena to Zeno. Zeno was white with orange spots on his body.

Another of the cats Laura named. The name she gave was Cuddles, and Cuddles had grey and black tabby features. 

As for the cat I named, or rather re-named: from the ridiculous “Bozo” to something Shakespearian and elegant: Puck.

Zeno, Cuddles, and Puck: our three boys. 

Reflecting on all this I am aware of how full their personalities were. They enriched our human lives but their value far transcended that. They had worth and dignity that was inherently theirs. They had relationships between and among themselves that had nothing to do with us, and we could only watch and observe and wonder….

Zeno emerged as the alpha male. He and Cuddles were buddies but this circle of love did not include Puck, maybe by Puck’s own choice. Puck was a loner. Puck was a more classical tomcat and enjoyed a good street fight. He also liked hanging out near the neighbor’s woodpile, and the neighbors loved this because their mouse problem was quickly resolved. Puck liked to be outside at night and come in to sleep during the day.

But back to alpha male Zeno. One of the things Zeno loved to do (this was when we lived in Texas) was to find a mound of red ants and pop it with his paw–pop, pop!–then watch the stream of enraged red ants flow up to the surface, and then eat the ants. He would eat them! He’d come home with lips that were swollen beyond belief and I would look into his eyes and they were inscrutable cat eyes. I would literally say out loud to him, “Don’t you realize what you’re doing? Getting bitten by red ants can’t be fun!” But more inscrutable cat eyes. And he would keep on doing it. 

Who understands the world of a cat’s mind? 

As for Cuddles, well, he was a lover. He loved to be the baby and be held and rocked and just taken care of. But he was also a big game hunter and loved to bring home “presents.” Once we humans were hosting a potluck party and right in the middle of it he brought in a field mouse which was still alive and kicking. 

His contribution to the humans’ dinner. 

Another time it was the middle of the night and I awoke to the sound of an animal screaming right beside me on my pillow. It was not the sort of awakening that is sudden. It was an awakening from deep sleep and I was both panicked and fuzzy-minded and I jolted out of the bed and started running and I ran into a wall. That woke me up 100%. And what I discovered was a half-mangled but alive bird that Cuddles had brought into my bed and left on my pillow–to show me love. 

I cannot tell you how bloody and gross the whole thing was. 

That was the day I gave Cuddles a nickname: “Darth Cuddles.” His cold-bloodedness reminded me of none other than the famous evil Jedi master, from Star Wars

And oh, how I loved him and his spirit…. 

I loved them all. We all did. And together we went, humans and animals, when we moved from Texas to Chicago so that I could pursue Unitarian Universalist ministry at Meadville Lombard Theological School. We lived in an apartment on the University of Chicago campus and it was a big change for all of us, but all of us eventually adapted. 

For the cats, one of the adaptations had to do with the Turkish carpet in the living room. It was big and rectangular, an open space. For humans it was a carpet; for cats it was the Thunderdome. (Remember that old Mad Max movie, where it portrayed a space that was specifically dedicated to fighting? Thunderdome.) Within that Thunderdome space of that old Turkish carpet, the cats played out an elaborate gladiatorial game that we human onlookers could hardly understand. Only two cats on the carpet at one time; the third was on the outside, looking on. Watching and waiting for his turn. Two cats on the carpet, and the fighting was brave and magnificent and would go on and on until, suddenly, without any warning the two fighters would both run away, off the carpet, outside, GONE. 

The third cat, waiting patiently at the periphery for his turn, seemed just as startled as we were about what just happened.

Another story has to do specifically with Zeno. We were lucky that all three of our cats enjoyed human companionship and did not flee at the first sight of a person. But sometimes they would go overboard. Zeno, for instance. Right outside our apartment at the University of Chicago was a bus stop, and everyday around 2pm Zeno would walk out there and sprawl his long body on the pavement and let people love on him. He would laze and lollygag.  By 3pm, invariably there would be messages on our answering machine–I’m dating myself here, aren’t I?–messages saying stuff like, “Hello, your cat is on the corner of 59th and Woodlawn and would you come pick up your cat?” People were concerned. But when the answering machine was delivering its message, guess who was right there listening in with the humans? Zeno. 

We would laugh—we would look at Zeno—he would look back at us with those inscrutable cat eyes. 

The lives of our pets. Mysteries that are far beyond our knowing.  

Zeno was the first to die. Congenital heart stuff. And that was when Cuddles, in his grief, decided to build a relationship with Puck. He missed Zeno so much. Puck, for his part, really didn’t want a “relationship” but Cuddles was insistent and tried to teach Puck the art of mutual grooming. Puck would get impatient and pop Cuddles on the head. Cuddles would put him in a headlock and force him to endure being licked and loved on. 

Puck was going to become a cuddle buddy whether he liked it or not….

Zeno Puck

And then Puck died, and my sweet Darth Cuddles was so very sad. He would go looking for Puck. But his days of being a Big Game Hunter were over, and he wouldn’t stray very far from the front door. 

Cuddles lived years beyond Zeno or Puck, and who can know the private world of an animal’s grief? 

And then it was his time to pass beyond this life. Our daughter Sophia was the one to make the call. He was suffering and she did not want that for him.  

Because we wanted her to learn empathy and compassion, that’s why we got the cats in the first place. And the cats did their job. They taught her well. 

And meanwhile, we witnessed the mystery of their personalities and relationships with each other unfold. Valuable far beyond any service they gave to us. 

Humans are not the only ones with inherent worth and dignity. 

Humans are not the only ones who grieve. 

There is a song from the musical “Wicked” that goes

I’ve heard it said,
That people come into our lives
For a reason
Bringing something we must learn….

So, let me say before we part:

So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you.
You’ll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart.

I want to say to our beautiful boys: you are a handprint on Laura’s heart, and Sophia’s, and mine. 

Thanks to you, our boys. 

Let all of us give thanks for our animal companions, this day.