52 Guitars: Week 15

Goodbye to Milo

Somewhere between ten and fifteen years ago, my wife and I acquired a cat named Milo. He came to us by way of one of our sons, who had adopted the cat toward the end of his time in college, and named him Milo after the boy in The Phantom Tollbooth. Our son then took a job in France, which of course meant he had to find another home for Milo. We didn't mind taking him--one cat more or less didn't make that much difference. Over the past twenty years we've had a total of three dogs and five cats, including Milo, and I can't remember how many of the other cats were here when he arrived: at least two, I'm sure.

For the most part they lived outside. One big lazy male named Kristoff had stayed inside for much of his life, but his presence in the kitchen had become very aggravating to my wife: he would sprawl in the middle of the floor, so that you could hardly move in the small space without tripping over him, and absolutely refuse to move; to get him out of the way you had to just give him a shove with your foot and slide him across the floor. So he was forced to live outside for a few years, until one day he just wasn't there anymore. We never knew what happened to him, but there is a good deal of undeveloped (and I hope undevelopable) land around our house, and the chances are probably good that he got into a scrap with some bigger animal. But we allowed ourselves to hope that maybe he had just been taken in by a family who would support him in the style to which he had been accustomed.

Milo, on the other hand, was only half-civilized, and preferred to be outside. He didn't especially like to be petted, he never sat on anyone's lap, and when we allowed him in, he was soon at the door asking to be let out again. We fed him on the front porch, and he showed up looking for food twice a day. He was ornamental, being of a soft gray color with yellow eyes, and I suppose he did his part to keep rats and mice away. He often lay around in the yard sleeping during the day, and made the crawl space under the house his retreat. I always left the door to the crawl space propped open a bit for him.

Beyond feeding him and giving him an occasional bit of petting when we were outside and he seemed to want it--he didn't like very much of it, and got mean if it went on very long--we really didn't have that much to do with him. The outdoor semi-wild life seemed to be his preference, though it was clearly hard on him at times, as he sometimes showed up with ugly cuts, and acquired a notched ear. A couple of his claws suffered some kind of permanent damage and couldn't be retracted.

I worried about him during hurricanes, especially Katrina, which brought water further up toward the house than any other. I was afraid he would take refuge in the crawl space and be trapped there by the rising water. But it didn't come quite that far, and as with other hurricanes, he appeared again a day or so after the storm, seeming none the worse for the experience.

Five years or so ago he suddenly grew very thin, so thin that his shoulder blades were visible. I thought maybe he had worms, but when worm medicine didn't help I took him to the vet. The vet couldn't find anything in particular wrong. In time he got better, and returned to something closer to his old self.

But then a couple of years later he lost weight again, and looked generally very unhealthy. Another trip to the vet produced no diagnosis. Again he improved on his own, though this time he never seemed to get quite back to where he had been, and seemed considerably less lively. Well, he was getting up in years by then, for a cat, so I let it go. He went through that weight loss and gain once or twice more. Sometime last fall he grew emaciated again, and didn't get better. And he was noticeably slower and weaker in his movements.

The winter just past was an unusually cold one for this area, as for most of the country. Previously I hadn't worried much about Milo in the winter, since temperatures rarely get below freezing and I figured it would still always be warm enough under the house, which was where he seemed to spend all his time in cold weather. But since it was so much colder than usual, and he didn't seem to be in good shape, I started bringing him in at night. This didn't work out too well, as he had forgotten how to use a litter box. So I only allowed him in when the temperature got down near or below freezing.

By mid-March or so we were past anything that could reasonably be called cold, and Milo was no longer invited in overnight. But he had developed some curious habits; he was ravenously hungry, always begging for food, and apparently very thirsty, but only for fresh flowing water. We developed a routine: he came to the door, I let him in, he ran to the bathroom and jumped into the tub and waited for me to turn on a thin stream of water, which he would lap at for five or ten minutes at a time. And he was thinner than ever. And he had become more desirous of human contact: when inside he would demand, very aggressively, to be petted, coming up to your chair if you were sitting, sinking his claws into your leg, and butting you with his head. "There is something wrong with this cat," I'd been saying to my wife for a couple of months. "I think I'm going to take him to the vet again." But I didn't do anything about it.

For some months he seemed to have abandoned his residence under the house and taken to the woods, even in the coldest weather. Across the street from our house there is a small creek, and on the other side of the creek there is a sort of hollow in the bank under the roots of a big magnolia. That apparently was his new hideout; I saw him emerging from it a couple of times.

From that vantage point, where he could see all the comings and goings on the street, he began a few weeks ago an even stranger routine. I walk our two dogs down to the bay and back every morning around 7, and every night around 10, and he began joining us on those walks, to which he'd never paid any attention before. For the first few times he did it, he followed very cautiously twenty or thirty feet behind us. But before long he began to lead the way. At the bay the dogs are always running around (as far as their leashes permit) investigating things, but Milo mostly just stood there. Once or twice when the water was very calm he went down to the very edge of the beach and sat on his haunches staring out across the bay, for all the world as if he were contemplating the vastness of it.

I'm hoping to retire at the end of this year, and I decided that when I did I would re-civilize Milo. He was too old and sickly to be living more or less in the wild, but we couldn't leave him in the house all day with both of us gone for ten or eleven hours. So I thought that when I was no longer going off to work every day I would make him a house cat again. His new companionableness had made me fonder of him, and more determined to bring him in from the wild and make his old age more comfortable.

Last weekend he abruptly became much less interested in eating, and seemed to get a little weaker. "I am definitely taking this cat to the vet," I said. We talked about taking him to a different vet, one who had formerly been at the clinic where we take all our animals but now had established her own practice, and who had seemed to be a better diagnostician than the other doctors there. I looked up her number, but didn't call. Monday went by. Tuesday. Wednesday. Milo had eaten almost nothing.  On Wednesday night I noticed that he had trouble scrambling into the bathtub for his drink. I will call that vet today, I thought on Thursday. But I was busy at work and forgot about it.

On Thursday night he didn't appear at the door within a few minutes of our getting home from work, as he usually did. He didn't appear for the walk to the bay with the dogs and me. Just before bedtime, I called him again, and this time he came, very slowly, more or less dragging himself from under the house. He got as far as the bottom of the steps, a distance of only ten feet or so, and collapsed. I picked him up and carried him into the house. I tried to give him water but he wasn't interested. He walked around for a bit, very weakly, and finally settled on the mat in the front bathroom, where he'd always slept when we let him in when it was cold out.

When I got up on Friday morning I thought at first that he was dead. He had moved a foot or so off the mat and was lying in the doorway of the bathroom.  He was almost completely still. I picked him up and he made a very weak sound. I figured that at this point it was too late for the vet. I briefly considered staying home from work, but I was needed there and really didn't think there was anything I could do for Milo: either he would recover, or he wouldn't, most likely the latter. I laid him on a towel and pulled it partway over him, because his body temperature seemed low. He mewed very weakly a few times as I arranged him but otherwise was perfectly still.

I went to work. When I got home Friday evening he was dead, and I think had been dead for some time, because he was quite stiff. Yesterday afternoon I buried him on the hill behind the house.

Why am I writing about this at such length?--it's a perfectly ordinary incident; pets die every day, and why go on about it? Well, I really don't know. But Milo's death saddened me more than I expected it to. I'm not the kind of pet owner who gets extremely emotional about dogs and cats or refers to them as his children. Most of our pets have come to us by accident, by way of our children, like Milo did. If there is any one of our current lot that I'm strongly attached to, it's the little bichon, Andy. (We have Andy because my wife acted as an intermediary between his owner, who wanted to get rid of him, and a family who thought they wanted him; the deal fell through and Andy ended up with us.) But I had grown more fond of Milo over the past month or so, and liked the idea of re-domesticating him; I envisioned us retiring together.

And I feel like I let him down. I wish I'd taken him to another vet last year, or even last month; I'm pretty sure that last week was already too late. I'm not confusing him with a person. I don't think I had the sort of duty toward him that I would have had toward a person. But I do think we have a serious responsibility for these small creatures who come under our care, and I should have done a better job of it. Never mind that he lived better than the vast majority of cats who have ever walked the earth; I could have done better.

And the death of a pet always provokes, apart from the eternal question of death itself, questions and speculation about the relationship of animals to eternity. One needn't fall prey to "all dogs to go heaven" sentimentality to feel that there is something seriously wrong with the idea that when a loved animal dies it is dead forever, and you'll never see it again, even in heaven. Maybe that's true, and if it is we will understand why it is true and not be given pain by it. But from our earthly point of view it's hard to accept. The worst thing, of course, as most parents have to learn, is seeing a child lose a beloved pet. But it bothers the grownups, too, even old people who have seen it often. Perhaps it may bother an older person more than the middle-aged, who have more pressing concerns, because age may bring with it a great sad sympathy for everything mortal.

I have a speculation which I thought was only mine until recently, when I came across it in someone else's writing (more about which in a week or two). Perhaps, although no individual animal has an immortal soul, there is a personal spirit that belongs to every species, an angel if you like, or a sort of Platonic dog-ness or cat-ness or bird-ness, but conscious, in which the essence of all the individual creatures is somehow contained and embodied, and in which each individual exists in some sense eternally, because the soul or spirit of the entire species is eternal. And perhaps in meeting, one day, those spirits, we will also be able to know again the animals we loved here.

It's only a speculation, and I have only the vaguest inkling of what I might mean by it. But there are a lot of things in creation of which we can have only the vaguest inklings.


Milo, in good health and not excessively friendly, 2009.



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This is the kind of post that makes me think, "Maclin is a dem fine writer, a dem fine writer."

Many thanks. That's good to hear. I will not read anything into the original context of "dem fine." :-)

I haven't done many long posts recently. Actually I thought this one was too long, but as someone or other said, I didn't have time to make it shorter.

Sorry to hear about this. Our two cats are indoor cats, something most vets really recommend these days; indoor cats can have double or even triple the lifespan of outdoor ones.

They're also our first cats, so we haven't been through the "death of a beloved pet" thing yet. (The fish were not beloved, and the cricket the children raised when they were little was more of a science project, though they were a bit sad when it died.) So I won't offer facile words when I haven't experienced what you're going through.

I do think you've got the right sort of idea about pets, though. My take on it is that God loves them enough to give them personalities and unique natures, and while understanding that they aren't made for immortality we can still trust that He knows what He's doing with them. Not a sparrow falls, and all that.

Thanks. It's not all that big a deal, but I felt an odd need to write it down. I'm surprised you haven't gone through the pet-death deal with your children. Maybe your cats will live long enough that the children will be old enough to understand it a little better.

I'm sure that's true about indoor and outdoor cats, but we had two mostly-outside cats who live 20 and 22 years. I really thought I had written about the longer-lived of the two here when she died, 6 or 7 years ago now I think, but I sure can't find it. We're now down to one cat, very much an inside cat, who is Milo's opposite in pretty much every way.

"God loves them enough to give them personalities"--I was thinking about that this morning--they aren't persons, but they have personalities.

we have a serious responsibility for these small creatures who come under our care

Yes, I agree with you there.

' But there are a lot of things in creation of which we can have only the vaguest inklings.'

I am beginning to have only vague inklings of vague inklings about creation. Modern science is not threatening my faith but expanding it into infinity.

I do know that small children think it the most natural assumption that their deceased pets have a continued individual existence, and who am I to say they don't? The bit about rational souls and irrational souls that we ( ' we ' being Catholics of a certain vintage) were raised with is just one human template, based upon one particular cultural understanding. It ain't Divine Revelation.

It may well be true, but it isn't the whole story. I'd give it more credit than being *only* a particular cultural understanding. But at best it can only be a starting point.

I've been reading your apophatic musings over at CetT, and agree to a great extent.

I have come to the conclusion that there are a lot of things that are not divinely revealed, but for all intents and purposes treated as such by Catholics and other Christians. And it seems to me that the magisterium sometimes 'canonizes' things based on 'natural law', ie, reason examining the created order, which is really beyond its competence (think Galileo). As we acquire better tools to explore creation, our conclusions can change.

If animals have rational (spiritual) souls, then it is always wrong to kill innocent animals.

The cattle of the world endorse your view. Or at least they would if they had rational souls.

Daniel, you sound like me talking about the social teachings.:-) I guess I more or less agree with that. I'm not especially attached to the Thomistic vocabulary for discussing these things, in part because I've never actually read Thomas except bits here and there, but I do think the magisterium is right in its distinction between human and animal.

Science is, in some areas, still very much attacking faith. Not so much in the realm of the cosmic as in the realm of the human. The impulse to essentially deny the existence of the human is very active and thinks it has gained a lot of ground, though I don't think it really has.

I think I read in a child's catechism once that animals have souls, but are mortal.

The idea I really liked was CS Lewis' (I think). He thought that pets (as opposed to animals in general) were taken up into human life and would therefore be with us in heaven, just as we are taken up into divine life.

And I loved The Phantom Toll Booth! Also, Milo is a good name.

He certainly doesn't look very friendly in that photo, but it's hard not to feel sad at his decline in old age. It would certainly have been a good undertaking for you in retirement to be able to civilise him again, so that must be a disappointment for you.

Belloc on what I like to call "scientism."


"Science cannot be opposed to truth, for it is no less than a part of truth itself, as discovered in a particular sphere. But those who practice physical science may have a corporate spirit which is warped, opposed to true philosophy and therefore to beauty and to goodness. That is exactly what has happened in the development of physical science and of the so-called "scientific" criticism of documents during the last two centuries. The misfortune has happened because the advance in scientific method came after the break-up of Europe and of our common religion. The Process is now reaching its climax in an effort to persuade men against the belief in a beneficent conscious omnipotent Creator, the moral sense and the freedom of the will."

When you say end of the year, do you mean school year, or calendar year? :-(

A great and typically prescient quote from Belloc, Louise. That last bit of the Process he refers to has gone even further now, to an assertion that there is no such thing as a self: that your belief that you exist as a conscious entity is an illusion which is the product of physical forces. It's quite mad, but it's a popular idea among some scientists.

I like C.S. Lewis's idea, too, and have often fallen back on it, but I like the idea of an Angel of All Dogs (Cats, Horses, whatever) even more.

Very sad news, and I've always felt bad that SOMEONE ended up dumping him on your doorstep over a decade ago now, but I do know that he had a much, much, much more interesting and happy life than he would have if he had just sat around in an apartment his whole life, like he did for the first couple of years. Who knows what kinds of things he saw and did out there in the swamp. I'm sure he knew that whole area a lot better than any of us ever will, and I spent a lot of time out there myself back in the day.

I like that image of him sitting on the beach looking out over the water before the end. Sounds like something he would do. Makes me think of the end of the Lord of the Rings after Sam comes home from seeing everyone off at the Grey Havens. "'Well, I'm back,' he said."

Oh, we didn't mind, and more than that, I liked the idea of giving him a less cooped-up mode of living. I'm quite sure he had a more interesting life here than, as you say, in an apartment, even though it took its toll on him.

I like that image a lot, too, and it does have a Grey Havens ending sort of feel: he was the one embarking, and I was the one returning. I wish I'd taken a picture of him in that pose.

I agree about the Process having gone further.

And I also like the idea of an Angel of all cats etc.

Anyway, condolences on the loss of Milo.

Thanks. It's not all that big a deal, but I do miss him. And wish I'd taken better care of him. Though it's certainly possible that whatever was wrong with him was never curable--an earlier diagnosis might have just meant an earlier euthanasia recommendation.

Well, not as big a deal as the loss of a family member, or good friend, but still a loss. I was sad when my dog, Goldie, died.

Gosh, I just realised that's 20 years ago.

I’ve lost many pet cats over my lifetime; the first when I was about nine years old. I really haven’t forgotten any of them.

A few months ago my grandson’s cat disappeared, probably hit by a car. I feel sad every time I walk up the path to my daughter’s house because I still expect the cat to pop out of the bushes to greet me the way she always did.

This is a lovely piece you’ve written, Mac.

Thank you. It's funny, I sat down and was just going to write a few paragraphs, but it sorta grew.

When I go to the front door first thing in the morning or late at night, Milo's usual feeding times, I keep expecting to see him glaring in through the glass.

Robert Gotcher is right about your writing. Without wanting to sound dismissive, not much else would get me through a blog post of that length about a cat dying, without even noticing that I was reading a long blog post about a cat.

Well said, Paul :)

Thank you very much, both of you. I have to admit I wouldn't necessarily read a post called "My Kitty Died", either.

It's very good writing, but I couldn't bear to read most of it - it reminded me of my cat dying in November. I kind of skimmed.

I know that was really hard on you. sorry this is the first lengthy post you see after Lent. I think you had the kind of attachment that I didn't to Milo, and I was still sad. Good to hear from you again. Happy Easter! I just got back from the vigil.

TypePad is having problems again. Been down most of the day.

sorry, it was kind of a self centred way to respond to it! It was just, I opened up Light on Dark Water, a few hours after the Vigil, and it was a post about a cat dying ... :) :(

Sorry! I could observe that if you hadn't given up the net for Lent you might have seen that post almost a week ago when it was more appropriate. But it would surely be wrong of me to say something that might tempt you to give up that worthy discipline (one I've never been able to adopt for myself). :-;

Also, the post is really in the end hopeful about the deaths of our pets. You could just read the next-to-last paragraph.

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