Last week I lost one of my cats, Ben. It was sudden and premature. He was just 3 ½ years old. Ben was one of five kittens I spotted off the Interstate highway one brisk October afternoon while speeding by at 75 miles per hour. “Kittens!” I exclaimed while pointing off the road to the right. My husband, who was a little skeptical but willing to appease me, pulled off the exit and we ventured down the feeder road in search of what I thought looked like kittens. And to our surprise there they were, out in the open with their tiny heads poking out from the recently cut wild grass. I leapt out of the car and rushed toward them. Right away I was able to scoop up three tabbies (all with big feet!) while two tiny black ones started to venture into the deeper thicket. I grabbed one of them and stuffed him in my coat with his brothers. His twin had another idea and successfully evaded capture. But with a great deal of tenacity (and willingness to put my arm into what seemed like a badger hole) I ended up grabbing him too -- 24 hours later -- and we gave them all a “temporary” home in our garage.
What a gift these little guys were! Having just left our youngest daughter at college that fateful October morning, we were in the throes of figuring out how to live as empty nesters. We had successfully raised three human daughters. Now I was blessed with five new sons. Needless to say, we ended up keeping them all.
Ben was the adorable little grey kitten who grew to be the big, loppy, laid back cat. He outweighed each of his brothers by two pounds and was a friendly one -- not over-the-top, gushy-friendly like his brother George, but also not shy like John, elusive like Schrodinger, or skittish like Ross. He was just a likable guy. Every morning before breakfast, I would sit with the boys. And every morning Ben would be the first to come up to me, put his big front paws on my legs, pause there for a bit, and then roll on the ground for a belly rub. He was the only one who did that.
It’s heartbreaking to lose a companion animal. We lost Schrodinger over a year ago when he mysteriously escaped in the middle of winter, never to return. Schrodinger was always a free spirit. He was the one who evaded me for a day, preferring to hole himself up in the brush and attempt to survive on his own as a six-week-old kitten. He was a smart, independent and savvy cat, so he probably found his way to a new kind of home. But it’s been difficult for me every day not knowing if he was okay. Now with Ben’s passing, my heart broke open to fully mourn them both.
Most people understand the hole that a pet leaves in the heart. Most of us have experienced that helpless feeling of raw heartbreak. I was grateful to receive many condolences and sweet messages from friends and family who understood my loss. But I couldn’t help but wonder, if our humanity calls us to reach out and empathize with a fellow human who has lost a pet, why doesn’t our humanity also call us to honor the lives and mourn the passing of all animals?
Cats and dogs -- which we in the United States consider to be pets and dote over -- are food animals in other countries. Tens of thousands are slaughtered and eaten every day. We find that to be an abhorrent practice, but we do the same thing to chickens, turkeys, goats, sheep, pigs, horses, ducks, rabbits and cows. These are the nameless and faceless ones. They hold no meaning to anyone beyond their utility for human consumption.
But what is the difference really between my beloved Ben and the unfortunate hen who is killed so that her breast can be consumed by one of us in a matter of minutes? They both want to live. They both have inherent value. They both deserve a kind hand and heart.
All beings do. My heart breaks for all of them.
Unfortunately, I didn’t understand what was wrong with Ben until it was too late. His kidneys ended up failing and he passed in the night at the vet's office. It felt awful that he was alone. I wasn’t there and I wasn't able to save him.
I am also not able to save the millions of animals who, every hour of every day, are senselessly killed by the hands of my fellow humans in this country alone. And how much I want to save them all. If only I could break open the hearts of people -- so that we could all wake up, feel the genuine depth of our humanity and remember that we are all connected and we ALL deserve kindness, appreciation and love. That is my dream, my prayer, my work and my soul’s sincere desire.
The morning after Ben died, I sat down with my remaining three boys. I was exhausted from grief. Strangely, John -- the shy one who would rather rub his body up against an inanimate object 10 feet away from me while I love on his more extraverted brothers -- came right up next to me. He purred and rubbed his body against mine. Then he put his big front paws up on my legs, just like Ben. He had never done that before and he hasn’t done it since. Was it Ben’s spirit telling me he was okay? Was it John sensing I needed comforting? Or maybe John was feeling that there was now more space for him to be affectionate. I don’t know. But there’s more going on in the hearts and minds of animals than we know. They each have something to tell us, something to share, some sense of meaning to activate in our hearts.
A summer morning with the boys.
I miss my two boys. And every day I mourn the loss of the billions of animals who suffer at the hands of humans and are faceless and nameless to most everyone in the world.
We ALL deserve to live in the heart of someone.
Thank you, dear Ben, for living a good life and breaking my heart open with your parting. My broken heart connects me deeply with the suffering of others. And that’s a good thing.
© carol saunders 2018
Rev. Carol Saunders
I am an ordained minister, speaker, writer and lover of all life. In 2010 I founded a spiritual community in Deerfield, IL, a suburb of Chicago, and have recently transitioned it to a weekly interactive gathering and podcast called The Spiritual Forum. Being a voice for the animals and a light for the spiritually-inclined who are willing to seriously examine the self and begin to awaken, are what Spirit has called me to be. I am here to support anyone who wants to move toward living in closer alignment with their deeply held spiritual values. Our world needs more Love, Peace and Kindness. We can make that happen. But we won't be able to until we transform some of the violent and unkind ways of living we inherited from our culture. Be Love. Be Peace. Be Kind. Today.