Earl Gray

(This ran five or so years into my Sunday morning newspaper columnist days. If you’re a tea drinker you’ll think I misspelled Grey, but this is about a cat that was gray in color. Karen and I had four cats at the time and they popped up in my columns occasionally. We outlived them all.)

The question I get most often from readers in the grocery store, at the gas pump, or any number of other places is “how are those cats?”

Some folks even ask about Will, Grace, Missy, and Earl Gray by name.

Each has his or her own distinct personality, and those of you who keep cats – or are more likely kept by cats – know that’s always the case. They’re constant window gazers; you would be too, I suspect, if you only went outside once a year for your shots or for the occasional hurricane evacuation.  Gracie, a short hair, is high-strung and restless.  Will and Missy, being Maine Coons, are considerably more easygoing, spending much of their time sprawled on their backs in the middle of rooms. Earl Gray, a handsome fellow, was polite in all his actions, letting the others eat first and never seeking us out for fish-flavored treats.  In fact, we had to practically put one in his mouth as his eyes darted around, almost as if he didn’t really deserve it.

He did. 

And I’m writing about him in past tense because he died on Monday afternoon while my wife Karen and I were gently stroking him at the vet’s office.  He’d been pretty sick for a couple of weeks, not getting any better after a round of antibiotics, and wasn’t much more than skin and bones and a sad whimper when we all three decided it was time.

The irony here is that I didn’t want that cat in the first place.  He was our daughter Megan’s kitten in college, and when she fell in love with a fellow who is now my son in law, and is allergic to cats, Earl Gray needed a home.  In spite of the fact that we were already feline-rich, Karen and I took him in.  And in no time at all he was a member of the family; the one, in fact, that most liked to be petted and held.

And let me tell you, the absence of a cat in your lap that has occupied it for years is an empty feeling indeed.

Now, in the grand scheme of things, the death of a cat probably doesn’t amount to much for lots of people who don’t put any stock in animals.  And I understand completely that some readers will see devoting a column to a dead cat as a foolish enterprise.  But that’s okay.  If those readers have never had a close relationship with a pet I’m tempted to envy them for the pain they’ve avoided when the relationship comes to an end.  But what I really feel for them is sorrow, for the great joy they’ve missed. 

I wrote about animals in one of these Sunday musings (# 34 to be exact, March 11th, 2007) and I quoted a passage from a favorite book.  In “The Outermost House,” a 1928 memoir of a full year on Cape Cod’s Great Beach, naturalist Henry Beston said that we need “another and a wiser and perhaps a mystical concept of animals.”  He maintained that “the animal shall not be measured by man.  In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.  They are not our brethren, they are not our underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”


Earl Gray was a citizen of one of those other nations, and I often thought that his wide, deep eyes harbored wisdom and mystery that I would never fathom.

Every day when we got home from work he would be perched in the window watching for us.  And that empty windowsill will be a little hard to look at for a while.

It was always a fine feeling when Earl tiptoed over to sit in my lap, approaching the procedure delicately, as if asking permission each time.  He was perfectly content when he was there, and so was I.  He’d purr for a moment and rub his head against my hand, then he’d look up at me with those huge contented eyes. He was just a cat.  But he was a happy one, whose quality of life was better because of Karen and me.  Just as ours was better because of him.

Even though I hadn’t even wanted him at first.

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