Steeling myself with determination to look for a specific breed (Calico) of kitten, I was browsing the cages of the Humane Society shelter. I walked by a cage and a longhaired grown cat meowed loudly and came boldly up to the bars. “Hey, lookin’ for a kitten, sorry, “ I smiled. I wandered over and looked down at the pretty Calico kittens in a lower cage. Sleeping, not a lot to be seen. Hmm. I wandered back over to the bold singer. She reached her paw out to touch me, definitely choosing me. Well, what could I do? I figured she knew something. The attendant got the big fluffy animal out of her cage and gave her to me. The cat grabbed my shoulder with possessive affection. So I came by Jenny Lou, a dear companion animal for 16 years.
She was a queen, a true Southern Belle, who had a way of settling herself with dignity and pride like Scarlett O’Hara at the Twelve Oaks Barbecue. Jenny Lou’s commanding presence kept her safe—no other cat dared challenge her territory. On more than one occasion I saw her languidly waving off mockingbirds who dive- bombed her for being too close to a nest. She didn’t deign to hunt, but she would sit where she pleased.
Some time in Jenny Lou’s 15th year with me, I was reading a passage from the Dutch mystic, Meister Eckhart: “Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things. Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God. Every creature is a word of God. If I spend enough time with the tiniest creature, even a caterpillar, I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God is every creature.” With impeccable timing as ever, Jenny Lou walked over to me and I looked down into her face and realized I would never see her in the same way again.In her last months, Jenny Lou suffered ailments that I am not sure were properly diagnosed. When she became incontinent, I put her in diapers, the lesser of embarrassments. She bore even that with dignity and patience. She weakened but was agitated and I found that being rocked soothed her. I would sit in a chair I inherited from my grandmother, holding Jenny Lou like a baby and rock and sing to her, literally for hours. And as I sang and rocked, I grieved. I grieved for Jenny Lou, her hard going and the loss of her companionship. And then for the loss of two of the most important relationships in my life. Grief I had avoided for two years, because I thought it would overwhelm me, came tumbling out in tears and memory.
I told Jenny Lou stories about all the people I had loved and lost. Plunging into the old rubble of my heart, I went down to the deepest levels of sorrow. Loss after loss was faced and grieved, while holding Jenny Lou held me in that space.
I always say Jenny Lou taught me how to grieve. She was an aging animal— hanging on to life just for me. She said little, moved less, and we rocked and I cried, the tears landing on her soft deep fur. On her last day, we sat in the sunshine and looked at the sky and I watched a light breeze ruffle her fur. I gazed at her sleeping face, blessed her for her wisdom and for helping me empty out. We both made room for new life.
Carol A. Stalcup, Ph.D. is a psychologist, spiritual director, writer and artist in Fort Worth, Texas, specializing in the integration of positive psychology with spirituality and creativity. Visit her website ArtNSoulWorks here.