Are you there, God? I mean the one in charge of cats, not people. It’s me, Arlo. Mummy took Charlie to the vet a few yesterdays ago ’cause he wouldn’t eat his breakfast and when I put down my cereal bowl he didn’t drink the milk. He didn’t purr when I cuddled him either. I don’t know when he’s coming back. Do you?
Are you there, God? It’s me, your long-lost, wayward daughter. Before you judge me (yes, I have broken my promises time and time again, making vows and breaking them, forgoing church, using your name in vain, coveting what my neighbour has…), please hear me out. You know I’ve sat on the fence for most of my life, believing when it’s convenient, losing faith when things haven’t gone my way, but can you blame me, really? My life hasn’t exactly unfolded as I would have hoped. While I don’t believe that you – assuming you do exist – make bad things happen, I wish sometimes, given your almighty omnipotence, you could wave a hand and make it better. Or at least a little easier. Turn the tide, part the waters. Maybe do a bit of healing (mind and body) every now and then. You can perform miracles, right? Restore sight to the blind, cure the sick, raise the dead. And not just for the fortunate few who lead charmed lives and can afford it. But for the lowly ones, the sinners like me, the single parents just trying to make ends meet and do the best we can for our children.
You know my cat Charlie is sick, very sick. It happened so suddenly, out of the blue. Hunting mice one day, refusing food and lying listless the next. Maybe just a bug, I thought at first, though a familiar dread lodged itself like a fist in my chest. And when I took him to the vet, the prognosis was grim. “Tumour, likely been there for some time, could do chemo but it’ll cost thousands. Most humane thing is to have him put down, save him the suffering. Save you the money…”
Dear God, what do I tell Arlo? It’s his best friend, his lifelong buddy, a cat who’s been more dog-like in its loyalty and affection. My dear boy, who has had so much uncertainty in his short life, who sees Charlie as family, a constant presence unlike that of his own father. He’s got no one else to lean on, no sister or brother to share his grief. Only me, and I don’t think I’m strong enough.
I don’t know what to say. Can you help me?
Are you there, cat God? It’s me, Arlo. Mummy says Charlie is very sick, sicker than when I had a tummy bug and threw up all over the stairs. Sicker than when I got chicken pox and couldn’t stop itching. When I’m sick Mummy gives me soup and then I get better. I want Mummy to make some soup for Charlie but Charlie’s not here.
I miss him sleeping in my bed. Mummy said I can sleep with her for now. But it’s better sleeping with Charlie. He’s warm and cuddly and doesn’t snore. Just purrs.
Will the vet make him all better soon?
Are you there, God? It’s me, Charlie. I know you care about all your creatures – human and animal – and I thank you for giving me a good life. Not as long as some, but a short life well lived is better than a long one of suffering and heartbreak. I know my end is near, and I am at peace with that. One must be happy with their lot, and I have had a warm home, plenty of food, and above all else, a boy of my own who loves me. It is the boy I will miss most – his gentle cuddles (well, he was not always so gentle, but as he has grown, so too has his understanding); his attention; his warm bed. He is a kind-hearted soul who will grieve when I am gone. But it is not he whom I worry about. It is the mother. She has endured much, and she will bear the burden twofold: sorrow for me and sorrow for her son’s loss. Though it pains me to admit it, the boy is young. He will move on, get another cat in time, which he will love just as much as he did me. Is there anything you can do to make it easier for her? I am not asking for a miracle; I don’t believe like humans do in such sorcery. But maybe, just maybe, you can lighten her load somehow.
People talk of animal heaven. If such a thing exists, I hope I qualify. I have tried to be good, patient, forbearing, affectionate. Is that enough?
Are you there, God? It’s me. Today Arlo and I passed through a cemetery. It wasn’t planned; we just ended up by the old church while on a walk through the countryside. He loves the leaves this time of year – as do I – the way they flutter and whirl and drift. The crunch underfoot. The assault on the senses.
The ground was carpeted with colour. He stopped by the gravestones, fingered their weathered, lichen-stained inscriptions. Tried to read them: “H-E-N-R-Y W-I-L-L-A-M-S” (Beloved father and husband); “E-L-I-Z-A-B-E-T-H S-P-E-N-C-E-R” (Cherished daughter). “M-A-R-Y C-A-M-P-B-E-L-L” (Stillborn).
“Why do people die?” he asked. I fumbled for words. “Because it’s part of life… We all are born, and so we all must die.” Was that too heavy for a four-and-a-half-year-old? I waited for the inevitable follow-up – “Will Charlie die?” – but he didn’t voice it. Instead, he surveyed the graveyard curiously, its crumbling monuments and crooked crosses bathed in the late afternoon autumn sun. Then, he gathered a handful of fallen leaves – maple, oak, chestnut, in radiant reds and yellows – and bunched them up like a bouquet, arms brimming with his offering. He knelt next to a teetering, half-buried headstone and placed them reverentially at the base. “For you,” he said simply.
By the time we left, the sun was beginning its slow descent. As we passed through the gate, a sudden breeze whipped up. My son and I stood at the foot of an ancient maple, watching the remaining leaves shimmer and shudder on their branches, barely clinging on.
Are you there, cat God? It’s me, Arlo. I’m with Mummy at the place where dead people live, and I want to know: when cats die, can they have stones with their names on like people? ’Cause if Charlie dies I want to be able to visit him with Mummy, and get a big rock and put words on it and cover it with leaves to make it cosy and beautiful. “HERE LIVES CHARLIE, THE BEST CAT IN THE WORLD,” it will say.
Are you there, God? I bet you didn’t expect to hear from me again. I’ve never spoken to you as much as I have in recent days. Whether you’re listening or not, it helps me somehow.
I took Arlo with me to the vet today. Charlie has not eaten for nearly four days, and the vet thinks it is time. Still, I could not bring myself to tell my son. Is it wrong of me to want to protect him from the truth as long as I can? Or am I merely perpetuating a lie: the lie that his cat will be restored to health and come home with us, that life will resume its normal rhythm? The lie that things always work out, that life doesn’t disappoint, that dads don’t leave and cats don’t die.
When we arrived at the vet’s office, he could barely sit still, so excited was he about seeing his kitty. He didn’t seem to clock the vet’s sober expression, his deflated demeanour as he led us to a quiet back room away from roving eyes. As soon as Arlo saw Charlie, looking pathetic as he lay curled up on the examination table, he nuzzled his head in his fur. “He’s purring!” he said, and I exchanged a glance with the vet. Gently I touched Charlie’s sunken form, and yes, I felt his body humming, weakly but undoubtedly. A small miracle? Maybe. I let him stay like that for some time – a minute? an hour? – his head resting next to Charlie's, his arm ever so carefully draped over the cat's middle. Then, my son stood up suddenly and looked into Charlie’s eyes. “Cat God will take care of you,” he said. “And I will make you a bed of leaves and visit you every day. Goodbye, my friend.”
I realized how naïve, how presumptuous I’d been in thinking I could pull the wool over my child’s eyes. Of course he knew, without my needing to spell it out. He knew even better than I did. Maybe even accepted it. My God, it was like the words – your words – which I had read so long ago and forgotten so readily in my adult arrogance pommelled me with their veracity. The words your own Son spoke: “We must all become like children to enter the Kingdom of God…”
He did not cry but held my hand firmly as we walked out. And then, looking up at my own tear-streaked face, he said, “Don’t worry, Mummy. You still have me.”