As many of you know, my old cat Lily, faithful travelling companion of these past fifteen years, died last week on my birthday, which happened to fall this year on Friday the thirteenth. It was a wrenching synchronicity, not only because of the coincidence itself, but because at the time of her passing I was three thousand miles away, teaching on the West Coast. Little could I imagine the birthday present that would be awaiting me on my homecoming three days later.
I had always suspected that Rafe had a major hand in Lily’s appearance in my life. There was something just too telling in the configuration when she suddenly announced herself on March 25, 1998, the Feast of the Annunciation, outside my hermit trailer at New Camaldoli Monastery in Big Sur, California. In honor of the occasion (and the lovely Calla lily that the guestmaster had given me as a welcome gift) I named her Lily. She was a rain drenched, voracious little ball of love, Siamese in her extremities and tabby in the middle, with piercing blue eyes and the remains of a collar dangling around her neck. That was the year of the great California landslides, and I figured she’d gotten separated from her owners. Somehow this tiny kitten (at the time she would have been about six months old, the vet figured) had managed to survive in the wilds of Big Sur, being regularly dive-bombed by hawks and chased by the resident foxes and cougars.
She immediately took me into training right where Rafe had left off: with this matter of “concern.” Before his own death in December 1995, my hermit beloved had been trying painstakingly to show me that concern was the deepest form of love, much more stable and true than the erotic declarations I so desperately craved. It was a hard sell, and I think he finally gave up on the project. For me, “concern” was always associated with a kind of demeaning parental oversight (I can still hear my Dad beginning the usual weekly lecture, “I am concerned about your behavior.”) I simply couldn’t hear the love in it. Over the next seventeen years, Lily would gradually teach me a better way.
It took a while to tame each other—probably the better part of a decade. We were both pretty wild and “airish,”— as Rafe liked to call it—living a semi-nomadic existence as I circled among the four compass points of my teaching circuit (British Columbia, Southern California, Colorado, and Maine), slowly discovering what kind of unfolding the cosmos had in store for me. Fortunately, Lily liked the car, quickly assuming the “shotgun” post atop her carrier on the passenger seat, and the two of us logged about 100,000 road miles together in at least a dozen cross-country migrations. Wherever we traveled, the two constants were her yellow blanket, which created instant “home” on whatever motel bed or guest room easy chair it was placed, and our daily routine of morning and evening psalm-singing and meditation. She would crawl onto my lap, purr, and sometimes even sing along in that raspy Siamese way.
During this decade I also acquired grandchildren, who all adored her and clamored for “Lily stories,” which I spun out of her various travelling adventures enhanced with a generous dollop of fantasy. In addition to her various cross-country pilgrimages, Lily had also been to Hong Kong, Buckingham Palace, Narnia, and the moon. And she always made it home by some miraculous save.
Gradually, as the years wore on, our rhythms settled in and our psychic attunement deepened. Noiselessly she crossed from wild young kitten into middle-aged friend. As my engagement calendar began to get busier, she patiently endured my erratic travel schedule, trusting that whatever provisions I made for her during my absence would be just fine—and that I would eventually return. For my own part, I began to pay more and more attention to her self-appointed vocation to keep me in eyesight, and my schedule adjusted accordingly. More and more we began to “lean and hearken” after one another.
We kept track of each other in the cosmos. She never really seemed to worry when I was gone, merely biding time in her own cat ways till I walked through the door. But once, when I was detained at the Canadian border for a couple of hours and got very shook up in the process, at that very moment Lily began yowling in my apartment in Vancouver, so loud that the custodians came to investigate. We always knew when the other was not okay. And I always made a point to tell her, just before leaving, “Don’t worry, Lily; I’ll be back.”
As noiselessly as before, the next corner turned and we found ourselves standing at the gateway of elderhood. “Thirteen in cat years is sixty-five in human,” my zoologist granddaughter Ava proclaimed, and that’s right about where we were as the calendar rounded into 2012. As Lily caught up with me in cat years, then swiftly forged ahead, I noticed that her back legs were starting to wobble a bit, and her digestion was definitely more finicky. The all night hunting adventures gradually tapered off, and I retired the little red harness she had worn for most these years so I could keep a ready grab-hand on her; she was no longer the slightest bit interested in wandering off. Then her catbox competence began to waver, and my Lily caregivers dwindled to a loyal handful.
With each downturn, she quickly regained her dignity and adjusted instantly, without complaint, to the new diminished situation, as if that’s the way it had always been. Her spirit remained as unruffled and poised as it had always been—only paddling now in a steadily diminishing pond.
I knew full well that Lily’s life was rounding toward home in when I set out on that Southwest teaching trip on March 5, 2015. In fact, we had nearly called it quits over the Christmas holiday when her caregiver back east was certain that she was on death’s doorstep, and I cut short my trip to fly to her side. But Lily rallied the moment I walked through the door and continued to hold her own through a magical two months of winter hermit time where she wolfed down two cans of cat food a day, hung in ferociously with our daily routines, and seemed very much her usual self. I could tell she was going down slowly. But “slowly” seemed to be the chief operative. And the upcoming trip was on the short side, only a little more than a week, so there didn’t seem to be much to worry about. We’d done this hundreds of times before.
I set off the next morning in a snowstorm, with Wendy Johnston, my live-in cat-sitter safely installed. For the first several days all was well. Then suddenly, on Wednesday, it unraveled with stunning rapidity. Lily tumbled down the stairs that morning and apparently went into systemic shock. By Thursday morning she could no longer move. By Friday afternoon my cat was gone. I was able to “talk” with her one final time on Thursday evening, when Wendy put the phone up to Lily’s ear, and I sobbed out my “thank you” and a final, “Don’t worry. I’ll be back.”
The news of her quiet, gentle passing caught up with me in California just ahead of a very intense 36-hour teaching commitment. Somehow I got through it, my outside on autopilot, my inside numb. I managed to tap out a Facebook post for Lily’s considerable fan club: “The last Lily story has been told. My beloved travelling companion of the past seventeen years has chosen my birthday for her Birth Day into the infinite. Farewell, sweet friend.”
But I was wrong. The last Lily story had not yet been told.
Three days later I finally got back to Maine. My spiritually attuned friend Wendy had felt very strongly that Lily must not be disposed of until I was able to see her once more in the flesh and had gone to considerable pains to make sure this happened, bundling the now defunct Lily (still on her yellow blanket) into a plastic bin and sinking it well into a snow bank as a makeshift cold storage. When I came through the door, automatically raising my usual greeting “Lily, I’m back!” Wendy gestured toward the stairs—“she’s in your bedroom.”
I found her beautifully lying in state on her yellow blanket, thawing out before the little space heater she had huddled close to at night the last week of her life when she could no longer make the leap onto my bed. “Hi, sweet kitty,” I said, a little surprised at how natural and comfortable this all felt. She didn’t seem at all alien lying there behind the mask of death; she was simply present, waiting to greet me as always. I reached right through that mask of death and spontaneously took her little paws in my hands, holding them in my own with such relief and joy.
That was when I noticed that the blanket was moving slightly, rising and falling as if with the slightest current of breath. And her ears twitched slightly. And I could feel the faintest hint of what felt like a pulse rippling beneath her fur. As I held her hands in growing joy and elation, her eyes (which had somehow remained open when she died) seemed to soften and looked straight at me. Lily was clearly right there.
My God, is she reviving, I wondered? I turned back the rest of the blanket to see whether her long Siamese tail might begin to twitch before my eyes. But one look—and whiff—of that dessicated body made it clear that earthly resuscitation was not on the docket. No, this was an imaginal tryst pure and simple, as her etheric body lightly flooded back into her disintegrating corporal host for our final sharing of our “concern.” With goosebumps rising, I realized I was in an exact replay of my final tryst with Rafe in the chapel at St. Benedict’s Monastery that night of his funeral wake twenty years ago. Lily was reprising it, moment by moment, as if to reassure me, with every ounce of her angelic being, of the truth of that encounter and of all that had grown out of it in these intervening years. “Not to worry; all is swell.”
Lily’s birthday gift to me was not her death. It was her resurrection.
Lest you think I am once again falling prey to a concocted fantasy, I will share with you this brief denouement. We had invited another of Lily’s faithful caregivers to come by at 2 pm (the hour of Lily’s passing) for a short ceremony of thanksgiving and release. At first she entered the house lugubrious, announcing, “Lily’s no longer here.” “Look again,” I said. She did, and her jaw dropped. This is what she wrote to me in an email later that evening:
“I actually witnessed, as did Wendy, Lily’s re occupation of her three day dead 18 year old worn out body. She even purred. It was not animated as in blinking eyes or significant muscle movements but Lily was without question there with Cynthia, called by Cynthia and with us. She even purred.
I thought I had reached a very high plateau of surrendering both belief & disbelief, but I saw and felt for myself. It was real.
Surrender of belief & disbelief has many levels. I have this feeling I am on level 2 of about 1 million. I am filled with an ever expanding awe of all I can’t possibly understand.”
I intend to put together another blogpost in the near future unpacking a bit further some of the lessons learned in this extraordinary final encounter with my beloved furry soulfriend. They are amazing: about etheric body meetings, personhood beyond the grave, Rafe’s resurrection, Jesus’ resurrection, and above all the absolute and eternal reality of love. But this will come later, and you need this story to fill in the pieces. After a couple of hours of the most extraordinary and joyous fullness, I scooped my little travelling companion, still on her yellow blanket, onto the top of her car carrier, and for one last trip she rode shotgun as I delivered her to the vet for her cremation.