A Cat Called Soul

Reflections on Mister Rogers, Pet Funerals, and Grief

After only a couple of dates, we got on the subject of pets. I am a dog guy. My romantic interest had already met my hyperactive little puppy. I told her that, growing up, my best friend was a Golden Retriever named Lucy.

She commented that her father always said not to trust a man who doesn’t like cats. Looking at her across the restaurant table, I knew that I had better start to try.

We named our first kitten Neffi after the Hebrew word for “soul” (nephesh). That’s the kind of thing seminary students do. When I shared this with our professor, he replied, “You’d better take good care of that soul cat.”

For the first years of our marriage, Neffi led a sheltered life confined to our seminary apartment. I changed the litter box and fed treats to our little feline soul. Neffi preferred to snuggle with my wife, which I could not fault. But I did take issue when our cat would yowl in my ear before sunrise. I’d shove her off the bed. If my toes slipped from underneath the covers, Neffi would bat them like a cat toy. If that failed to rouse me, she’d use her claws.

Neffi would also sharpen her claws on the back of an armchair—the one and only decent piece furniture we owned. Still, my wife refused to have Neffi declawed. What if she ever got outside? As Tennyson observed, nature is red in tooth and claw.

I became the pastor of a church in the Appalachian Mountains. There was plenty of room for a cat to roam free. Neffi quickly lost her pudginess and became a sleek, muscled hunter, leaving the carcasses of rodents on the welcome mat. She also proved to be a night prowler. I’d let our dog out in the morning, and the soul cat would stroll inside.

But one morning Neffi didn’t return. The dog and I eventually found her fifteen feet up a large oak.

Neffi meowed for help. The dog looked at me, I looked at the dog. We both looked back into the tree. We turned to fetch my wife.

Even though she was ten-weeks pregnant and nauseous 24-7, she climbed the twenty-foot ladder and returned Neffi to the ground.

Somewhere between the birth of our first and second sons, I lost track of the amount of days Neffi spent in various trees. I could not in good conscience let my pregnant or nursing wife risk a fall. But, contrary to reputation, the fire department would not come to Neffi’s rescue. After being rebuffed over the phone, I drove down to the local station to plead my case. A burly volunteer shook his head: “Them cats scratch when they’s scared.” He assured me that she’d come down when she got hungry enough.

But he didn’t have to hear the soul cat beg. Or see my wife’s tears.

Typically, we’d give Neffi a night or two, hoping she would come down on her own. Then I would haul the twenty-foot ladder out of the basement. The firefighter’s observation proved to be correct. But even more frustrating, Neffi would get spooked and climb out of my reach. Several times we had to rely a friend to rescue her by scaling the tall tree with his rock-climbing equipment.

After being returned to the earth, Neffi would remain indoors for a few weeks. But George Will claims the phrase “domestic cat” is an oxymoron. Eventually, Neffi would follow the tug of her soul into the wilderness.

Finally, she wandered so far from our home that we didn’t find her up the maple until it was too late. There was nothing the vet could do for her failing kidneys.

Our boys were never close to our cat. Neffi was wary of their human paws and, when cornered, would fight her way to freedom, red in tooth and claw. Still, her death felt like a teachable moment.

When a Pet Dies was authored by a fellow Presbyterian pastor known as Mister Rogers. The children’s television icon wrote about his childhood pet—a brown, wire-haired mongrel named Mitzi. But he had a more important issue in mind than the dog versus cat debate: In grieving, we try to fill the empty space that was created in us by the loss. Mister Rogers suggests holding a ceremony as a family: Funerals are times when people can feel sad together and feel better together and remember the happier times together.

It was a beautiful evening in late summer. My wife was six months pregnant with our daughter. The light was slanting over the treetops as I offered a prayer that was not short enough. Our firstborn started complaining before my Amen. I invited him to share the first memory.

He said that Neffi wasn’t a very big cat but she had really long whiskers. We all laughed, including our one-and-a-half-year-old son.

Then my wife recounted the fateful day in the animal shelter when a tiny kitten climbed into her arms. She told our boys how Neffi had clung to her sweatshirt with her pinprick claws.

“It was like Neffi picked us,” she smiled.

“More like picked you,” I smiled back.

By now, both boys were restless. It was the hour of their bedtime routine of bath and books. My wife and I had planned that only one of us would spread Neffi’s ashes. We didn’t want our sons throwing ash like confetti or, worse, in each other’s eyes. I had figured she would do the honors. But before I could say anything, she took each of our boys by the hand, held them close to her pregnant belly, and pronounced a benediction: “Neffi, we will miss you. We will remember you. And we continue to love you.”

I was teary as they retreated inside.

Turning back toward the yard, I whispered the familiar line from the liturgy, “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.” We will miss you. We will remember you. Eleven years ago, I had Hebrew class all morning, every day of the week. Then I’d come home to snooze on the sofa. Every now and then, Neffi would climb aboard and snuggle on my chest. Long whiskers and a loud purr. And we continue to love you.

Featured image: (c) Bertrand Paris Romaskevich, from the Creative Commons, edited.