Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all?
Thou’lt come no more;
Never, never, never, never, never!
So King Lear laments upon finding his best beloved daughter, Cordelia, hanged with no, no, no life left in her.
I suppose it’s a different question when asked about an animal. About a person: why should all these “lesser” beings survive while you don’t? About a cherished animal: Why, of all the millions of animals in the world, must you die? Why you, the one that, once you joined us, made what had previously been only two people who loved each other into something much larger: a family?
For we were not a family until this beautiful and perfect cat we named Columbo moved in, though I didn’t realize this consciously until he was gone. Last week, after over 15 years with us, Columbo died. We knew it was coming; he’d recently been diagnosed with heart disease but he displayed a strange variety of symptoms suggesting there were other things going, probably gravely, wrong with him. We decided for him, as we had to, what the parameters of a comfortable life in palliative care looked like: interest in eating regularly and enough, able to walk, enjoyment in constant love and pets and kisses and hugs.
He lost almost all of this very suddenly two Tuesdays ago. While he bounced back from many things over the years, having been gifted with many more than the regulation 9 lives, he didn’t bounce back from this. We took him to the vet and we didn’t bring him back again.
I adopted Columbo, at my husband’s insistence that I get a cat, at the beginning of my Ph.D. in Renaissance drama. Upon meeting him in our early days at Queen’s, my classmate R. (also a Renaissance scholar) declared that in an all-cat production of King Lear, Columbo would obviously play the king. For not only was he beautiful and noble, he was obviously royalty in exile: an apparently purebred Maine Coon on death row at the humane society.
In king-like fashion, he was imperious and unreasonable; sometimes violent, often unpredictable; and completely unable or unwilling to rein in his passions. He demanded a measure of loyalty from us–from our other beasties too–befitting a king. Most of all, he loved us more than anything else in the world, and to be squashed between us for a group hug every night when Brook got home from work was one of the many ways he let us adore him.
Friends have tried to console us, often by reminding us that 16 is a really good age for a cat to have reached. They say, gently, that he was lucky to have a great life with us. Yes, okay. But both these things are excruciatingly beside the point. With animals as with people: the longer our beloveds are with us, the deeper and more ragged the tear when they’re taken away.
Columbo’s roots are mingled, deep, deep down with ours; he helped define the shape our adult life has taken. I’m certain Brook would say this and more: I’ve found it difficult to know what to do with myself since he died; I feel his absence from my lap or shoulder constantly; I do double-takes thinking I’ve just seen him out of the corner of my eye; I ache for his sweet head, redolent of caramel even in his old age, under my chin.
The king is dead and there will be no more kings in this world.