The Zero Balance
I’ve had a number of pets in my life, mainly cats. None has had more personality than Sid, a big hunk of an orange tabby we rescued in 2009. And I mean hunk. Sid was big, beautiful, swaggering, charming, and supremely self-confident. Dumb kittens played, but he schemed. The world was a giant puzzle for him to unlock. He understood that when my alarm clock went off in the morning, that resulted in him getting fed. So he would sit on my nightstand at night and whack the alarm clock, my glasses, phone, lamp, whatever it took, until I got up. He could destroy the pull strings on every blind in the house in under an hour. He could jump from floor to refrigerator in a single leap. When he wanted love (which was often), he would drape himself over my shoulders. And he always, always had to have his way.
When we moved to our house in 2011, Sid changed. In our apartment, he had been mellow and easygoing. But in the house, Sid got restless. Maybe he saw the feral cats next door, maybe he heard or smelled them, but he began urinating on every surface and trying to run outside. On the day when my patience snapped, he peed in all four corners of my bedroom, on the curtains, and on the bedspread—while I was still in bed—in one morning. I went out to the store, bought him a belled collar, snapped it on him, and threw him outside.
Some say it’s cruel to keep cats cooped up inside, but I’ve always felt it’s cruel to subject them to the dangers of weather, traffic, disease, and predators. Every cat I’ve had has lived a long, healthy, happy life inside. And at the old apartment, Sid was content within our four walls. But something about this house—probably those feral neighbors—drove him outdoors. That first day he was outside, I was jumpy and constantly worrying. But Sid was a smart cat. And he had no interest in going far. He just wanted to hang out on our front porch, patrol the back yard, and investigate the abandoned lot next door. That night, he sauntered in, happy as could be.
Within weeks, all but two of the feral cats were gone. Sid never fought, but I think he went over and told them how things were going to change around here. Neighbors always told us how welcome and friendly Sid was when he came to their yards. People who didn’t like cats agreed that Sid was the perfect cat for non-cat people. Every day, I worried about his safety and braced myself for tragedy, but there was no denying that outdoor Sid was a very happy Sid, and the coolest cat anyone could ask for.
And he was, frankly, MY cat. Kristin and I had adopted him together, but maybe it’s because I was the Food Guy, or because I was the Mush Guy, but Sid loved me and harassed me more than her. Every day I would get home from work, he would walk figure-eights around my legs, and if I didn’t acknowledge him right away, he’d LEAP into my arms.
The day before Easter was the first warm, bright spring day of the year. We had family and friends in town for the holiday weekend. It was my brother-in-law’s birthday, Kristin was only weeks from her due date. Fertility, rebirth, happiness, and brilliant sunshine were the themes of the weekend. What ensued, I only remember in fragments. I looked out the front window. Sid lay in the street. Neighbors stood on the curb, looking at him. I cried Sid’s name, and it was a cry that came from deeper than my heart or stomach. The base of my spine, maybe. Then the next thing I remember, I was on the sidewalk, crawling towards the street. Then my brother-in-law was lifting Sid from the road, telling me to go back in. Then I was sitting on the living room floor, unable to cry. I felt numb. Then later that evening, we went out to dinner. Most of what happened in between is lost. But Sid was gone.
I know the statistics, that outdoor cats live on average 2-3 years. I’d braced myself for that day. I’d rehearsed it in my mind every day Sid was outdoors. But no amount of preparation could truly prepare me for that moment of pure, whopping knowledge. I never wanted Sid to go outdoors, but he was miserable inside, and he loved patrolling our property, sunning himself, and climbing into the crook of our tree. I’m not an irresponsible pet owner. What would be irresponsible would be to force him to stay indoors like a prisoner. And if my stories haven’t already shown, Sid had a strong will and a stubborn streak. He liked going out, and there was no stopping him. Unfortunately, he also liked the free food the woman across the street left out for strays. I don’t doubt that’s why he darted across the street that morning.
I’ve dealt with death and grief before. I’ve lost all of my grandparents, my aunt Tracy had only been gone two weeks, and I’ve been to the funeral of a family friend who died at age 20. Even with pets, I’ve put half a dozen cats in the ground over the years, including one who was barely more than a kitten last summer and had died suddenly from illness. Why does Sid’s death weigh on me like no other? Why am I, a 30-year-old man, stuck in grief over the death of a tabby cat? I’ve grieved before. It’s like getting a cut—it bleeds and hurts at first, then scabs over. When the scab falls off, a little scar is left, but the pain is gone. But with Sid, it feels like the wound is a slow bleeder, and sometimes I stop and recall the memory of seeing him in the street. The shock has worn off but the wound is still open, even two months later.
All attempts to “keep it in perspective” have failed. Every day, people lose parents, spouses, even their own children. On the cosmic scale, what is one cat? For a while, I punished myself for being so self-indulgent when there were people out there with worthier grief.
And then I decided—screw that. Grief is not a competition. Grief is grief. Maybe it was the suddenness or the violence of Sid’s end, maybe it was that undercurrent of guilt for letting him out, maybe it was that he was a cool, loving friend who I’d never see again.
Some say the world is a terrible, dark place, filled with misery. Some say it a beautiful place, filled with miracles. I’ve never fully embraced either idea. The idealist in me wants to see the beauty, but after grief like this—and I can say it is the harshest grief I have ever endured—the world seems very grim. The universe is not positive or negative, but in a state of zero balance. That was what I learned from the ouroboros with Sid’s death: that the universe isn’t dark with glimmers of light, nor is it bright with occasional shadow. It exists in a zero balance, and great sorrows could only be met with great joy—for example, the impending birth of my son.
Part 3 coming soon…