Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sheba and the Great Matter

You might say Sheba is just a cat. Go a little further and say she's a tiger cat. Look closer and she's a calico overlaid with black stripes, and a very detailed face with, for instance, black kohl around her eyes, then white eyeliner, and that's just the eyes. But - you know where this is going - she is much more than just beautiful. She is magic.

Time and again I look at her and think, She looks like a stuffed animal that has miraculously come to life. I really do see that. Eyes that see, that focus and blink. A delicate paw that spreads and retracts, treading a little whenever she feels loved, or whatever that is that she feels when she is petted. She does feel. She is responsive, real and alive, more satisfying than any stuffed animal can be.

My sense of Sheba's aliveness was perhaps sharpened by experiencing the mystery of Sherlock's death. One moment he was alive, lying on the leather couch beside me, and the next minute he was dead. Nothing had happened to mark the moment when the paralytic medicine stopped everything. Not a convulsion or a sound or a relaxing. He was no longer breathing, that's all. I was alarmed. I asked the Vet, "Is that it?"

"Yes," he assured me. "He's dead." How could that difference be so small?

So now I know that what keeps Sheba from being just a stuffed animal is her breath. She breathes in and out, like I do. I don't know why she breathes or when her breathing will stop. This breathing is a mystery; it is life itself. We take in air and other nourishment, but air is the one you need every moment. We use what we can and exhale the rest. In sitting Zen we are sometimes told to focus on exhaling completely. Suzuki says that thus we die every moment.

Sheba is a lady of a certain age, as the British say, meaning on the upper edge of middle age. We know her kidney functions are very bad, and we know intimately what that means, because that is what killed Sherlock. Right now Sheba eats well and drinks water and continues to process it all. She is alive.

I expect to outlive her (in which I may be quite wrong). If so, I may someday be there when she has stopped breathing, and just like that, Sheba will be no longer alive. Like Sherlock, she is here temporarily. So it is natural to cherish her. And I believe it is natural for that appreciation to fan out to my loved ones, my friends, the squirrel in the Zen garden and the chickadee in the back yard, to every living creature and thing, every breath, every breath I myself get to take.


  1. Very good... Gives me something to think about. Thank you for sharing...

  2. I had two cats go, a mother and son, in a matter of six weeks a few years ago. The mother was 22 years old, astounding for a cat that had been so frail as a young one that you could feel her entire rib cage. She nearly went right after her son, and then decided to hang on into spring, to see some life outside perhaps. The day before she died, I took her outside and laid her under a pine tree in my garden. I worked on the garden and she enjoyed the fresh air. You could see it in her eyes that she was going, but still she perked up for that hour or so outside. The next morning the gasping came, and then she was gone. Looking at her body later, mouth wide open, it was as if she were there, and also not there. Kind of mysterious.