(Originally published November 4, 2002)
Hobbes came home yesterday.
More precisely, our late feline's cremated remains were delivered to my unsuspecting wife, who received a telephone call from the nice lady at Backyard Burials a scant 30 minutes prior to his arrival.
Hobbes' true pedigree had never been firmly established. He had been harvested from a litter of feisty farm kittens of various flavors. We surmised a good percentage of his lineage was Maine Coon; a Mostly Maine Coon, if you will.
He was a big fella, 16 pounds, even in declining health. He was various shades of orange with a few swirls of white, the color depending on his current degree of shedding or attitude toward personal hygiene.
His gargantuan skull bore the distinctive dark "M" above his forehead, which I jokingly said stood for "moron." His temperament matched the breed's description: a big, gentle, good-natured goof. He had a high-pitched, trilling voice that was consistent with Maine Coons and totally out of character for a creature of his impressive bulk. Think of a feline Mike Tyson, and you'll get the effect.
My then pre-teen daughter Sara named him after the stuffed tiger in Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. I always believed the moniker was more accurately a nod to the English philosopher. The cat was a living example of Thomas Hobbes' theory of materialism: people (and, apparently, big goofy house cats) are motivated by appetite and aversion. Hobbes the cat demonstrated this on a daily basis. It became a family game to place a tempting morsel near an object that frightened him, to watch his reactions as his "fear/food" calculator kicked in, and to wager whether his innate gluttony would overcome his intrinsic cowardice.
Like most house cats, Hobbes really had no useful function in our household, other than to use the white wall to wall carpeting as a canvas for his prodigious hairball output and to generate carbon dioxide for the house plants. He could have been the prototype for Star Trek's tribbles. Like the fictional creatures, he was warm and furry, semi-mobile, possessed a ravenous appetite and made purring noises that engendered a feeling of serenity in the humans around him.
Hobbes was a karmic grounding rod, especially in his later years. He was always serene, almost Buddha-like, dozing in the sun, intently watching the dust motes float by. Dogs can sense emotional turmoil and, in response, express empathy and concern. They're reflectors of anxiety. Express anxiety in the presence of a dog and you have an anxious dog. Hobbes was an angst heat sink. You could feel the distress dissipate as you petted him, his aura of imperturbable calmness surrounding you.
While we received his ashes yesterday, Hobbes departed over a month ago. The cremation of animals doesn't seem to warrant the same sense of urgency as human dissolution. There are no wakes to hold, no religious ceremonies to conduct. Indeed, many claim there are no animals in the afterlife.
I once got into an discussion with a minister about the seeming exclusion of non-humans from Paradise. I pointed out that in the Book of Revelation, the apostle John says "Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse."Revelation also states "the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean." Which indicates to me that not only are there animals in heaven, they're really snazzy dressers. (One could argue that if John had his vision today, he would see Humvees instead of palominos. But I'll leave this exercise in operational semantics to the Left Behind folks.)
Of course, the real question here is: do animals have immortal souls? Pope John Paul II said in 1990 that "animals possess a soul and men must love and feel solidarity with our smaller brethren"; that all animals are "fruit of the creative action of the Holy Spirit and merit respect" and are "as near to God as men are." The Reverend Billy Graham sort of sidestepped the issue by stating "God will prepare everything for our perfect happiness in heaven, and if it takes my dog being there, I believe he'll be there."
It was a very stressful time. Sara was dealing with severe morning sickness and emotionally wasn't up to it. Pam was recovering from her bypass surgery and couldn't be alone, so Doug had to stay at home with her.
It was just me, sitting in the small examination room, waiting for them to return with Hobbes and the IV apparatus. I desperately wished Doug or Sara was there. Their presence would have switched me into Dad Mode, where the neurons and synapses arrange themselves in a way that causes me to become the gruff but sensitive old curmudgeon who provides emotional support and words of sage advice.
Instead, it was just me. The guy who cries at the end of Field of Dreams. The fool who was scarred for life by Old Yeller. The idiot who has to leave the room when Emergency Vets is on. The sap whose last act before filing for bankruptcy was sending a check to the local no-kill shelter.
The doctor returned with Hobbes, who was his normal placid self. Only the slightly labored breathing belied his condition but, as always, he maintained his ineffable cockeyed equanimity. He studiously ignored the hideous, lethal device attached to his leg. Decorum demanded it.
He sat sphinx-like, front legs outstretched. He opened his eyes, focused them with some effort, became aware of my presence. He emitted that ridiculous girlish chirp of his. It was a sound he reserved for those rare instances in which he felt it necessary to summon me to witness an event of tremendous import. His last great discovery was that dry cat food batted into a cold air return would cause the furnace's electrostatic air cleaner to make an amazing zapping sound.
I believe he sensed he was on the threshold of an even more significant revelation.
I knelt down, level with his ears, and softly told him what a good Hobbers he was. I put one hand across his front legs and scratched his neck.
His head slowly pointed upwards and he sniffed the air. He made that goofy smile of his, then opened his eyes and looked into mine.
He rested his head on my hand. I focused on that big stupid "M" on his forehead, but peripherally I was aware of the plunger slowly sinking into the barrel, fluids flowing in clear plastic tubes.
Hobbes relaxed. He leaned against me, closed his eyes again, and began purring. He didn't stop until the syringe was empty.
I don't know what Heaven looks like. But I know it sounds like the purring of a mostly Maine Coon.