Ten years ago this May, I had the privilege of attending a remarkable concert at Orchestra Hall led by Osmo Vänskä. The “big” work of the program was Sibelius’s First Symphony—a work that has come to have many layers of meaning for us in Minnesota. Curiously enough, it will get a rousing performance in New York later this week, when the Minnesota Orchestra makes its triumphal return to Carnegie Hall.
But there was another item on that program that has remained lodged in the memories of both my wife and I: Kalevi Aho’s Flute Concerto. It was a relatively new work in 2006, having been premiered only a few years earlier; Osmo made a recording of the work with Finland’s Lahti Symphony Orchestra in 2005 for the Swedish label BIS.
One of the driving inspirations of the Concerto was the emotion Aho felt when it seemed that the death of his beloved dog, Emma, was imminent. The work was full of profound emotions, masked by a surface attempt to remain calm—an experience all of us who have dealt with grief can surely understand. It wasn’t maudlin, but filled with moments that were lyric, meditative, and delicate. A romantic work wrapped in layers of modernism, and one that took a deep look into the curious relationships we have with our families—pets included.
Aho’s Concerto is particularly in my mind today, as we have just had to put our 15 year-old cat Zeke to sleep.
And both my wife and I are astonished at how hard it is hitting us.
I’ve lost people before—including both the stepfather and stepmother who helped raised me. High school and college friends. Relatives. Other pets. I’m no stranger to grief… so I’m surprised by how raw I feel.
I mean, he was no longer young, and had clearly slowed down over the past few years, so his passing was not exactly a shock.
Plus, to most of the outside world, Zeke was… well, a bad-ass fur monster. For one, he had a big personality. But more to the point, he had no use for outsiders. While he never bit anyone, people who got too close got a glare, hiss, and swat. When company was over, he would prowl the rooms warning the interlopers to stand down, and dared newcomers to go anywhere near his preferred spots. In particular, he liked sit defiantly in front of the bathroom door, looking for all the world like Cerberus guarding the Underworld. We had a whole list of protocols for minimizing Zeke’s presence at gatherings, and a list of warnings for guests. I’m sure most people openly wondered why we didn’t destroy the evil creature and be done with it.
So why the intensity of feeling? Well, in part because he was our bad-ass fur monster.
The process of making him ours was quite a challenge. When Jill and I married 10 years ago, I too was a victim of his wrath. He lived with Jill and her roommate until we got married and moved into an apartment of our own… and Zeke did not take to a new home, nor having a new person in his life. Oh, the struggle! The stare downs! The ambushes! But it was the first challenge Jill and I faced together in our marriage, and Zeke and I ultimately became friends. As a result, we were invested in him, and our collective success as a family.
And he really was a core part of family. He was part of many milestones—he was there when we married, and he was there as we picked out a new home. In fact, he was a factor in how we selected our first house, and Zeke’s introduction to our new digs very much was part of the process of making the new house a home. I’m happy to say he thrived here, away from the sounds of apartment living and with more space to explore. He loved his new yard (a first for him), which he regally ruled over from his favorite rock. (Humorously, since he never had any prior experience with a fence, he never tried to jump it… although he had no such compunction about getting on top of the refrigerator to knock stuff down). He was there as our 30-year old selves traded in jobs as we worked to establish our adult careers. He became our surrogate child, when it was clear we wouldn’t have children of our own.
And in time he “welcomed” a dog into our family—a sunshiney dog as happy as Zeke was grumpy. Zeke grew to tolerate Stella, and I think secretly they were in cahoots in various shenanigans, although Stella would hilariously “tattle” on Zeke by running in to warn us when he jumped up on the kitchen table.
Zeke was a key player in our transition from young couple to established family.
I think part of our grief is our 40 year-old selves knowing that those formative days are behind us. We aren’t the youngish couple starting on our own anymore, and this direct link to our past is gone. Don’t get me wrong—we’re both very happy where we are, but… it’s one more reminder of time’s relentless passage. It seems impossible that he grew old and infirm right under our eyes.
But there’s more to it than that. Maybe the bigness of our grief is a function of the bigness of Zeke’s personality. For us his chosen humans, he was loving to the point of neediness. He wanted to be held, cuddled, and scratched, but on his own terms. If he liked or didn’t like something, there was no stopping him or changing his mind, so our lives became a graceful dance of weaving Zeke into our routine and accommodating his quirks.
And it is these things which I’m so painfully missing today—the daily rituals of putting him to bed, feeding him, or worrying about setting something valuable within his clever reach. Making sure the doors were or were not latched correctly. Letting him drink from the bathtub faucet, but remembering to return the water to the proper temperature for a human shower. And hearing and correctly interpreting his insanely diverse vocalizations (his range was enormous), which provided a running commentary about what he wanted and what he was feeling. Untangling Zeke from our lives’ rhythms will take time.
And let me be completely irrational and selfish for a minute, and say that I don’t want to untangle Zeke from our lives. Yes, I know… he was very sick at the end, and it was the right thing to let him go. His passing, done at home by his wonderful vet, was perfect for him—he fell asleep on his favorite kitty bed in the kitchen, gently caressed by the two people who loved him most. By the two people he let into his life. It was beautiful.
But right now I don’t care. I want him back.
One great sadness was at the end, the vet took an impression of his paw in clay, and gave it to us a memento of his life. Yesterday, we would have had to have carefully planned where to keep such an item, as Zeke was certain to bat it onto the floor regardless of where we put it. But now it won’t matter. And I find myself desperately missing something that days ago would have driven me crazy.
Funny, isn’t it, how these furry creatures worm their way into your heart?
P.S. Our dog Stella is doing great—but I am unashamed to admit that she’s going to be the recipient of some heavy-duty helicopter parenting….