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a good death

Let me tell you how Gus the cat died. I promise later I will tell you how he lived.

Our fifteen-year-old cat had been losing weight for at least a year, but in the spring he began to look legitimately thin. In early June his back legs began to malfunction. We picked him up to spare him the indignity of fumbling as he leapt to the bed or the couch. By late June it was time to seek help.

Gus in decline

The young vet said he might live a few more years. There were tests we could try, medications that might help. When we returned a week later, the more experienced vet shook his head kindly. The tests might give us more information, he said, but they wouldn’t give us good news. “Cats don’t complain, and he might go on for months like this, but he’s not comfortable.”

We wept on the car ride home. Gus sat on my lap and tilted his nose toward the open window.

Gus on our cross-country move

That evening I knelt beside him and looked into his wise old kitty eyes. “You can just go, Gus,” I told him. “If you’re ready to go, then go.”

In the morning, he was gone.

It was a good death, preceded by a good life. When David visited the shelter at age thirteen, Gus the kitten flopped down on top of his foot. Sometimes you choose a pet; sometimes a pet chooses you.


The next fifteen years could be summarized thusly: He ate. He slept. He cuddled.

Gus with Ally, David & Jack

A consummate lap cat, Gus nuzzled his way into hearts, winning over many who claimed they weren’t cat people. He spent his affections lavishly, and those who knew him responded in kind.

Gus & Cheryl

Gus & Mychal


Gus, Eliza & me

Gus with my dad

Gus & Lauren

Gus & Jade

In the two years I lived with Gus, I came to see him as a furry guru. Pets are what they are without the shame or neurosis that generally accompanies human existence. He was more than loving; he was present.

guru Gus

In the days before he died, Gus moved slowly from one room to the next. Sometimes he’d lug himself just a few feet, then lie down and rest.

sleepy Gus

I watched him like a devoted student, determined not to miss his final teachings. I needed his soft wisdom more than ever. It had been a season of grief and fear, a season in which my usual good cheer receded and I questioned whether it would ever return.

Two months later, I realize that Gus’s death sheds light on a darkness I am still seeking to understand. When we lose what we love, we encounter our vulnerability afresh. These encounters are neither arbitrary nor without wisdom. Still, we would never ask for them, would we?

Mary Oliver writes,“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took years for me to understand that this, too, was a gift.”

Gus was a gift, and he died in the same way he lived: gently. We ought not to ask more than this for a creature that we love. Still, we always want more.

beloved GusIn a week or two we’ll go to the shelter to pick out kittens. Two little cats to fill the wide space Gus carved into our hearts (also to chase away mice in the old Rowley farm house we’ll be inhabiting).

I’ve been emerging from my dark season, watching with gratitude as my energy returns. Slowly I begin to wrap words around what I’ve lost and what I’m learning.

Gus’s death is the first story I want to tell. How we cried and cried for two days. How it took weeks to shake the feeling that he was just in the next room. How our niece Lydia told her mother, “At least they have me, Mama. They may not have Gus, but at least they still have me.”

when Lydia met GusDeath can be beautiful. Not easy; not what we’d ask for. But death, too, can be a gift.