In Memoriam: Little Chippie Dickwad

What do you say at the death of a cat? It is a small death, something that happens about once a decade for cat owners. The death of a pet is inevitable—humans live much longer than our carnivorous little allies; we know this from the day we accept them. So why is the death of Chippers more than merely a missing dish in the mudroom, and colder blankets at night? Because, more than I would have thought possible, Chip was a distinctive cat.

Constant exposure to Chip taught me many things. While a guru will tell you that you can learn from virtually anything if you watch it carefully, it didn’t take a lot of observation time to learn about Chip. Before I was introduced to Chip and Lucifer, when we first moved in with Nikki and Gaz, the largest animal I’d ever had as a pet was a Guinea Pig. Because of this, I'd never thought that animals had much personality. Understandable, I suppose, but certainly uninformed, and Chip and Lucifer certainly put paid to that misconception. The two of them, and later Ael, Diva, and Bean, taught me that personality is not something restricted only to people.

Having once been an outside cat, Chip was a rough-and-tumble sort, really only half domesticated. But he could purr like an outboard motor when he was happy. He maintained his independence against creeping age far longer than I would have expected, which I can attribute to willpower and sheer cussed stubbornness. Even in his old age, nobody messed with Chip; not cats, not dogs, not people. Nobody touched Chip if he didn’t want them to. When Claire Engan came to our place and wanted to pet "the grumpy orange cat," she had to corner him and then pet him very carefully. Even in Chip's last year, the new sheltie Kasey learned that Chip was not someone to be approached with impunity.

Do cats have full lives? Chip was certainly adored by Gary, after being given away by his original family. They boxed with each other until Gary unintentionally clocked him pretty hard on the nose. Chip slept on Gary for years, and certainly the two seemed to have the most in common in the house. I can't think of anyone I would let drool on my as much as Gary let Chip. But we are willing to forgive a good deal for personality, which the "Old Man" certainly had in spades. And while Chip was generally irritable, he did have his mellow moods. Sometimes you just had to be near him and he’d start purring like a well-tuned Harley.

Chip was the first cat I knew with the archetypal yellow eyes. Yet he was anything but the archetypal cat. He was heavy—not fat, but dense with muscle developed during his half-feral years, and about as dainty as a sixteen-wheeler. He never seemed to get the first syllable of  "meow" quite right, settling for a harsh "eeeeoooow" followed by a hiss when upset. And while cats are said to be clean animals, Chip made it his special mission to be covered in filth. On a typical morning, he'd find a bare patch of dirt and have a good roll in it, sometimes checking to see if he had an audience before scrubbing his back into the dirt. Chip's natural state was filthy. Kathleen and I would spend five or ten minutes brushing dirty gray fur off him (and cleaning the brush once or twice), restoring something of His Orangeness’s natural color, and he’d simply go out and roll in the dirt again. No cat I’ve known typified JRR Tolkien's Poem "Cat" the way Chip did.

To me, Chip and his original companion Lucifer will forever be inextricably linked. They made a good matched pair—Chip the shorthaired tabby with stripes, and Lucifer the longhaired black cat with three white sox and a dabbing of white in other places. Unfortunately, I don't think we ever got to meet the real Lucifer. Kept in a too-small cage for two years, and let out only half an hour a day for exercise, Lucifer was fairly traumatized by the time Nikki adopted him. He was afraid of humans for some reason—whether previous human abuse or the memory of the humans that put him in that tiny cage. At first, he was too afraid to even cross a room with a human watching, and lurked in corners, prepared to run if he was rushed. Slowly, over the course of a year and a half, Lucifer learned that we were not out to get him, and became less timid, although he never wholly overcame his fears. This is due, in part to Chip, who dominated him with an iron paw.

Unfortunately, there was something wrong with Lucifer. He was constantly hungry, and in his last four months, his abdomen began to bloat, and his skin dried out. I remember catching him with his head literally in a bag of cat food, ravenously hungry, yet so stuffed with food that couldn't run. After several unsuccessful attempts to find out what was wrong with him, Nikki and Gary ended up with mystified veterinarians and some pretty hefty bills. Meanwhile, Lucifer continued to bloat, and then his legs started to fail him. He spent his last night lying on the floor of our bathroom, crying piteously. I spent the night petting him and keeping him warm, desperate to give him some scrap of comfort. I think it probably helped me more than it did him, really, but there wasn’t much that anyone could do. The next morning, he found the strength to slip out of the house, and found himself a quiet place to die.

Chip seemed lonely without Lucifer, so Kathleen and I decided that we would get a cat to keep him company. Gary asked to tag along as we went to the pound. We didn't have to imagine Chip's displeasure when he came inside at the end of the day and discovered two new bowls next to his, because he showed us exactly how pissed off he was by slapping the newcomers around. Chip eventually learned to live with Ael and Diva, and the rambunctious Bean whom we acquired later. But there was never any question that Chip was Lord and Master of the House. Interfering with Chip or his business was rewarded with a quick claw and a hiss.

Chip was never the standard "good kitty," he was better than that. He was his own cat, and anyone who tried to challenge that authority was in for a fight. It was only in his last year that he stopped slapping the other pets around, including the Sheltie Nikki acquired. Chip did not ask for attention, he was self-sufficient until the very end. Instead, he demanded warm spots, and if you decided to comb him, he would stay only as long as the treatment suited him. Chip didn't want your love; he wanted your respect. But if you loved him, that was OK, too.

And now there is a Chip-shaped void in my chest. I won't hear him kvetch irritably as I pick him up, only to hear it turn to loud purrs once he's on my shoulder. He won't lie in the middle of our bed all day, turning our blue comforter orange, or smack the other cats when they came for the food in his bowl. Not admirable traits, but they were Chip's, and I miss them.

I can't but help think that somehow, a pet’s soul adds to your own in some way. A pet is a friend, usually, and the way that you treat your pet reflects on you, because the animal is completely under your control. More than in a karmic way, your treatment of your pet should come back to you, but maybe that’s just my soft-heartedness. I don't want to think that anything I cared for so much could just vanish into the void, or rot in a box in the back yard. But most of all, I want Chippie back, bad habits, drool, filth, and all.

Ultimately, it is death that I fear, like most well-conditioned members of Western Civilization. We pay lip service to our religions, and say we believe in the Next Life, but we don't. If we really believed, we wouldn't hold elaborate funerals severing all ties to our friends in one uncomfortable spectacle, nor would we mourn. Mourning is not for benefit of the departed, but rather the pain we feel at the loss of a friend, the ending of something that made our lives rich and comprehensible. We don't really believe that death is merely a conversion to another state that we do not yet comprehend. Our selfish hearts ache for what we can no longer have. We have been ambushed by reality, and the truth that we hide from is that something familiar will no longer be there, and the comfortable pattern our life has fallen into has changed irrevocably. Even a small death, like that of a cat, changes our life.