New Tears, Millennia-Old Pains: On Losing A Pet

New Tears, Millennia-Old Pains: On Losing A Pet

by Katherine Blouin

“They say, namely, that the gods who came into existence at the beginning, being few in number and overpowered by the multitude and the lawlesness of earth-borne men, took on the forms of certain animals, and in this way saved themselves from the savagery and violence of mankind.”

Diodorus Siculus on Egyptians’ worship of animals, History 1.85, 1st c. BCE, Loeb edition

***

My cat Augusto has died. It was a couple of days ago. He was 18 years old. It all happened very fast. Well, not that fast: he had been slowing down, and losing weight steadily over the past couple of years. Yet he was still his usual self, inquisitive, curious, sociable, needy, and so gentle and kind, including with my 5 year old son. I thought he would stay with us for a bit longer. A year or two maybe? Just like his best buddy, Arthuro, who I adopted him with when they were still kittens. I thought I was at peace with them passing. They were old. It was inevitable. But I wasn’t ready for them to die now. No. Not in the midst of a pandemic. Not within this heavy darkness the world seems entangled in. Not when a virus is ramming through the world, making the rich richer, and the vulnerable more vulnerable. Not when we are trying to compose with the fact that we gave birth to a child only to bequeath him a planet that is in the midst of an ecological disaster. Not when the rise of overt fascism worldwide only finds itself strenghtened by covid-19 politics. Now, more than ever perhaps, we needed the constant, non judgmental, and unconditional, presence and love of a fellow animal who, no matter what, stuck to our side, so much so that we often took his presence for granted, or got irritated by his old men’s habits. But it wasn’t fair to ask of Augusto to stay longer. His pancreas, digestive functions, and kidneys were severly impacted by overlapping diseases, and he had stopped eating. He was suffering. He had given life, and given us, all he could. It was time to let him go. That’s the least we owed this companion who had brought so much love and gentleness and laughter to our lives.

Je t’aime Augusto. Vas en paix.

Cats are wise, someone wrote to me.

And we’re not. Definitely not.

***

One of the silver linings of our collective switch to virtual teaching, meetings, and socials in academic setting is the fact that we get to see our colleagues’ and students’ pets. My university campus has also started to spam us with daily updates, the only good part of which for me has been the pictures from librarians’ and staff’s cats they feature. I also see a grad student’s cats on zoom from time to time during our weekly writing group. It makes everyone smile. Keep these animal incursions into our social distanced academic lives coming. The “online teaching workshop” and “special covid-19 grant” ads? Not so much right now, thanks.

For what I need right now, I said in a department meeting a couple of weeks ago, is not another survey or virtual training or form to fill or formulaic message from our provost or whichever other high official. What I need is not to go on sick leave due to burnout and depression next Fall. What I need is to know that my contingent faculty, staff and service colleagues, that our students, will be supported and treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. What I need is to know that my university is humane, and the people who run it, human. Show me your cats. Show me your pets. Show me your emotions. Show me you care. For real. And act accordingly.

***

I’ve been thinking of Alexander the Great’s horse Bucephalus this week. What an overused example, I know. Yet it is, at the same time, so relatable. In the second c. CE, Plutarch writes about the story surrounding Alexander’s reaction to Bucephalus’ death as well as to the passing of his favorite dog, Peritas:

“Some little time after the battle with Porus, Bucephalus died, as most of the authorities state, under cure of his wounds, or, as Onesicritus says, of fatigue and age, being thirty years old. Alexander was no less concerned at his death than if he had lost an old companion or an intimate friend, and built a city, which he named Bucephalia, in memory of him, on the bank of the river Hydaspes [today’s Jhelum river, in Pakistan]. He also, we are told, built another city, and called it after the name of a favourite dog, Peritas, which he had brought up himself.”

Plutarch, Life of Alexander 62, Loeb edition
Alexander and Bucephalus, detail, Alexander the Great mosaic, Pompeii, House of the Faun, c. 100 BCE. Source: Wikipedia

Whether these two founding stories are true does not matter for me right now. It’s irrelevant. What matters is that they are, despite their grandiosity, relatable to most pet guardians. Would I found a city named Augustopolis if I had the means to? Absolutely not cause that’s not my jam. But would I want to do something as a way of tribute to the intimate relationship I had with this being for almost half my life? Would I try to ritualize my pain and turn it into something that benefits not only me, but those around me? Absolutely.

***

In late 2009 early 2010, downtown Alexandria, archaeologists excavated the remains of a sanctuary to the cat goddess Bastet or Bubasteion. The site, which stands accross the street from Kom el Dikka, was subject to rescue excavations by an Egyptian team led by Dr Mohamed Abd El Maksoud. It is dated to the early 3rd c. BCE, that is from the beginning of the Macedonian occupation of Egypt. Within the complex, they found numerous artefacts, including a large number of terracotta figurines of cats, alone, or with children, which Dr Mervat Seif el Din has been painstakingly studying for several years. In other words, early on in the history of the Greek settlement, settlers, whether they had come from elsewhere in Egypt or from abroad, had adopted Egyptian religious practices, including the worship of the cat goddess.

This extraordinary finding makes the second Bubasteion found in Egypt. Another sanctuary to the cat goddess from the Late Period was excavated for many years by a French team in Saqqarah. More recently, dozens of cat mummies and statues dating from the Old Kingdom were unearthed by an Egyptian team in the same area.

Bastet. Associated with Artemis by the Greek. Saviour goddess, protectress who shields us from the dangers of childbirth, sickness, and sea journeys.

Some of the terracotta figurines found in Alexandria’s Bubasteion feature children, boys as well as girls, holding their favorite pets. These are usually cats and birds.

***

My son was very attached to Augusto, so much so that the two of them tend to appear together in most of the pictures I’ve taken in the house. The loss of his cat is his first experience with death. And it hurts. As a way to cope, we have been reading The Memory Tree, a children’s book about the passing of an old fox in the midst of the forest. Fox falls asleep forever and his animal friends gather around him as the snow piles up on his lifeless body. They are sad, but find comfort in sharing stories about the good memories they have involving Fox. And as they talk, and share memories, a bright, orange tree starts growing on the spot on which Fox’s body rested. The tree grows and grows and grows as the stories are told, until it becomes itself a shelter for the animals of the forest.

“Maman, I want a memory tree for Augusto!”

What a great idea! Except that we don’t have a backyard but a condo balcony in the midst of downtown Toronto. You can make this happen, my mom told me. Just opt for a potted tree. And so I bought a boxwood. A green, luminous, easy going, and cheerful boxwood, that will bear fruits and accompany us day and night, spring, summer, automn and fall, in our home. And everytime we’ll look at this boxwood tree, we’ll think of Augusto. And like ancient Romans’ altars to the ancestors or tombs to their favorite pets, and like Fox’s friends, we’ll keep his memory alive. And we’ll remember that we are but one – destructive for the most part, creative and loving at times too – part of an infinite, entangled web of beings, energy, love and loss.

***

“Marble statue of a seated Molossian dog with a docked tail; a Roman copy of a Hellenistic bronze original, muzzle and one leg repaired”, British Museum, 2001,1010.1. Picture: The Trustess of the British Museum

“In this place lies a little dog after an accomplished life, and sweet honey covers his body [sc. to preserve it?]. His name was Fuscus, and he was eighteen years old. Barely could he move his limbs in his old age . . .”

AE 1994 699, Oderzo, Museo Civico Archaeologico, 3rd c. CE, Peter Kruschwitz transl.

***

When my grand-mother was a child in Lévis, in the 1930s, her father, who worked on Canadian National trains, would often come back with cats or rabbits for her and her sibblings. Once, he brought back a female kitten, whom my grandmother grew very fond of. She called her Bécassine, like the French children’s book character. One day in the winter, Bécassine escaped and never came back. My grandmother was devastated. She eventually recovered. One day in spring, when the snow had started melting, she was walking by a creek on her way back from school when she spotted an inert shape in the shallow water. It was the stiff, half frozen body of Bécassine. “I will never forget that scene”, my grandmother told me one evening during the lockdown from her care home in Lévis. “Poor Bécassine. I cried so much. I still miss her”.

***

“When they had established their power over all things in the universe, out of gratitude to the animals which had been responsible for their salvation at the onset, [the Egyptian gods] made sacred those kinds whose form they had assumed, and instructed mankind to maintain them in a costly fashion while living and to bury them at death.”

Diodorus Siculus on Egyptians’ worship of animals, History 1.85, 1st c. BCE, Loeb edition

***

When I was a teenager, my family adopted a golden retriever. We named him Charlot. He was a sweehearth, as all golden retrievers are. But as many golden retrievers too, he was born out of too many generations of inbred unions. So at 5 years old, he developed a cancer, which resisted treatments and did not go away. My parents couldn’t afford another round of costly therapy, and we didn’t want him to go through the inevitable, slow, painful, and cruel agony that his diagnostic condemned him to. So we decided to have him euthanized.

Euthanasia. “The good death”.

A little while later, we adopted another golden retriever. We named him Merlin. He too was a sweetheart. But he too had been born out of too much inbreeding. Québec city is not that big a town, and contrary to Toronto, where I was astounded to witness such a variety of dogs when I moved here, people are obsessed with two species in particular – golden retrievers and labradors. The result has been the premature loss of many beloved pets to genetic diseases and early cancers. Merlin was part of this group too. He, like Charlot several years before, left us at 5 years old. I remember sobbing in the shower the day I came back from abroad to a house empty of him. We memorialized Charlot and Merlin by sticking pictures on the fridge. Then these pictures were upgraded to the rank of framed memorabilia. They are still there, over 20 years later, in my brother’s former bedroom. Whenever I visit, my son sleeps in my brother’s childhood bed and he often asks me about Charlot and Merlin. And thus I tell stories about them, about how much we all loved them, how funny and active and at times annoying they were, and how they left us way too soon.

My parents never adopted another pet again. Too much hair everywhere. Too much care. Too much pain in the end.

***

“Dwellers in a house where a cat has died a natural death shave their eyebrows and no more; where a dog has so died, the head and the whole body are shaven.”

Herodotus about Egyptian rituals following the death of cats and dogs, Histories 2.66, 5th c. BCE, Loeb edition

***

18 years is a long life for a cat. The veterinarian who euthanized Augusto told me that their average expectancy is between 13 and 15 years old. She estimated that Augusto would be 120 years old if he were a human. Charts online say 88 years old. My Mamie is 91. She’s almost Augusto’s age. And so is Arthuro, Augusto’s bestie. I adopted them together. Arthuro was running all around the cage and Augusto was sitting there, calm and cute. I couldn’t leave one of them behind. So I adopted them both, and they adopted me. Since Augusto left, Arthuro has been wandering around the house or hanging out in his favorite box on the couch. I’m not sure if it’s me projecting but I could swear he has a sad look on his face. Why wouldn’t he? His lifelong best friend, his brother from another litter, has gone and isn’t coming back. Mamie, Arthuro, please be well and healthy and alive a little longer.

***

“Dead cats are taken away into sacred buildings, where they are embalmed and buried, in the town of Bubastis; bitches are buried in sacred coffins by the townsmen, in their several towns; and the like is done with ichneumons. Shrew mice and hawks are taken away to Buto, ibises to the city of Hermes. There are but few bears, and the wolves are little bigger than foxes; both these are buried wherever they are found lying.”

Herodotus, Histories, 2.67, 5th c. BCE, Loeb edition

***

Augusto was euthanized at home. A veterinarian and her assistant came and, after explaining to us the details of the procedures over the phone and putting on their desinfected suit and goggles (because pandemic), they entered our place. My husband held Augusto on a cushion on the emptied floor of our living room and passed him to the veterinarian, who had to remain 2 meters away from us for the whole duration of the procedure. The first injection was made to take away the pain and relax him. I then took over for the last, final stage. When I arrived, a needle was inserted in Augusto’s shaved, tiny leg. Augusto was half asleep but I was told he could hear and feel my presence. A 2-meter long tube was attached to the needle, after which the veterinarian’s assistant gently put him on the cushion, lying on his side, and covered him with a blankets. She then gently pushed the cushion towards me. I was gently stroking his head and side body. Then my husband said his goodbye, and so did I. And the last injection went in. It took a few seconds. His heart stopped beating.

Ave atque vale.

***

“When one of these animals dies they wrap it in fine linen and then, wailing and beating their breasts, carry it off to be embalmed; and after it has been treated with cedar oil and such spices as have the quality of imparting a pleasant odour and of preserving the body for a long time, they lay it away in a consecrated tomb.”

Diodorus Siculus on Egyptians’ worship of animals, History 1.83, 1st c. BCE, Loeb edition

***

Is that what it means to become old? All of a sudden, life slaps you on the face, pushes you on the ground, and screams at you “See! Your old companions, the people and pets who are with you, in your heart, in your life, on the phone, in the house, they need to go, they’ve got to move on”. And you are left with the stare of an empty couch, a silent room, a stablike flashback in the corridor.

You’re a big girl. And big girls cry.

***

Statues of Sekhmet. Temporary exhibit “Les reines d’Éggypte”, Musée Pointe-à-Callière, Montréal, 2018. Picture: Katherine Blouin

It happened [in the time of the majesty of] Re, the self-created, after he had become king of men and gods together: Mankind plotted against him, while his majesty had grown old, his bones being silver, his flesh gold, his hair true lapis lazuli. When his majesty perceived the plotting of manking against him, his majesty said to his followers: “Summon to me my Eye [the goddess Hathor], and Shu, and Tefnut, Geb, Nut, and the fathers and mothers who were with me when I was in Nun, and also the god Nun… They [the gods] said to his majesty: “Let your Eye go and smite them for you, those schemers of evil!” No Eye is more able to smite them for you. May it go down as Hathor!” The goddess returned after slaying mankind in the desert, and the majesty of this god said: “Welcome in peace, Hathor, Eye who did what I came for!”. Said the goddess: “As you live for me, I have overpowered mankind, and it was a balm to my heart.” Said the majesty of Re: “I shall have power over them as king by diminishing them. Thus the Powerful one (the lionness, vengeful counterpart of the cat goddess Bastet) came into being.”

The Destruction of Mankind, early second millennium BCE, transl. from Miriam Lichtheim 1973. Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume II: The New Kingdom, University of California Press, 198-199.

***

Around the time Augusto died, Regis Korchinski-Paquet’s mom called 911 in Toronto. Her daughter was experiencing a mental health crisis and she was hoping for her to be brought to CAHMW in order to get the help and support she needed. Instead, a bunch of policemen showed up, and a while later, Regis fell off the balcony and died. Shortly before, in Minneapolis, a white policeman had strangled a black man to death with his knee. In front of a camera and of his colleague, who stood there and let the murder happen. In Europe, refugees remain stranded between land and sea, exposed to brutality, boxed in camps, denied asylum, and now exposed to higher rates of covid-19. Dozens of elders are still dying in ICUs around the world, the air sucked out of them and the virus pushing their souls out of their bodies and ravaging their families and loved ones. The world is on fire, literally. White supremacists and fascists are roaming free. The American President is having peaceful protesters beaten up by the police so he and a bunch of white men can hold a Bible upside down in front of a church he only pretends to care about. Anonymous is kicking back on the web. In North America, Toronto included, BIPOC and frontline workers (the two groups overlapping to a substantial degree) are way more affected by covid-19. Meanwhile, downtown Toronto, mostly white millennials party in Trinity Bellwoods. Beers and music and chips and blankets in the sun.

“You got to live”, said one of them on tv.

Really? Who’s got to live? How? Why? And how long?

***

Whenever I teach Introduction to Roman History and I get to the Severan dynasty, I like to show the painted tondo of Septimius Severus, Julia Domna, and their two kids. Well, there is only one kid left: Caracalla. His brother Geta, whom he had killed, was subjected to a campaign of damnatio memoriae. His “memory”, that is both physical representations of him and his name, had to be erased. All of them. Everywhere. So, somewhere in the Fayyum oasis, the owner of the tondo had to compel with the new, fratricide Emperor’s policy, and wipe out the boy’s painted face from the portrait.

Tondo of the Severan family (Julia Domna, Septimius Severus, Geta, Caracalla), tempera on wood, Altes Museum, Berlin. Picture: Wikipedia

Geta’s memory was damned. He was to be obliterated from all memories, and thus from the afterlife itself.

Except that, it did not work in the end.

How many people do you see on the tondo? I ask students. Look carefully.

The answer is: Four. 3 with a face. 1 without a face.

Geta’s body, Geta’s tunic, Geta’s silhouette. Defaced, but present. His memory lives on.

Akhenaton’s memory was damned in vain too. Later on, ancient Egyptian goddesses and gods whose faces have been chipped at by Christians in Late Antiquity were also subjected to this treatment out of a similar logic of post mortem or spiritual annihilation. These Christians supposedly believed in one God, yet I never cease to appreciate the irony whereby they still felt threatened enough by the old deities to try to deactivate any power they might still hold by doing all they could to hinder any memory of them.

They too failed.

Faces matter. Because faces are the portal to the soul, to the divine. If you destroy a deceased or a god’s face, if you melt the wax faces of your ancestors, if you burn the pictures and erase the videos, what is left? A mental picture that slowly dies away. A name that is gradually forgotten.

Silence, amnesia, nothingness.

***

I couldn’t bring myself to look at Augusto’s face after he passed. I couldn’t bear to see his lifeless eyes open, and the blood than ran out of his tiny nose and made the veterinarian conclude that he must have been, indeed, very sick. I wanted my memory of him to be intact. I wanted to not alter the mental image I had of his beautiful, wise face.

Relics of Augusto: A paw print and some hair

Before leaving our place with Augusto’s body, the veterinarian left us a small pouch with Augusto’s shaven leg hair. A few days later, she sent us a handwritten condolences card, together with paw prints made before Augusto’s body was incinerated. Ink on paper. Tears. I hid the envelope with the paw prints in my jewel box. Same for the hair. I felt like a Catholic matron holding on to holy relics. Here I am, I thought, as desperate for meaning and unforgetfulness as so many bereaved souls everywhere, all the time. Somehow, that made me feel better.

***

“Behold the tomb of Aeolis, the cheerful little dog, whose loss to fleeting fate pained me beyond measure”


Tombstone of Aeolis, the cheerful little dog, AE 1994.348, Gallicano nel Lazio, 2nd c. CE, transl. from The Petrified Museum

P.S.: I wish to express my gratitude to our wonderful, empathic, kind and generous family veterinarian, Dr Pilar Villanueva, as well to Dr Tina Chou and her assistant, thanks to whom Augusto’s passing was as serene, loving and dignified a moment as can be. You three are lights amidst the darkness of our times.

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