Olaf (Oley) Da Vinci, ca. 2006-March 13, 2022

Dogs [and cats] come into our lives to teach us about love. They depart to teach us about loss. A new dog [or cat] never replaces an old dog [or cat], it merely expands the heart […] Erica Jong, viral email, quoted on Doobert.com animal rescue website.

Feminist author Erica Jong‘s novels never did a whole lot for me — I liked her politics, but I was more into Shakespeare in my high English major-y phase — but I’ve always loved her quote about dogs. No, make that “… Jong’s quote about family pets.” Cats, too. Well, Sunday afternoon we lost our Maine coon cat Oley, whom you see at left photobombing the picture when I was practicing a musical instrument.

Oley was like that. Irrepressible. Whatever you were doing, he just had to be in the middle of it. Just a big old lovable teddy bear of a cat (when he wanted to be).

We named him after the e.e. cummings poem “i sing of Olaf glad and big.” (The proper Norwegian spelling would be Ole, which is common enough in the upper Midwest. But we don’t have too many Norskies down in central Illinois, and I was afraid people would see it and think it was “¡Olé!” like in Spanish. So we spelled it phonetically.) They called him Da Vinci at the shelter, and we kept that name, too. Sometimes he had a wise, quizzical, almost mischievous look that reminded us of the Mona Lisa.

We’re going to miss him terribly.

Oley came as a package deal, though, and we still have another cat, Champaign, who is also feeling bereaved and who mews for attention these last few days. They had bonded at the shelter, and we couldn’t bear the thought of breaking them up. (His coat is the color of champagne, but they spelled his name like the college town in Illinois. We kept that name, too, along with “Hissy-britches” and a couple of others I can’t mention here.) He’d been abused as a kitten, and he was a little scaredy-cat. So Oley kind of protected him and ran interference for him in the cat loft. The upshot, to make a long story short — home we went with two long-haired tomcats yowling in the pet carrier.

That was 15 years ago, and it’s one of the best decisions we ever made.

Oley and Champaign were shelter kitties, and the folks at the Animal Protective League estimated they were a year and a half old when we got them. Which means they were “juniors” (I’d call them adolescents), about 20 or 21 in human years according to a chart put out by the Animal Protective Foundation. As Debi and I grew older, the kitties aged along with us.

As time went by, Champaign came out of his shell and Oley — well, he was the same great big lovable old Maine coon cat, glad and big, all the while. When people came to visit, he’d come up and check them out while Champaign stayed in the bedroom and hid under the bed. When workmen came by to do an estimate on repairing the heat pump or doing yard work, Oley would hop up on the kitchen table and inspect the paperwork. Did I mention he was irrepressible? I remember one family gathering when he and our niece from St. Louis, who was about 3 at the time, chased each other back and forth in a piano room and hallway, chirruping and giggling while the adults gathered in the adjacent living room.

As the kitties got older, they spent more of their days sleeping. And, ever territorial as tomcats, they staked out the house into Oley’s territory and Champaign’s territory. But at night they’d still play, yowling and chasing each other up and down the same hallway. Right up till the end, even after Oley developed health problems.

Here they are in a picture taken when they were respectable senior citizens of 68 to 72 in people years, according to the Animal Health Foundation’s estimates:

In some ways, adopting a pet is like getting married — you’re in it for better or worse, in sickness and in health. Mostly the times have been good, even after the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the kitties had two retired humans around the house all the time. I felt like all four of us lived in a happy little feral cat colony buffered from the sickness and political turmoil outside.

About three years ago, Oley developed diabetes. We were able to control it for a couple of years by giving him glipizides wrapped in a pill pocket that he thought was a treat. (Whoever developed those pill pockets deserves the feline equivalent of a Nobel Prize!) And for the last year Debi gave him insulin shots twice a day. He had his ups and downs, but mostly I think he still had a good quality of life right up to the end. We certainly loved him and spoiled him, even when he hopped up on the table or woke us up with his yowling at 4 in the morning.

But a week ago, Debi took him to the vet’s for an X-ray, and they found spots on his lungs. They looked like cancer, and it looked like it was metastasizing. Then, before we could take him back for a firm diagnosis, it apparently interacted with his diabetes. The seizures came on all of a sudden on Sunday afternoon, and within three or four hours Oley was gone.

That the end came so quickly, I think, was a blessing.

It’s not the only one. At the height of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, when Wolf Blitzer of CNN spoke of those who had died, he’d add, “may their memory be a blessing.” The thought stayed with me — I want to live my life so I’m remembered as a blessing — and there was so much loss and grief during those first years of the pandemic, we heard it almost every day. Over time, it came to feel like I’d known it all my life.

Little Oley Cat, your life was a blessing. You taught us love, in all the little ways that cats find to express emotion. And you brought us your shy little friend from the cat shelter, who reciprocated the love and blossomed in our little cat colony. And, in the end, you taught us loss, as your feline predecessors Torbjorn and Angie Cat did before you. Goodbye and God bless, little buddy.

[Published March 18, 2022]

7 thoughts on “I sing of Oley, glad and big: A eulogy to a beloved cat in a time of loss and grief

  1. The loss of a pet for those who really love animals can be as heart breaking as losing a person. You grieve and you remember. His pictures will come up in your Facebook memories from time to time and you will smile and feel your heart tug again. You will come across little pieces of evidence from him around the house and you will stop for a moment to think about him. The house will feel a little emptier. It is a hard time. My heart is with both of you.

    Liked by 1 person

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