Elegy for a Grey Cat: On Grief, Books, and His Dark Materials

October 25, 2012 | 3 books mentioned 15 5 min read
Zoe the Cat

I recently got out of a three-year relationship with a cat. Her name was Zoe, and I got her from a shelter the first year I lived in Chicago. She was 10 or 11 when I got her, they weren’t sure, and she had a bevy of trust issues. The family who gave her to the shelter said she’d been bullied by a dog, but I call bullshit on that. Zoe was not afraid of dogs, she was afraid of people and plastic bags.

When I took her home for the first time, she ran into the closet and only came out to eat and use the litter box — only when I was gone — for two weeks. Gradually she warmed up to me. After a month she would sit nearby while I read. One evening, after two months, she sat in front of my chair for a while looking studiously at me and then, having made her decision, jumped into my lap for the first time. “Finally!” I shouted, which scared her and she ran away.

But soon after, and permanently, we were best friends. She followed me everywhere, slept next to my pillow, and greeted me at the door every night. She never warmed up to anyone else, though. When people came over she would hide for the majority of their visit. Sometimes I had catsitters who never saw her. She epitomized the cat that people describe when they roll their eyes and say they hate cats.

This was all fine with me. Her personality, her elegant apathy, and the way she would jump into dresser drawers when it rained, were my secrets, and I was the entirety of her universe. (Sometimes I would shout this at her if I couldn’t get her to stay still so I could brush her hair: “I’m the entirety of your universe!”)

Unironically loving a cat when you are a single woman is not socially savvy. Sometimes, when I would mention Zoe, I could see people wince as they tallied the facts in their head: bookish, lives alone, knits a lot, watches Charlie Rose. There’s a moment in an old MST3K episode where a cop in his squad car is dubbed to say, “Ehh, if I stop and get donuts I’ll just be reinforcing the stereotype.” That’s what it was like when I got a cat.

But I loved Zoe. I loved having six pounds of unconditional love waiting for me every time I came home, and why wouldn’t I? The sense remained, though, that loving a cat was something I should chiefly keep to myself. I could present her to the world in some absurd, deprecating fashion — pictures of her stuck under things, making human faces, like I kept her around as performance art — but the fact that she was a little creature who mattered to me enormously was too lame to admit.

coverWhen I was five I went to afternoon kindergarten. After my brothers went to school in the morning, my mom would read to me from The Little House on the Prairie series. The Wilder family had a bulldog named Jack that went with them everywhere, protected them on several occasions, and was Laura’s first playmate. In the beginning of the fifth book, By the Shores of Silver Lake, Jack dies in his sleep. My mom didn’t know this was coming, and as she was reading she started skipping the more expository passage, and the description of the Wilder girls starting to cry. She thought she had made it vague enough that the truth wouldn’t sink in. But when she finished the chapter and closed the book, I looked at her and said, “Is Jack going to wake up?”

She went over to the phone, called the school, and said, “Janet isn’t coming to kindergarten today. She just learned about death.”

I thought a lot about this story in the past few weeks, as I realized Zoe was sick, and we tried a few treatments, and she kept getting worse. We’d had three cats when I was a kid, and they’d all exited our lives quite gracefully. Muffin fell asleep under a bush and died. Scratches died in an accident while I away visiting my grandparents. Skittles annoyed my mom so much that she eventually sent her to live on a farm. (I’ve given her many dignified opportunities to back of out this claim, but she maintains its truth.)

It became clear that the rest of Zoe’s life, or death, would have to be managed, and managed by me. It’s an agonizing process. Every decision felt selfish. It was heart-rending to have Zoe come sit on my lap while I was thinking about whether it was worthwhile to keep her alive.

covercoverBeing the entirety of her universe, I was the only person who cared about Zoe, and I would be the only person to mourn her. My friends and family were wonderfully sympathetic, but what I needed was empathy. I needed a story to turn to, and I couldn’t think of one. For grief there’s A Year of Magical Thinking, for breakups there’s A Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, but what could I read when I lost my cat? Cats usually show up in books as witches or set dressing for spinsters. I remembered the story of the Wilders’ bulldog, and there are certainly enough books for every dog situation, but I didn’t have a Marley, I had shy, loyal, damaged, affectionate Zoe. Then I thought of Philip Pullman.

coverIn Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, each character has a dæmon. A dæmon is a visible extension of your soul standing beside you in animal form. Dæmons mimic the emotions of their humans, sleep when they sleep, and cannot be physically separated from them by more than a few yards. When you’re young your dæmon changes form depending on your mood, but at adolescence they “settle” into a permanent form. A particularly malicious character’s dæmon is a golden monkey, for instance, where a soldier might have a wolf. It’s considered grossly invasive to touch another person’s dæmon.

I’m not saying that Zoe was an extension of my soul. I am saying that we were unique to each other. Cats choose their people, unlike their more egalitarian canine counterparts, and don’t bother with anyone else. I tend to think that all she thought about all day was noises, whether or not she was cold, and where I was. This is why deciding to put her down felt so cruel, because I was the only thing she relied on and I gave up on her.

Pullman’s main character, Lyra, needs to travel to the underworld. The only way she can do this and survive is to leave her dæmon, Pantalaimon, behind, breaking the body-soul connection so that both halves will survive. It’s betrayal, selflessness, guilt, and grief all at once.

“Lyra was doing the cruellest thing she had ever done, hating herself, hating the deed, suffering for Pan and with Pan and because of Pan; trying to put him down on the cold path, disengaging his cat-claws from her clothes, weeping, weeping.”

I found this chapter in my copy of The Amber Spyglass and read it the afternoon I came home without Zoe. I felt as alone in grieving for Zoe as I had in loving her, and an old beloved book — magically, just like they’re supposed to — was the companion that understood.

Image courtesy of the author.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Janet is a freelance writer and semi-professional baker living in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in The Awl, The AV Club, the Chicago Reader, and Chicago Magazine. She is the co-host of YouTube's The Book Report and blogs about presidential biographies at At Times Dull. Follow her @sojanetpotter.


  1. That was a beautiful piece. Yes, it feels like betrayal finally deciding to end the life of a loved companion animal. I could not do it the first time with my cat I had for 17 years and had my husband take her to the vet. Our marriage lasted as long as the cat, our relationships starting at the same time and both our Frtiz and my marriage died in the same year. The second time with my dog my daughter was with me and it was brutal, but the right thing to do.
    I am still grieving when thinking about it.
    Johanna van Zanten

  2. Great post, it really resonated.

    My family had a feline friend sick for several months and also had to weigh the value of one more day on earth vs. one more day of suffering.

    Your post also made me think about what it is that makes us fall in love with our cats…and their dependency, the smallness of their world and the fact that they don’t seem to need much, but they do need a companion..it’s very affirming (since, as you said, dogs will love anyone).

    Mine waits for me at the door every day too. Hopefully for another decade or more.

    Sorry about Zoe.

  3. I’ve been through this several times. I don’t agree that you let your cat down. You helped her out. You were the one thing she could rely on, and you came through, easing her exit from this world. Our pets are fortunate, in a way, that we can offer them a graceful ending. In most countries, we can’t treat people as humanely.

  4. I love that phrase, I was the entirety of her universe. Well done.

  5. I’m one of those people who hates cats, but I love you, Janet, and I love your love for your cat. So sorry for your loss.

  6. Beautiful story. I have 3 cats. One of them is what I call my soul animal. We connect on a deep level. She’s 6 this year and I can’t imagine what life would be like without her. It’s hard to explain this love of an animal to those who haven’t experienced it. Your story is a perfect eulogy for the relationship between you and your cat. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Lovely, and rang so true. I had a similar experience two years ago. Still feel the guilt, and still searching for that same bond.

  8. “Smokey” was probably a Russian Blue. After Dad’s death she was all the daily companionship Mom had. When the house finally sold we moved them both in with us – about 150 miles north of their Long Island home. Smokey yowled her way through all those miles. I swear she was both expressing her extreme upset at the carrier and motion as well as keening on Mom’s behalf and on mine. Smokey lasted almost a year in her new home; long enough for Mom to awaken from her own grief. After the vet put Smokey down, wrapped in her favorite rug and in my arms it was I who keened all the way home. These creatures are not pets. They are companion animals. We are graced by their presence.

    Your article brought all this back. It is a blessing.

  9. There are not enough elegies for cats. And no, that’s not a snarky comment. I really enjoyed this, especially as a nerdy lady with aging cats.

  10. Hester’s death in “The Subtle Knife,” the second His Dark Materials volume, will both console and undo you. It doesn’t sound as though you gave up on Zoe, though; on the contrary, you did the best thing for her.

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