We had to have our cat put down last week. I was surprised at how deeply the event affected me. Funny how a pet can twine itself into the fabric of your daily life and into the fibers of your heart—especially over a ten-year period.
The day after he died I got online and ordered the book The Little Prince. I needed quotes from it in order to clothe with words the lessons I’ve learned from this pet my husband called “Orange Kitty Beast.” The Little Prince is one of those classic books that seems to be for children, but is really for adults. My teacher and friend Vera Infelt gave me my first copy of The Little Prince when I was a teenager. She’s been gone for years now, and I felt sad I loaned the book to someone who never returned it. But I remembered the messages well, and now I’ve received my new copy and can say what I want to say.
When we got our cat, we had no intention of keeping him. We were “cat sitting” for the summer while the owner, Jenn, took a summer job in New York. But Jenn decided to stay in New York, and we inherited a cat. He was offish, and not the easiest to tame. He had been abused in his first home—kicked, we were told, by Jenn’s sister—and skittered away whenever anyone approached him.
What Does It Mean to Be “Tamed’?
Re-reading The Little Prince reminded me what the taming process is all about. The little prince (visiting here from another planet) comes across a fox and wants to play with him. The fox says he can’t play because he hasn’t been tamed. “What does that mean—‘tame’?” the little prince asks the fox.
“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. “It means to establish ties… To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes.” 1
I often felt, at first that I had no need of this cat—and he certainly had no need of me! He had the silkiest fur, but wouldn’t let me, or anyone else but Doug, pet him; he ran and hid whenever a grandchild set foot on the premises. What good is a cat like that? I decided the only way to deal with him was to ignore him altogether. That pattern went on for quite some time—and got monotonous.
“My life is very monotonous,” the fox said, “I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of your step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow…. If you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world .” 2
The little prince asks how the taming is done and the fox says, “You must be very patient. First you will sit down at a little distance from me—like that—in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day .” 3
When I re-read that part, I suddenly understood why our orange cat “established ties” with Doug long before he did me. True, I fell in love with him at first sight; he was adorable and had the cutest cat face I’d ever seen. But it took him years to reciprocate. Here’s how Doug won him over. Immediately upon arrival, the cat hid under the bed and wouldn’t come out. Doug lay on the floor by the bed and patiently waited—for nearly an hour!! Finally the cat came out and began sniffing around. Doug held very still, but when the cat was ready, he petted him and talked softly to him. Do I have that kind of patience? Not on your life!
In like manner, the little prince in the book had the patience to tame the fox and they became friends.
More Wisdom from the Fox
The little prince began to tell the fox about the planet he came from and the rose he had faithfully tended—and how he had been disappointed when he saw a garden on earth containing thousands of roses. (He had thought the rose on his planet was special because as far as he knew, she was the only one in the universe.) The fox tells the little prince that the one rose he had been caring for on his little planet was different than all the thousands he saw in a rose garden because the rose had tamed him and he it. “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important,’ the fox said. 4
And the little prince went to look again at the thousands of roses. He said to them , “You are beautiful, but you are empty… No one has tamed you, and you have tamed no one… One could not die for you. To be sure, an ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you—the rose that belongs to me. But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses; because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars (except the two or three that we saved to become butterflies); because it is she that I have listened to when she grumbled… Because she is my rose.” 5
My Cat and I
Over time my orange cat tamed me, and I him, because he was my cat and I began wasting time on him as Doug had done all along. Instead of chasing after him I learned to sit quietly and let him come to me, and we began to establish ties. Every year he became a dearer pet to me.
The fox added to the little prince’s wisdom when he said, “ One only understands the things that one tames.” And “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed .” 6 I began to understand this cat, and felt responsible for him. I noticed and memorized everything about him—the orange and white striped tail, the markings on his face, his soft white feet, white bib and belly, his whiskers, little kitty eyelashes, green eyes, velvety pointed ears, and silky fur. I learned what made him purr and what frightened him. I understood by his actions when he was hungry and when he wanted to go outside. I learned that the minute I turned my back he would jump up to check out anything I left on the counter (even though he knew very well he wasn’t supposed to!).
We tamed each other and he became unique in all the world to me.
Love and grief are opposite sides of the same coin. Establishing ties means we grieve when those ties are broken.
All the while Doug shoveled dirt to dig a cat grave in our garden, I pulled weeds and cried out loud—for my kitty, for all the other losses I have known, for all pet lovers who have tamed animals and lost them… for all the parents who have lost children… for the Pioneers who buried their children along the trail, for the mother President Monsen told about in conference who had to dig graves for each of her children, in turn. How did she bear such pain? I wondered. But there is something raw and real about sorrow. Perhaps one is never more truly alive than when grieving.
The fox taught the little prince about the value of ties—even when they cause us to cry.
When the hour of the little prince’s departure drew near, the fox said he was going to cry.
“It is your own fault, “ said the little prince. “I never wished you any sort of harm; but you wanted me to tame you…”
“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.
“But now you are going to cry!” said the little prince.
“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.
“Than it has done you no good at all!”
“It has done me good,’ said the fox, ”because of the color of the wheat fields… wheat is of no use to me… But you have hair that is the color of gold. The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat… “ 7
Missing the Daily Interactions
Grieving loss is a normal part of life. I miss our orange cat. He was my friend, comforter, companion, and source of company during days I would otherwise have spent alone. A hundred things about that cat I miss. He had twined himself around our hearts and become so much a part of daily life. How will Doug and I quit thinking we need to feed him, change his litter box, let him in and out? When will we quit missing his warm body on our laps the minute we sit down, or by our feet when we are on the bed?
Feeling grief for a little pet when so many around me are nursing so much more important hurts seems small. I ache for my mother-in-law, Elvie, for instance, who is missing all the daily interactions with her husband, Tim, who died in March and with whom she had shared 61 years of marriage.
But love is love, and change is change, and the same things that help her are helping us. She looks back on the good times, (she loves to listen to the wind in the wheat) but keeps busy in the present. And she has no doubt but what she will see Tim again. Silly as it may seem, I’m comforted by the thought that just as I know Elvie will see Tim again, so may we see our orange cat again.
Summarizing the Lessons
“Orange Kitty Beast” taught me so many lessons—about not going after love but letting it come to you, about not making demands but appreciating what is willingly given, about learning to accept and enjoy the level of affection that is offered.
In order to “tame” our cat I had to let him be, let him do his own thing, not make demands. I had to build his trust level one little bit at a time until he knew I would never hurt him on purpose. I learned that time is important in relationships—it took years for me to notice and memorize the little things in his appearance and actions that made him unique. It took years for him to totally trust. But when it was accomplished, we had such a comfortable relationship.
Losing our cat also taught me that the relationship is more than worth the pain of loss. Doug and I lay in bed talking the night we buried our cat—about all the fun we’d had with him, all the funny things he’d done, all the laughs he’d given us. We talked about how the grandkids had enjoyed him (once he was “tamed”) and about the funny pictures we had of one or another reaching for or chasing him. Doug told me how many times he had been uptight and the cat had jumped in his lap and he had calmed down and felt better just sitting there petting him. Would we give up all that to avoid the hurt of losing him? No way! In fact, after talking about all the reasons we were glad we’d had him, we decided we just might visit the animal shelter soon and adopt another cat! Nothing ventured, nothing gained. All relationships include risk, and all relationships include hurt. But what would our lives be without them?
1 The Little Prince , Antoine De Saint-Exupery, 1943, Harcourt, Brace & World, New York, 66
2 Little Prince, 67
3 Little Prince, 67
4 Little Prince, 71
5 Little Prince , 70
6 Little Prince, 67, 71
7 Little Prince, 67, 68
Note: even though The Little Prince is more than a half-century old, it is still available on Amazon.com and from other book dealers.