The call came on my cell phone just as I was pulling into the garage on a Friday afternoon after a long, hard week at work.
“Quick, Dad, come to the animal hospital! It’s Shadow!”
It was my son, Joshua. Shadow would be our 14-year-old cat.
Now I confess that I didn’t much like the cat. She existed mostly as an inert collection of chemicals that became a cat only upon the sound of food hitting her bowl or the fridge door opening. Or when there was a juicy piece of meat to steal off your plate. She’d become even more inert in her old age — in addition to becoming incontinent, with dire consequences for the carpet by our back door.
Upon hearing the news and the alarm in my son’s voice, I had a pretty good guess what was going on. I drove quickly to the vet’s to find my wife and teenage daughter in tears. Shadow was in an examining room, gasping for breath and going in and out of convulsions. The vet said her kidneys were rock-hard, meaning that her blood was filling with uric acid. The end was near. He wanted permission to give Shadow a lethal injection to end her suffering. My wife and I looked at each other and nodded.
What surprised me then was my reaction. I found myself choking up as I gently gave Shadow a few last stokes behind her ears.
You have to understand that death was not new to me. I’d seen men die and had not reacted in this way. But then I had not been a Christian, and I lived in circumstances where death was not entirely unexpected, so you hardened yourself to it. (I was a Marine Corps infantryman.)
But now I was choking up over a cat — one I didn’t like very much to start with. I was puzzled at my reaction until I realized I was, in some small way, seeing death as God sees it: a tragedy, a black stain, a violation of the created order as God intended it, a result of our rebellion and fall into sin. Death is a stench in God’s nostrils. In the story about Jesus and Lazarus in John 11, we read that, upon hearing of his friend’s death, Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled” (v. 33). In the original Greek the first of these terms connotes anger. Jesus was mad about the ravages that death had visited upon his creation. The second word expresses agitation. Lazarus had been a beloved friend, and Jesus shared in the common feeling of grief over his death. Overcome by emotion, he spontaneously burst into tears (v. 35).
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say, “Death is part of life.” No! I want to scream. Death is DEATH! C.S. Lewis has a keen insight on this:
Here is something telling me — well, what? Telling me that I must never, like the Stoics, say that death does not matter. Nothing is less Christian than that. Death which made Life Himself shed tears at the grave of Lazarus, and shed tears of blood in Gethsemane. This is an appalling horror; a stinking indignity. (You remember Thomas Browne’s splendid remark: ‘I am not so much afraid of death, as ashamed of it.’)
As believers we no longer have to fear death. But that doesn’t mean we still shouldn’t be bothered by it-a great lesson I learned from a dead cat.