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OllieGOllie Griffith has left this world and moved on to the next. This morning, just a few hours before dawn, Ollie’s brief but well-lived life came to an end after several months of struggle and amid hopes that he would recover and rally. Over the five years he lived, he managed to touch a lot of lives and he brought joy to many people, many of whom never met him in person but who came to know him through the written words and images taken by the one who loved him more than anyone. That Ollie was not actually a human being but a cat didn’t matter a bit to anyone.

I remember when my friend Tricia first told me she had gotten this little fellow and listened to the stories of nursing him back to health. She worked in a veterinary clinic and as such, she saw a lot of abandoned, lost and unwanted dogs and cats come through there. Ollie was one of them. I imagine that people who work in such a place have to somewhat distance themselves from the plight of these little creatures, lest they find themselves running an animal shelter out of their home, yet this one little black and white kitten found his way through those necessary shields of the heart and into a loving, caring home. So many others are not that lucky.

Over the last five years, I have listened to him tell his stories through the words of “his  human”, a gifted writer, and as his popularity grew, watched him live through pictures posted on his very own Facebook page. I even saw the typos he created by walking on her keyboard, something my own cat has been known to do. It’s amazing that out of some 110 or so keys on a computer keyboard, a cat can always manage to find the “Return” key after having walked over a few others on the way.

That Ollie had personality goes without saying. I’ve seen both dogs and cats that had virtually no personality whatsoever, mainly just existing to eat, sleep and do whatever they do when the rest of us are asleep. Those that do have personality, however, become their own person in our eyes and we grow accustomed to their ways, learn to understand what they are telling us with their eyes, and listen for a certain kind of meow or a particular tone of bark. They become loyal to us, bond with us and we in turn tend to think of them as our children.

Throughout the day, my thoughts kept wandering back to Ollie and the realization that even though he wasn’t mine, that his life had meaning to me because he touched it. He never knew me, living in the far reaches of Maine as he did, but through the wonders of the internet, he became someone that I valued, appreciated and cared about. Knowing that I could care about him just from hearing Tricia talk about him, from seeing his pictures and hearing the things he “said” tells me how deeply Tricia and Tom, who loved him like their own child, are going to miss him in the days, weeks and yes, the years ahead.

I lost count a long time ago of how many cats and dogs have actually been a part of my life. For as long as I can remember, there has always been a dog or a cat, sometimes both, in my household. Some have faded from memory, maybe because they weren’t here long or they didn’t do very much to make an impression but I know that I cared about every one of them. Some have endured in memories, though they have been gone for decades.

An English bulldog named Winston who literally saved my brother’s life when he was a toddler. My first cat named Tiger and another named Calico, rescued from the family restaurant like so many others I tamed and brought home during my childhood years. A Schnauzer named Snuffy, who became my mother’s loyal companion.

A Husky/German Shepherd mixed dog with the unlikely name of “Fish”, who I honestly believe my parents thought of as their third child, became one of the all time favorites of our family. He was faithful to all of us and even enjoyed cruising town with me during my teenage years. So attached to him we became that when he disappeared, my brother came home from college to help search for him. We never found him and we never stopped missing him. And then their was Churchill.

You can have lots of pets over a lifetime but once in a while there is that rare one like no other, one that really gets into your life and into your heart. Those are the ones that leave a hole that can never be filled. He showed up at my apartment in early 1999, young, hungry and completely without a tail. I had no idea what a Manx was but like most strays, I ended up feeding him, taming him and pretty soon he was off to the  vet for a physical and shots.

They told me that I had a rare cat, probably about four months old and that they usually made great house pets. To me, if it purred, left the furniture alone, kept a mouse from getting into the apartment and provided good company, I was good with that and he went home with me to stay. Turns out, he was far more than just the sum of his feline attributes.

Like Ollie, he was intelligent, far more than any cat I had ever owned. He communicated happiness not by purring but by making trilling noises, another notable Manx characteristic. When he wanted attention, he would head butt me on the forehead and he could run fast, taking corners like a sports car. Like Ollie, he made me laugh and he was indeed wonderful company.

image2 copy 2When I got married, he grudgingly accepted my wife and her cat Tyson and soon he came to love her too while becoming a playmate to Tyson along the way. Their battles were epic entertainment, Tyson large and lumbering, Church agile and fast. When we moved to a new house a couple of years later, they kept us up most of the night that first night there, romping on the hardwood floors, where Church was now at a considerable disadvantage in the handling and cornering department.

Our time with Church was to be short-lived however, and we noticed in the fall of 2002 that he wasn’t well. Urinary tract infections became common and he began to lose weight at an alarming rate. Trips to the vet became common and the bills began to add up but we continued on, hoping desperately that something would work and he would turn the corner, but he never did. He was so good at communicating with us that we knew he felt terrible but we kept trying. Finally, the vet told us that they had done all that they could do and that if we wanted to, we could send him to the University’s veterinary school to see if they could come up with something. The chances, they said, were very slim that he could be helped and his kidneys were in failure.

The hardest personal decision I have ever had to make was to end his suffering and pain. Fortunately, I didn’t have to make it alone and we were there with him when he peacefully left this world and went on to the next. Like a bright spot on a cold, dark day, he came into our lives, touched our hearts, became a part of our lives and then left us far sooner than we were ready to give him up.

The birth of our son was still two years in the future and for us, we felt like we had lost our child. Sure, he was a cat and not a human being but in our eyes, he was a person with his own personality, his own characteristics, his own peculiar quirks and his own style. His relationship with both of us was unique to each of us and we accepted him as part of our family and he accepted us as his servants. What he gave to us and what most pets like him give to those who love and care for them cannot really be summed up in words.

We still had Tyson and he was a comfort to us both, seeming to sense what had happened and feeling the loss of his buddy himself, but for those of us who have experienced this, no one pet can ever replace another one. Each one holds a unique significance and place in our lives and each one affects us and relates to us in different ways. They become part of our daily existence, familiar and comfortable like an old chair and when they are not there any longer, that absence is profoundly noticed.

I have heard people who have lost pets like that say that they would never get another one because they couldn’t deal with the pain of that kind of loss again. What I have found is that with few exceptions, most people don’t stick to that decision. If someone has the heart and the capacity to care for something that deeply, then to deprive ones self of the benefits of being owned and loved by a pet becomes unthinkable.

Ollie Griffith, like Church, was doted on, fussed over, loved and cared for. They had the ability to turn otherwise reasonably mature adults into the kinds of overly proud parents (and grandparents in my mother’s case) that make others cringe when the conversation inevitably turns to towards what the cats or dogs are up to. That’s the kind of love that God gave pets to us for as a way to bring out the best in us.

Pets teach us a lot about life in ways we don’t always think about. When we are children, they teach us responsibility, from the first “Mom, he followed me home” or “Dad, can I keep him?” followed by the requisite “Ok, he’s YOUR dog and YOUR responsibility to feed him and walk him”. Of course the parents usually end up doing all that but the pretense at parental delegation is still a necessary effort we must make. The sudden weight of caring for a living creature is a good lesson in responsibility.

They teach us empathy for others, they teach us about loyalty and faithfulness, they teach us about friendship and inevitably, they teach us how to deal with loss. Anyone that has ever seen the movie “Old Yeller” remembers how they felt the first time they saw it when Old Yeller died at the end of the movie. If you didn’t see it coming and had no clue that it was going to happen, you couldn’t help but feel the pain. Pets are a part of the stories of our lives and in just two hours of his story, most of us had already gotten attached to Old Yeller.

Their lives become intertwined with ours. They share the happy moments with us and they comfort us during the sad ones. They probably understand a lot more about us than we do about them and they pick up on our moods, our feelings and our worries. You can’t put a price on that kind of true friendship. They are gifts to us…creatures of God and as such they, like us, are of divine worth.

A few weeks ago, a stray kitten showed up at our house, hungry of course but immediately grateful for food and a safe place to stay. When he finally came out of the shrubbery and we got our first look at him, we were startled to see he was a bobtail Manx, probably two or three months old at the most.

We couldn’t keep him because we already had two cats and one dog who weren’t too keen on sharing us but we enjoyed him thoroughly for the time we had him and we were happy when my cousin Hilary in North Carolina wanted him. My wife and my mother drove him all the way to Greenville where he was picked up by another and driven the rest of the way to Winston-Salem. Such is the power and the promise of a bond to be forged between human and animal and the hope of a lifetime of joys between him and his new servant.

If you’ve never been owned by a pet, much of what I have written here won’t make a lot of sense but if you haven’t and have often thought about it, take that chance. Yes there will be times when they test your patience and yes, there will come that time when you have to say goodbye and let them go but the memories will live on long afterwards and the pain will lessen over time. In the end, it is all worth it.

If you have had one or many pets that made an impact in your life, think about them and remember what it was that made them special to you…whether it was the wag of a tail, falling asleep in your lap, staying by your side or just being there whenever you needed them. Remember the dogs that were your playmates when you were a child or the cat that ate the food your mom put on your plate that you couldn’t stand so you didn’t have to. Remember what made them who they were.

Tricia posted a beautiful tribute to pets by Irving Townsend that I think sums things up far better than I can. It says “We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own, live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached. Unable to accept it’s awful gaps, we still would live no other way. We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan”.

I in particular do believe all good dogs and cats go to heaven. Be at peace Ollie and I hope someday to meet you in person if I’m lucky enough to make it there and to see all those who have been such a part of my life again.