Human beings are really into ranks and scales and Being Important.
Cats prefer to fling our low-minded hierarchies into the deepest, darkest pit.
But it’s also because cats are wise.
This fact foisted itself on me yet again this week, in the context of a dark day at Tabby’s Place. Losing a cat is always terrible. Yet each terrible turn has a way of looming uniquely awful in its time. They are all different and all unthinkable and so impossible to compare in their agonies.
So it was with Wilhelmina.
We’d known for some time that Wil was on borrowed time. A once-plump plum of a cat had been pruned down to four pounds by cancer in her stomach wall. On Wednesday, anemia set in, so severe that Wil was too wobbly to stand. Even stinky chicken couldn’t convince her to eat.
Watching Wil on the day, surrounded by humans who adored her, I found myself back in Psych 101. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Wilhelmina was scraping the bottom of the bottom of the bottom.
You may remember the theory. If your most basic needs aren’t met, you don’t have the energy to spare on higher-order motivations. First of all is the bare-bones bedrock of physiological needs: air, water, stinky chicken, not being in physical agony et al. If you’re hurting there, you can hardly be expected to think lofty thoughts, much less have anything much to offer anyone else. You’re simply, necessarily, focused on your own survival.
If your physiological needs are met, you have the bandwidth to move on up the hierarchy and reach for security; love and belonging; self-respect; reaching your full potential; and finally, self-transcendence. Of course, very few creatures truly transcend themselves. Dr. Maslow identified exemplars like Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein and Frederick Douglass.
He could have added Wilhelmina Rosenberg to the list.
If old Dr. Maslow was right, Wilhelmina had no business even pondering the weather, much less leaping outside herself to care for others. As she trembled and scorned all sustenance, her most basic needs were unmet.
But even in the weakest state of her life, Wilhelmina transcended.
As each of Wil’s human adorers spent quiet moments with her, Wil’s weary eyes exuded love. There was a sort of concern on her face, a loving reassurance to each friend: It’s OK. You’ll be OK without me. And I…I’ll be OK, too. Don’t worry. Take heart. Courage, love.
But Wilhelmina didn’t suddenly reach this state of grace on her last day on earth. Death doesn’t bring out anything that isn’t already there. (No one can cram for this particular final exam.)
In her days in Adoption Room #1 and then the Lobby, Wil transcended tables and couches and gravity to acquire and enamor every last lap. She strewed her love indiscriminately, instinctively caring for/sitting upon the grieving or the gawky or the simply sad. Wil did not care if you donated or not, if you were a senator or a sixth-grader, or any other nonessential details about your essentially beloved self. She napped with cats of all conditions, willfully, wondrously blind to their oddities and odors.
Wil’s love was no glurgey sap, though. She’d love you enough to tell you when you were wrong, especially if you were feline, extra-especially if you were Olive. Love is always honest.
Dr. Maslow and an entire battalion of biologists can say what they will, but you won’t convince me that Wilhelmina wasn’t perched on the pinnacle of potential in her final hour. Her own failing body was less of a concern than the urgent business of loving those around her. She gave, she loved, and she overcame unto the end.
And you know and I know that what looks like the end is not the end.
Until we see our beloved Wilhelmina again, I will remember her giving love she “shouldn’t” have had it in her to give. I’ll remember her punching Max and going toe-to-diapered-toe with Olive, too, but only in the name of self-respect and self-actualization and justice for all undercats.
I’ll remember the tenderness we gave Wil, but far more than that, I’ll remember the ways this mother-hen of a cat cared for us.
In any hierarchy that matters, Wilhelmina is tops. Until we meet again, bright blossom, thank you.