Requiem for a Princess – Robert A. Hoyt

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It’s a commonly stated trope among medical students that medical school doesn’t leave adequate time for real life. That’s not the only thing it doesn’t leave time for.

So I’d like to write, for a few words, on the human language most attuned to capturing emotion, music. At times like these, dirges and sad songs are… I suppose popular isn’t the word, but you know what I mean. But to me, there is something inadequate about these. A funerary song, I feel, ought to have three traits. First, it ought to be beautiful. In fact, it ought to be heartbreakingly so. These events are pains we feel so acutely and so deeply that it’s nonsensical that we torture ourselves further with dragging rhythms and clashing keys. In your deepest sadness, death needs a foil, a counterpoint, not a co-conspirator. Second, it ought to be striking, like cold air coming out of the warm, like a hand hitting you across the face. Managing a death can happen with procedural detachment—and we lose the marker in our minds for what the moment was when it all changed. We go on for a while on our old habits. In some ways, a single song, sung just once, can help us—it can give us a point to go back to, a firm mental justification for when it was time to do things a new way. And last, perhaps most subjective and most difficult, but I will argue, most importantly, it must be partner with the silence that follows it. When the last note rings, the moment after should naturally be silence—a moment for tears to well up and lumps to form in throats, because at that moment, and only then, can we experience catharsis and understand death as it is.

Death is not an event. It is the cessation of events. It is the moment that the instrument in a great orchestra stills. Of all the kinds of silence, it is the only truly human one. It is not the silence we interrupt by living, the great vast soundlessness of the universe, that came before us and will come after us, the sound not only of nothing to hear but nobody to hear. It is the silence that comes after a noise— the silence of many recognizing that there is nothing to hear. It leaves a faint tingle on the ears, and a tiny longing, as a taste of wine fading on the tongue. And it is brought out, and appreciated, in the moment of mourning. We mourn as a way of directing all the instruments, for just a second, to pause, so that we can hear the silence after the noise. We step away, put down our tasks of life, to see the space where something was.
The silence after the sound is fleeting. It can be missed, and we know it, for we can be tempted to miss it on purpose—to let it blend and fade in the background. But we rob ourselves, in doing so, of a proper ending. The funeral can be postponed, but the moment happens just once. Later you may reflect on it, but you are only, then, remembering the brief moment when there was a silence after the noise. It will not come again. The next night, or in a year, the orchestra will be playing and the silence will still be there, but then it will be normal, inseparable from the silence of the things that could be or might be or simply aren’t. You cannot sip the wine now and know, in every vivid detail, how its taste fades, in six months. It is passed around just once.

I could tell you a lot about Miranda. She was beautiful—I had forgotten how beautiful until I saw an old picture. She was distinguished by a yellow stripe down half of her nose, and golden eyes, and an imperious manner that seemed to explain everything the Egyptians thought about cats. She was, more than anything, self-possessed, and had a stronger personality than most cats (I weigh my words carefully). Memories pass by as I type this—the blanket she used to nurse on when she was just a kitten, which was faux fur and must have felt like her mother. The way she once rode ceiling fans and hunted wasps and moths, back when we were, she, my brother, and I, all young. Her stubbornness, and her insistence on getting her own way, which never left her. The wicked back-hand she developed after being declawed, which could knock the boy cats three feet. Her golden years, spent sleeping in strongly-contested patches of sun and watching birds flit by the window with great interest. The respiratory problems that insidiously developed in those years, and the resulting heart problems that we thought would be her death sentence. But we moved, and things changed, and Miranda’s intense will seemed to keep her going. And though other parts of the orchestra fell out of tune, sometimes, in defiance of all odds, she kept playing. Some part of us, foolishly and hopefully, dreamed it might be a great while longer.

But discord crept in. A hard nodule of cancer in her stomach grew while we were focusing on her improving breathing. We never knew, until it was also in her liver, until she was wasting bit-by-bit in front of us… and by then, there was nothing we COULD do. I console myself, now, that the silence that pains us might be a relief to a musician who can no longer play in time and on tune. At some point, will as the music directors and other members of the orchestra might, there is no playing on. Then the silence after the sound is a cessation of disharmony, a relieving of clashing cords, or at least of maddening effort in preventing them. Silence is funny—it’s defined by what it interrupts.

Tonight, a princess, but a very old princess, has died. Though she was ever young at heart, and full of vinegar (in point of fact, a brat, if a loveable brat, to her last breath)—she held a tired, thin instrument, strings fraying and brass faded, soundbox crumbling even as she gamely played on. We could have delayed its disintegration perhaps two weeks— if we put, as orchestral directors sometimes do, the musician through Hell. But we are not that kind of director. So instead, tonight, she has put it down and walked off the stage. And we, her family, take a moment to hear the fading, thin note left behind in her wake, the last string of a melody we’ve known for a long time, become accustomed to, and will never hear again. And as it echoes I reflect on many things, but only one seems to resonate—that I have seen the passing of hunters and companions and friends, but only now do I know that we truly lost royalty. For as stupid as it sounds, she acted the part, and not just to the extent that all cats do, but through and through. It was who she was. You will never get to see what I meant, for which I am deeply sorry. It is too late. Really it was too late some time ago, as the decrescendo came, as the signs of the end came in.

I am writing this as I wait out the traffic of rush-hour in an empty classroom. The sunlight is fading behind the mountains, trickling through spacious windows onto modern architecture. There are learning objectives I’m behind on. There are things to do in lab. A test is coming. My own part is busy, staccato, overwhelming. But here, I must pause. For as I listen, the last note rings, and I know that a song has ended.

Goodbye, princess. ‘Til we meet again.

31 responses to “Requiem for a Princess – Robert A. Hoyt

  1. Christopher M. Chupik

    Damn. Heartbreaking. Bravo.

  2. Thank you for this; it captures almost entire how I feel, even all these years later, at and about the passing of my very beloved Lydia.

  3. Miranda was one of the most exquisite felines I’ve ever been graced to meet. Well, written, Robert. My heart is broken with yours.

  4. We salute those gone ahead, to carry news of our own coming.

  5. The animals we bring into our lives rarely outlast us, so the best we can hope for is to do right by them while they’re in our care. It sounds like you and your family did that. One can’t ask any more than that.

  6. This is indeed worthy of a moment of beautiful silence. My boon companion Neo has just climbed off of my lap, and my boon companion Pan has just climbed on, and all of us are still and quiet for a moment out of respect for Miranda and your family. Thank you, Robert, from the three of us.

  7. Well said Robert, well said.

  8. Tears

  9. colddeadhandsdays

    Brought tears to my eyes. I’ve mourned the loss of pets exponentially deeper than that of relatives and friends. When you spend every day with them and love them they become closer than anyone save your children and spouse. Godspeed. Sorry for your loss.

  10. I am sorry for your loss. Perhaps she is sunning, with my cats, Rhiow, Val, and Spidercat. If she is, she is in good company.

    *hug*

  11. Robert: “Sorry for your family’s loss” is always inadequate, but it is what I can feel now. It hurts so much to see a beloved old friend waste away.
    May she be renewed and happy in Summerlands, with those other of our fur-people who have passed before, waiting for us to join them.
    Thank you for sharing your years with her and love for her with us.
    That patch of sunlight will miss her.

    We now face similar issues with our 18 year old Tigger, who is deteriorating after a stroke, and while we do not want to let him go on, letting him continue to struggle to walk and eat would be selfish and irresponsible.
    Thank you for expressing your love and pain so articulately. This has helped to resolve the ethical choices in the decision to help him to pass sooner, rather than later, and to spare him further suffering.
    Tigger came to us as a sub-6 ounce kitten, his eyes barely opened, abandoned under the neighbors porch, and immediately jumped into our hearts and life with his inquisitive, attitudinal behaviors and his ability to know just when we really needed a kitty-cuddle.
    Thanks for helping.
    JPDev

  12. I am so sorry for your loss.

  13. Damn. Tears in the morning, tears in the evening, and I never even had the privilege of meeting the lady.

    There is a hole in your family’s hearts today, I know quite well. Others will come to fill it (although not exactly, there will still be voids that are unique and unfillable). May that time come as soon as it may.

    Music – I never thought of my Father as religious, and I knew that Taps would be played at his graveside (WW2 veteran). But there was “Amazing Grace,” that I cannot hear now without remembering all of those that have preceded me to wherever we and our beloved companions go – and then Taps, with that last note quavering into the distance.

    So well said, sir. So well said.

  14. Spent the night with my tortie waking me quite a few more times than normal. Couldn’t bring myself to be mad at her for some reason.

  15. Well said, and know good thoughts go out. It is never easy, nor should it be. Know thoughts go out for all of you at this time.

  16. Beautiful, poignant and reminds me of my meeting with her royal highness. She truly was a princess. Hugs to and for all of you.

  17. I’m typing this with tears in my eyes. The tears are a combination of your beautiful words, Robert, and memories of my own departed feline family members. Absolutely lovely.

  18. Thank you, Robert.

  19. In some ways, a single song, sung just once, can help us—it can give us a point to go back to, a firm mental justification for when it was time to do things a new way.

    Yes, this.

    Thank you Robert.

  20. “Prayer in Memory of a Pet”
    (from the Basilica and Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation, Carey, Ohio)

    Almighty God,
    I was fortunate to receive the gift of (Name) from You.
    Now that (he/she) has left this life,
    please help me cope with my loss with strength and courage.
    I know that my beloved companion no longer suffers,
    and will live on in many fond memories.
    May they be treated with care and respect.
    As (he/she) has enriched my life,
    I pray that I may enrich the lives of others.
    Amen.

    • Somebody actually worked out a pretty nice unofficial set of burial prayers, here:
      http://scecclesia.com/other-stuff/prayers-for-the-burial-of-a-pet

      • Dorothy L. Sayers’ Timothy

        Consider, O Lord, Timothy, Thy servants’ servant
        (We give him this title, as to Thy servant the Pope,
        Not knowing a better. Him too Thy ministers were observant
        To vest in white and adorn with a silk cope.)
        Thy servant lived with Thy Servants in the exchange
        Of affection; he condescended to them from the dignity
        Of an innocent mind; they bent to him with benignity
        From the rarefied Alps of their intellectual range.
        Hierarchy flourished, with no resentment
        For the unsheathed claw or the hand raised in correction;
        Small wild charities took root beneath the Protection,
        Garden-escapes from the Eden of our contentment.
        Daily we came short in the harder human relation,
        Only in this easier obeying, Lord, Thy commands;
        Meekly we washed his feet, meekly he licked our hands
        –Beseech Thee, overlook not this mutual grace of salvation.
        Canst Thou accept our pitiful good behaving,
        Stooping to share at our hand that best we keep for the beast?
        Sir, receive the alms, though least, and bestowed on the least,
        Save us, and save somehow with us the means of our saving.
        Dante in the Eighth Heaven beheld love’s law
        Run up and down on the infinite golden stairway;
        Angels, men, brutes, plants, matter, up that fairway
        All by love’s cords are drawn, and draw.
        Thou that before the Fall didst make pre-emption
        Of Adam, restore the privilege of the Garden,
        Where he to the beasts was namer, tamer, and warden;
        Buy back his household and all in the world’s redemption.
        When the Ark of the new life grounds upon Ararat
        Grant us to carry into the rainbow’s light,
        In a basket of gratitude, the small, milk-white
        Silken identity of Timothy, our cat.

  21. Dang it, the room is swimming and I can barely type. Requiem aeternum dona eis Domine.

  22. I’m so sorry. A beautiful goodbye for a very beautiful girl. It’s always so hard to be left behind.

  23. *sniff*
    {{{HUG}}}

  24. Like– is so inadequate word… This made me cry

  25. Dear Robert,

    You have inherited a gift for words. Yes, you’ve captured it, and I’m sure Miranda was an excellent cat. When I was a little younger than you are now, I came back from college, and got to see my favorite beagle for a few more weeks before the vet gave him his last injections. It hurts, it hurts. Let us remember them as they were.

  26. Beautiful tribute to a lost loved blessing.

  27. Matthew House

    …ow.