Notes on a Buddhist path

An empty chair

November 25, 2012 By | 5 Comments

And when your sorrow is comforted…you will be content that you have known me. ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

It’s nearly a week now since Jack, my cat, died. This grief feels thicker than the last time. Thicker in the sense that I knew him for over 17 years; longer than my marriage, longer than most of my friendships, and now he’s up and gone. There’s no one here but me, rattling about and stepping over shadows of invisible cats, rewriting the script of my life.

The day he died I threw out his litter boxes and washed the blood-stained towels and sheepskin. I felt an urgency to clear away the burdens, the messy death, the reminders of my attachments to him. Yet when I saw the thin coating of his orange fur coiled in a circle of sleep on my comforter cover I froze with clinging grief. I wasn’t quite ready to let go of all that was him, not just yet.

It was the same with the chair by my desk. Last year I found a perfect desk chair and set it up in front of my computer only to find it immediately in use by a cat. I acquiesced and moved it over, pulling a dining room chair up to the keyboard for me. All the time I have written in the past year in a half, either Jack or Clause has been by my side in that chair, sleeping, purring, comforting me in their peaceful presence. The empty chair still sits beside me, covered in fur, and there it will stay, at least for now.

I’m unraveling all the habits one is obliged to remember when owned by pets. I can close the storage room door since there are no cat litter boxes in there to clean. I can shut the other doors as well without the worry of a trapped cat or that I may deny them a fine nap in the laundry basket tucked into the back of my bedroom closet. The blinds can be dropped all the way; no need to leave them up a bit for a cat or two to jump to the window sill for a nap or to watch the show of trees and crows and dogs with their owners passing by. When warm weather comes again I can throw open the windows to their full expression without worrying about a cat escaping to the busy street and beyond.

No more food or water to set out. No more food to throw away that goes uneaten. No more coaxing with bribes of tuna and still no eating for days, weeks on end until only water passes through their lips and you’re thankful for every drop they swallow for you. No more drinks from the toilet, perched precariously on once strong, but now wobbly legs. I can put the seat down now, but sometimes I don’t.

Years ago I bought two paintings by Elizabeth Ryder Sutton. The larger painting is called “Near Home” and it so reminded me of Jack with its a ginger cat walking through a field heading towards a chair (at right). The  subject of the smaller painting is that solitary chair (above). One time when we lived on a small island, Jack escaped our cabin and bounded with such unbridled pleasure through the dry grasses around the house. At one point he turned and looked back at me. It was exactly the same pose of the cat in the painting. I felt such happiness for him; that he could feel safe close to home, yet still be wild in the play of the wind and the field that laid before him.

The grief is subsiding like the waters of a flood. When I sit in meditation I recall the joy I summoned up the night before he died. Joy in feeling again the sense of non suffering and knowing that both Jack and Clause are in that space now. I can see impermanence and cravings in everything, from the memory of trying to block out the annoying feline symphony of “feed me” to leaning into the silence of this moment and trying to catch the whisper of a meow on the wind.  Last week I thought I saw him sunning himself in the window of our apartment and at night I catch myself when I think I hear him walking down the hall to settle onto my chest in bed and dream. Leaving to go to work I realize there’s no more need to say goodbye to the lodgers still residing in my heart. And the empty chair sits next to me. I’ll clean it, some day soon.

The Promise

by Jane Hirshfield

Stay, I said
to the cut flowers.
They bowed
their heads lower.

Stay, I said to the spider,
who fled.

Stay, leaf.
It reddened,
embarrassed for me and itself.

Stay, I said to my body.
It sat as a dog does,
obedient for a moment,
soon starting to tremble.

Stay, to the earth
of riverine valley meadows,
of fossiled escarpments,
of limestone and sandstone.
It looked back
with a changing expression, in silence.

Stay, I said to my loves.
Each answered,

From Come, Thief  by Jane Hirshfield (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011). © by Jane Hirshfield.

Image credits: © by Tess Wixted


  1. Jack and Clause stay with you, “the lodgers still residing in my heart”, always.

    And yet they are gone from this realm. Your loss and your grief are real.

    The happiness you felt for Jack in the dry grass is the happiness I wish for you in your remembrances of him.

    • Each day softens a bit as time has its way of doing with grief. Thank you, David, for your reminder of that special day and the happiness it bestowed. I will hold that with me in my heart along with those dear. sweet lodgers.


  1. […] Previously published at the author’s website, […]

  2. […] These past weeks a sadness still sometimes visits me, remembering my cat, Jack, and all the ifs that seem conjoined to that sadness.  If only he was still here, if only I had taken him to the vet sooner, if only I hadn’t taken him at all. Yet there are also the ifs of a life unfolding. Last week I was getting ready to head out the door for a walk when a friend called and asked to stop by to pick up some things I was giving away. We had a short, but lovely visit and after she left I did take that walk. A heavy sky of steely gray glowered overhead, and as I neared the ocean an expanse of sun and creamy clouds shimmered on the southern horizon as if the closed eye of the heavens had opened, and smiled. Turquoise and aqua melted with the apricot hues of the sun’s visit to the day and in that instant I felt the purest rapture. What if my friend hadn’t called? What if I had left for my walk earlier or not at all? I would have missed this certain perfection of the day. […]

  3. […] lightness over any season, over any craving, over sun-drenched sandals and soft woollen socks. Even the memory of dear lost cats, whispering on the edge of a […]

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