The Cat Who Taught My Husband to Love

When their much-loved cat died, Alison Luterman and her husband learned a different way to look at love and loss.

Photograph: Illustration by Jillian Tamaki.

Two weeks after we were married, my husband and I had to euthanize his 19-year-old cat.

My new spouse and I stood to­gether at Dede’s small grave in the dry, summer-baked dirt of our backyard. We toasted her with his treasured hand­blown glasses and dribbled a little wine onto her grave in libation. Then I said Kaddish for her, which made us both cry again. I had lived with Dede for only a couple of years, but Christopher had raised her from a kitten.

Or maybe she had raised him. Over the course of almost two decades, she had seen him through divorce, several moves, a return to school and career changes. Through it all, Dede was there, with her soft fur, her unsquelchable curiosity, her humming, purring and, occasionally, yowling presence.

She’d wake him in the morning by picking her way delicately over his supine body, like a lady holding up her skirts while crossing a battlefield. Once arrived at his head, she’d lick his nose until it was raw. She taught him unconditional love, nonverbal communication and constancy.

He was in his early thirties when he and his then-wife adopted Dede. She was a feral kitten, and perhaps he was a bit feral as well. The marriage lasted less than five years, and Christopher got custody of Dede in the divorce. He says that caring for her over all those years paved the way for him to love me.  In our relationship he demonstrates the same thoughtfulness. Little things: hot coffee on winter mornings, cut roses in a bud vase next to my computer. Big things, like being his truest self with me, holding nothing back.

The day after we buried Dede, I ­accidentally broke one of the wineglasses ­we’d used to toast her at her grave. That stemware had been given to Christopher by a dear friend from high school with whom he was no longer in touch. Like Dede, the glass was irreplaceable. Loss after loss.

“I’ll replace it!” I blurted. Yeah, right. As if a new one could ever be the same. Nevertheless, I hit the stores. I may be powerless in the face of death and brokenness, but by God I can go shopping.

I found some etched wineglasses that were pretty though nothing, really, like the broken one. As the clerk wrapped them up, I thought of the conversation Christopher and I had had with our rabbi about whether we wished to enact the stomping-­on-the-glass tradition that concludes most Jewish weddings. I am Jewish and enjoy practicing the rites handed down to me by my tribe. Christopher is Protestant by heritage but game for going along with Passover Seders, the lighting of Hanukkah candles and all the rest of it. This wedding ritual, though, had him confused. Envisioning shards of glass piercing people’s eyes, he thought the custom was a waste of good crystal at best and an invitation to the emergency room or a lawsuit at worst.

“Not to worry, it’s not even a wineglass that gets broken,” the rabbi ­assured him. “It’s usually a lightbulb, ­and it’s wrapped in a sock or a thick napkin to prevent injury.” This mystified Christopher even more. If it wasn’t even a real wineglass, why perform the ritual at all? What was the significance of it?

“Well, there are many possible answers to that question,” Rabbi David answered. “The traditional interpretations have to do with the destruction of the Temple, and then there is also some symbolism about the woman . . .”

“Her virginity,” I broke in. “But that’s not why I want to do it. Sometimes people say, ‘Just as this wineglass, once shattered, can never be put together again, so this couple’s commitment, if betrayed, can never be made whole again.’ ”

“And that’s why you want us to do it?” Christopher asked.

“No, I want us to do it because the Buddhists say, ‘Think of the glass as ­already broken.’ ”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning everything we hold dear is going to be taken away from us. Our health, our lives, each other.”

“And so let’s stomp on it while we can?”

“And so let’s acknowledge that right up front. It’s already broken. The fact that we get to enjoy it for a moment is pure gravy.”

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