Those of us who are fortunate to share a life with loved animal companions know that there comes a time when we have to say goodbye to these loved ones. Generally, we outlive them. This subject is covered in Deborah Barnes‘ Purr Prints of the Heart: A Cat’s Tale of Life, Death, and Beyond.
This is not an easy topic to write about, as I know from personal experience. It’s also a topic that can be emotionally loaded for its human readers. Deborah has taken a wise path with this book, and tells the story in the voice of her cat, Mr. Jazz. Using Mr. Jazz as narrator helps, somehow, to present a clearer representation of such an emotional topic. It’s as if a cat’s perspective, in this case, allows us to see another way to interpret an experience that many of us dread. It’s as if a cat’s perspective is somehow less emotionally loaded. Many of us have already been through the experience of losing a loved animal companion. Why would we want to relive it again, in writing? But having the cat, rather than the human, narrate this experience gives it a more down to earth tenor uncluttered by messy human emotion.
I’ve heard it said (from veterinarians, and even animal communicators) that animals have a much more “matter of fact” approach to death than we humans do. Perhaps this is true, since, as far as we know, animals don’t seem to struggle with ego, grief, and loss the same way that we humans do. (I rule out nothing, and I don’t claim to understand how a cat interprets her life experiences. I have seen my own cats grieve for extended periods when they lost a loved cat companion of their own.) I’m not sure that we humans have the language or the understanding to truly know how a cat experiences death, or anything.
That aside, I think the author made an excellent decision to have Mr. Jazz narrate this book and his experience of his last months with his humans. It gives the reader a chance to move through this experience in a way that is different than how a human would react to death. We get to see the experience through Mr. Jazz’s eyes, and we also get to see him interpreting the humans’ emotions and responses to what’s going on.
Mr. Jazz is an excellent storyteller and I was hooked from the first sentence:
My name is Mr. Jazz. I’m a Ragdoll cat and on August 28, 2013, after 15 years of life, I asked my beloved humans for the most difficult gift of all — to help me cross the Rainbow Bridge.
I loved Mr. Jazz’s voice from the first page, and knew that I would read through the book, even though I knew one of the important outcomes of this story.
Mr. Jazz recounts his adoption into Deborah’s household, and his interactions and relationships with the other animals and the humans. I’ll admit that I found the latter parts of the story very interesting. So many of us who love animals have been through end of life or illness situations. We go over options with our veterinarians, we struggle with decisions, we want what’s best for us, or for our cat, and we have such a hard time letting go. We sometimes go through all kinds of convolutions — force feeding, giving meds, giving fluids, and worrying ourselves crazy.
There’s a very refreshing scene where Mr. Jazz is taken to the vet. The cat has been declining and eating less. Naturally the humans are very worried and trying hard to get their loved kitty to eat. What’s interesting is Mr. Jazz’s sense of relief (presented in a light and loving voice) when the vet suggests that instead of spending lots of money on a bunch of inconclusive tests — “just bring your cat home and love him as much as you can.” Many of us have been in a similar situation, but somehow, it gets an interesting new validity presented through the eyes of this feline narrator. Mr. Jazz’s sense of relief to have this expressed to the humans, out loud, is palpable. This is an interesting perspective for human readers to be exposed to, and I think it works well throughout the book, and is done well.
As a reader, I really liked a few sections at the end of the book that also let us hear directly from the author. I particularly liked the “Guide to Coping with Pet Loss,” and found it practical and interesting. Deborah covers the many facets of grieving: the impact that grief can have on us physically and mentally, how to handle death with children, the fact that grief can come in waves long after your companion passes, how finances factor in, and more. I appreciated this look at the grieving process, and the nonjudgmental and inclusive suggestions provided.
Deborah’s writing is tight throughout the book and she and Mr. Jazz achieve that fine balance between too little complexity and overwriting. I think they nail the balance very nicely.
Buy this book for a complex and rich understanding of the bond we share with our beloved animals — from one cat’s point of view. You may be surprised at the light that a different perspective (Mr Jazz’s, in this case) sheds on the universal experience of life and death.
All photos used with permission of Deborah Barnes.
Disclaimer: Deborah Barnes is a friend and colleague of mine. This review is not biased by my relationship to Deb, and reflects my true thoughts about Purr Prints of the Heart.
Catherine Holm is the award-winning author of several books of fiction and memoir. She tends to write about cats, or the impact of Place. She also writes regularly for Catster magazine and catster.com, and is a professional member of the Cat Writers’ Association. She and her husband share their home with six rescued indoor cats, including an adorable (not so humble) Ragdoll.