I don’t have a picture of Leileu. It’s too bad. She was really beautiful. She was a six-year-old cat of a breed I can’t name, with lush, thick golden-orange fur you could rub your fingers through and through. She was really talkative when she was in a good mood. In the last few weeks, she hadn’t been in such a good mood, following the death of her littermate and playmate Molokai. She stopped eating and drinking, grew more and more listless. She died yesterday at a little after five in the afternoon. Just lifted her little head up, coughed twice, and died.
Leileu wasn’t my cat, but was in the care of my friend Hollye at her rescue shelter, Purrfect Hearts, which I’ve been helping Hollye launch. A number of cats come in sick, most get nursed back to health and find families, I’m happy to say. Hollye is stubborn about not giving up on any of them. There have been a couple of cats who were so sick that vets took one look at them, shrugged, and wrote them off. Nico is one of those, Earl is the other. They’re now the picture of bright-eyed health, and Hollye’s made them the shelter “house cats”. Then there are those you can’t help. We just don’t know why Leileu died, even after Hollye followed all the procedures she’d been advised by a vet to follow. But she died.
I’ve thought a lot about Leileu, not that I knew her particularly, but because I’m an inveterate animal lover, and because I was holding her not half an hour before she went. I remember she was purring. Why do I remember these little details? Because it was a life. To some it may have been just a cat, and therefore an inconsequential life. But it wasn’t inconsequential to her, nor to us.
One of the most unpleasant and hateful assertions religionists make is that atheists cannot appreciate life. They adopt the paradoxical view that life is meaningless unless it never ends, unless there is a heaven to which we all go to live happily ever after. This speaks to a deep existential fear of death, which, to be fair, most living things possess; it’s hardwired. But dealing with death by pretending that when you die you really don’t is, ironically, a cheapening of life. What makes our lives special is its brevity, its fragility. What makes us worthy of calling ourselves moral beings is the extent to which we recognize that this is true not only for us, but for other people — even those who don’t share our beliefs, our sexual preference, or our skin color — and our furry friends who share our planet, most of whom are helpless before us and thus rely on us for care and safety.
Christians wonder how atheists can be moral because they fail to recognize a fact we understand with clarity: this is all we get. If this is all we get, then it’s incumbent upon us to create a moral, peaceful world in which to live. Otherwise, we have squandered our only shot at life, and are destined to die with misery and regret. How is it so hard for them to understand just being good as a concept? To many of them, being a good and decent person isn’t enough on its own. There must be a divine father waiting in the wings with a reward for all of that goodness. No reward? Then why be good? It’s how they think, and it’s why they can’t understand why atheists can be good when we’re not getting any reward. Atheist morality differs from, and is ultimately superior to, Christian morality because atheist morality is not contingent upon the question “What’s in it for me?”
So what does any of this have to do with a dead cat? Because there are Christians and other believers out there who will wonder why someone like me should care. Well, I’ll tell you. I care because I remember looking Leileu in the eyes during the time I was holding and petting her, feeling her purring though her extremities — her feet, the tips of her ears — were already growing cold. I care because seeing Leileu curled up in her bed, where Hollye had laid her out after she died, I thought of my own death years (I hope) hence, the deaths-to-come of my dogs, my parents and other people I love, and how that meant I had to love them all now, even more than I already do, love them with every cell in my body, because this is all we get. I care because even if it was just a little cat, it was a life, and for me — if not for those with their self-satisfied sense of moral superiority and their Bibles — that is enough.
Leileu was a six-year-old cat with golden fur. She died yesterday. But I had held her and looked in her eyes. She was alive.