Big Bear Is Gone

Big Bear is gone.

He passed away over four months ago.

It has taken me all this time to get to a place where I could bear to write those four sad, awful words.

Big Bear is gone.

As I stare at them they feel like a hateful lie, one of the worst things I could imagine, something that surely could never come to pass.

He had been suffering renal failure for a while, to be expected with an older cat who had also been treated for hyperthyroidism.

But he’s not just poorly this time. He’s not just sick.

We had to say goodbye to him. He’s no longer with us. He’s departed.

Four months and I am still spitting out euphemisms. Four months and I can’t say that word. Not in relation to him. Dead. No, Big Bear is…gone.

I met Big Bear in April 2004. He was a tiny kitten, rescued from a feral litter underneath a house in Ōtara, a no-nonsense suburb of South Auckland. It produced an equally no-nonsense cat, though he wasn’t tiny for long.

We named him Big Bear because of the way he ran, galloping in a way that reminded me of a real bear. “Little Bear” felt too obvious. So he instead became Big Bear and he grew to fill the space of his name, literally and figuratively. At his biggest he weighed in at 10 kilograms, a rough bruiser who strolled in from the wild and took over our lives.

Most cats are curious observers but for Big Bear it wasn’t enough to simply view what was going on. It was his job to oversee it. He was not just top of the pecking order in our four-cat home, he was head of the household. I often joked that Big Bear felt that everything was his responsibility, but I think he truly believed that.

Every closed door needed to be opened for random inspections. Shower or bath water was sampled for quality post ablutions—and sometimes during. The prime space on the bed or floor or couch or anywhere belonged to Big Bear. He would randomly follow us when we left the house then would always be there to greet us when we arrived home, complaining loudly if we were later than usual. I have no doubt he saw himself as the architect of our lives—relentlessly attentive and fiercely protective.

There was one time that Dave, hunting for the source of the sound of Mariachi music in the neighbourhood and walking half a kilometre to find it, listened to the band for a while and then turned around to see Big Bear, waiting patiently behind him.

Even only days before his passing, this headstrong cat tailed the two of us fifty metres down the street before we’d realised he was behind us, unsteady on his feet but determined to do his duty. Illness might have stolen Big Bear’s life, but it didn’t even dent his wilfulness.

Big Bear never wandered far from his humble beginnings. He ate plainly—fancy cat foods were rejected in favour of the cheapest varieties. He liked to drink out of the toilet. He would die rather than be brushed. He had no time for cat toys but he did enjoy playing with a piece of string once in a while.

To our horror, and my secret delight, he was also a thief, roaming the neighbourhood while we were asleep or at work and returning with whatever he could carry—socks, underwear, towels, gardening gloves, hats and caps, stuffed toys, Lego pieces, plastic bags, wool insulation, t-shirts, nightwear, and all manner of rubbish and trash. Apologies to our various neighbours over the years but in Big Bear’s defence it was his job to provide for us, and he was a bountiful benefactor.

The earthy-Taurus-small-town-boy in me loved having another unpretentious family member around, one who liked the simple things but equally liked things his way. One who understood that some rules needed to be broken.

For seventeen years my beautiful black-and-white boy was by my side. And in my head. Big Bear was not just a cat, he is a character. His personality was so forceful that he shoved himself into my series of fantasy novels and took up residence. Many fans tell me Big Bear is their favourite character. I adore hearing that but I can’t claim any credit. I don’t write Big Bear so much as set him free onto the page and get out of his way.

I suspect creating—SPOILER ALERT—an immortal version of Big Bear was my attempt to stave off the inevitable, the fact that one day I would have to say goodbye to my dearest friend. Perhaps part of me hoped that the magic in The Mythic Series would infuse our Big Bear with the ability to cheat death. But if that was indeed some kind of spell, then it failed. When the end came we watched his breathing slow and then stop. There was no miraculous resurrection.

The moment I saw Big Bear, I recognised him. I didn’t need to learn who he was. I already knew him.

At home, we were inseparable. If I ever had a nap I would invariably wake to find Big Bear curled up beside me. He would grizzle if I locked him out of the office so I could write without him poking around on the desk. Once I’d coaxed him off the keyboard he would invariably lie across my arms, allowing me just enough space to type, sometimes for hours. In my darkest time, as I hid in bed, he lay there with me, day after day, week after week, staying by my side until I was ready for the sun again.

Nothing he did ever surprised or annoyed me. For him I had boundless patience and infinite forgiveness. It was as though our souls had been carved out of the same piece of marble.

No matter how bad the world got, I never lost hope because it was a world with Big Bear in it. He was my touchstone for everything genuine and good. My accomplice in imaginary adventures. A source of constant joy.

I never once felt smothered by Big Bear’s seeming claim on my very being. Exactly the opposite. I felt free because I felt understood.

Animals allow us to love in a way that people do not. Some of this is because we do the thinking for them, putting thoughts in their minds and meaning in their actions, safe from the fear of discovering those things aren’t true. This isn’t necessarily better or worse than love of our fellow humans. But it is a love that is no less real. And its loss is no less painful.

I am no stranger to loss.

I know that I have artificially extended the denial stage of grief by mentioning Big Bear’s passing to only a select few. Every week I see social media posts of someone lamenting that their beloved animal has crossed the Rainbow Bridge. But telling the world that Big Bear is gone would make it real and so I have cowardly buried the news.

I have felt the hot anger of grief, an incandescent rage at the injustice that such a true, bright spirit is gone while so many awful human beings continue to walk and breathe. That is nonsense thinking, of course, but my ire is too righteous for logic.

I have bargained, wishing for just another day, another hour of Big Bear’s watchful gaze, another moment with him a dead weight on my chest, another chance to see his eyes light up with the mention of “treats”, just one more affectionate bump from his hard head. But there is no haggling with Death. It must only be endured.

I have wailed, slogged through a depression so dark and deep that it swallows everything good. Even when I believe myself out of tears, I remember that my sweet friend is gone and I crumple, so overcome I can barely stand.

I have become an expert in grief’s first four stages these past months.

But I cannot accept Big Bear’s loss. Not yet.

That time will come, but acceptance is not here with me today.

As Big Bear’s health worsened, I kept telling Dave “I think he’ll make it to Christmas”, part of me desperately willing it to come true. Yet another magic spell of protection that failed.

During his final weeks Big Bear was my literal shadow and I his. He would nap on me for hours, the two of us just being together. I may have tried to jinx Death, but I knew enough not to leave things unspoken, so as Big Bear slept out tumbled every beautiful thought I’d ever had about him, every thank you for his years of companionship and love.

I spoke of the debt I owe him, of how he had dulled some of my sharp edges, filed them blunt with year after year of true devotion. I told him that he had changed me by allowing me to love candidly, unreservedly. He had made me realise I could love that way with people too, that I could hand over my heart and that perhaps it would not be broken.

I have spoken to him since then. Told him that the world is colder without him, scarier, darker, lonelier. Told him that my heart got broken after all.

All these words for a cat, some will say. Some might laugh that I thought a cat was my friend. Sneer that I am delusional to have loved a pet so much. I don’t care what the world thinks. Big Bear certainly didn’t. Big Bear simply was. He was and now he is not.

Big Bear is gone.

As I’m writing this the tears are streaming down my face.

These are not the last tears I will shed for him.