THERE’S A FAMOUS cat I discovered from history while teaching the film The Secret of Kells to my Sophomore English class. Centuries ago, an obscure monk wrote songs to his cat, whom he named Pangur Bán. The theme song of the film is well worth a listen.
You must go where I cannot,
‘Pangur Bán’ ‘Pangur Bán’,
There is nothing in this life but mist
And we will only be alive
for a short time.
The lyrics are haunting and beautiful, and the moment I played the song to my wife Laura, she said, “Oh, that’s our Pangor. She too thinks she can go anywhere.”
It’s the first time I heard her use that particular nickname for Pandora. But it soon became our favorite.
I FIRST MET Pandora while Laura and I were still distant from each other. In fact, we could hardly have been more distant. I was working as a teacher and screenwriter in Los Angeles, and Laura was working as a diplomat in Russia. As a second career, Laura had begun to write fiction, and on her author website, she began posting photos of her two Russian cats: Pandora, a Golden Siberian, and Delilah, a Neva Masquerade.
Laura and I reconnected as a couple shortly after I moved back to Ohio in November 2009 to spend time with my aging parents in their small house near Hartville. When I went to visit her in eastern Washington, I met both cats.
I was curious about why she called them bears.
After picking me up at the rural airport, she drove me to her house. When I stepped through the door of the large Great Room, I spotted two gorgeous furballs racing towards us — one silver, one golden — lush tails streaming behind them. The golden brown one’s rear legs kicked off to the side as she galloped along, giving her an odd, rolling gait.
The two creatures slowed as they approached.
“What gorgeous cats,” I said, kneeling to greet them.
“They’re bears,” Laura shot back, annoyance lacing her words. I glanced up. She was serious, her face filled with love as the two “bears” arrived at her feet. One of them, the silvery white one, permitted Laura to pick her up.
“Hey there, Delilah / How’s your life in the big city? / Yes, it’s true,” Laura sang. I stood there, shocked. Laura had made it clear she never sang, but here she was, voice clear and sweet, her attention completely focused on Delilah.
I felt something rub against my leg. I looked down into the green eyes of a golden brown “bear” who was staring up at me, fascinated. When our eyes met, Pandora turned and trotted briskly away. She turned and looked back at me doubtfully.
“Oh, look at her,” my sweetheart’s voice crooned. “She’s taken to you.”
SIX MONTHS LATER, when Laura and I took up residence in North Seattle, “Pandy,” as I quickly renamed her, moved our relationship forward. By then, I was responsible for feeding the two bears, and whenever Laura and I curled up to read, Pandy claimed my lap. She allowed me to pick her up. To Laura’s astonishment, Pandy even let me cradle her in my arms like an infant, lying blissfully on her back.
“She never lets me do that,” Laura said enviously.
Conflict quickly emerged when Pandy tried to rule my kitchen. I realized there was a problem when Laura came in one evening and found Pandy standing above a bowl of chili I had incautiously left out, all four striped legs planted firmly, whiskery face buried in the rich, spicy broth. When she glanced up and met Laura’s eyes, instead of retreating, Pandy merely settled in more firmly and quickened her pace, hoovering up the soup with determination.
Laura’s cries of shock brought me running.
“No, Pandora, no! You’re not a chili-eating bear.” I quickly scooped up Pandy and dropped her gently to the floor.
“But she’d like to be,” Laura crooned. Pandy glanced up at Laura with narrowed eyes, licked a drop of contraband soup from her furry paw, then scampered off.
Laura directed her annoyance at me.
“Pandy’s becoming a pirate. She can’t eat people-food. It’s not healthy. You’ll have to be sure the bears can’t get to our food. Only bear-food is acceptable.”
SEVERAL DAYS LATER, I came home with a new theme song for Pandy.
I had been listening to country music on the radio when I ran across Johnny Cash’s rendition of “Highwayman” (with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings & Kris Kristofferson).
As the hero emerged from the lyrics, I could only think of one creature who epitomized the strutting bandit described.
I was a highwayman
Along the coach roads, I did ride
With sword and pistol by my side
Many a young maid lost her baubles to my trade …
I played it for my wife, and she grinned.
“That’s Pangor,” she announced.
“Yes,” I agreed. “She’s always been a pirate.”
BUT HAVING A pirate in the house had its dark side.
One evening in May 2012, mere weeks before our wedding was scheduled to occur in our house, I was teaching an evening class in Tukwila, about 15 miles from home. As I began my first set in the four-hour class, my cell phone buzzed. Laura’s name popped up on the Caller ID screen.
Laura never called during class, so I apologized and stepped into the hall.
“Steven, there’s been a flood.” My wife’s voice was deeply stressed. “You need to come home.” I hesitated. “Now.”
I looked through the door at my students, who appeared confused by my absence.
“A flood?” Our house was located on a high hill overlooking Lake Washington. So the lake …?
Suddenly, a male voice.
“Mr. Denlinger, this is Daryl. A water line broke in your bathroom. You’d better come immediately. I estimate about 14,000 gallons have washed through your home over the last three hours.”
I froze, then said, “I’ll be there ASAP.”
Leaving my class in the hands of a helpful administrator, I raced towards home, my car roaring up the I-5, thoughts flying at light speed.
What could have happened? How could a line just … burst?
When I arrived home, a neighbor was holding my Dell computer tower in the air, water pouring through its sides. The entire floor of the house lay soaking wet. The contents of my entire downstairs office — computer, library, desk — all would need to be replaced.
Did I mention we were scheduled to get married IN that house — in a month?
We discovered later the tiny pressurized water pipe leading to the toilet was the culprit. It must have burst early in the day, with water eventually flooding the entire left side of the house and bursting through the floor to inundate the lower level. A lot of water coming through a very small pipe.
“It’s the oddest thing,” Laura told me as we watched our landlord bustle about, setting up gigantic heat fans for a hellish week of drying out our house. “When I waded through the floor to our bedroom, I found the bears on the bed, which was dry. Lilah looked normal. But Pangor, although dry, was exceptionally clean and fluffy.”
She gave me a speaking glance.
“You have to wonder where Pangor was when the pipe burst. And what she was doing.”
We never managed to investigate. The possibilities — with a pirate in the house who got into everything — were too scary to contemplate.
PERHAPS IT WAS then that the legends about Pandy the Great began. Any bear who could command a flood was a bear to be reckoned with.
Apparently, our Golden Siberian could also beam herself around the world, teleporting through time and space. It’s the only way I could account for what she accomplished since neither of us ever noticed her absence.
Laura was happy to tell me all the news I somehow missed.
“Before I met her, Pandy had already established herself: Pandy M.D., MFA, Ph.D. in astrophysics, brain surgeon, head of the space program, guest lecturer at MIT, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Theater, founder of McPandie’s Scottish ale.”
Laura took a deep breath. “And don’t forget Pandy the Great who does magic tricks for kids at the hospital.”
Like all good legends, they had some grounding in reality.
Laura told me that during the most difficult days of her previous marriage, when she retreated to the bathroom to cry, she’d find her two bears sitting beside her, looking up at her with attention and concern.
It is a fact Siberians are particularly sensitive to emotion. They connect to people through their eyes. I noted the way Pangor gazed up at me when I held her, the affection I felt when she snuggled into my arms, grunting with satisfaction.
I understood why Laura believed they were not just common cats — but noble bears.
Pangor even exhibited signs of proud humanity in the way she related to us. In the chain of command, Pangor always put herself on top, Lilah on the bottom. At night, Pangor automatically took charge, pushing her sturdy brown body firmly into Laura’s side, then wriggling over to me. Meanwhile, Delilah humbly settled in at Laura’s feet, curled up, sure it was where she belonged.
At one point, according to my wife, Pandy even ran for President. Delilah was relegated to being the head of numerous subcommittees, all of which consisted of only Delilah since Delilah was too shy to recruit anyone.
“The P in Pandy stands for President,” Laura told me proudly.
WE SOON FOUND endless amusement in telling each other stories about our bears. By now, we had created an entire world — or at least a small town, Bearville — where Amish Bear lived, along with Delilah McBear, small blue-eyed daughter of Bear McBear (patriarch of his Amish clan) and the apple of her father’s eye.
McSnicker arrived during our stint at a rental we called the “House of Horrors,” where a gas fireplace exploded without warning, blasting pieces of glass past Laura’s head where she hunched over, trying to get the lighter button to fire. The explosion went off with the force of a bomb, rocking the three-story house and knocking down every piece of art hanging on the walls.
This time, Pangor was nowhere to be seen, ensconced safely upstairs in our master bedroom.
But shortly afterward, a calico cat with a long skinny tail arrived outside our bedroom deck window. He glanced inside, eyes moving dismissively past Laura and myself, past Lilah, and locked firmly onto Pangor.
She leaped to her feet, stalking towards the screen-door to confront him. We never let Pangor outside or McSnicker inside, much to their annoyance. They seemed to have a love-hate relationship.
All that electricity had to spell trouble.
McSnicker eventually became a character in our imaginary world of Bearville, a sort of Huck Finn with a fishing pole and a father who was the town drunk. McSnicker wore denim trousers, scuffing his feet shyly in the dust when his teacher spoke to him outside the one-room schoolhouse.
His real owner on Vashon, our neighbor from the Betty MacDonald Farm next door, was decisive in her evaluation of McSnicker.
“Don’t let him in your house,” she warned us. “NEVER let him in your house. You’ll never get rid of him.”
WE NEVER DID get rid of him. He became part of the quilt of stories building up around Pangor — he transformed into a bright orange tabby with a long skinny tail — woven into the warp of Bearville. Having a fiction writer for a mate can be glorious.
Laura spun out stories across hours of driving during our many camping trips, as we pushed our Subaru Forester through national and state parks across the West from the Zion National Park to Glacier National Park, from Yellowstone National Park to the Redwood Forests of California.
I knew just how to prompt a new yarn.
“Three hundred yards back,” I’d say, glancing in my rear-view mirror — and like a runner catching the baton, Laura would capture the thread of the story and move it forward — “Two small bears cling to the three-wheeler weaving through traffic as a long, skinny orange tail streams in the breeze. They’re following Mommy and Daddy.”
PANGOR’S COMBATIVE NATURE came through most clearly when she demanded to be brushed. Thanks to one of our bear-sitters, I soon discovered and purchased a Zoom Groom, a soft rubber brush that Pangor loved feeling on her back.
Pangor and Delilah’s fur was soft and silky and long. Best of all, it was hypoallergenic with no dander, the invisible organism that causes allergic reactions in some humans. People normally allergic to cats were unaffected by our bears.
She loved having this fur scratched with the Zoom, deeply and deliciously.
The moment I arrived home, she’d race for her scratching pad, furiously raking her needle-sharp claws down the cardboard. This was my signal: it was time for me to work on her coat, “zooming” her. She didn’t want light scratching: she wanted brisk, firm, no-nonsense strokes. So I adjusted accordingly, and soon Pangor was screaming with pleasure.
She loved being zoomed — until suddenly she didn’t. When she’d had enough, Pangor would turn on a whisker, transforming in an eyeblink from a compliant bear who was loudly enjoying herself to a snarling creature who turned and raked my arms, neck, everywhere — and then bounded off.
UNTIL I MARRIED Laura, I saw feline creatures as pets, not friends.
I had grown up in a rural world in which humans interacted with animals on a practical level. Cats were barnyard animals, designed for the outdoors. My first cat Princess roamed the fields.
I’d sneak her inside the house — my parents didn’t approve of indoor cats, so it could never be for long — and one morning I awoke to find Princess had birthed a litter of kittens among the well-worn sheets and blankets.
My mother did approve of Princess’s mousing abilities, however. We often saw Princess sitting in the fields, ghostly in the morning fog, patiently waiting for her prey. Invariably she’d arrive with a dead mouse hanging from her jaws — lunch for her latest litter of kittens.
She was a pet, not a friend.
With Laura, I learned that pets can be a person’s closest friend. I learned cats could be soulmates … because I saw how deeply connected Laura was to both of them. And eventually, I become convinced that our bears truly had souls. I came to believe that heaven was populated with the unique souls of all God’s creatures.
Pangor was a Soul Teacher because she taught me how I could truly love creatures who were not human — by recognizing that not only humans have souls.
WHEN PANGOR PASSED, I felt the depths of the love that had grown between us, between Pangor and Laura, our golden bear and myself. I saw Pangor put herself trustingly in our hands, bravely and stoically.
Her ending was a surprise. We’d been diligently treating her for two years for a host of kidney, liver and thyroid issues, hydrating her, medicating her, hoping to stave off the inevitable. But three months after Delilah passed, Pangor began refusing food. She got crankier, giving voice to pain when I’d pick her up. Her stomach was taut.
Of course, it was small-cell lymphoma, the same disease that took Delilah. And by the time we caught it, it was too late to do anything.
But we tried. We took her to Summit Veterinary Hospital, where she spent the weekend. She brightened up, the vet told us she was “chatty,” and eventually she returned home with us. “She’s always wanting to be petted,” the vet there told us. “Everyone here likes her. But her prognosis is not good.”
So we brought her home. Once she settled in, her attitude slumped. We realized the cancer was too far advanced to overcome — there would only be the endless pain in treatment, and it would only be for our own benefit, to relieve our own pain.
We struggled with the decision. Pangor was so determined. She would have held on for us as long as she could. But every day would be harder for her. We knew she — like Bilbo Baggins sailing off to the Grey Havens in Return of the King — was telling us she was quite ready for her next adventure. But how do you decide how to help someone go … when they can’t tell you in words?
Only after talking to our own vet did we finally see a path forward.
I saw Laura’s face relax as she listened to his words.
“People always regret waiting too long. It’s ok if her last day is a good one.”
After Laura hung up, I put into words something I learned from the death of my father, the long hours spent watching around his hospital bed, the kind, stoic faces of my siblings.
“We need to focus on what Pangor needs right now,” I told her. “It’s not about us. If Pangor senses we are unhappy or sad or angry, it will make it that much harder for her to leave. We want her to leave in peace.”
“It’s not about us,” Laura repeated, looking at me, her eyes streaked with tears. “That’s what Pangor is teaching us, even now.”
And it was.
Pangor’s last day was exactly that, a good one. She explored the house, crawled into Laura’s lap, looking out the window at the world outside. She visited all her special spots. Then she finally curled into a ball on her soft bed. She had not eaten or drunk in more than a day.
She was telling us so clearly: it was time to go.
Kay, our vet technician who loved the bears as we did, came out to the house to help her pass peacefully. The new kittens — whom we had adopted several weeks before, in part to be companions to Pangor — settled nearby.
As Kay and Laura and I gathered around Pangor in the soft bed she had chosen, and the needle entered her aging skin, Pangor gave one sharp mew, but that was all.
She stayed awake for another quarter hour, resting quietly as we petted and praised her. Then her eyes closed, and her breathing slowed. She never felt the second needle.
LEGENDS CAN BE HEALING, whether they’re about an Irish cat who is able to move through walls like a mist, or whether they’re about a Golden Siberian who can fly a spaceship to the stars.
We found it comforting to combine our beliefs about the afterlife — that all the souls of God’s creatures are eternal — with the rich, imaginative world of Bearville. As we thought about Pandy’s passing, we remembered the song that best described Pandy. Not just a pirate, now, but also the hero immortalized by Jimmy Webb in the song “Highwayman.”
In that country classic, the speaker imagines himself as an eternal creature, able to transcend time and space.
I fly a starship
Across the Universe divide
And when I reach the other side
I’ll find a place to rest my spirit if I can
Perhaps I may become a highwayman again.
We chose to believe our Pangor was not just a cat. We knew she was more than just a bear — she was now a strutting highwayman who could travel wherever she wanted.
And so it wasn’t too much to imagine Pangor’s trip to the Other Side might involve a starship, piloted by Captain Pangor in an orange NASA flight suit, accompanied by her faithful lieutenant Delilah, her disreputable ensign McSnicker, and a host of furry creatures Laura and I had known as children … off for a new set of adventures.
After all, it is hope that allows us to transcend grief.
Laura Navarre assisted in the description of the world of Bearville and its characters.
J. Eric Bishop saysMarch 7, 2018 at 4:40 pm
Just finished reading your pean to Pangor and Delilah, and while reading it a CD of a male quartet was playing softly. Right as I was to the part where you describe Pangor’s dying days, the plaintive words and tune of “Nearer My God to Thee” were wafting out of my computer’s speakers. How’s that for synchronicity?
Anybody who has ever loved a cat and been loved in return, as we four Bishops were for over ten years thanks to the Holmes County barn cat, tabby, that our son Wendell (14 at the time they brought the tiny fur ball home from Ohio, while I was in Europe with the Dock touring choir) named Snafu, will love your latest posting on Soul Teachers.
Of course I know that SNAFU, in military speak stands for Situation Normal, All Fucked Up, but at the time, Snafu was also the name of a company that produced all things necessary and related to BMX racing, which our son was heavily into, ergo, the name for our (his!) kitten.
I will not go into the details of how Snafu died. Rather, I want to testify that Snafu helped to make Wendell’s tortured adolescent years just a bit more bearable because of his (Snafu’s) human-like qualities. His eyes spoke volumes every time he looked at one of us. The way he sauntered up to us….the varied forms of his cries that made his intended messages crystal clear to us….. his psychotic reactions upon our returning home after being gone for a few days…. the comical variations in his sleeping positions…. his preening whenever I brushed him….. how cooperative he was during appointments at the vet…. You know exactly what I am saying through these few illustrations.