If you know me, chances are that you'll know that this Advent Sunday was a sad and subdued one in the household. A phone call from a neighbour told me that a ginger cat had been found dead on her lawn, and my heart wilted as I hastily dressed and crossed the road to discover what I had already accepted as the inevitable.
Fred and Ginger (I know!) came to us a week after the lady from the cats' protection charity had, with her checklist, notebook and gentle demeanour. Among the questions she asked us as she observed bot the main road at the front f our house and the large garden and fields at the back, was whether we might be prepared to have more than one cat. The thought hadn't occurred to us until that moment, but it sounded like a fair proposition. So, a week later, seven-week-old kittens who had been birthed and then abandoned by a feral cat in the nearby town, who had been found mewling under a bush and who were so dehydrated that one of them (Fred) sucked so hard on the teat of his bottle of kitten milk that he swallowed the teat and had to have an operation to remove it from his stomach, came home with us. They hadn't had the easiest start, and we all fell in love with them. They chased balls of wool and moving shadows, and sat and stared out into the garden until finally, the day came when they were allowed to explore. And explore they did! They ran along the fences and climbed trees; Ginger leapt out of a bedroom window into a flower bed two storeys below, they jumped in and out of the bathroom window to and from the flat roof below, startling more than one of us more than once, and they discovered the taste of peanut butter, thanks to a neighbour who left out peanut butter on bread for badgers every dusk. (The badgers got the bread.) They took on foxes and other cats, and took sociopathic delight in catching mice, birds and even rabbits. Then they came, rubbed their furry bodies against our skin, and curled up in a laundry basket on on a child's bed.
It was Ginger on the lawn. It seems most likely that he was run over by a car on the main road outside our house early on Sunday morning, and had managed to walk to our neighbour's house. Running my fingers along his cold fur, that same love which had welled up with in me when I'd first heard about these bedraggled little semi-feral kittens rose up again. Ginger the brave explorer who had once mysteriously disappeared for fourteen hours; Ginger the cruel, who once brought a half-dead baby bird into my bedroom; Ginger the vulnerable kitten who hid in a cardboard box during his early weeks with us; Ginger the content cat who would curl up and sleep alongside my daughter night after night.
I found myself wondering idly, will there be cats in heaven? And the honest answer that came to me: I don't know. Ginger's mortal remains were taken, with great dignity and love, to a pet crematorium and his ashes scattered. But what of Ginger himself? I can't imagine losing a human member of my family without the hope of eternal life and the resurrection we are able to anticipate because of the resurrection of Jesus. So what about feline members of our family? Or, come that, God forbid, the canine ones? As I say, the only honest answer has to be 'I don't know.' I find it hard enough to imagine what we will be like in heaven - as St Paul says, the bodies we inhabit here on earth bear as much resemblance to the bodies which we will have in heaven as seeds to trees - without throwing other species into the mix.
But one thing I do know, confidently: what made Ginger special was the love we shared with him, the love that hooked our hearts from the moment we heard the sad story of his delinquent youth, the love that tickled us as we made him leap to reach a dangling feather to alight on a moving laser beam, the love that warmed us as he settled down on our laps, the love that stretched us as we - I - removed dead bodies of mice and birds from our hallway. We loved Ginger, and I think, in his funny feline way, he loved us too.
And whether or not there will be anything in heaven tat I can vaguely recognise a cat, I do know that the love that we shared with Ginger, and still share with Fred and Ben the excitable spaniel, is just a tiny little foretaste of the love we will know, fully, ultimately, everlastingly, in heaven. We are mortal; our bodies, whether feline, human or other, do not last forever and cannot bounce back from every blow. But within our fragile, mortal bodies we can know a love that is indestructible. We see that love in our pets, in our children, in our families and friends and in the love that is poured into art, science and other labours of love. Most fully we see it in Jesus, but even then, to go back to St Paul, we see a dim reflection. In heaven we will see, face to face, love himself. Will there be cats in heaven? I don't know. But we loved Ginger, and there will be love.