Cats, Henry Kemble Oliver, and Roger Ebert



“One must spend an entire lifetime in learning how to live, and, which may surprise you more, an entire lifetime in learning how to die.”  –Seneca (Roman philosopher and statesman who died in 65 CE)

I have written many times about cats. I’m a cat person.

When I moved to Dallas, I brought with me two black and white American short-hair alley cats, brothers, Henry and Oliver, named for Henry Kemble Oliver, the subject of my dissertation—a 19th-century church musician and composer from Salem, Massachusetts. His most important legacy, however, is not musical. The governor of Massachusetts appointed him to make an exhaustive study of the exploitation of children and young women working in the cotton mills. His work resulted in the formation of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. His work led to the first child labor laws in America.

In 2002 my cat Henry died of congestive heart failure. He had been sick for about six months, and I had spent more than my meager income should have allowed caring for him. But I loved that gentle, cuddly old cat, and spared no expense to keep him alive until the vet told me I should let him go.

After Henry died, a friend asked me why I loved cats so much and had spent so much money on Henry. My immediate response—so immediate it surprised both of us and stuck in our memories so we talked about it many times—was, “They help me understand my mortality.” I did not know why I said it or even what I meant.

My father died in 2011 at age 97 and my mother about three years before that. We had time to anticipate and think about their deaths. I did a great deal of reading about preparing for death—for the death of a loved one and for one’s own death. In a search for academic articles, I found Todd LeRoy Perreira’s article, “Die before you die” (1).  This article transformed my contemplation of my mortality.

. . . this is not simply a question of learning how to anticipate death, of being prepared for death. . . [but also the] recognition that the scandal of death demands of one a transformation of the self as a living subject and moral agent. . . concomitant with this demand is the acquisition of a certain knowledge of the self. . .

ebertthumbsWhen someone I admire dies, I am given again to contemplating how one prepares for death. I have come to understand that living a good life is the preparation for death, that is, living so one experiences the “transformation of the self as a living subject and moral agent.” I have yet to discover what that means, but I know it is true.

As a graduate student at the University of Texas at Dallas in the 1990s, I learned of Roger Ebert’s film criticism. He wrote in the highest tradition of criticism, that is, he helped the reader understand not only the technical accomplishment of the artist, but the substance of the work.

Yesterday, the day after he died, I heard a recording of Roger Ebert interviewed by Terry Gross in 1996 in which he said that good film making is important because film has the ability to help us inhabit someone else’s world, to understand and empathize with other people. Later in the day, Scott Simon said on NPR’s “All Things Considered” that

Roger Ebert wrote simply, abundantly, gorgeously, and on deadline for 46 years at the Chicago Sun-Times . . .  and over the years his work reminded us that empathy is the grace note of a good life, not just great art.

Empathy is the grace note of a good life. One must spend an entire lifetime in learning how to die. And death demands of one a transformation of the self as a living subject and moral agent.

Broad Street Cemetery, Salem, MA

Broad Street Cemetery, Salem, MA

I know why I told Kay my cat helped me understand my mortality. It’s because I don’t know how to live in empathy. It’s easier for me to love my

cat unconditionally than to love another human being with empathy. I can love that loveable old cat more readily than another person. The catch is that, while a cat may have nine lives, they are short. And every time I lose a cat I love, I am reminded that I need to get on with the business of the transformation of myself as a moral agent. And that, I’m pretty sure, has something to do with empathy.

Henry Kemble Oliver’s empathy with child laborers. The empathy Roger Ebert understood to be the meaning of art.
_(1) Perreira, Todd LeRoy. ““Die before you die”: Death Meditation as Spiritual Technology of the Self in Islam and Buddhism.” Muslim World 100.2/3 (2010): 247-267.

Henry Kemble Oliver’s compositions are limited to hymn tunes and choral anthems. His hymn tune Federal Street (the street in Salem where he lived) has appeared in many hymnals with many texts. The hymn stanzas I think of when I play Federal Street are below. The entire hymn text is here.

The mighty God, the wise and just,
Knows that our frame is feeble dust;
And will no heavy loads impose
Beyond the strength that He bestows.

He knows how soon our nature dies,
Blasted by every wind that flies;
Like grass we spring, and die as soon,
Or morning flowers that fade at noon.