Tonight’s post is accompanied by an unnamed beer…that is to say, we have a good friend who home brews, and generously shares his labors. His way of keeping track of them is to use barely distinguishable symbols, (usually numbers scrawled in permanent marker), on the bottle cap. Sometimes, it is just a dot, or two dots, and that is the name of that beer (one dot). I have expressed my dislike for this not very creative method, and he nonetheless continues. So my unknown beer’s name at the moment looks like a shadow of the number 19. And, it is quite drinkable, though I can’t quite categorize it at the moment.
I wrote something a few years ago, around the time we had to put one of our cats down. I never did anything with the piece. Didn’t submit it to any publishing format at all, and I don’t know why. I have re-read it and find it is still worthy, though lengthy. i have added some editing updates. I hope that it resonates with readers out there.
My Dearly Beloveds
The woman’s boss had called me to confirm her employee’s arrival would be at 6:00 pm, with my package in hand. Her name would be Maria or Mary, some M name that escaped me. “M” promptly arrived, and I opened the door to a woman whose face had “I’m sorry” stamped upon it. She wore a denim shirt with a pocket patch that read, “Faithful Companion Pet Cremation Services.” In her arms was a little bag that held a little wooden box, which in turn held the remains of our sweet black kitty, Chewbacca. Or Chewy, for short. M was kind, and I didn’t envy her the job of simultaneously collecting payment and delivering remains. She left in a graceful manner, while I managed to remain stoic until reading the unforgivably cheesy “Rainbow Bridge Poem,” included in my bag.
For those not in the know, this poem is about meeting up with all the pets you ever loved after you have departed from this earth. A comforting notion, indeed. With a deep sigh I took the box and put it next to two other tins labelled “Buddy” and “Allie.” This little moratorium corner had officially become depressingly crowded. I gazed upon their shelf and felt deep sadness envelop me, and I lay down on the couch and did not move for what seemed like hours.
During this semi-comatose state, I thought of the many fur friends that had decorated my life. As a child there was so many assorted guinea pigs, hamsters, dogs, cats…all loved on as they passed through. But the pet memories I probably treasure the most are those I have had since reaching adulthood. Their presence captured who I was in sweet moments of time that would otherwise be forgotten.
So back in the day, there was Buddy, a grey and white tabby I got for my then-boyfriend, now-husband. John was lonely away at Purdue, and he needed some company. Buddy certainly fit the bill, lounging on his owner’s chest and putting his paws up around his neck as they both napped. I would drive for hours from MSU presumably to be reunited with my love, but Buddy probably got scooped up first. He romped around and then would fall into an exhausted slump, as did I. In those eager-to-please days, I was the frisky little kitten always ready to play.
Then there was Allie, our loving, loyal, golden lab mix. Allie represents the misguided, idealistic me who thought nothing of mothering a four year old, a newborn infant, and a 6 week old puppy all at the same time. Allie bore the brunt of my formative parenting and dog training years, which is to say…she survived my innumerable mistakes. She doted on us nonetheless, ever forgiving. We could not have asked for a better family dog, although the UPS man might have argued that point.
Months after saying goodbye to Buddy, we went to the shelter to pick out a new feline. We brought the now arthritic Allie along for a meet and greet in a separate room. We must have handled at least half a dozen cats, my shoulder becoming somewhat shredded as they seized up at the sight of the dog. Then Danny brought in the silky, long-haired black cat who kept making these guttural sounds that were so cute. We set him down and he sauntered over to Allie like he’d known her his whole life, weaving in and out of her legs and rubbing up on her side. No hissing, no biting, just pure, unadulterated pleasantness. Of course, those noises and his long hair necessitated that we name him Chewbacca. It was a seven year love-ever-after affair for the whole family. And now, he was gone.
The question I thought about was, which “me” did Chewy represent?
I think Chewy represented the “finally knowing what really matters me.” The mother of teenage boys me, feeling lost and unneeded. Well, Chewy needed me. So what if it was to remove mice, poop, and hair balls? The truth is, we all needed him. His soft black belly cradled more than one household head as the tears flowed from one crisis or another. And through it all, he would extend a paw to a face, in assurance that all would be well. How desperately I would need that assurance when unexpectedly and quite painfully, I became the motherless me.
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Over the next few days as I looked around at Chewy’s empty food bowl and empty bed, empty is how I felt too. I had been through this before, none of it a walk in the park. But there was something different this time, and during one of my couch relapses, it hit me. Chewy had died very much like my mom had the year before.
It was kind of eerie, the similarities. Save me the protests that a mother’s death and a pet’s are not the same. I know this. What was getting to me were the parallels of the two losses. From the time I suspected Chewy was ill and through the aftermath, I kept seeing these comparisons to when my mom was sick. This could have been because it hadn’t been that long since she had passed, and I kept searching for commonalities in order to make sense of her death. Give it the proverbial meaning, so to speak. It was a long time before I realized sometimes things don’t make sense, and they never will.
When I sat in front of the vet and felt my face contort helplessly at the words, “Your cat is dying,” it was like a sucker punch of deja’ vu. Let’s see, where have I heard this? Well, it started with the diagnosis process.
Vet: “The blood tests are coming back normal, but he’s a little anemic. I am not sure why he’s not eating. Bring him back next week.”
Her doctor: “Your mom’s tests are all coming back negative. We don’t know what’s wrong. Come back in a week.”
Time confirmed that the dreaded cancer was growing in both of them. Surgery in both cases proved futile and painful, showing the masses had metatisized. And not that much longer came the horrendous decision to end a life. With Chewy, it meant insertion of an IV drip, and with my mom, the removal of one from an arm that had become so bloated as to be unrecognizable. Woven in and out of these surreal moments came the guilt, threatening to choke me like a weed slithering about a plant. If only I had noticed earlier my fur baby wasn’t eating well…why didn’t I DO something when mom told me she was sleeping 14 hours a day? When preparing a birthday dinner for me was clearly a heroic effort? If only I had taken time out of my useless, silly life to realize they were wasting away before my very eyes…maybe, maybe, maybe, I could have saved them. Of course, in all likelihood I couldn’t have. But rationality does not stop the flow of what ifs.
The helplessness I felt only added to the guilt that was festering. On the day we learned Chewy had numerous tumors, the vet had asked if we wanted to see him before injecting him one last time. We said yes. Danny and I went into the surgical unit and there he was. A lifeless Chewy was spread-eagled on the operating table, outstretched with a tube stuffed down his tiny throat. It was a jolting picture, and it almost did me in. All the love you gave, and it’s reduced to this, my brain screamed. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry please God let him know. After it was over, I asked the vet to take the apparatus out so that we could say a proper goodbye. I did this more for my heartbroken, trying-to-hold-it-together teenaged son than anything else, but we both were overcome with gut-wrenching sobs. The kind of tears that leave puffy purple streaks all over your face, and you can’t even breathe.
The vet agreed to my request, and we stepped into the hall. When we were ushered in again, I gazed upon his still form and felt utter sorrow pierce me once again. I couldn’t help but notice a tiny circle of blood that was pooling under his side, where the vet had quickly stitched him up for our sake. In a moment’s notice my mind’s eye was back in a hospital bed not so long ago. I squeezed his frail little black paw, the same paw that never again would nudge my husband for a morning pat. I leaned in and whispered that I was sorry. The same words I had whispered to my mom as she was leaking blood too…from the fruitless operation to remove her cancerous kidney.
We were told it was the only way to determine if the cancer had spread. I had railed in private against the procedure, thinking it would kill her because she was so weak. And it helped, of that I am now sure. But we didn’t know what to do, and my father was not one to question doctors. My mom didn’t even really know what she was signing for on the consent form. I will forever regret that I did not challenge the decision to go ahead with the surgery, because it would have been obvious within days she was dying. That did teach me to never back down to someone who thinks they are smarter than you, though. So thanks, Mom.
It wasn’t long before we withdrew life saving measures, as was her wish.
Soon after this, her remaining kidney shut down and left no way for her body to eliminate the fluids that were accumulating. So her skin essentially began weeping them out…mixed with the blood from her weakened incision. I would look at her puffy hands, my eyes overflowing at the same rate she was. I told her over and over again how sorry I was, and hoped she could hear me in the depths of her coma. I could not shake the feeling of playing God and failing miserably at the role. I hated having to play the role again at the foot of a veterinary table, failing once again.
My couch called often during this time, and I went willingly. I had a tailspin of feelings to work through, and it finally dawned on me his death had released much within me. Namely, many things I had put on hold or repressed when Mom was sick. Like Scarlett Ohara, I would just think about that tomorrow. That tomorrow became today when Chewy left us. It just all came to the forefront, and forced me to deal, to move on, to just feel. It was his final gift to me.
My heart has healed of course. It is now four years later, I can think of my mom without instant tears, and there have been a few more pets in between. We got our border collie mix Guinness, who almost died within days of coming home from the shelter from kennel cough, and Huckle, a beautiful quiet grey kitty. Guinness has thrived, but sadly Huckle did not. Literally, a month after we got him home, the vet told us he had kidney disease and would need saline drips. Shades again of my mom. We did the IV’s for 6 months until an emergency vet visit led to a tumor discovery.
I didn’t know if I could do this again. This animal phase must have represented the latent nurse in me. If so, I felt I was a lousy one.
We now have a healthy ginger kitty, and a dog that worships me. I have thought about what is the meaning behind all that I have written here, and it’s this: be more like your pet. Learn from them. Naturally, we can’t all lay in beds for 14 hours, waiting to be fed or walked, but we can do the big stuff. We can love without thinking, without wondering what we will get in return. We can learn to accept that joy and sorrow co-exist, and go with it anyway. We can look upon our loved ones as they come through the door with the same euphoria our dogs show when they see us.
I’m still waiting to see what the lessons will be with the current animals. The dog basically drives me nuts because he is extremely smart, does not listen, is overprotective, and snarls at bigger dogs than he. We are obedience school drop outs. He is, in fact, worthy of a separate post. Murphy, our ginger, probably deserves one as well. Like us, they are leaving their legacies every day. Maybe one of the most important legacies we can learn from is a line taken from the Rainbow Bridge poem: “…a faithful friend is never forgotten.”
Be that person your dog thinks you are. Be the faithful friend.