On Loving, and Losing, Pets
“And it’s exceedingly short, his galloping life. Dogs die so soon. I have my stories of that grief, no doubt many of you do also. It is almost a failure of will, a failure of love, to let them grow old—or so it feels. We would do anything to keep them with us, and keep them young. The one gift we cannot give.” —Mary Oliver
I’ve never had children and so I really don’t have a clue what sort of parent I might make, but if the way my dog behaves around me is any sort of indicator, the forecast is not good. The dog, much like a contemptuous teen embarrassed to be in the presence of square, old dad, is entitled, bossy and utterly indifferent to my increasingly impotent commands. Clearly, my accidentally anti-Cesar Milan stratagem of infantilization, over protection, ignorance and senseless praise has proven to work just about the way you would expect it to work. No matter, Rachelle and I love our dog dearly and would do anything for her.
Heidi, a Miniature Dachshund with ears like velvet and a scar on her long, needle nose, came into our lives nearly five years ago and immediately, in the way that only animals can, began to pour light into our days. Dogs are remarkable creatures, so sincere, simple and absent of self-pity, they ask little more than the opportunity to give love. Unburdened by the self-serving necessities of language, they project their beautiful spirits through their eyes and poker-tell tails, radiating optimism and instilling in us a simple, warm pleasure that’s as true and uncomplicated as anything we’ve ever known.
At any rate, you can probably tell where this is headed, and when Rachelle and I returned home from a weekend away we found that our dog had developed a serious back problem. The breed is prone to this, and over the years I’ve allowed the animal to indulge her native athleticism in bounding, jumping, climb-the-stairs kind of ways that others would not. I’m not sure if this renders me negligent or not— it may well— but I simply don’t feel right about preventing a creature from living in a way that fulfills all of it’s natural instincts and potential.
She was in obvious, hear-breaking distress and we took her to a 24 hour vet clinic in the dead of night, imagining only the dimmest traces of what a parent must feel when they have a sick child. Our dog daughter stayed over night with a grim prognosis hanging over her, while we waited at home for the vet to call the next day.
What would have been my morning walk with Heidi — in which we’d touch so many of the points of light surrounding our lives — was marked only by her absence. As melodramatic as it might sound, the day faded from color to a monotone grey, and a depression fell upon me. Beset by dread and anxiety, the surrounding atmosphere felt as laden with disaster as if I had sensed a change in the weather just before the tornadoes touched down to toss the world asunder.
But we were lucky, I think. The vet’s call revealed our dog has degenerative disc disease, but that it looks like it will be manageable, and so she will stay with us for as long as the world will allow. But still, this tremor of mortality was jarring and depressing in fresh ways even though I, like everybody else, has lost pets in the past and is almost certainly destined to do so again.
I grew up in a household that always had a cat as a pet and learned to love them as I’ve now come to love dogs. Years ago I returned to my parent’s house in Ottawa where I grew up to discover that Malcolm, the cherished family cat, was sick. Fragile, his coat was spiky and all his grace had vanished. His movements through the living room were stiff and scared, and although he was trying to be who he once was, he could not. It was heart-breaking, of course, as I had never seen something I had wholly loved degenerate so vividly before me, and I think for the first time I had a partial understanding of how my family must have felt when they had seen me, so very ill with cancer, years before when I was younger. I wanted so much for Malcolm to be better, to get stronger and return to the things he loved. I just wanted to breathe life back into him, but there was nothing I could do.
One day that weekend when I couldn’t find him, I went down to the basement where I understood he had been retreating—a quite place from which he might finally exhale. And I remembered that feeling so well, of being sick and driving through the Gatineau Hills with my mother, wanting nothing more than to go to something green, lie down and return to the earth.
I called out the cat’s name several times, scared to hear either a thin and battered response or the emptiness of nothing at all, when a frail mewling answered me. Disoriented, he had jammed himself between the washing machine and work bench. I moved a few things and he squeezed his ruined body toward me, his eyes now reddish and clouded.
My old friend.
My mother came down and cleaned all the basement dust off his coat with a comb and blanket. She swaddled him like a baby and held him to her breast, rocking him, speaking to him gently. Scooping cat food out of the tin with her finger, she tried to feed him and gave him water from an eyedropper. She transported him around the house in a laundry basket so he was never alone. She did everything she possibly could for him, and as I watched her I saw everything that she and all of my family had done for me when I was sick.
Wiping tears from her eyes she told me that they would have to put him down in the morning, that there was nothing more that could be done for him. I was nodding my head, sitting beside them, knowing that this was the last time that I would see Malcolm, the cat I gave to my mother for Christmas a dozen years before. The cat whose presence helped see me through my darkest days when I’d recoil from human contact, worried that I would break if touched or disgust the healthy, and Malcolm, I am sure, sensing that, would curl against me on the bed, lending me his heat and weight, purring while I stroked his coat with my bony hand.
And so I sat there on the sofa telling the cat all the things that he had done for me, all the good things that he was and how much I loved him, but I was also telling my mother these things about herself, too. And as I praised him, I praised her, for sometimes it’s easier to communicate our love indirectly, through animals, in the hopes that it reaches outward and touches the people we love, too. And speaking in this weird and personal way, tears were streaming down my face and dropping heavily upon the newspaper, and it felt like the cat was giving me a final gift of catharsis.
My cat buddy.
Malcolm who would race like lightning up the stairs. Malcolm who would stare at trees and lose fights. Malcolm whose ears became frosted with grey. My mother and Malcolm, beautiful until the end, she staying up and holding him dear all night long, until the morning when she poured her love into him up until his final moment.