Dear Animal Lover,
You know who you are. You’re one of those people who consider the animal you live with “a member of the family.” You sometimes make a fool of yourself telling anecdotes about this animal to people who don’t quite get it. You cringe a little when someone refers to you as a “pet owner,” knowing full well that no one “owns” an animal. If you aren’t an animal lover, there is no reason to read further.
One of the challenges to life with a companion animal is their number of allotted days are so much fewer than ours. Depending upon the breed, a dog averages 10-13 years. Depending upon whether it’s an indoor or outdoor cat, 12-18 years. Despite good veterinary care or fancy diets, they are going to experience old age and death long before you are ready for this. I have been through this passage now with eight animals.
Animals have been among my greatest teachers, as each of their lives have changed mine through both their living and their dying. One thing I’ve learned is that even close friends do not have patience for more than one conversation about the loss of a beloved animal, but grief has it’s own schedule. A useful aid to me in the process of letting go has been to write short tributes or obituaries for each of my animals. The process of remembering helps you uncover their gift to you. This is the most recent one, about our cat, Edith, who died last year. (The photo above was taken of her during the total eclipse of the sun in 2016.)
My four-year-old son, Frank, found Edith in the recycle bin one morning 12 years ago when I asked him to take the cans outside. He remembers being a little frightened to see this 3-pound skeleton of a cat where aluminum and tin should be, but she purred so quickly that he rushed to tell me that there was something alive out there. Bird-loving dog devotees, we weren’t the perfect family for a cat. But she made us her family. When we weren’t sure if we should let her in, she hung from the screen door like a Christmas decoration wearing suction cups. When our 60-pound Rottweiler mix went for her food, she jumped on the dog’s back and dug in her claws. Always, though, when any person picked her up, she purred and purred.
Thanks to our vet, Edith doubled her weight and beat the fleas and worms that tried to take her down. Visitors who met her invariably commented on her voice. “What is that sound?” “Oh, that’s our cat purring on the radiator.” We had a difficult time beating her fungal infection, and eventually a surgeon removed a polyp the size of a jumbo shrimp from her throat. “Cats don’t ordinarily come out of anesthesia purring,” he told us afterward. “We are all quite taken with her.”
Edith sat on Charlie’s lap that sad day the Rottweiler died. She sat on Frank’s lap when his science fair project didn’t advance. And she comforted me through that rainy year that both my father and nephew died by vibrating herself through every cell of my being. As an 8-year-old Katie Franklin put it: “She loves me.”
After the way that Edith entered our world, nothing else seemed like a challenge for her. She quickly notified our new puppy, Fletcher, that she was here first. He was smaller than her at 6 weeks, but he respected this order when he was twice her size. They had an on-again, off-again relationship until Edith accidentally shut herself in the abandoned house next door. We looked everywhere for a week, plastered the neighborhood with her photo, and gave her up for dead when Fletcher (aka Lassie) barked at the house until we saw her face in the window. Edith and Fletcher became close friends, and she purred to hypnotize him into being groomed. When she had enough, she bit his leg.
In September 2016, Edith suffered a stroke. She lost mobility in two legs, and she lived precariously at our vet for four days. She purred whenever one at of the vet technicians touched her, raising their spirits. We brought her home (not knowing if it was to say goodbye), and she purred every time we did something for her. In two weeks, she learned to walk again. The following summer she greeted the miraculous full eclipse of the sun with family, friends, and dogs (we live inside the totality) by, of course, purring and purring.
On Maundy Thursday 2018, she finally slowed. She sat in the spring sunshine and purred, which of course drew us all around her. My husband, son, and I each had a chance to say what needs to be said. After 11 years, Edith didn’t have to say anything. She understood: The secret to life is a loud purr.
I usually send these tributes to good friends who are cat or dog lovers or who appreciated the animal. And part of writing a tribute, for me, has been to seal it in plastic, then put it inside a jar, and bury it with each animal in my garden. In this way, I always find that they live on.
Other unusual aids to grief I recommend are:
For Cat Lovers: May Sarton, The Fur Person, New York: W.W. Norton, 1983.
For Dog Lovers: Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain, New York: Harper, 2008.
For Children: Cynthia Rylant, Dog Heaven and Cat Heaven, Blue Sky Press, 1995 and 1997.