Friday, July 15, 2011

Love, Loss, Life

Someone I know told me recently that he has never wanted to share his home with non-human animals, specifically because of his fear of having to deal with their eventual loss by way of either illness or age. I'd been telling him about my own fears over recent weeks concerning my boy Zeus' latest bout with vertigo. The person with whom I was speaking had, in fact, happened to be visiting around a year and a half ago when Zeus' dizziness had first manifested itself in a major way, leaving him uncoordinated and distressed. We'd taken him to the vet's together to have him checked out and we were both worried about my little guy.

Healers as Harbingers

It was good to have someone else along for the first time in years -- good to have someone to help steady my nerves a little. The vet's office has always been an awkward place for me. Where once upon a time it was a place to which I'd bring various younger members of my feline family, whether to treat the odd minor issue or urinary tract infection; it was also a place to go to get a sense of reassurance. Over the years as various cats who've come into my care have aged, it's become a place I sometimes struggle not to dread visiting. I still remember clearly the early morning well over a dozen years ago I'd risen to get a glass of water and to check email, only to find Tarwater unable to move one of his hind legs. A few hours later, I received the worst diagnosis: saddle thrombus -- a blood clot which lodges itself in an artery in the leg. This was followed by the news that saddle thrombus is often associated with serious congestive heart disease and that in Tar's case, function of his leg might never be restored and that amputation might, in fact, end up required. Furthermore, I was told that because of the clot and the detection of a faint heart murmur that Tarwater would not likely be with us much longer -- that he would eventually succumb to stroke or heart failure.

Tar, as it turns out, lived another 10 years with nothing more than a slight limp which never prevented him from reaching the top of the fridge where he would curl up and keep an eye on me as I hovered over the stove. The damage was done, though. This was my first experience with getting "Really, Really Bad News" from my vet; for the first time, a visit to the veterinary clinic had left me more afraid than reassured.

As the rest of the gang aged and a few older fosters passed through, my visits to the veterinary clinic became more frequently punctuated by worry, nervousness and sometimes sorrow. Hyperthyroidism. Eosinophilic granuloma complex. Asthma. Chronic renal failure. Idiopathic vestibular disease. Some conditions (e.g. the asthma) have been manageable thanks to the amenable cooperation of the cats who know me as their favourite can opener. With other diagnoses, though, often comes the reminder -- sometimes even the confirmation -- that time shared together is coming to an end. The truth is, though, that every relationship we take on with someone reaches a conclusion of sorts, whether that someone is feline, canine or human.

Several years ago, walking home from a university class, I saw a woman calling out to what looked like a wobbly black kitten wandering along the edge of a busy street at the tail end of rush hour. I scooped up this little cat, realizing that as tiny and skinny as she was that she was no kitten. I brought her home and sneaked her into my office before my then-spouse could pause his favourite video game. She was filthy, infested with ear mites, had overgrown claws and what I suspected was ringworm. Her breath was horrid enough to nearly make me nauseous. As the ex and I later watched her devour the food I'd given her, we agreed that after getting her checked out by our vet and then making the appropriate calls to rule out that someone wasn't looking for her, we'd gained a new roommate. Her badly abscessed teeth would require hundreds of dollars to deal with and as we led up to the holidays, some friends and family members questioned that we would show willingness to spend money on this elderly little cat we'd named Maudie, whom we'd also come to discover during the blood-work required before her intensive dental work, had failing kidneys.

Wouldn't it make more sense to cut our losses and have "someone else's (abandoned) cat" euthanized, they asked, especially since we had no way to tell how much longer she'd live.
The thing is, though, that "someone else's cat" was now our responsibility and that she had a right to her own life -- a life we'd chosen to share and to weave into our own lives. Maudie had her ups and downs and near the end, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that it was hard to be perpetually aware of the fact that her remaining days were few. It was almost an exact year from the day I'd found her that she decided to let go. Seven years later, I still remember what it felt like to wake up to her slight weight on my head, with her tiny thumb-sized paws kneading my scalp, and of how I'd sing verses of "Maudie Girl" to her.

As hard as it was to watch her fade in her final days and as much as she was and is now missed, I cannot imagine not having helped this little cat -- not having gotten to know this unique little individual who'd nestled herself so sweetly and firmly into our hearts and memories.
I cannot imagine having allowed the fear of losing her to have prevented me from ever having had the opportunity to know her. Worse, I refuse to imagine what might have happened to her had I not scooped her up from the traffic that day so many years ago.

Why Let Them In?

When we invite non-humans into our homes, we do so for many reasons. I'd like to ask you to consider what's perhaps the most important reason: In the US alone, 3-4 million cats and dogs are killed every single year in shelters. Consider that 5 out of 10 dogs and 7 out of ten cats killed in shelters every year die simply because they are not adopted; meanwhile, up to 30% of cats and dogs brought into new homes each year in the US come from breeders and pet stores. (
You can see some of these statistics here or find similar information elsewhere on the internet.) The bottom line is that adopting a non-human animal from a shelter will quite literally save a life, whether the life of the animal in question, or that of another animal waiting to be taken home. This, in and of itself, is the reason that it's crucial that anyone who has the room in their hearts and homes for a non-human should look no further than their local shelter.

So you want a purebred? Around 25% of dogs relinquished to US shelters are, in fact, purebred. You say you want a kitten/puppy? Talk to any shelter employee or volunteer about what's commonly known as kitten/puppy season in shelters because of the overwhelming numbers of unspayed cats and dogs often relinquished or found with their litters. And if you don't have time to deal with kitten and puppy hijinks, I assure you that the number of adult dogs and cats you'll find -- many of them who are just ordinary loving animals whose only reason for being in a shelter is that they are simply no longer wanted -- is absolutely staggering. No room for a cat or a dog? Adopt one of the many others who also get relinquished to shelters: rabbits, rats, mice, hamsters, birds, et al.

Fear of Loss or Fear of Gain?

I've been spending a lot of time thinking about loss these past few days.
On top of other goings on, dealing with recent vet visits, tests and uncertainty during these past weeks for my pal Zeus' on and off again (and consistently misdiagnosed) condition of the past year and a half has left me working hard to not dwell on heartache. Having loved and lost often over the past few years, I've learned that it's far from anything you get used to and that one loss invariably seems to compound or amplify the fear of another. It also smarts when I see friends and acquaintances trying to wrap their own heads around the potential (or actual) loss of loved ones of their own, whether human or non-human. It smarts even more to watch them deal with the aftermath since it's all too familiar. Although they may become fewer as time passes, there are always reminders.

Every single one of us reaches a point in our lives where we're left to deal with some sort of tear in the fabric of what constitutes our immediate existence. So many different factors influence each individual's own experience with it, that how we're each left dealing with it varies greatly, with the common thread being that awareness in that very moment that the loved one is just no longer "here" in whatever capacity the loved one was "here" in our everyday-ness. We try to find meaning in what's left and, with time, to pick up those threads and to patch the tears however we can. This is all that we can really do.

The sense of loss, however, isn't limited to coping with the final amscraying into nothingness brought by the death of another. Although people walk in and out of our lives constantly as we also walk into and out of theirs, we find ourselves focusing on the few who bring us some level of happiness and and we end up weaving our interactions with them into our mental meanderings about the future. Some become close friends, while others we choose as romantic cohorts to accompany us on this crazy trip called life. Those individuals get factored in. All of the goodness they bring to our existence and the accompanying opportunities for reciprocity get factored into the "stories of us" we unwittingly build for ourselves; our dreams and anticipations spill over and wrap themselves around frameworks we've tentatively assembled, our makeshift ever-afters.

The truth is that as much as we cannot control that a loved one dies, we cannot -- ultimately -- control when someone will consciously choose to otherwise remove themselves from our lives. That's also part of this thing called "living". What we can control, however, is whether we take a chance and open up and risk being loved and risk loving back. What we can control is our willingness to take that opportunity to come together with somebody and to share time together.
We ultimately control who we let in and we completely control what we are willing and able to give to that other. It's all we can do and sometimes, for another, it's everything.

On Loving Non-humans

I've had more than a handful of animal rights activists say to me over the years that there's something inherently wrong in admitting that we derive pleasure from our relationships with the non-humans we adopt or rescue. I've had animal rights activists say to me that there's something inherently selfish about saying "I couldn't imagine not living with a cat", as if to say it somehow implies that we're objectifying cats. I think that really misses the point concerning speciesism and concerning society's general view and use of non-human animals. The truth is that for many of us who share our lives with dogs, cats, rabbits and other non-human persons, those relationships are indeed profoundly meaningful and there is indeed reciprocation. I can't help but think that anyone claiming to me that non-human animals are unable to develop emotional bonds with humans has simply never spent more than a few hours with a non-human animal. And yes, letting a non-human in and allowing oneself to love him or her leaves oneself open to the pain of the eventual loss of that individual, but isn't that ultimately what life and loving are all about?

Please give a non-human animal in a shelter a chance at living out his or her life in comfort and happiness. By giving someone this opportunity, you'll not only save a life, but you will indeed gain a friend. It breaks my heart to know that millions of non-humans in North America alone are dying every year merely for want of having someone let them in. It breaks my heart even more to think that these millions are dying and that they won't, in fact, be missed. They'll just be statistics when they could be a Maudie or a Tarwater -- or a Zeus.


francesca said...

Beautiful post Mylene.

francesca said...

Beautifil ;post. And very timely for me.

Erin said...

Great post! I spend a lot of time worrying about my aging cats and how I will deal when it's time for them to go...but I would never NOT have cats.

Wendy A.M. Prosser said...

Tears in my eyes as I read this. Only a few weeks since darling Bagpuss left us, and I fear so much for Snofru. I can barely believe it is over 15 years since I brought him home as a 10-week-old kitten.

An apt and meaningful post. Thank you.

The Compassionate Hedonist said...

thank you so much for this post. I plan to repost it far and wide. I have the opposite with our vet. He doesn't seem to want to tell us bad news. When my bumba was sick, I think she was sicker than they let on, and they cared for her right until the end. Luckily I found a vet whose first reaction to a horrible illness is "let's euthanize" I make a point to adopt old dogs and cats that have lived 10 or more years in horrible conditions. People are like, "Oh I could never do that, losing them would be too painful." Yes, it is painful, it hurts, and when I lost my Tiki Dance I literally wanted to die with him, but think about THEIR pain! Within a week we adopted more old people. I realized that even though I felt like I would never get out of bed again when Tiki died, I could still get anther old lady out of a cage, a cage that she had been sitting in for 10 years. Please, everyone, give ALL animals a chance. Old dogs and cats are the best. The time is shorter, yes, but the intensity of love outweighs that.

LoncheraV said...

Thank you for writing this M. I have tears in my eyes reading through your post and there is so much I can relate to. As we have recently opened our home to a homeless dog who had lived in the streets and was severly neglected, just to see how loving and noble he is makes me wish I could save them all. Definitely sharing this post. Thank you!

I hope Zeus will have many years left to be by your side <3

The Compassionate Hedonist said...

sorry, I meant to say NOT to say Let's euthanize

Melissa said...

Very beautiful. And thank you so much for saying so eloquently what I think is wrongheaded about animal rightists/vegans who oppose adoption or look at those of us who love companion animals with scorn.

I also appreciate you mentioning adopting small animals at shelters rather than buying them. Too many don't realize small animals are mill bred in horrible conditions. Too few realize that they are waiting in rescues/shelters, too.

I have had over 25 rats in the 6 or so years I've been a ratslave. All but one were rescues (one was bought at a small shop before I knew better) and all were HUGE parts of my life. It was heartbreaking to lose them. With rats you only get 2-3 years with them before saying goodbye.

I've been at the vet getting bad news so often in the last half decade, I can't even really fully express it.

With rats, you sign on knowing full well you'll be gutted over and over and over again when those bright little flames sputter out. But they are so amazing that even a heart full of scar tissue is worth it to keep rescuing them, giving them a wonderful home and sharing their amazing, love filled, luminous little lives.

M said...

Thanks for your feedback and a big thank you for having shared your own stories. Thanks for having shared your lives with those who needed you. Lotsa love to you.

Kerry said...

Mylene, you always write with such feeling and such depth, but this piece in particular moved me to tears and I find myself sitting here with a lump in my throat. It resonated with me from the very first sentence, because I, too, like you and many others, have felt that dread. You know how much I love my boy Merlin, so I know you can understand how the fear of losing him for me is so intense that it's paralysing sometimes. The way I love him is different from the way I love my partner, because he is so dependent on me, and the huge responsibility that puts on me brings out all of my insecurities about the need not to fail him, as well as knots in my stomach at the thought that one day the decision to let him go will down to me. It frightens me more than I can say, as I have never had to make that decision before. Every single day I remind myself to suck the marrow out of another day with Merlin, and treat it as if it were the most precious day of my life. I love on him and as I touch his fur and smell his ears I try to capture the sensations and feelings that arise from it, as if I could somehow bottle his smell or archive the memory of his brown eyes, of the softness of his fur, of his silly ears, to bring me comfort and joy on a day when he won't be here anymore. I also remind myself that, despite the dread, despite the anxiety at the thought of losing him one day, I am so incredibly privileged to be sharing my life with him TODAY. I think of all the decisions and choices and mere chance that led our paths to cross, and I feel so very, very lucky to be in his life. I will always feel that way, even when he's gone, and I hope that that knowledge will somehow temper the pain I will feel at his physical absence.

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and words on this subject. I will be sharing them with others.

veganelder said...

You wrote: "I can't help but think that anyone claiming to me that non-human animals are unable to develop emotional bonds with humans has simply never spent more than a few hours with a non-human animal."

True, or they are engaged in some serious reality distortion...and there are no small number of human animals actively pursuing such self-inflicted blindnesses.

Emotional attachment and reciprocal caring are necessary nourishments for our lives. Those that maintain the fiction that only human animals can provide such for us are damaged beings in need of assistance.

Gary said...

This is a beautiful post. It spoke to my heart. I'm still grieving each day for our rabbit Fiona, who died a month ago at 10 years old. She was such a huge part of my wife's and my life, and - having discovered companion animals relatively late in life, by accident - the first animal I ever lost. Nothing could prepare me for the profound sense of emptiness and sadness.

As painful as this is, it is outweighed by the amazing beautiful moments we shared for 8 1/2 years. Fiona groomed me, I petted her, she tossed toys off the futon and basked in our praise, she jumped on my lap and we played games, mostly ones she invented. Each night she flopped, care-free and happy, between my wife and me as we lazily watched TV and read books, stopping frequently to pet Fiona or give her a nose rub.

Your comment about one loss leading to fear of another struck a chord. Not until Fiona passed did we start to worry about our 14-year old cat, Mike. He's healthy now, but all of a sudden, uncomfortable thoughts about the road ahead creep into our minds periodically.

Fiona's passing has forced us not to take anything for granted. I think we've always been good about showing our animals affection and accomodating their desires and needs, but now we are even more dedicated to producing happy purrs each day from Mike, as well as happy naps, playing, adventures, and companonship. Each day is precious.

I like what you said also about living with animals. Fiona enjoyed her life with us. We developed close bonds. She was part of our family and we loved her, and she displayed her affection every day. She let us into her magical world and it was a beautiful fulfilling relationship for all of us. We'll never, ever forget her and all she taught us. We love you, little Fiona.

M said...

Gary, I'm glad that you had the time you did with Fiona and am truly sorry for your loss. Like you, I find myself now treating each day as precious with my three older cats, Zeus, Sophie and Sammy. I feel guilty days I'm too busy to spend as much time with them as I'd like, guilty that I'm not bringing enough extra laps home for them to explore -- others with whom they can play and from whom they can get scritches. They're not kittens anymore and every day that passes leaves me more and more aware of this and of the reality that my time with them is limited. Each of them has been a part of my life for at least a dozen years now and I love them like family, because they are my family. The gratefulness I'll always feel for time spent with them will always outweigh any hurt that will surely come from their leaving, though. I'll never forget them, either.