“I’m worried about Delilah,” said my friend Megan.
When a pet owner says this to you, it’s usually bad news. People who’ve had pets for a long time are used to a creature that can’t tell you what’s wrong with them, so these folks always seem to have an added sense about their pet’s health. Megan was no different.
So many times, it happens so suddenly. The animal seems fine one day, and then the next, they’re not lively, not loud, and, most ominously, not eating. Sometimes this is just something that would knock any of us down for a few days, the way that, say, the flu does; but more often than not, it’s a sign that the pet’s days are numbered.
That was the case this time. The specifics vary from pet to pet--in this case, it had to do with a growth on a vital organ that was, and would continue, to cause more and more debilitating pain--but sooner or later, there is that miserable moment when the person realizes that the animal faces nothing but agony for the rest of its life, no matter what treatments are available. This, of course, is that moment that the person faces the horrible decision of putting the animal down.
It happened to me a little while ago, and it was no less sudden. My cat Clementine was suddenly the same way as Delilah. I took her to a clinic so that she could get a body scan, and to quote one of the characters in The Fault in Our Stars, when they scanned for cancer, she lit up like a Christmas tree.
My vet talked about various treatments, and I cut him off by saying that I wouldn’t go through with it if it meant a life of pain. As if I’d freed him to speak the truth, he said “look, I can treat it, but I can’t cure it. I can give you another year, tops, and as much as I can manage the pain, she’s going to suffer.”
People who have never had a pet just can’t relate to what it’s like to lose one, and it’s one of the reasons I like working at a school. It’s an environment where people understand when someone suddenly cries over their loss, unlike the business world, where people look at you and roll their eyes. At school, there’s a wonderful person with an adorable tiny tattoo of paw prints on her ankle, and she was beside herself when her dog died; many people gave her hugs.
You learn a lot about how fleeting life is when you own pets. In The Tommyknockers, there’s a wonderful passage in which Stephen King writes about how dogs and cats age so much faster, and how you can’t help but see your life in theirs. For many of us, a pet is really the first time we come to know about death, and how important it is to remind everyone who means something to you that you love them.
It’s particularly painful when you get even less than the 12 to 15 years you usually get with your pet. You’ve gotten to know it, and you’ve gotten to love the way they’re always there to cheer you up during tough times. They are unusually good at this, cat and dog alike.
Fortunately, sooner or later, the sense of loss gives way to great memories of all the times you shared. If you got your pet as a puppy or kitten, you remember things like the first time the dog no longer fit on your lap, or the first time your kitten successfully vaulted onto the table. If you don’t have a child (I never spawned), it’s the closest you get to understanding what parents feel watching their child grow up.
I know...many of you in the business world are rolling your eyes. At the same time though, I am sure that, even in the business world, there are a few people who put a hand on the shoulder of the person who is in mourning, and offer some words of empathy. I know what it is to feel loss, they say, and somehow, we’re reminded that people are capable of the same contact and kindness that we get from our pets, and we remember that the pain will diminish over time.
And usually we get another pet who will, once again, leave us before we get that much older...and don’t they say that few things are more painful than a parent outliving their child? We pet owners are not stupid; we know that it’s not the same as a human child. At the same time, though, it is a companion and a friend whose fleeting time with us serves as a reminder that all good times come to an end, so we must enjoy them, and always look forward to the good times that lay ahead.
Perhaps, as you read this, you have just lost a pet, or are now thinking of one that you’ve lost. If this is the case, there is a good chance that, when a friend or coworker loses one, you’ve offered empathy, sharing that person’s loss, understanding why people bury their pets in cemeteries so that they can visit them, and why they will show you pictures of their deceased companion. Pets start as strangers and become family; they leave a hole. and we imagine them living out eternity in some massive, beautiful dog run or massive complex of scratching and climbing posts.
I like to think that this is where Delilah and Clementine are at this moment. And when my current beloved friend Hugo slips this mortal coil, he will be there as well. I know there will be people who will understand and put a hand on my shoulder; there always are.