Pets

Emma, Sadie

ems1

July 30

Emma died this morning. She was 14 years old, hewn from steel and fueled by piss and vinegar. She'd beaten death twice already: once when she was 7 and accidentally overdosed on medicine for her early-onset arthritis, and again when she was 12 and had a neural sheath rumor removed from her left rear leg. Nothing stopped her. She experienced a rapid decline in the past few days, and tests showed advanced lymphoma, the treatment for which would be more torturous than she deserved in her state. Every living being has its time, though anyone who's ever been in that room can tell you that knowing something and living in it are different things.

She was fiercely protective, loving to her family, the definition of loyal. She was stubborn and strong and happy and goofy. Her head was strong as a rock. She would fart in her sleep and wake up confused. She'd been abused as a puppy, before Tracy ever got her, and she didn't like people touching her head or feet, the psychic wounds from her earlier life never quite disappearing. But she loved us and knew we loved her. If we accidentally bumped her foot, she'd yip out of habit, but then immediately wag her tail and kiss us, apologizing for her overreaction. She knew us and knew our life. She saved my wife's life and taught me how to care for an animal. (She viewed my arrival seven years ago as a personal boon; she gained an employee, and never let me forget it. I loved it.) She growled at the cats and loved broccoli stalks. She hated the vacuum cleaner and loved to sit by our feet and work on a bone. She loved ear rubs and would groan and dig her head into my hand, then shake her head and pant and kiss my hand and bump her nose into me: again, again.

Emma, Emma Louise, Emmaline Emma Mine, Deedees, Deeds, a dozen more. All those names and songs you use for your pets that exist only within the walls of your home, that become the language that defines your particular life. Ems. No other dog like her. Never has been or will be. She was my pup.

August 25

I miss my dog. Most days I try not to think about it, or at any rate, I don't go looking for ways to think about it. Her absence is most noticeable when I come home from work: instead of being greeted by her, tail wagging, barking for dinner or a treat, I open the door to silence. The first few days after she died, I kept thinking that the pillows on the couch were her head, and I realized I was so accustomed to knowing where she was that my brain was still trying to make the connection with whatever object was nearby. Mornings are probably when I think about her most. I used to get up and feed her before work, along with the cats, and I was accustomed to the routine: let her out to pee, feed her, let her out again to poop, pet her for a bit, hop in the shower, and start my day. On my way out the door, I'd pet her again and tell her: "You stay here, be a good dog, watch the house." None of that happens now, and even though she's been gone almost four weeks, my mornings still feel scattered and shortened in ways I can't really process. I know we'll eventually get another dog, and it'll probably (hopefully) be another square-headed goofball with a strong personality. This is the first time I've had to do this, though — say goodbye to a pet like this — so I'm still feeling my way uncertainly down the path. I just miss my dog.

September 16

Nothing ever replaces a pet after they’re gone. This is something I might have been able to abstractly guess in a different life, but since I’m actually dealing with such losses firsthand, I’m able to appreciate what the idea really means. Specifically, that there’s both joy and sorrow in that recognition. Joy because you know that every animal has its own personality, and that no other pet will ever be quite like it; your memories with them can’t be duplicated. And sorrow because it’s only when you bring a new animal into your life that you realize that the new happiness you feel, the new love, doesn’t close the wound made by the loss of the one that came before. You might think it would, or that it would work as a kind of linear continuum — love a pet, mourn its loss, begin the cycle anew — but the truth is more complicated. Think of each pet’s time as a different story, all of them existing next to each other, like books on a shelf. The happy memories you have of one of them, or the sadness you feel after they’re gone, are separate from the new creature’s experience of you and your life together.

This isn’t a bad thing, either, this bloodied web of feelings we have for the lives we bring into our own. This is what life is. It’s a rich, weird, overwhelming thing. I will never stop loving Emma — my Deeds, my Goofus T. Rufus, my guard dog and alarm clock, my sweet girl — and, though I know the pain will dull with time, I’ll never stop missing her, either. How could I? How could any of us cut loose from ourselves the connections we’d made with a living being? I don’t have to give up that love to love something else. I don’t have to stop talking about her, or thinking of the good and bad times we went through, to care for a new animal. Any attempt to do so would be self-deceptive at best and self-destructive at worst. We are built for relationships, even after they’re over.

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About a month after Emma died, Tracy learned about a dog living at the Humane Society. She was, of all things, the same mix of breeds as our Emma — part bull terrier, part blue heeler — but in different proportions. She was shorter, lighter, more squat. We went out to meet the dog one afternoon and were struck by the ghost of Emma. This new dog wasn’t the same of course — she had no compunctions about letting us touch her feet or tail, and her personality was less domineering — but she had a kindness and physical compatibility that reminded us of Ems. We also knew that her chances for adoption were low: she was four years old, where most people wanted puppies or younger dogs; she was heartworm-positive, where most people wanted a dog with a clean bill of health. Having heartworms isn’t a death sentence, but it’s a condition that the Humane Society isn’t equipped to treat: the medication requires the dog to keep a calmer schedule than a shelter, even one as caring and resourceful as the Humane Society, can reasonably provide. Without a home, she would continue living at the shelter, her veins pumping sickness invisibly through her body, until her options had run out. We decided to bring her home for a two-week trial run, which would let us see if she’d acclimate to our house (and cats) and would also let us start to treat her heartworms. And so, six days later, after buying toys and supplies, we went back to the shelter to get her.

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Tomorrow marks two weeks since we rescued her, but we knew within a day of bringing her home that we had, indeed, brought her home. She’s ours, in every way. It feels like a restoration to have a dog in the house again, and this one is wonderful. She’s smart and strong, inquisitive and playful. (Probably — well, definitely — more playful than the cats would like.) I see in her the shadow of Emma, and I remember all those experiences even as we make new ones. I feel that fullness. Her first day at the house, she tentatively walked through our backyard, still uncertain of her surroundings. Now she prances from one end to the other, patrolling what has unmistakably become her territory. She’ll clock the mailman through the living room window when he’s still across the street, letting out a low growl and sniffing imperially.

She’s so loving and affectionate, happiest when she’s in physical contact with me or Tracy. Our first night with her, we tried to get her to sleep in her crate, but she didn’t like that at all. We dragged her pillow to the ground next to my side of the bed, and she curled up and went to sleep. In the mornings, when I leave for work, she hops up onto the bed and naps next to Tracy. We learned when we first visited her that she’d been kept outside by a previous owner, who returned her for being “destructive,” not realizing that the dog was lonely and bored. She never has to go through something like that again. She has so much love to give, and she just wants a place to call home. We love her already.

This is Sadie.

sadie-new

Turning Four

A young Eleanor Rigby. Four years ago my wife found a box of week-old kittens abandoned outside her office. They'd been left in a cardboard box with a bowl of water; it's amazing none of them had drowned in it. She called me, frantic, as she was driving them to the vet to see what needed to be done. Or maybe she was driving home when she called, the rough outlines of a plan having already formed in her mind after talking to the doctor. I can't remember any more. It's one of those mercurial details that keeps sliding away. But ultimately what happened was she brought them home and we decided to foster them during their infancy until they were old enough to be adopted. We already had a dog, two cats, and a pair of finches,[footnote]We eventually found a new home for the finches. A dog and two small birds is fine; add cats to that, and you've made a food chain.[/footnote] so adding five cats to that mix seemed absurd. But we didn't want to turn them back into the world yet, either. They were too young for a shelter to take them, so we reasoned that we'd be able to find homes for them if we kept them healthy for a few weeks.

If you want to make God laugh, etc. The early stages of caring for the kittens were blurry and fearful. We prepared formula, fashioned a pen from a spare dog crate, bought them a heated stuffed animal with an electronic heart designed to mimic the presence of their absent mother; we nuzzled our mouths and jaws against the tops of their heads, a sign of comfort and love the vet told us would help them feel calm; we gently rubbed damp cotton swabs against their groins to teach them to urinate and defecate. We did not sleep much. Our guest room was given over to them entirely.

The vet didn't want us to have any illusions about their life expectancy, telling us that, of the five, we'd be lucky if one survived. A few days after bringing the kittens home, the littlest one, a tiny scrapper we'd named Runty, began to slip away. His struggles were too great, and we had to put him to sleep. A few days after that, my wife went to check on them and found that one of the others — a bruiser we'd named Scooter, for his habit of scooting backward up our arms as we cradled him — had died in his sleep. The vet took care of him for us, too. We felt trapped and helpless by what was happening.

But then things got better. The three remaining cats — all girls — grew stronger and healthier. They'd been too weak to make any sound the day we found them; now they howled and clamored at meal time. We started taking more pictures. We rearranged the furniture in the guest so that they'd have space to wander around. They started eating solid food, and we felt more sure that the worst had passed. We entertained the notion of placing them in a good home, but we wanted them to stay together, and to be kept inside. A few people offered to take just one (usually the one with the white fur on her feet and face, like a mustache and socks), but it felt wrong. Time passed, and we grew attached. I grew attached. My wife and I had helped these little animals cling to life, and against unlikely odds, they'd survived. We talked less about finding homes for them, and we realized they'd been ours for a while.

I remember one day walking in to check on them and seeing that one of them had developed an eye infection: one eye was open and clear, the other was swollen and squinted shut. I was so worried about what would happen to her, but the vet said it was a common ailment in kittens. She gave us cream to apply to the eye twice a day, and I'd gently rub some around the little one's eye as I fed her. We named her Squints. Some time later, she took to me. They all love us, of course. They play with us, climb on us, roll around happily. But Squints began to assert that kind of ownership that strikes pets seemingly of their own accord. She just likes me. As soon as I sit down, she climbs into my lap. She follows me around the house, waits for me outside the bedroom in the morning, scales my back to perch on my shoulders. I'm her human.

So now we have these grown cats, and every now and then my wife and I will look at each other and look back at them and realize that we have animals in our house, real animals, walking around and eating and pissing and everything, animals that give the house a sense of constant movement and habitation. A dog and five cats: we sometimes call our house "the menagerie." But we're bonded to them, and they to us.

Sleep, Sleep Tonight

We found the cats on a Thursday. Someone had abandoned five kittens — four small, one very small — outside the church where my wife works. They'd left them in a cardboard box with a bowl of water; miraculously, none of the kittens had drowned in the bowl. They looked to be no more than ten days old, far too young to be without their mother. The most likely explanation is that someone didn't spay their cat, and rather than find a way to deal with the kittens, they left them at the church and hoped fate and charity would take over. The kittens got more than that in my wife, though. They got a home. She brought them home that evening — no shelter would have taken them and let them live, and they can't even be adopted out until they're six weeks old — and we bathed them with lemon-scented dish soap to kill the fleas that had already taken root in their thin fur. We fashioned a clean bed for them from a new plastic litter pan lined with towels and a shirt, under which we placed a heating pad. That first night was so long: cleaning, feeding, caring, figuring out what to do. The kittens needed to be nursed every two hours, and we used cotton swabs in warm water to simulate their absent mother's tongue and get them to relieve themselves. They scrabbled and howled, and they walked with a tremor, and we loved them. My wife took them to the vet before bringing them home, and the vet had made it clear that there was no way to know if the kittens would survive, or for long. We could only feed them, and help them, and hope.

The little one's eyes hadn't opened yet, but that didn't stop him from yowling at every opportunity. He ate less than the others, but he was also half their size. We did for him what we did for them all. We held him and fed him, we told him he was safe. We knew he had a fight ahead of him, but we saw the way he scrambled around and refused to quit. We hoped.

Tuesday night — five days after the kittens came to us — we bathed the litter and changed their bedding. The kittens had grown stronger since their first bath, but also more understanding on some level of what was happening around them, and they put up far less of a fight for their second bath. The little guy was a little too resigned, though. While drying him off, I noticed a dark smear on my hand. He'd begun having diarrhea. I massaged him a while until he was finished, then cleaned him off. The kittens had started defecating a couple days earlier, but not like this. This was different. This was bad.

As my wife and I took turns feeding them throughout the night, we noticed that the littlest one wasn't eating as much as he used to, nor as much as we reasoned he might need to eat to start replenishing what he'd lost when he was sick in my hand. It's dangerous to overfeed kittens, and my wife and I had both been worried about how little the tiny one was, but we'd hoped that his sporadic bursts of appetite had been a positive sign. We never forced food on him.

Wednesday morning, he was the same. Not his old self, but not great. He didn't eat much, if anything. He was still half the size or less of his brothers and sisters, just two or three ounces. Around midday, my wife noticed he wasn't responding to her attempts to feed him or offer physical affection. Worried and tearful, she took him to the vet immediately, though we already had a follow-up appointment that afternoon for the litter. When she arrived, the doctor examined the little guy and determined that he was suffering from what's known as Fading Kitten Syndrome. Essentially, living was becoming too much of a fight for the little boy, and there was precious little to be done. He was already unresponsive and uninterested in food, and his heart rate was drastically lower than what it should have been. Seizures would be next. The last thing my wife or I would ever do would be to cause harm to an animal, especially one as vulnerable, confused, and innocent as this one. My wife agreed with the vet's recommended course of action, and we allowed our little man to be put to sleep.

He was just shy of three weeks old. We knew when we took the litter in that their odds of survival were small and wavering, and that the little one would have the toughest road to walk. We prepared ourselves in the abstract for the possibility that at least one of these five helpless creatures might not survive. People asked us for pictures of the litter, but my wife and I didn't take any. We didn't even discuss it with each other: we simply knew that we wouldn't be able to bear looking at the photos if things took a turn for the worse. Our little guy left us just five days after we met him, but we gave him the best home we could in that time. We gave him a warm bed, and food, and we tried to give him every chance at life we could. Mostly we just loved him. His time here was short, and it's likely that he wouldn't have made it even if he'd had his mother around. But we loved him anyway. We gave him a place to sleep and be happy, to eat and rest with his brothers and sisters, to try and find a way to fight. That he couldn't isn't a failure on his part, or ours. It's just what had to be.

I think about how he came to us, and about how someone threw him away. Some days I want to find his former owner and howl at them about their recklessness and ignorance, about their total disregard for the safety of their own pet and the children it had, about what kind of empty freak they must be to have such little respect for life. Other days I remind myself I don't know where he came from, and that maybe whoever used to have him regrets not being more responsible, and that I should be grateful they were at least thoughtful enough to leave him and his siblings outside a church where people would likely find them. I don't know. I don't know how to feel about that person, and I try not to think about them. Instead, I think about our little guy, our brave boy, our little warrior, our tender man who tried so hard to live and who wanted so badly to make it, and who, in the end, slipped away. We loved him, and I hope so much we made him feel better for just a few days. How we loved him.

He never even opened his eyes.