Life, death, suffering, grief, loss, love—it is always more affecting and close-at-heart than we like to let on in our mostly defended moments against the too-muchness of life, its power to overwhelm the barriers we erect to tamp down the great roiling emotions that drive so much of our inner experience.
So we leave it to therapists, or spouses, or late night drinking companions, or the ceiling above our mid-of-night tossings in bed, or the sky gods beyond that, to receive our wails, our ponderings, our miseries and questions—and sometimes even our wholly undefended joys.
Deep in the pit of our stomachs, we know we are engaged in an epic crusade, at least to ourselves and our intimates, to drink as deeply as possible of every last opportunity for love and wonder that the world affords us.
And as it happens, dammit, a good deal of that wonder blows in the door when we’ve opened it—or had it opened for us—by the death of a beloved.
Probably the hoariest cliche in the pet-owning world is that “Our pets are part of our family.” Such cliches gave rise some time ago to this less worn cliche: “Just because something’s a cliche doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”
Plumbing the depths of what our pets mean to us, where they fit into the hierarchy of our commitments, passions, loves, friendships, has long occupied our social scientists. Yet in the end, it remains a delicious mystery, ineffable, like all love ultimately is. Better simply experienced than explained.
But I have rarely—well, probably never—wept with the same sense of convulsive grief over the loss of a friend as I have my pets. Should this fact bother me? Does it mean animals are more important than people, that their lives require equal regard?
It certainly does get one to thinking, though. I’ve long noted over the course of outliving multiple pets (may that streak continue for a good while yet…) how powerful the feelings of grief and devastation are. These feelings are exacerbated all the more when, in the interests of mercy and tortured, nerve-wracking judgement, one has made the decision to end their lives.
Rascal, aka Raskie, Raskie Shellaskie, Rascola, Rascola Mola, Rowie, Rowie-Head, Rowie-Face, The Rowster, The Maaaaannnn, was the latest to knock me off my feet and right onto my knees as we put him to rest with the care-full help of our vet on the deck of our little outbuilding library as the sun set Friday night.
He was only 15 1/2 years old, a relative piker in these most flourishing times to be a well-loved, well-fed, long-lived pet in a first-world economy. But thyroid disease, dried and tender skin from his medications, an infected toe that had its claw long removed but stubbornly refused to heal over years, and the seeming beginnings of dementia had rendered him a shadow of his former self.
I remember watching from the kitchen window in late spring 2005, when my then 6-year-old daughter popped jauntily out of the family van with him in tow, a “just going to look” visit to the pound with her mother having turned into an adoption.
A day or two later he was still nameless when we were messing around with his roly poly kitten self and he waved his little claws at her like a punch-drunk fighter.
“Oh, you rascal!” my daughter exclaimed.
“That’s it!” I responded.
It remained the perfect name for him the rest of his days.
Through a story too long to tell here, I inherited custody of Rascal with my divorce five years ago and wound up tucking him and my dog under the seats of the plane a year ago September when Mary and I took the red eye from SFO to Durham. When we got to the house, Rascal promptly parked his wavering self in the darkest part of the bedroom closet for the better part of a month, emerging only to eat and eliminate, no doubt a psychic adjustment tantamount to pausing for altitude acclimation when climbing great peaks.
Then he emerged, tentatively, finding his way to the screened sunporch, the sunny spots in the garden, and after it was built later in fall, the library deck where he spent luscious warm afternoons and untold numbers of Happy Hours, parking himself under one of our chairs for some serious family time and meandering over for a few sniffs and rubs when people came by.
He was still doing so the last couple of days of his life, when we pretty much dropped everything else just to be with him back there on a couple of blessedly beautiful fall days of afternoon sun and one last night of extraordinarily warm breezes that saw him wanting to remain there even as it grew dark and we came in for dinner.
I’ll never forget, among many other sights, the silhouette of his ears perked up and framed by the library porch light out there in the dark on his last night alive, utterly alert, watching quietly and tasting life in the way cats, ever the sensualist creatures, always do.
Nor will I forget my own anguish in playing God, wondering whether my judgment that Rascal would be better off dead was correct for his sake, or merely serving my own interests of convenience.
For my own sake with my life, I have done my due diligence with an advance directive and long conversations with my beloveds, letting them know I have no interest enduring egregious discomfort and indignities merely for the sake of drawing out my days.
But I couldn’t ask Rascal how he felt about those matters, whether he considered his life worth living. The question itself would have meant nothing to him, because animals, from what we know and observe of them, don’t engage in such self-conscious existential questions and evaluations. (Lucky them!)
When they can no longer jump, they simply don’t jump anymore, and adapt accordingly, without writing poems or wailing to their buddies about it. They have only one program: keep going, till they can’t anymore.
Which is what Rascal was doing, wonky thyroid, angry toe and desert-dry skin be damned, as he ate virtually entire days without gaining an ounce on his ever-more gaunt frame, and which he did, however, manage to still drag out for food, drink, and more sleep in various spots around the house, porch and yard.
And oh, the towering water consumption attending a thyroid condition! Emptying large water bowls daily, avidly coming over anytime I manned a hose for plant watering, whereupon I would prop the hose up on low-volume over a rock or bush and let him drink from it for a solid five or ten minutes while I found something else to do.
Guzzling from a hose, one of his very favorite activities even pre-dating his illness, was also something we managed to afford him the last day of his life. And in the way of such things, I’m pretty sure I will never man a hose again without conjuring up his memory.
So here is perhaps the not-all-that-weird thing: I’m old (and fortunate) enough to have outlived and grieved nearly countless friends and family members now. Some—both of my parents and a brother especially—cut closer to the bone than others, but as losses pile up, each one still brings a little wince amidst the fond memories I retain.
I’m no relativist who thinks all of God’s creatures are equally important. Much as all my pets have meant and drawn in love and care from me, if a dog and a human are bloody on the side of the road, I know which one I’ll tend to until the paramedics arrive.
But I have rarely—well, probably never—wept with the same sense of convulsive grief over the loss of a friend as I have my pets. Should this fact bother me? Does it mean animals are more important than people, that their lives require equal regard? If I truly believed that, wouldn’t I at the very least be a vegetarian, if not a vegan?
I think what it actually means is that despite our love and honoring of friends and non-nuclear family, we do not live with those people, do not interact and tend to, feed and clean up after and walk and play with them as we do our pets. Pets get taken into our nervous system; their presence and needs and the joys we take from them (along with the food costs and vet bills) are a constant in our lives.
Besides which, no human has ever sprawled entire mornings on my chest while I drink coffee and type with fingers skirting their fur.
We are constantly monitoring and aware of and responsible for our pets’ welfare and presence. When they are no more, we are a long while adjusting to the new reality of our daily lives, into not watching for them underfoot and around every bend in the house and yard. This is unlike it is with the humans we see and share meals and roofs with a time or two a week at best, and in cases where we live far apart, hardly at all.
And then there is the utter defenselessness of pets. Here we are hatching plans for their demise at such and such a time, based on such-and-such observations and conclusions of our imperfect selves.
Is it the right thing to do? Impossible to know, unless their suffering has reached horrid proportions. But that’s exactly what we’re trying to stay ahead of, not to let them get to the point where they look at us with pleading eyes, pained and clouded with woe.
Rascal hadn’t quite reached that point, but it was going to be a long cold winter here, and his condition had no reasonable prospect of improving or even maintaining. Two nights before we sent him on, I had reached down to stroke him on his pillow in the bathroom near his catbox, where we had to keep him overnight lest he wander the night peeing everywhere but there.
As I stroked his head, he uttered the most plaintive little cries, meek things, not seemingly of physical pain, but more in an “I’m so tired” vein that just seized my heart and had me promise him and myself I would go through with our plans to give him his rest.
Our vet is a not-all-that-reformed hippie of the very best sort, who has become convinced over the years that the sudden heart-stopping medications most often administered to euthanize pets do not help them go gently into the night. So her approach is to administer a large dose of barbiturate that gives them a pleasant buzz and slowly winds their clock down.
Then, when they are largely unconscious 20-30 minutes later, another dose that ends it more quickly.
This was new to me, but trust is the coin of this realm, so we proceeded.
Lo and behold, with Rascal’s still strong heart and stout spirit, his consciousness ebbed much more slowly than anticipated, taking closer to an hour before Margie, who had waited with us there on the deck at a social distance as the sky grew toward night, administered the second shot.
All the while, Mary and I had been stroking, kissing, murmuring and weeping over him as he grew progressively more floppy on my lap, his dry skin sensitivity finally ebbed. He looked and felt beautiful and soft, and it felt beautiful—and painful—to bear witness to his receding pulse, gone silent at last.
I’ve attended probably a few more human than pet deaths at this point in my life, and it is impossible for me not to feel that they have all been bathed in sanctity. Amidst the wailing sense of loss, of losing moment-to-waning-moment what we have treasured so deeply, we are reaffirmed in the knowledge that life is indeed of epic importance, that this being we hold in our arms or whose hand we hold or foreheads we stroke in their passing, mattered, and their passing is a tragedy that their maker, that the creation itself, will experience as loss.
As we buried Rascal, the sky now darkened and stars emerging, in a spot by the fence where he always loved taking his sun, I couldn’t help but think amidst my sobs how fully he—and all my pets and human beloveds before him—had penetrated my life, demolishing any defense I had ever erected against feeling the full weight of love, and the burdens and joys it calls us to carry.
Sometimes that love requires us to make fearsome decisions, in all doubt and fear and trembling. But far more often, in the years leading up to those decisions, it affords us the extraordinary abundance and privileges of entering deeply into everyday relationships that we cannot, or at least should not, fool ourselves into thinking ask anything less of us than our complete immersion and regard—with such surpassingly precious rewards and blessings flowing therefrom.
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Rascal photos by myself, my daughter Dakota, and my ex-wife Robin