Farewell, Rascal

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.

***

***

***

Check out this blog’s public page on Facebook for 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by lovely photography.
http://www.facebook.com/TraversingBlog

Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
 https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Rascal photos by myself, my daughter Dakota, and my ex-wife Robin

25 comments to Farewell, Rascal

  • Pat Wilson  says:

    Love love love.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I hear it’s all you need, Pat! :-)

  • Julie Johnson  says:

    Thank you, Andrew. These transitions are, indeed, profound.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Many thanks, Julie.

  • Marilyn  says:

    OK Andrew – remembering my pets’ deaths, and blubbering over here with you.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I only hope it’s a therapeutic blubber, Marilyn! Thanks for letting me know. :-)

  • karen malin  says:

    Reading this I remembered every beloved critter we have said goodbye to. They have all left such imprints on our hearts! The latest was Paisley. Inherited from our daughter’s college days! A feisty, arrogant, loving grey cat. She just went walking about from our condo one day! She had not been well, not eating, and obviously in some pain. I like to think that she made the decision for us. My favorite story of having to say goodbye to a pet is my daughter and her standard poodle Rio. Rio was 16 and was a feisty and clever girl, known for stealing food right off the counter every chance she got. One of her best and victorious capers involved grabbing a complete Bundt cake straight from the bakery. When it was apparent that the big tumor consuming most of Rio’s mouth was keeping her from eating, my daughter and her husband made the decision that it was now time for the vet appointment. It was not easy explaining what was happening to their three children, and before mom and dad left to take Rio to the appointment, they brought home four little personal size Bundt cakes. One for each child and one for Rio. The four of them sat in a circle on the floor and devoured their Bundt cakes in a true celebration of Rio. This dog who had not eaten for several days, gulped down the entire little red velvet cake! This is such a silly, happy, loving memory that the kids have of their beloved Rio! Much sympathy to you for the loss of your dear little friend!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Beautiful anecdote, Karen! My own dog’s speciality has always been cleaning out the remaining contents of the cat’s bowl when we’re not looking or we forget to pick it up when we leave the house. With Rascal gone now and no cat food in the house, I suspect Shenzi will be losing weight, the little sneak!

  • Mary G.  says:

    This is absolutely fabulous. I love that you shared the deep pain of the loss and how surprising it is we feel so much worse than most human death. Also, great to take us through the journey of the agony of the decision to terminate. I just helped my son go through 6 weeks of agonizing over keeping a dog alive with painful brain tumors or giving him peace. Tough call.

    Thx for sharing.

    And sorry for your loss.

    Better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      That “tough call” of when and why to terminate is a topic unto itself, Mary. And it weighs heavier and heavier as our pets age and grow ill and infirm. Glad your son was able to find his own peace just as he finally did for his dog.

  • Jeanette Millard  says:

    As I read this, snuggled up in bed with two dogs who are hogging the space where my head wants to be – I too had a little video running in my head of all my dogs over the years. How much love and sweetness is there, bundled up with the inevitable eventual loss. Maybe pets help us practice for our own trip over the rainbow bridge. I call dogs ‘hearts on 4 legs’ (or 3!). Nothing more tender, and what a huge loss when they leave us. I’m sorry, Andrew, that Rascal has taken his leave. How loved he was. ♡

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      That’s where I’ve always drawn the line, Jeanette: “No, you CAN’T lie on my pillow!”

      Sweet image, that family bed. Lucky little dogies, and may God love them and keep them. (And of course, in their eyes, you ARE that God…)

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Pets are the constant throughout one’s life. As one who loves equations, this is a universal balance. Claire and I have endured through tears several canine “Rascal” musts. I’m so sorry. Take care.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks, Robert. A constant indeed—since a month after my graduation from college, when I was a virtual stray and my first dog found me one day and let me hang around him for 18 years. Two other long-livers since then, lucky man that I am, and several cats, the always perfect complement-contrast to canines.

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Heart wrenchingly beautiful post Andrew! I know all of your pet owning readers were replaying similar moments in their minds as you so eloquently described sending Mr Rascal off into the great beyond. While I’ve almost always had at least one dog across my 72 yrs I am finding pet owning in my “golden years” takes on an even more intimate cast… I find myself talking to our dog Bailey and cat Ash as if they were humans!

  • Susan  says:

    So beautifully written, and I’m so sorry for your loss, Drew. These sweet loved ones do live on in our hearts and that’s something to be grateful for, though it doesn’t ease the pain of losing them… Thinking of you ♥

  • Jay Helman  says:

    It was a privilege to know Rascal for many years, and to know how much he meant to you and to your daughter, Dakota. He will not be forgotten and will live long and joyfully in your memories, Our two longtime feline family members, Jenny and Susan, are often recalled fondly with our now 30 year old daughter. Similar to Dakota being smitten by Rascal on a “just looking” visit, Jenny and Susan were supposed to be short-term visitors when our daughter was 5, and they were with us until well after she graduated from college. These pet relationships are rich, nourishing, and make our lives so much the richer. Thanks for this lovely reflection.

  • Marianne Sonntag  says:

    Oh Andrew,….shedding tears for your ” big ouch.” I relate well to your thoughts and feelings. Cats are enigmas, stoic and not showing their pain until it’s reached unbarable proportions. I’ve been that far, unfortunately, as I struggled with trying to determine the “right time.” Now I have a better handle on that, but it’s still the hardest decision I have ever made, and it will be again, at least two more times. Even when there are other pets, the hole that is left in the fabric of the home when their spirit is gone is palpable for months. I’d walk through the front door and the void is felt. Over time that sensation fades as their spirit becomes memory in the home of heart and mind.
    Loved the pictures of Rascal, a handsome fellow indeed.
    My sincere condolences Andrew, Marianne

  • Lisa  says:

    Such a truly touching tribute to Rascal. Animals have a way of worming into our hearts in really special ways. So sorry for the loss of your Rascal boy.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Kevin, fear not, my friend—I keep up a running commentary with my pets all my waking hours, not all that dissimilar to talking & cooing & goofing with infants & toddlers. Helps with their language acquisition, doesn’t it?

    Susan, I suppose one consolation is there’s a sweetness of memory accompanying the emotional pain of loss that is absent from, say, a toothache. To love is to hurt, redeemed by all that had rewarded one in loving. I’ll take that deal most every day.

    Jay, one looks back at “family” constellations in kids’ formative years and the pets seem indelibly wedded to them. And if anything, the pets become more central when the kids go off to college and jobs, and the pets don’t follow…

    Marianne, glad to see you stepping out with these lives in your hands “at least two more times.” It’s actually hard for me to imagine ever being petless. Who would I babble to and stroke willy nilly—that’s not always safe behavior for a guy my age!

    Lisa, couldn’t agree more. This pact we make with our creatures, and they with us, is something completely unto itself, a unique grace, a treasure.

  • Moon  says:

    You bastard, Drew! I’m sitting here all misty and it wasn’t even my cat! I have had to be on site for three of our dogs who have had to be helped to pass on, and it is not easy. Just wish they would last as long as we last, but we do love the time we had with them.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Sorry, Moon! Yeah, I’ve had to see two dogs and now two cats across the divide, never easy but what they brought into our lives always worth it. At the moment, though, there’s a little hole, a vacant section, running through this house and property…

      • Andrea Kustin-Mager  says:

        Diito to what Moon said (minus the you bastard )(xx)..What a loving and beautiful tribute to your loved one. I felt as if I knew him given your elegant epitaph.
        I still cry when I think about my “Maya, The Dalmatian Sensation”. She has been gone for almost 13 years. Her ashes were scatted at the site along my Mother, Husband, Uncles and Grandfather. She merited that…
        Thank you for your epistle of love Drew…. x

        • Andrew Hidas  says:

          Gotta love “Maya, The Dalmatian Sensation,” Andrea! The mere sound of it is a pleasure to read and say. And there she is, ashes scattered among your other beloveds, the clan all jumbled up together—but of course! Thanks for letting us picture that.

  • andreakm2252  says:

    Thank you for your kind words…

Leave a Reply to Kevin Feldman Cancel reply