I was eight years old when my aunt Joan brought home her Calico kitten, Tabby, to live with her. Joan never married or had kids but her love of animals was legendary in our family. Our fur babies knew Joan was the one to cling to at family gatherings; a taste of whipped cream here, a morsel of hot dog there. We all knew her little Tabby would be spoiled rotten. We were half right.
To say Joan and Tabby had a love/hate relationship would be an understatement. Tabby was quite the huntress, bringing in mice and birds as an offering for her beloved roomie. Unfortunately, most of them were alive when she brought them in the house and I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I told you how many times my mom received a phone call from her shrieking sister while she ran around the house with a broom trying to oust the tiny beasts from her kitchen.
Tabby was a feisty thing, as you’d imagine; most Calicos are. Our family called her “hiss and spit” as an endearment. No, really. It was an endearment. Aunt Joan absolutely adored that cat. Tabby certainly had longevity. She began getting sick when she was seventeen and Joan made the difficult decision to euthanize her when she was eighteen. Joan was devastated. She wasn’t the same person after Tabby died. She was more reclusive and teared up easily when she was around our cats, especially, our Calico, Sara. To put things in perspective; Joan and Tabby had an eighteen year relationship. It was just the two of them against the world. It’s no wonder she was so affected by Tabby’s passing.
We are a nation of animal lovers. Each day I see evidence of this when I’m sitting on my front porch watching neighbors walking their dogs or stopping to pet the horse in the pasture across the street. This winter was unusually brutal in my neck of the woods and when I was able to get my car out of the driveway and plod through the snow I saw many a car drive by with the windows rolled down for their dogs to hang their heads out into the crisp, chill air. That my friends, is love. There has only been one time as an adult that I didn’t have a fur baby in my home. We didn’t have a pet when we moved into our house 22 years ago but it was only for a few months. We got Sara from the Humane Society when she was six weeks old. She was tiny. She also became very sick. She had to visit the vet on several occasions and ended up staying there for nearly a week on antibiotics before she was well enough to come home. Each visit I tried to prepare my four year old for the possibility that Sara may not make it. This is not easy, as many of you well know. However, not only did she recover completely, she was as ornery as ever. We acquired our amazing Rotty/Lab mix, Jake, not long after we adopted Sara and that little stinker backed our 120 lb, dog into a corner, hissing and spitting, like Tabby. Jake folded like paper around her.
We had quite the menagerie at our house for many years. We had Jake, Sara, and our little tuxedo cat, Birddog, who helped us raise our kids. Yes, our cat’s name was Birddog. What can I say, it fit him to a T. Birddog was being fostered by my cousin who worked at the Humane Society. He took in the animals that may not have had a chance at adoption because of their various disabilities. Birddog was a preemie. His mom began losing her litter after arriving at the shelter and all of the babies died but him. He was a little miracle.
Birddog and Jake were fast friends; they played together, snuggled together, and were brothers together. It wasn’t unusual to see Birddog curled up on Jake’s dog bed with him in the evenings. Jake was the best friend you could have. He was a big dog with a barrel chest and a fierce look about him but he was a gentle giant with kids. He was a loyal companion and we loved him like family. Because he was family. We lost him when he was fourteen years old. Old age, the vet said. I’m going to confess right here that I did not take it well. It felt like I had lost a relative. I mourned so hard that I began seeking pet bereavement groups online. It wasn’t until I read the book “Marley and Me” that I realized I wasn’t alone in my grief. There were others who were hurting like I was. We lost our Sara to renal failure when she was nineteen years old. Even though we knew her time was short, we still weren’t prepared for the enormity of our grief. It took years before we were able to get a new dog (Lola). My husband didn’t want another dog like Jake because, “there will never be another dog like Jake.” We lost our little buddy, Birddog, on Friday. He lived to be sixteen years old. He had been sick for some time and the vet suggested he had cancer. We dutifully gave him his meds, which he hated, and loved on him as much as we could. Birddog was special; he didn’t behave like a cat and we’re pretty sure he thought he was a dog. He wagged his tail like a dog, hated cat treats and catnip, and was more comfortable around dogs than cats. We had a mouse in the house once and he ran from it. When our kitty, Gracie Mayhem, showed up under my daughter’s car one November morning we decided to keep her until her owners could claim her, which didn’t happen. Birddog and Gracie were best friends from the start. She watched over him like a mother, even cleaning his little face while he was sleeping. It was normal to see them spooning on the recliner at night. Birddog was everyone’s buddy. He’d run to the door to greet people and sit on their laps. He didn’t care if you didn’t like cats. Allergic? Aw, too bad! People loved this boy. He would greet you in the morning with, not a meow, but a “woo”. Perhaps, this was why his original name was Roo. Every day of this little guy’s life was filled with love and kisses. He was more than a pet; aren’t they all?
Much like the movie, Marley and Me, there is a time when you look your elderly or sick fur baby in the eye and say, “You’ll tell me when you’re ready, eh buddy?” Each one of our babies let us know when they’d had enough. We can never be prepared for the goodbye. I think when our fur babies turn a certain age it’s always in the back of our minds; it’s coming. It was no different with Birddog. We knew he was sick. We knew he was unhappy. We knew it was time. It didn’t matter; we weren’t prepared for the overwhelming grief that comes with his passing. As for myself, I’ve had a lump in my throat for three days now. I burst into tears for no reason, I see Birddog’s little ghost everywhere he slept. I’ve thrown the meds he hated away, washed his food dish, and gave our other fur babies extra snuggles; they seem to be hurting, too.
Clearly our babies are not just pets. They are not just loyal companions, protectors, or a tool to teach our children responsibility. They are family. Each day someone, somewhere is touched by the death of a loved one and it doesn’t seem to matter if they are man or beast. The love is the same.
So I’ll let a few tears slip by when I think of what we lost. Each day will get a little better; but not today. Today it’s okay to miss someone and to remember the unbreakable bond we had for a little while.
In loving memory of all who left us before we were ready. Thank you for giving us the privilege of caring for you. Always in our hearts.