When True2Soul’s founder invited me to be a part of her newsletter, I was delighted at the prospect. Knowing she has other contributors to address more esoteric aspects of animal companions, we kicked around a few general ideas. In the end, I decided to contribute some thoughts regarding the difficulties I’ve encountered during my years of being the human in the lives of a variety of pets.
I don’t know that “difficulties” is quite the right word (and I certainly wouldn’t want to deter anyone from the myriad of joys accompanying such choices.) Perhaps “challenges” is more fitting – and there have been many.
While I could speak at length about the expenses, the time constraints, the physical requirements and other obvious considerations when taking on the responsibility of a four footed dependent (or a dozen), at the moment of writing none of these are uppermost in my mind. Ironically, rather than discussing the preparation, research and setting up house for a furry new addition, I have been thinking about the other end of my journeys.
You see, yesterday was the first anniversary of the death of one of the most significant and extraordinary of my little loves. For every of those 365 days since there have been tears, a sense of loss and pain so acute it is almost physical. I miss her every time my heart beats. This experience, not the first for me, has to be the greatest of all the challenges.
Anyone who has gleaned some wisdom in life has to know that because something is hard doesn’t mean it is to be avoided. Quite the opposite, in fact, as pain in all its forms is often our greatest teacher. Its significance and depth leave memories that form a big part of who we are, and are becoming.
In 2003, I got Honour from an Australian Shepherd rescue. It was a few weeks before her third birthday. She was likely from a puppy mill since she had been bought in a pet store as a gift for a growing family that had no time for her. She was not socialised and had only a small square in the back garden where she was allowed to do her business. Despite this, she was energetic and enthusiastic. She had a different name but took to her new one promptly. She came into my life like a tornado and proved to be stubborn, bossy, the most intelligent dog I have met, had a memory like a steel trap, fiercely loyal and courageous and a staggering capacity for love.
Yesterday, I re-lived the moments of my last day with Honour. I had exhausted medical avenues and knew that to prolong her life meant certain suffering. After a beautiful morning of giving and receiving unconditional love and a final walk (with her Flat Coated Retriever brother, Midknight) we waited together for the vet to arrive to euthanize her at home. Afterwards, sobbing, I drove her body to the crematorium myself.
As I touch her urn, my eye falls upon the 23 others in my collection – various sizes and shapes. Like people, they leave diversely sized paw impressions on my heart. Some were with me for a relatively short time while the longest (my sweet Sebastianne, a cat) lived for almost 22 years. Honour was 2-1/2 months short of turning 16, and we had nearly 13 years together.
On the shelf above her are the ashes of my first dog, a beagle called Lady. The day after tomorrow will mark 31 years since she died. The pain of that loss has faded, but her impact on my life hasn’t. It was she, together with the many lessons of my father, who set me on my path. My father was able to visit and meet all of my dogs up to and including Honour, which makes her especially poignant – his last “grand-dog.”
Associated with them is the interaction with people they created for me. I had encountered the spectrum of reaction when these people had to say goodbye to their animals. Many over the years decided to adopt again within weeks or months. The silence of not having the attendant pet sounds was too loud, and the loneliness of not being comforted by the touch of a warm, hairy body too consuming.
Curiously, for me, there was always a number who said, “Never again.” The loss was too traumatic, too great and they decided they couldn’t bear to experience it again. This choice has always saddened me. It feels that their relationship had become concentrated on the ending. I wish that instead, they could rejoice in all the days and months and years of love that they had shared. The ordinary days far outnumber the painful ones, and when they are done, the cumulative effect on those daily smiles and snuggles and love is most precious.
No matter the reaction, guilt seems to be an integral and inevitable piece of this parting. Doubts abound from both directions. Did I give up too soon? Did I do all I could? Did I wait too long? Did I cause unnecessary pain? I believe this is the result of usually having to be in the position to decide to end a life. Rarely, the choice is out of our hands, and an animal passes peacefully and unaided at home. Far more widespread is the unenviable decision for vet intervention. There are no comforting words to assuage this guilt – just the hope that any decision arising out of love was the best one.
I experienced all of those feelings after each death, notably Lady’s which was the most significant loss in my life up to that time. I, too, doubted I could survive it again. I waited four years (the longest ever – since then the interval has shrunk dramatically) before getting another pet. All this time later, I think I always knew I would have more. I don’t believe that I then knew I would have as many as nine pets at once, though.
Prince succeeded Lady and was remarkable in many respects. He was the only one of my dogs to come to me as a puppy. All have been rescues, and for most, I didn’t know the birth date, so instead, we celebrated an anniversary, or a “Gotcha” day, as the rescue I’ve most recently dealt with calls it. With Prince, I knew his birthday, and he only ever had one name. When people asked me what kind of dog he was, I told them, “Part white and part black.” He grew to a hefty 75 pounds with a roguish black patch over his left eye.
Prince was gentle and loving enough to become a St. John’s Ambulance Therapy Dog. We visited a nursing home (when my job involving shift work allowed), and he was brilliant at it. He had all sorts of seniors light up when they saw him. People spoke to him in a variety of languages and enthusiastically greeted and petted him. This role was sadly cut short when he got lymphoma. While still physically able to do the work, the chemo treatments compromised his immune system to the point that he couldn’t receive the required inoculations necessary for St. John’s insurance requirements.
During the three years of chemo that gave him the quality of life enough to still enjoy chasing squirrels, I was personally questioning whether an organized religion was for me and I brought Prince regularly (shifts permitting) to an Anglican church. The Reverend there was very welcoming to us both, as were the parishioners.
When I had to admit defeat by cancer, I had Prince euthanized at home. I asked Father Ian if I could have a Memorial Service for Prince at the church and he readily agreed. (He took some flack about this from others at the church, but he argued that Prince had been a more regular attendee than some of the members.) I said I didn’t know if many might show up – and that it might be only “thee and me.” Fr. Ian was undeterred and said it would be a fine celebration even if that were the case.
On the day, about 40 people came, some with their dogs sitting curiously in the pews. Among the emotional writings that people read that day was one called “Living Love,” and I would dearly love to credit the author if I knew who it was. In a nutshell, it states that anyone who has loved an animal will have three days forever in their memory.
The first is the day you bring your new friend home after whatever means you found each other. The second is some years later when you suddenly become aware that they are ageing and a growing fear develops. The last is when they leave you, when “you will feel as alone as a single star in the dark night.” It advises to let the tears fall freely and that “you may find that a soul a bit smaller in size than your own seems to walk with you.”
It ends optimistically with the assurance of a fourth day that will emerge. On that day, the living love will remain and grow “piercing through the heaviness in your heart” as a legacy for us to possess. I believe there are many more days than those four will be remembered but agree with the sentiment.
During Prince’s life, I began to learn of the joys of living with animals other than dogs. It began when he was very young, and I got the kitten Sebastianne to keep him company. Then a rabbit followed by a second. Unwisely, I let Merlin and Guinevere socialise with each other before finding a vet who could neuter and spay them. Consequently, they made me a grandmother.
Through a series of unrelated life events, many times through shelters or rescues, I also became a human parent to hamsters, gerbils, another cat, two more rabbits, more pocket pets, more dogs, and cats. Honour was one of those after Prince. Some may think I took my father’s advice too much to heart: “There’s always another one that needs you, Christine.”
All of the different species brought learning to my life. All gave me laughter; all gave me moments of terror, all presented challenges during their lives. Yesterday’s painful anniversary makes it too easy to recall the passing of each and how diminished my life felt at the time. Their physical size was not related to their impact. As with people, some came to be more dear to me than others, but I cherished them all.
After indulging in the agony of yesterday, I gaze at my current pets. Having no human relatives here, they are the latest occupants to make up my family. They are peacefully sleeping after their evening meal. The two cats and Midknight came to Honour and me. Midknight is now geriatric, blind and going deaf – I know our days together are numbered. The two cats are genetically unrelated but came as a brother and sister on my father’s birthday – the last birthday for which he was alive. Truly, a senior lab mix arrived via a rescue group last October, a sweet, gentle old girl. The newest addition, Hank (aka Hanky Panky) another Aussie, turned up in February – interestingly some weeks before his third birthday.
While losing an animal is certainly the greatest challenge, it is all the time leading up to it that makes it so. It is remarkably painful with a staying power equal to the love that caused it. The alternative to the extreme grief is never to have shared my life with Honour (and Prince, and Lady and the many others) but I wouldn’t trade one day with them to avoid the bereft feeling in their wake.
The premise is simple. Barring us going first, we have certainty that the day will come bringing a gaping hole that their presence used to fill. It never gets easier. It always seems unbearable. While devastating, it is so worth it.
If only we could master their ability to live in the present. Animals remember the past and can anticipate the future. However, they celebrate the moment as it happens. Those little lifetimes are all a series of lived moments. Since I am less than perfect, I am susceptible to the memories (and anniversaries) of loss and cannot help but mark them. Through the tears shine the lengthy happiness and the gratitude for all that we gave to each other. It is they who taught me to keep the pet door (and my heart) open.
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