J and I have said goodbye to three cats this year–Scooby in March, Louie in May, and Snowflake in September–and during this same time, we’ve adopted three new cats. It might seem insensitive or even crass to replace pets in this fashion, as if animal souls were interchangeable, but this isn’t how J and I see it. We know more than anyone that each animal has its own unique personality that can’t be swapped out like replacement parts, but for each pet that dies, a place opens up. In a home accustomed to caring for eight cats, it seems heartless or even cruel to keep our heart shut against any newcomers, each passing pet freeing up a place in the lifeboat that is our house.
Our new pets aren’t replacements for our old pets; instead, they are their legacy. I suppose when a grieving family donates their loved one’s organs to a needy recipient, they feel a similar sort of comfort: another life can be saved because of the one we’ve let go. When Scooby died, we needed a roommate for Groucho, who was isolated his own part of the house because he couldn’t get along with Snowflake; when Louie died, we adopted Bobbi because Snowflake had taught us we can indeed take care of a diabetic cat. When Snowflake died, we adopted Frankie because Bobbi taught us that we can handle (and even give insulin injections to) a cat who would rather scratch than be petted, and who else but an experienced hand could handle that? With each pet we adopt, care for, then ultimately lose, we stretch our understanding of what we can handle, the limits of human patience being infinitely expandable.
Nina was toothless and scrawny when we adopted her, Bobbi had diabetes and no tail, and Frankie comes to us with one eye and the chance that she still has cancer. Looking at a shelter full of pets, J and I invariably are drawn to the ones with the saddest stories: who other than a family with lots of experience with veterinary and behavioral issues would have hearts huge enough for such a challenge?
I don’t believe in ghosts, but there are times when I see our dead pets living in the bodies of their replacements: not a transmigration of souls, exactly, but a kind of transmogrification. Now that she’s overcome her initial shyness, Nina sometimes rushes toward me for petting when I enter the room, just as Scooby did, and if I squint my eyes just right, I can see Louie’s ginger and white fur beneath Bobbi’s black blotches. Mere days after we’d brought skittish little Frankie home with dire warnings about her antisocial temperament, she ventured timidly into my lap, gingerly stepping onto my thighs and then settling herself down to be petted, just as Snowflake did. What better way to commemorate the lives we’ve lost not with replacements but with proteges–a legacy of love passed from one generation to another?