The menagerie


So, how are *you* keeping warm through the storm?

Last month, we euthanized one of our cats. Gumbo (pictured above, on right) was a medical mystery: when we adopted him as an adult in 2015, he had a chronic respiratory infection, and soon thereafter he was diagnosed with a severe congenital heart defect that should have killed him as a kitten. Given Gumbo’s diagnosis, we knew he wouldn’t be with us long, so we took care to give him every comfort. When the end came, he died in my lap, which was his favorite place to be.

Welcome home, Yanny

These past few weeks, we’ve been looking for a cat to take Gumbo’s place. Gumbo had lived in our master bedroom with toothless Nina (pictured above, on left) and one-eyed Frankie; the two of them were quiet and calm enough to keep Gumbo company without putting stress on his heart. In looking for a new cat, we wanted one who would be affectionate enough to cuddle with Nina, the gentlest cat on the planet, and savvy enough to give standoffish Frankie her space.

Yesterday we brought home Yanny (pictured on right), a sweet shelter cat who was hard-to-place because of age and medical issues: glaucoma that claimed one eye, an uncertain prognosis for the other, and an unresolved urinary issue. Now that Gumbo’s gone, we have another medical mystery in the house. Already, Yanny is quietly coexisting with both Nina and Frankie: nobody is cuddling yet, but nobody’s fighting, either. When you adopt a medical mystery, you commit to provide whatever that creature needs for however long they decide to stay with you: a quality of life measured in depth rather than length.

Cassie with chew bone

On Monday morning–New Year’s Day–we put our white German shepherd, Cassie, to sleep. She’d been diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma, an aggressively metastatic cancer, the week before Christmas, after our vet found a large mass on her spleen. When we brought Cassie home after having her spleen removed, we knew our task was to make the rest of her life as comfortable as possible, no matter how long or short.

Cassie at home

J and I have ushered too many pets from this world to the next: countless cats and now four dogs. Our commitment to stay with a pet until their final breath–to be present during their passing rather than handing over the leash and walking away–is one we both take very seriously. We’ve grown all-too-familiar with the the euphemistically named “Meditation Room” at the Angell Animal Medical Center, where families can gather on couches or on the floor while their pet slips quietly away. We know the Meditation Room and the routine that goes with it because it’s a scene we’ve repeated with pet after pet after pet. After spending so much time, energy, and worry tending to an ailing or elderly pet’s final days, suddenly they are gone.

Someone won't let me make the bed. #dogsofinstagram #cassiethedog #whitegermanshepherd

When Cassie was in surgery two weeks ago and her surgeon saw her cancer had spread, our vet called and gave us the option of euthanizing Cassie right there on the operating table. Without batting an eye, I said no. There is no need to prolong the inevitable–neither J nor I believe in extraordinary measures–but there also isn’t any reason to hasten it. After her surgery, Cassie had a good, comfortable week at home surrounded by the familiar rituals of her daily routine. Without a bleeding mass on her spleen, she felt more energetic than she had before surgery–almost as good as new–and we plied her with cold cuts for Christmas and spent a lot of time petting, brushing, and fussing over her.

Cassie at Angell

Instead of dying on an antiseptic operating table, Cassie left us at the fullness of time, after we’d spent a week consciously, intentionally loving her to death. Past midnight on New Year’s Eve, she was her usual alert and affectionate self; on New Year’s morning, she was listless and droopy, with white gums indicating an internal hemorrhage. Having discussed this inevitability with our vet–ultimately, we knew, hemangiosarcoma always wins–a difficult decision wasn’t difficult at all. Although Cassie didn’t know much less understand her diagnosis, her body told us it was time.

By any other name

This year for Mother’s Day, I did something I’ve never done before: I bought myself flowers. J and I don’t have children, but I spend a lot of time tending our animals, so when I was doing this week’s grocery shopping, I picked up a mixed bouquet for myself, from the pets. I’m not a mother, I decided, but I spend a lot of time and energy on the kinds of things that mothers do, a wide swath of my life devoted to feeding, cleaning, tending, and errand-running.

Gracie peekaboo. #catsofinstagram #graciethecat

Several weeks ago, one of my students asked me point-blank: am I childless by choice, or was I unable to have children? Normally, this might seem to be an impertinent question, but this particular group of students and I have read and discussed texts about a wide range of sensitive topics, and we’ve built a rapport.

“Choice,” I answered, and she nodded. I explained that I’d always known that I didn’t want kids: when adults told me I’d acquire maternal instincts when I was older, or when my biological clock went off, I inwardly disagreed, and I was right. Some people have always known they are gay, and I’ve always known that I wasn’t cut out to be a mother. It’s a vocation I was never called to.

All ears. #dogsofinstagram #cassiethedog #whitegermanshepherd

It’s difficult, of course, for a woman to openly admit she doesn’t want children: women were put on this earth, some would argue, to have and tend to children. Years ago when I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, a Korean woman who lived there with her two children was horrified to learn that my then-husband and I didn’t have kids of our own. “A woman needs children to experience the universe,” she declared, but she relented when she learned I was in graduate school studying to become a professor. “Oh, you’re a teacher,” she exclaimed with an air of relief. “You will experience the universe through your students!”

Cuddle buddies. #catsofinstagram #gumbothecat #ninathecat

I’m not sure a woman needs children, students, or even pets to experience the universe: I think being alive and awake and aware is enough. But perhaps some people (men and women alike) need occasional reminders that a universe exists outside themselves. I don’t know what it’s like to raise children, but I do know that tending animals constantly reminds me that I am but one tiny creature on an enormous planet of need, and my well-being is intrinsically connected with that of my fellow creatures. Perhaps that is a lesson we all can take from mothers and Mother’s Day.

Today’s photos show a handful of our pets: Gracie playing peekaboo under a loveseat, Cassie looking alert, and Gumbo and Nina sitting side by side.

Memorial labyrinth

Today I’m supposed to get together with A (not her real initial), walking the labyrinth at Boston College then having potato pancakes at the diner in Newton Centre.

Memorial labyrinth

Tomorrow J and I are going to Angell to adopt two cats–George and Gracie–that were surrendered by a breeder/hoarder in New Hampshire, a woman with 40 cats. They are shy and not well socialized–our job will be to get them acclimated into the house and also to get them comfortable around people. We’d intended to adopt just one cat to fill the spot left by Bunny when she died, but since George and Gracie find comfort in cuddling together, we didn’t want to split them.

Nina and Gumbo continue to cuddle me whenever I sit on the loveseat in the master bedroom–Nina on my lap and Gumbo sprawled across my chest. Nina was incredibly shy when we first adopted her–she spent her first few weeks under the bed–but now she runs up and falls at my feet when I walk into the room, begging for a belly rub.

Memorial labyrinth

And so we slowly socialize each of the cats we adopt. Frankie and Bobbi will never be lap cats–they’re too feisty and independent for that–but they each tolerate petting as long as it’s brief.

The world is filled with suffering: so many bad, sad situations I am powerless to fix. But I know how to comfort cats and tend to dogs, and so I do that as a small act of devotion I offer to a suffering world.

This is an entry I wrote in my journal on January 30, 2016, along with photos I took and promptly forgot about. I don’t remember what bad, sad situations I’m referring to in the final paragraph, but what was true then is just as true now.

Nina and Gumbo continue to climb all over me, looking for cuddles, whenever I walk into their room, and Frankie and Bobbi are still as feisty as ever. And one year after we adopted them, George and Gracie now let me pet their heads but are otherwise shy.

Crash in afternoon light

Earlier today, in the middle of a perfectly beautiful spring afternoon, we put Crash the cat to sleep. Like Bunny, whom we’d euthanized in January, Crash was 17 years old–a ripe age in cat years–and had been hale and healthy until he noticeably wasn’t. Whereas we’d tried to slow Bunny’s decline from kidney disease with a several-day-long hospitalization in the veterinary critical care unit that bought her only a few more weeks of quality time, we opted to keep Crash at home until the end, recognizing the signs of terminal kidney failure and opting for palliative care instead of extraordinary measures.

King of the refrigerator

Each of our cats has his or her own personality, and Crash’s was the most irrepressible. He should have been named “Houdini” for his proclivity for squeezing into places he didn’t belong: if there was a door ajar anywhere in the house, Crash was there in a flash to squeeze his way through it, perpetually curious about life on the other side.

Crash grooms Snowflake

Crash was never much of a lap-cat; he was too active and athletic for that. Although he wasn’t one to sit in your lap and allow himself to be petted, he did enjoy grooming the other cats, licking their heads and necks–the spots they couldn’t easily clean themselves–with an attention that suggested he’d been a hairdresser in a previous life.

Proof that cats and dogs can get along

Crash had an impish personality: he was a perpetual teenager, long in leg and mischievous in attitude. When Reggie started to struggle with stairs, Crash would torment him at every step, pouncing on Reggie’s tail and batting the fur on his hind legs, a playful brat who loved to harass his elders. After I took to carrying Reggie up the stairs, Crash mellowed and began hanging out with Reggie as he lay in whatever spot I’d arranged him, too feeble to stand. One of my favorite pictures of the two of them shows Crash keeping Reggie company as he rested in a square of morning light, their similarly colored fur aglow.

Crash on windowsill

There is, I’ve found, a strange sort of quiet calm that descends upon the house after one of the pets has died: Crash is the seventh pet we’ve lost since March, 2015, so I’ve come to know the drill. When you arrive home after euthanizing a pet, the house seems large and unnaturally quiet. Regardless of how large the animal was in life, in death his absence looms huge: an elephant that has left the room.

I think this oversized sense of emptiness arises because of how much care a dying pet requires. When a pet is dying, part of your mind is always devoted to him: is he fed, watered, and otherwise well-tended, and is there anything else (anything!) you can do to make him comfortable? When you come home after euthanizing a pet, there is a brief sense of shock when you realize there’s no longer anyone to fret over. You can put the IV stand with its bag of intravenous fluids away, wash the dish that had held the syringes full of medicine, and tidy up the sloven corners where your now-dead pet had been accustomed to nap.

Chilling out on a hot day

The pillows upon which Crash had rested these past few days are in the wash now; soon enough, after the initial novelty has subsided, the remaining pets will reclaim them. Nature abhors a vacuum, and a house full of pets doesn’t stay calm and quiet for long, the remaining pets with their remaining lives expanding to fill the emptiness left by one of their own reaching the end of his ninth.

Bunny enjoys her lap-time

Yesterday morning, we put Bunny the cat to sleep. Earlier this month, after losing an alarming amount of weight, Bunny was diagnosed with kidney failure and spent a few days in the veterinary critical care unit, where our main goal was to get her healthy enough to come home. At home, we plied Bunny with food and an abundance of petting, committed to making her final days as comfortable and love-filled as possible.

Cubby-cat

This is, we’ve learned, how old cats often die. There’s the initial diagnosis, and veterinary care can extend their life long enough you can intentionally shower then with attention, making a conscious decision to (literally) love them to death. But inevitably, the disease wins: the disease always wins. You write the final chapter of a pet’s life knowing how the story ends but nevertheless fighting for every additional page, intent on cramming as much love and mercy as possible into a too-short narrative.

Bunny

Bunny is the fifth cat we’ve lost since last March, the litany of grief counting out like rosary beads: Scooby, Louie, Snowflake, Groucho, Bunny. Grief doesn’t get any easier with repetition, but it does grow more familiar: an unwelcome but well-known guest who keeps returning. Although Scooby died suddenly, we euthanized the others after long, debilitating illnesses that afforded ample opportunity for anticipatory grieving. When you euthanize a pet after a long illness, you experience a dizzying array of contradictory emotions. On the one hand, you’re relieved your pet is no longer suffering; on the other, you’re stunned when an all-consuming struggle ends so suddenly, with no more need for the constant care and concern you’d lavished on this small, suffering creature.

Bunny basks

Ever since Bunny came home from the critical care unit, she and I had settled upon a new routine. In the middle of the night, after I’d taken Melony the beagle out and in, I’d spend a half hour sitting cross-legged on the floor with Bunny nestled in my lap. At first, the goal of these vigils was to coax Bunny into eating: before getting down to the serious business of petting, I’d plop Bunny in front of a bowl of fresh food and watch her eat. Her final few nights, however, Bunny showed no interest in food or even water, so I’d gather her into my lap and clean her mucus-clogged eyes with a paper towel soaked in warm water. With one hand, I’d pet Bunny, who always loved to be cuddled, and with the other, I’d turn the pages of Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, which seemed an appropriate choice of reading material while tending a dying animal.

One eye open

I lost a lot of sleep these past few weeks sitting up with Bunny this way; last night, with no Bunny to fret over, I crawled right back into bed after taking Melony out. But I don’t regret the hours I spent petting Bunny in my lap while I read, wept, and prayed for just a little while longer. For the past few weeks, these midnight vigils spent cross-legged in my kitchen were my spiritual practice, the time I took to contemplate face-to-face the inevitable predicaments of old age, sickness, and death.

Bunny snuggles

Bunny was 17 years old when she died, and she had been remarkably healthy during that time: as so often happens with old pets and old people alike, Bunny was healthy until she wasn’t. And until the very end, Bunny retained her essential sweetness, finding the energy to climb into my lap as soon as I’d settled on the floor, wanting nothing more than to be petted even when so many other physical discomforts threatened to overcome her.

Bunny keeps warm

During these late-night vigils, presumably influenced by Anne Lamott and her stories of spiritual seeking, I came to a heart-felt conclusion. God isn’t, I think, a bearded man on a throne but a being who sits cross-legged in the heavens, weeping and praying over the small, suffering world she holds tenderly in her lap.

Head to head

There’s a scene in the movie Stranger Than Fiction that chokes me up no matter how many times I see it. Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an IRS agent whose boring existence is turned upside down when he discovers his life is being narrated by best-selling author Karen Eiffel, played to perfection by Emma Thompson. Because Eiffel lets Crick read the manuscript of his (doomed) life, Crick knows exactly how his story ends: he’ll die on his way to work, jumping in front of a bus to save the life of a young boy.

Meshed

The scene that inevitably gets me teary eyed shows Crick enjoying his last night on earth. Instead of sharing his ominous knowledge of what will happen the next day, Crick enjoys an otherwise ordinary night eating dinner and watching TV with his girlfriend, Ana Pascal (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal). Instead of causing Pascal to worry about the inevitable, Crick quietly savors the simple pleasures he learned to appreciate only after he learned his days are numbered.

Trio

This morning I made a euthanasia appointment for Groucho the cat: tomorrow morning, J and I will hold Groucho in our lap while our vet puts him quietly to sleep. Monday’s trip to the vet didn’t reveal anything clearly treatable, and Groucho continues to lose weight at an alarming rate, his bones jutting this way and that out of his thinning fur. Like Harold Crick, J and I know how Groucho’s story ends, and we see no need to delay the inevitable.

Brunette

Tonight is Groucho’s last night on earth, and I’ll follow our usual Tuesday routine, cleaning his and Nina’s litter box and then sitting on the loveseat to give Groucho his daily petting and head-scratches. Groucho has learned to jump onto my lap after I’ve cleaned his litter box, but he won’t know why tonight I’ll be weeping. Instead, he’ll purr under my caresses as he always does, without the burden of knowing what tomorrow brings.

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