The menagerie


Tough guy stare and double paws

A little over a week ago, J and I adopted a new cat. “Magic” came into the shelter raggedy, scrawny, and sick, with bad teeth and uncontrolled diabetes. After starting regular insulin injections and having all but three of his teeth extracted, Magic was ready to come home. Since we often re-name cats we’ve adopted (and since we’re Celtics fans who didn’t want any of our pets to be named after a legendary Laker), we’re calling the new guy Larry.

Welcome home, Larry

It’s been just over a month since we put our cat Rocco to sleep after a two-year battle with small cell lymphoma, and it was Rocco’s passing that made room for us to adopt Larry. Although one pet can’t fully replace another, J and I view our house as a refuge for hard-to-place pets: when one dies, that frees up a spot for another needy creature. I’ve come to see the departed pet as a kind of sponsor for the new guy or gal who steps into their furry footprints. This is how Yanny followed Gumbo, Toivo followed Cassie, and George and Gracie followed Bunny.

Welcome home, Larry

If you’ve lived with a lot of pets, over time you start to see similarities between them. Hillary looks so much like Bunny, we often call her that by mistake, and lovable lug Luigi looks and acts a bit like Snowflake, who came (and passed away) before him. When we first adopted Cassie, I was disconcerted to realize her whine sounded exactly like Reggie’s, even though she looked nothing like him. Over time, Cassie’s whine became her own, and I no longer remember what Reggie sounded like.

Larry looking grumpy

But here’s the tricky thing: all those other pets came into our lives months if not years after their lookalikes had left us, calling to mind a pet whose memory was already starting to fade. But the eerie thing about Larry, on the other hand, is that he looks and even acts nearly identical to Rocco. The resemblance is so uncanny, it feels like we brought home a younger, healthier version of the cat we just recently lost.

The soon-to-be new guy

When we first visited Larry at the shelter, I immediately noticed how his floppy posture and long, every-which-way black fur looked just like Rocco’s, and once we brought him home, the resemblance became even more obvious. When we walk into the kitchen, there is Rocco–I mean Larry–lounging under foot. When I load or unload the dishwasher, there is Rocco–I mean Larry–trying to crawl in. And whenever one of us opens a bedroom or closet door, Rocco–I mean Larry–immediately appears and tries to dart into whatever space is supposed to be cat-free, just as he always did.

Larry meets Hillary, Luigi, and George

Seeing how quickly and even seamlessly Larry has acclimated himself to our household, I think of the various sayings that refer to constancy in the face of change. The Queen is dead; long live the Queen. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Rocco wasn’t exactly the boss of our household, but he did have a larger-than-life presence. Rocco’s been gone for just over a month, and just over a week ago he came back to us in a slightly updated version and with a new name.

Rocco in window

On Friday night, J and I put Rocco the cat to sleep after a two-year battle with small cell lymphoma. We’d lost our cat Groucho to the same disease in November, 2015, so we were familiar with the typical progression: weight loss leading to diagnosis, sudden improvement and weight gain with chemotherapy, then a gradual and irreversible decline when the drugs stop working. In our experience, feline chemotherapy works very well until it suddenly doesn’t.

Rocco resting

Although Rocco had been gradually losing weight for the past few months, until Friday he hadn’t acted sick. All through the summer, he was still eating, interacting with our other cats, and pestering for attention. But on Friday, Rocco was lethargic and aloof, and when he finally defecated on himself and didn’t even try to clean himself, we knew his spirit had given up before his body had.

Rocco reads

This is the third pet we’ve euthanized this year: we put Cassie the dog to sleep on New Year’s Day, before the start of spring semester, and we euthanized Gumbo the cat at the end of April, as the semester was ending. I don’t know why so many of our pets die at the beginning or end of my academic semesters or why their final throes so often happen on nights and weekends, when only emergency vets are on duty. As another fresh-faced vet–we never seem to see the same one twice–prepped Rocco for the procedure, she asked if we’d ever been present for a euthanasia. I had to stop myself from saying, “We’ve probably been present for more pet deaths than you have.”

Rocco on window sill

The passing of a pet is an emotional and even spiritual experience: a journey to the border between the Here and the Hereafter. Watching a pet slip away at the quiet push of a plunger makes you realize how tenuous and ephemeral this mortal life is, and the quiet absence you face when you get home reminds you of how outsize even the smallest creature’s soul can be.

This is no longer a litter box. #catsofinstagram #roccothecat

Rocco was the last remaining pet that J had when I first met him in 2007: the end of an era. When I met J and did not (due to allergies) think myself a cat person, it was Rocco who helped win me over.

Anyone who thinks cats don’t have personalities should have met Rocco, who was positively dog-like in his gregarious, goofy, and (yes) dogged demeanor. Rocco was not a shy or retiring creature; like a dog, Rocco would come right up to anyone who entered the house, walking on bowed legs that made him look like a hockey goalie in leg pads. When Rocco reached you, he’d collapse in a furry heap right under your feet, forcing you to either pet or push him away. One of the final signs that Rocco was not long for this world, in fact, was his complete indifference when I dried the dishes on Friday afternoon. Healthy Rocco would have pestered me by rubbing my legs, flopping at my feet, or trying to climb into the dishwasher, curious.

Rocco helps unload the dishwasher

People who have never euthanized a pet sometimes wonder how you will know it’s time, but in my experience it it always abundantly clear when an animal is ready to die. If you know how your pet usually acts–if you know their most basic and obvious joys–you will notice when they no longer are interested in those things. If you listen deeply to your pet, you can’t fail to notice when their spirit leaves and it is time for you to help their body follow. Throughout his life, Rocco pushed and pestered for affection, and on Friday night we gave him the last dose of love he needed to cross to the other shore.

Bobbi in the window

Last week, our credit card company contacted us, suggesting our card had been compromised. There were no unauthorized charges on the account, but apparently there had been a breach at a business where we had used the card, so the company cancelled our cards and sent us replacements just to be safe.

Where's breakfast? #catsofinstagram #hillarythecat #SNELovesPets

I’ve often thought my credit card account must be incredibly boring to monitor for fraud, as I typically go to the same places again and again, often on predictable days and at predictable times. I go grocery shopping at the same store every Friday afternoon, for instance, and I typically stop for gas on the way. During the summer when I’m not teaching, J and I frequently go to lunch at a handful of places, always at the same time. I frequently buy things on Amazon, I take one or another pet to the vet every few weeks, and I occasionally buy shoes on Zappos. Any charge outside those predictable parameters was Probably Not Me.

In Frankie-speak, this translates as "Please scratch my head, but don't you dare touch my belly."

Spending habits aside, J and I are predictable by nature: I’ve always thrived on routine, and recent circumstances have only deepened that already-existing rut. Tending a houseful of pets, for instance, is good reason for regularity. Dogs in particular thrive on routine, and we’ve trained ours to rely upon a religious schedule of meals, walks, and exercise times that is almost monastic in its regularity: a domestic liturgy of the hours.

Bobbi chills out. #catsofinstagram #bobbithecat

Having three diabetic cats–our Insulin Girls–only underscores the need for predictability. Whatever else might be happening on any given day, J and I know that one of us has to be at home to give Bobbi, Hillary, and Frankie their meals and twice-daily insulin injections at the proper time. This routine has become so regular, the Insulin Girls are trained to follow me into the kitchen when I sing “Breakfast” or “Dinner” while our non-diabetic cats stand back, knowing they get second-dibs at mealtime.

She knows she's queen. #catsofinstagram #hillarythecat #SNELovesPets

When we adopted Hillary, the shelter said her previous home was chaotic, with a constant coming and going of roommates who were never quite certain whose responsibility it was to feed and give her insulin, or when. An erratic meal and medication schedule is disastrous for a diabetic of any species, and Hillary, Bobbi, and Frankie have all thrived under the steady routine of our household.

Bobbi in morning light

Last week, J and I rented The Incredibles, as we wanted to watch it again before seeing its sequel sometime this week, when J has time off from work. After revisiting the animated adventures of Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, Violet, Flash, and Jack-Jack, I announced to J that we too are superheroes. “We’re The Predictables!” I declared. “Our super power is extreme punctuality.” J laughed and ran with the joke. “Our uniform is matching T-shirts with Red Sox hats…and no capes!”

It's been just over a year since we adopted Frankie. She has one eye and twice the attitude. #catsofinstagram #frankiethecat #oneeyedcat #SNELovesPets

Imagining oneself as a superhero is fun, but being the king and queen of dependability has its downsides, too. J and I can’t (and don’t) drop everything for spontaneous social events; if we want to be away from home for an evening, we have to gradually adjust both the Insulin Girls’ medication schedule and the dog’s exercise routine accordingly. Because of our pets’ special needs, it’s been years since J and I have traveled together. Like farmers who can’t leave the livestock for long, we can’t trust the household to just anyone, so we take turns going places so there is always one of us here tending the pets.

You know you want to pet me. #catsofinstagram #hillarythecat #SNELovesPets

What J and I lose in spontaneity, however, we make up for in reliability. There is a great security in routine, as any monk would tell you; when Thomas Merton entered the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, for example, he described himself as taking shelter in “the four walls of my new freedom.” J and I lead a fairly boring life, but we see more of the outside world than a cloistered monk does. We’ll go see Incredibles 2 at a movie theatre as planned this week; we’ll just make sure to go to a daytime showing so we’re back home in time for the Insulin Girls’ dinner.

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.

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