Caring for my dad has been much more difficult recently because we’ve been facing some of the same emotional issues with our animals.
Last month, my spouse and I lost, to death, a cat we’d rescued only a year and a half earlier. Suzume had been only a day or two from death when our daughter saw her in our yard; she was starving and almost unable to walk. She weighed six pounds then; she was skeletal, her skin like leather in all the many places where fur was missing.
Within a few months she was up to thirteen pounds, a different cat entirely; the sweetest and most purely loving one we have ever owned. For nearly a year she did well, and then began losing weight: It was clear that she was far older than the vet had originally thought. Cared-for, well-fed, and well-loved, she was dying of old age.
We had lost nearly one well-loved cat a year for the previous four years, an experience that was devastating and demoralizing. It had been enough. Even before we took in Suzume, we had decided that Fluffy Cat, the fifteen-year-old survivor of our long-time herd of felines, would be our last animal for the foreseeable future. Suzume was the exception to the rule.
Losing Suzume was hard on us, but it was even harder on Fluffy Cat. She looked for Suzume everywhere, wandering listlessly through the house. In the previous few months, she had begun losing weight, too, and becoming more frail, and now those changes seemed to be accelerating.
Our house was emptier; our home tinged with the sorrow we’d just experienced and the one we knew we were facing. It was difficult to return to the house each day after visiting my dad in his nursing home. Suzume was so palpably gone; Fluffy Cat so clearly in mourning.
Each afternoon, I came back to the house more and more aware of my dad’s own incontrovertible decline. Though my visits to my dad require that I stay focused on this moment, this interaction, this visit, the shadow of what is to come was always inescapable. Losing Suzume and facing Fluffy Cat’s growing fragility made that inevitability that much more real.
A week after Suzume died, I went to a pet supply store to pick up ‘eldercat’ food for Fluffy Cat, and foolishly walked down the wrong side of the store. In the section reserved for the local shelter was a terribly depressed seven-year-old Maine Coon mix who’d just been given up after several placements that hadn’t worked out. Next to her was a huge, loving, but not at all glamorous 2 1/2 year old male who had been languishing at the shelter for five weeks with nary a flicker of interest.
Three days later, we’d brought both of them home. Integrating them into the household has been a ludicrous amount of work. We’ve had to be endlessly patient while the cats work things out amongst themselves, all the while affecting and directing their less-desirable behaviors behind the scenes.
Though they are already affectionate and responsive to us, and even to each other, adapting to these changes is frightening for our rescued cats. They will need months of constant reassurance and attention to be sure that this new place they’ve landed is a safe one.
The house is once again dominated by the needs of cats, and my days are still dominated by my dad’s needs. Was it madness to bring the cats into our home? After all, wasn’t I stretched thin enough already? As with foster children, displaced cats regress; they have problems with social interactions; toilet training (or, in this case, litter training) fails. I do insane amounts of laundry; I’m stressed. But, even so, the atmosphere is our home is completely different now; Alex and Emma bound up and down stairs and beg for cuddles while they tussle and figure out their new world.
Over time, Alex and Emma will adapt as if they’ve always lived here. Our Fluffy Cat has a friend to ease the isolation of her final days. And I simply can’t dwell any longer on what’s been lost and what will be lost; these new creatures won’t allow it. Alex and Emma have a different agenda — they are thriving; they are engaging; they are endearing, and they will not be ignored.
Someday, they, too will die, and the pain of losing them will be terrible. But not now. Now they are part of the daily conspiracy to mitigate the awful truths of life and death. Maybe that’s the real madness: we love, we care, we nurture because those are the only tools we have to fight the pain we cannot escape.
4 replies on “Love and Death”
Alex and Emma! That’s funny.
I’m sorry to hear of the loss of Suzume. I am dreading losing our 15 year old dog, who is my mother’s constant companion. I fear that it will just devastate her. And of course that is just a dim echo of how it will feel for US to lose her.
But for now we’re all here, and it’s good to have furry companions.
Ooops . . . I hadn’t made the Alex and Emma connection. If they’re rescue cats, previously unrelated to each other, am I responsible? Please say not!
Thank you for the kind thought about Suzume. It is so hard to lose them, but so good to have them.
And the echoes . . . that’s the trick, isn’t it? — keeping the echoes in their place.
Funny, I was just leaving a comment on Patty’s post at The Unforgettable Fund blog – it seems like pets’ death and parents’ declines are often connected somehow. Glad you have two new kitties to brighten your life!
Oh, boy — I just read Patty’s post. It’s terrible and wonderful.
Thanks for the comment, Mona. I think I’ll go and scratch some ears now.