Days before we won ourselves a shiny new President, my best friend died of liver cancer. Simone was my feline compadre for the past eight years. Of all my pets, we were the most alike - loving but independent, adventurous but domesticated, vain but sloppy. Our favorite hobbies? Eating, sleeping and swearing. Though pets never last as long as we'd like - bad design, if you ask me - her death brought home a reality: life is short. My fall 2009 moving plans are now scheduled for spring.
Truth is, the great majority of us have experienced this painful loss. Fresh data from the American Pet Product Association states that there are approximately 74.8 million owned dogs in the US and approximately 88.3 million owned cats. That's about 73 percent of all US households. If you fold in birds, fish, rodents and reptiles the numbers climb. And chances are, unless your pet is Stanley the Tortoise, that pet is going to die before you do ... which sucks big fat hairballs.
It's amazing how much 'space' a ball of fluff can take up in your house, your life and your heart. Working from home, Simone was a big part of my daily routine and her napping basket took up most of my desk. For years now, I have not needed an alarm clock. In fact, the first sign of her health trouble came when she allowed me to sleep through two early-morning meetings.
The nameless black kitten was feral and beyond feisty when I picked her up on New Year's Day 2001 - the first day of a new century. She'd been found on the streets of Alameda, badly wounded from a run-in with a family of raccoons. Her keepers had tried to place the ferocious kitten in several homes but it never worked out - she liked to conquer all living things which made new relations a bit strained.
When I loaded her into my truck, I was given a nervous but encouraging send-off, "She might still be too wild but um, let us know how it turns out. You can always bring her back." Much as my own parents did on the day I was adopted, I made it very clear: "You don't understand, I'm taking her HOME."
I promptly named her after another beautiful and defiant black being that I loved - the late, great Nina Simone - and that was that. My hands and arms got scratched up a lot that first year (she'd 'nurse' on me quite a bit too) but soon she was fat, purring and by all appearances, a normal housecat.
Though together we were a cliché (a single woman and her cat), I preferred to think of us as buddy/roomies, one human and one not. Technically, I was taller and could work the can opener but it was an equal relationship and she taught me a lot about love. I recall coming home from yet another long work trip and she was anxious to reconnect. I lay down on my bed and she stuck her face in mine. Exhausted, I pushed her away and ... SWIPE! I received a clean cut across the face and ... wow! Blood! The face, no less! She'd never done that before.
At first we just glared at one another, both really pissed off. Her look was immovable, with her famously penetrating yellow eyes, she clearly conveyed her message: 'How DARE you disappear for a week and not give me a loving return! I am not to be overlooked or neglected.'
It took me about 30 seconds before I realized she was 100 percent right and I had been the asshole. After that, we had a coming home ritual. I would plop down the luggage, take the keys out of the door and hug and squeeze her until she was bored with me - about one minute. That's all she was asking for and not an outlandish request. This is Relationship 101 stuff, right? (Yes, I'm behind in such matters.)
Since her passing, I've noticed that animal love brings out the best in humans. Amazingly, I have received several sympathy cards (including one in crayon from an eight-year-old), emails, phone calls, Facebook messages, texts and weepy-faced IMs expressing sadness and concern.
Telling my neighbor, Tim, and watching his face register the news, I was shocked to note actual pain in his face. I heard from a friend I hadn't communicated with in years who told me that Simone was one of his 'top 10 favorite cats of all time.' I talked to my cat-loving ex for an hour about it and my cigar-chomping dad gave a brief but fitting eulogy by proclaiming her a "damn good cat." Even my pet sitter, who is in the business of watching animals come and go said, "This one hurts."
All this in addition to the amazing bedside manner displayed by the vets and vet techs who did their best to save her and, in the case of Dr. Erin Miller, sat with me crying as I held her lifeless furry body. The people that dedicate their lives to the healthcare of animals - and sometimes the emotional care of humans - my hat goes off to 'em.
Adult human relationships are often fraught with complications, miscommunications and insecurities. With an animal, it's much, much simpler. Usually, it's just pure-hearted companionship and unconditional love - period. A world without that kind of love is not a world I want to live in. Thanks to Simone, I think I'm finally ready for the next step in relationships.
Come spring, I'm going to get a dog.
As you might guess, there are endless brilliant and sad posts about the loss of a pet but here are a few that really hit home. One of my favorite bloggers, Fang Bastardson, laments the recent loss of his canine pal, Woody, over at Fang's Forum:
"What’s ironic is that, for the past 12 years, whenever I was this emotionally wrecked, Woody was the one who was always there. And I mean, right there. Underfoot. Standing on his hind legs, licking my face. Pulling at my jeans or bringing me a toy, dropping it repeatedly on my lap. The Missus calls him my 'emotional barometer,' and it was so true. Even if we were in totally different parts of the house, if my blood pressure went up, Woody appeared. And often as not, put himself in the way of danger, because sometimes when I was upset, I didn’t want to be comforted. But that never stopped Woody. He was fucking fearless."
"Bringing her home not only gave her and I another night together, but reinforced for me that putting her to sleep was the right decision. Seeing her useless limbs unable to support her as I held her up to pee reminded me of the vibrant little dog she used to be, and never would be again."
Liz Gumbinner over at Mom 101 somehow managed to write several sad but mostly funny posts about the death of her cat, Desdemona. (Check out the comments section too, lots of great tips in there about how to talk to kids about death.) An excerpt of a conversation with her daughter, Thalia:
"So okay Thalia, Desi died. She was too sick to get better. She was really old and really sick and her body just couldn't work any more sort of like water in a cup and wait, that's not right but um...but she can still live in our hearts so anyway it's not just that she was old because old is relative. I mean, tortoises can live 100 years and a tortoise - do you know what a tortoise is? Like a turtle."
In conclusion, if you have a pet - no matter how dirty, stinky or mean they might be - go give 'em some love. Right. Now.
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