Growing up I was told the “he went to live on a farm” stories whenever I’d come home from school and my beloved cat or my best friend Lady would be no where to be found. I would be comforted with the “she’ll have a much better life on the farm” cliches and told that I’d have to wait a while to replace her with another dog or another cat.
Why can’t parents just tell the truth…”When I was backing up the car I didn’t see her sleeping in the sunny driveway. She’s actually buried on the south lawn next to my flowerbed if you’d like to go pay your respects, or cry, or sit out there a spell and just get used to the fact that you will always outlive your pets until you’re old.”
Only once did my grandmother ever tell me the truth about the death of one of my pets. I had been away at school and was home on spring break. The first *person* I looked for was my Irish Setter, Red. Finally after searching everywhere I asked where he was. She gave me the most bitter expression and told me, in a tone of voice that was pure accusation “Red mourned you when you left for school. He waited for you everyday and you never came back. So one morning Dellie watched him walk right out into the road and sit down. He couldn’t get to the dog fast enough. A car hit him. Sent him flying. It took Dellie three hours to go out and pick him up with the wheel barrow and bury him. He was a big dog, you know.” She was angry with me. I was never sure if she was mad because Red died and she blamed me for not taking him with me, or if she was just angry that I left home. I never asked her.
Perhaps there are some things a child is better off not knowing.As a child I was never allowed to view a pet that had passed on. They were whisked away never to be seen again, except for my turtle Puffin. I got Puffin as a birthday gift when I was six years old. He had one of those plastic turtle dishes with the raised center and the plastic palm tree. He was the size of a silver dollar and I played with him constantly. I loved to carry him in my pockets which resulted in being practically strip searched before leaving for school in the mornings. I wasn’t allowed to take him out of the house. I feared he’d be lonely while I was away so one Sunday morning before leaving for church I made some crude Play-dough *friends* to spend the day with him and I placed several of them in the water that surrounded his palm tree island in his turtle bowl. I remember thinking I was very clever. It was the first time that I didn’t fret about leaving him at home.
After church we went to my Aunt Doodle’s house for brunch. Then we stopped to picked up my grandmother’s sister who was coming to spend the week with us in the country. It was late when we finally arrived home and I made a beeline from the car right to Puffin’s bowl.
And there he was. He was sitting under that plastic palm tree. His head and his tiny legs were out, but his head looked odd. His nose was pointed straight up, like he was sniffing the air, but his cheeks were sunken in and there was no color in his face at all. I tapped his shell and he didn’t move. The friends I had left for him were melted and soggy and the water in his dish was a colorful soup. My Aunt Lois had followed me and she stood watching as I picked him up. “I think Puffin might be dead honey.” Dead? What’s that mean? Surely he’s just not feeling well, I thought. She bent down and took Puffin from me. “Yes, he’s gone sweetie. I’m sorry.” Then she looked in his bowl and realized how he had died. I’ll never forget how kind she was when she explained to me that the salt in the Play-dough had dehydrated Puffin. I cried. I felt horrible. I had killed my own turtle. How do you tell a six year old that their precious pet died because she loved him too much? How do you wipe away that kind of guilt? But she knew how. She told me that Puffin knew I had meant well and she was sure he didn’t blame me at all. He just couldn’t hold on long enough for me to get home and clean his bowl. “Next time”, she told me, “you’ll do better.”
There is one thing I can remember, no matter how much of everything else I forget, and that’s the name of every pet I’ve ever had. Except fish, and I can only remember one of them vividly because he was a white goldfish named Casper. But each furry, scaly or feathered creature I have shared my life with since Puffin has lived in grand style and has been cared for in the best ways.
Bebe was the first pet that grabbed my heart and held on. I still miss her. If I used only one word to describe her it would be LOVE. She had so much love in her and it was an undying, nonjudgmental, all encompassing love. There was never a time when she ran from me or rebuffed me. She was never aloof, or skittish, or pissy. She came running when I called her name and she liked being around me. I could hold her and sing to her or I could be sad and she’d cuddle up and purr to me. We shared a love for some of the same things. Angel food cake, fuzzy slippers…my husband.
If my husband was in the room I was most definitely second best, but I didn’t mind. They had a deeper bond. She was born at his feet in the middle of the night. He had Bebe literally since her birth. She came to live with us when we first moved away from the beach and she traveled across the country with us as we moved for his job.
She was all gray with big green eyes and she was chubby. For a feline she was extremely calm. I could take her anywhere with me. I especially liked taking her to Petsmart. I never had to put her in a carrier because no matter what happened she didn’t panic and she was smart enough to know that I was her best protection so rather than claw me to get away she would snuggle into my armpit if she got scared. At Petsmart she would ride in child seat of the shopping cart. Dogs would sniff her and if they got too nosy she just hissed at them. At the checkout she always stepped onto the counter and allowed the cashier to rub her back. We also took her with us on trips.
Bebe had been vomiting and suffering from constipation for some time before the vet finally announced she was in the final stages of renal failure. This changed my life. Logically I knew she was dying, but illogically I wanted to save her. The best I could do was make her comfortable.
For two years I refused as much out of town work as I could. I learned how to do subcutaneous IVs so the constant trips to the vet could stop. She was so patient with me as I fumbled around with the needles and IV bags. She never made it hard for me to take care of her. If she got really sick and the vet wanted to keep her overnight to continue a treatment in the morning I would drive out that afternoon before they closed to pick her up because I didn’t want her to spend the night in a crate all alone. Those nights when her paw was swollen and wrapped tight with a heparin well still in place, she slept under the covers in my arms. She was scared and and in pain and I was a comfort.
When my husband and I did travel we hired a pet sitter that was trained as a vet tech to take care of her. When we returned our favorite ritual was something we called Group Hug. We would scoop Bebe up and the three of us would hug. Sometimes she would make the pissy meow and I’m sure it was a complaint that we had been away too long. Mostly she just purred loudly.
As her illness progressed so did her desire to be close to us. She had always slept with us every night usually in between us or at our feet. Now it seemed she wanted to be closer. She started climbing onto my husband’s pillow and cuddling in his hair. He was not fond of this and he would move her. One night she had been particularly active and I had woken up and started watching her. She was trying her best to be quiet and was creeping along the bed rail towards his head. He was fast asleep. She gingerly put one paw and then another on his pillow until she was all the way up. She settled down and curled around his head. I smiled. Mission accomplished. She too must have felt that hurdle jumped because she started to purr very loud, which woke him up. He made a move to remove her and I touched his arm. “Let her stay. She’s so happy to be there.” And so he did.
The day we knew she was finally succumbing to her illness she had not gotten out of bed. She stopped eating the night before. We called the vet and the doctor was sure she’d die in her sleep, but we made arrangements to come in with her the next day anyway. Bebe was restless all night. She finally settled down on my husband’s pillow for her last night with us.
The next morning we said goodbye to our friend. We had to make a hard decision for any pet owner. We decided to have her put to sleep. She was in too much pain.
I don’t know what I would have done without Dr. Percival at the Cat Hospital. She treated us and Bebe with respect and love. She explained the entire process to us, gave us a private room and left us alone with Bebe during the procedure so we could say goodbye to her. We didn’t want to just drop her off and say “Do it”, though we could have. We wanted her to know we were with her. We didn’t want her to be scared to let go. And trust me, a pet knows.
There are two injections. The first one relaxes the animal. The second one is lethal. We stayed with Bebe through the first injection. She was fully aware that we were with her. We held her in our last Group Hug. We were devastated. Even though we had been preparing ourselves for this moment for two years, you’re just never prepared when it actually happens.
Bebe opened the door for me to learn a new way to mourn. So many of our friends knew her and I didn’t want to just move on and replace her. I could cry about her at the drop of a hat. To me she was a tiny person. A sentient being. She was our friend. I wanted to honor the contribution she made to our lives and to our happiness for so many years.
But how do you do that? When you have a furry creature that defines nothing but love in your life…how do you, the flawed and cynical human, live up to this? How do we even come close? I think the world would be a much better place if we all just tried.
With the loving help of friends we organized a party to honor Bebe. I asked everyone to bring gifts and donations for the local animal shelter. I sent out a list of things that were desperately needed. Our friends did not let us down. There were bags of food, litter, pet crates, toys, blankets, flea and tick treatments, etc. Everyone had a story to tell that night of their own pets and we dined and drank and we remembered a cat that made everyone smile and some of us laugh. The shelter sent us a photograph of the donated goods with the entire staff of the shelter present. They called it Bebe’s Legacy. The lesson Bebe taught me was how to give back.
When her ashes were ready to be picked up I was prepared with a memory box. Somehow scattering her in Texas just didn’t seem right to me. I packed her favorite toys and all of the cards we had received into the box with her urn. I learned to remember her rather than to just mourn her loss.
Bebe’s memory box traveled back across the country in the car with me when we moved back to the beach last year. She had made the full circle. We brought Bebe back home. I still can’t let her go just yet so her urn still sits nestled in the box with her things. Perhaps the next lesson Bebe has in store for me is how to finally let her go.
Bebe died July 12, 2006. She was 18 years old. I miss her.
If you’re reading this and you’re in the throes of losing a pet remember to take your time. Really be with them for their final days. There’s no shame in loving them, there’s no shame in crying. Celebrate their life. Have a party, give something back and remember them. In many ways you’ll learn more about yourself through their eyes than you’ll ever learn from anyone else.
My sister inlaw has a sign posted at her front door about dogs. I think I’ll close with that, though re-worded a tad to include all creatures…
“Be the kind of person your pet thinks you are.”
Now that’s something to aspire to….
This Post is dedicated to the memory of our dear Sophie (pictured above). She lost her battle with cancer this past year and my sister-in-law misses her everyday. We miss her too.
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