Treading Water.

I am a firm believer that if you’ve never allowed yourself to fall stupidly in love with an animal friend, there may be something wrong with you. You may have missed out on a crucial phase in our development as human beings. The phase where we begin to understand not only the responsibility of caring for a creature who intimately depends on us for their basic needs, but the satisfaction of communicating with that creature on a level beyond those basics. If you haven’t let yourself feel the vulnerability required to listen to and share your self with an animal who isn’t able to actually speak your native language…I think you haven’t tapped into your soul’s true potential. And you are missing out.* 
I’m not saying it has to be a furry friend. Yes, I’m partial to dogs and cats, donkeys and other pelt-covered creatures. But for some (all you allergy sufferers out there), reptiles, fish, birds and the occasional tarantula can teach amazing lessons as well. They teach us humility, first of all, and ideally some perspective. It’s hard to feel too full of yourself after a fantastic day at work when you come home to find your shitzu had diarrhea all over your apartment and you have to scrub it up before it stains the carpet. By the same token, it’s hard to be too depressed about a bad conversation with your ex-whatever when you come home and your 18-pound Himalayan perches in your lap and swaths your face with sandpaper kitty kisses. 
We humans put a great deal of pressure on our animal companions. We expect them to read our minds when we barely know what’s going on there ourselves. We want them to trust us when we often take shortcuts in the care they require. We NEED them to believe in us even when we can’t find a way to believe in ourselves. We rely on them to know instinctively when we’ve had a great day and want to celebrate, and when we’ve had a horrible day and want to curl up in a ball and cry. And we hope they’ll somehow find a way to make it all better. All that emotional requirement is a lot to ask of creatures who can’t open a door to get access to their own toilet. They often bear the brunt of our insecurities and frustrations. They get yelled at when they make a mess. They go hungry when we’re too busy or distracted to give them food. They get punished for simply following their instincts and being scared, distressed, or having a tummy ache. If our animal friends were children, Family Services would have us all on speed dial. 
Why is it like this? Why are we so obtuse? I think when we decided to develop our big giant brains and the ability to walk upright we sacrificed a bit (or in some cases, all) of our ability to hear what animals say to us in their own languages. And certainly, with all the incredible distractions surrounding us in the last many decades…it’s not only hard hear them, but to even slow down and pay attention. I do believe most of us do our best, and certainly breed and species information is easier to access now than ever before. I believe most of us make a concerted effort to be good humans to our animals, and that may be why Mother Nature hasn’t smote us Starship Troopers-style.** But is it enough? Do we ever give them as much as we expect in return? 
It’s not easy, but there are great equalizers of effort. For all we ask of them, I believe they hope for just a few things in return. Appropriate shelter. Exercise and stimuli. The wisdom to help them age gracefully. Ultimately, as our animal roommates get sick or grow old, the responsibility falls to us to give them an out that is dignified. This may be the hardest part of our arrangement with our non-human family members, but…it’s our responsibility all the same. 
In all candor, this is on my mind because Husband and I had to face these decisions this month. Our feisty, cantankerous, elderly, well-traveled and much-loved kitty, Sofie, had started to exhibit some signs that her kidney disease was advancing beyond treatable. Her spinal arthritis was causing her more discomfort than not. We went to visit her veterinarian (the incomparable Dr. Barbara Royal at Royal Treatment Veterinary Center here in Chicago. We discussed some relatively low-key treatments that might make immediate improvements at a minimum amount of stress to Sofie. We agreed to give it a week to see if Sofie responded. Husband and I did as Dr. Royal advised. I have to say…Sofie was a trooper. She was very gung-ho for a couple days. And then she just lost interest in being a good sport. I think I can pinpoint the exact moment when she decided she’d had all the good intentions she could stand, and she didn’t want to stand anymore. So, we continued as gently as we could for a few more days, not pushing her out of her comfort zone. We spent as much time as we could giving her our laps and providing her some favorite treats. We did our very best to spoil her very rotten. 
But our animal friends can’t stay with us forever. Maybe their lives are necessarily shorter because they have to spend so much of their energy on being everything we need them to be? As a result, their life expectancies are not like those of most humans. Unless your family pet happens to be a Galapagos Land Tortoise or American Box Turtle. Or a Carp. So a time comes when…even if they don’t get hurt in accidents or animal fisticuffs…we have to say it’s time for them to go on without us. There comes a time when we can’t make them stay simply because we know we’ll miss them horribly when they’re gone. And that time sucks. 
We sat in Dr. Royal’s examination room this past Saturday morning and told Sofie she was going to Kitty Afterlife, where she’d have constant access to her very own radiator and a sunny windowsill that she’d be able to leap up into with no pain at all. We thanked her for tolerating our idiot human efforts to interpret her moods, and for those times we accidentally tripped over her in the dark (she was black as tar, and stealthy as a ninja, so…I secretly think she stepped in front of us to scare us and cement our co-dependent guilt complexes). She lay in Husband’s lap and purred. He danced around the exam room with her. I held her paws and gave her wee nose two dozen kisses before Dr. Royal brought in the anesthesia cocktail. Sofie went to sleep one last time and I don’t regret our decision to end her discomfort one bit. I do regret that I didn’t hold onto her longer after. I regret I didn’t sit there and breath in her sweet black fur for another four hours, and Dr. Royal probably would have let me, but…anyone who’s lost anybody knows treading water in heartache isn’t always the right thing to do. 
Now Husband and I stumble around the apartment, both of us feeling the stifling absence of a little furry person who only weighed 5.2 pounds on the morning she died. Our upstairs neighbor has a cat and every time the cat jumps off the bed Husband and I jerk awake, thinking Sofie’s getting ready to stroll into the bedroom, meowing at us to roll over, already! She wants to lay on one of our stomachs! 
I guess that’ll fade after a time, but right now I miss her so badly I feel queasy. Maybe if I hadn’t fallen so far in love with her I wouldn’t hurt this much now. She took all our expectations and requirements and needy neediness and bore the weight of it like a rhinoceros. She got moved back and forth across the country, from one time zone to another and back again. She rolled with the elements of aging and being sick with a grace I will strive to exhibit in human form as my own health shimmies. She was our dear friend, and we can only hope we gave her as much as she gave us. If we hadn’t had the chance to share our lives with her, we would definitely be the ones who missed out. Thank you, Sofie. You made our lives a warmer place, and I am a better human for it. 
Sleepy Sofie at her favorite spot earlier this winter. 
Family Photo, February 2012

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