The Truth About Love
Updated: Oct 4, 2022
The other day, a friend told me about a bit from the comedian Marc Maron's show. Apparently, Maron is a cat lover and has some thoughts on what it means to share your life with furry beings. I'll paraphrase here in the interest of sensitivity, including my own. Those of us who share our lives with animals know that we will do so for a period of time that will always be insufficient. We welcome them into our hearts, our lives, our homes knowing we will have, for the most part, 10-15 years with them. We welcome them in knowing we will never be prepared when it's time for them to go. We welcome them in knowing that heartbreak is inevitable, and do so having made the decision that the love we will experience along the way is worth the cost of that very specific pain.
As I prepare to say goodbye to my cat MooMoo, I can't help but think back to all of the other animals I have had to lovingly let go of. I remember when my dog Taz developed pancreatic cancer and knowing that he wouldn't survive it. I walked around for hours with a single thought in my head: How did *I* get to be the adult who has to make this decision? I was 35 years old and the gravity of deciding when his life would end was stronger than I ever could have imagined. Since then, I have said goodbye to 5 more dogs (Taz and then Sugar, Rocco, Savannah, Tello and Webster *who was technically only mine for a few hours, though I had loved him for months) and 4 cats (Doublestuff, Trixie *a behavioral euthanasia, that was both heartwrenching and a relief, Josie and Zooby). 10 loved pets, treasured household members who I had to make the most difficult decision for: not if, not how, but when they die.
I've always approached this decision by considering what is best for my pet, and have been able to put my own pain and fear and guilt and desire for just a little more time aside. Somehow, I've always been able to recognize that in these situations, my own suffering is secondary. I signed up to ensure their well-being and 10 times over almost 20 years, I have done exactly that. And I am going to do it again tomorrow. I've known plenty of people who have not approached the inevitable conclusion of their pet's lives this way and though I understand it and have always tried to avoid judgment, if there is one thing I wish more people understood, it's this: delaying your suffering pet's inevitable passing is because of our own ability to accept that death is part of life and that love can't fix everything. Top notch medical care can't fix everything, either. Death is a part of life. Letting go with grace is a gift of kindness, a distinctly unselfish act of love.
I've spent over 2 years nurturing MooMoo's health and building a relationship with her that I never thought was possible. Previously, she had been a bit taciturn and very choosy about how and by whom she received affection. I warned more people than I can count not to pet her for more than 10 seconds because she was prone to lightning fast turns of her head to land a bite. Some of them persisted anyway and got bitten, myself included. This led to a limited relationship in which I pet her with my forearms and not my hands or let her pet me with her head and whiskers rather than the other way around. She was not able to live with other cats, so this entailed some creative cat-swapping with my brother for a while and finding food she would actually eat consistently was almost impossible for years. But she liked her toys, drinking from the faucet in the shower, her heated pod, killing the occasional mouse and me enough that I persisted in trying to make and keep her happy. It wasn't until the summer of 2020 that I realized that, in all likelihood, much of her behavior for the previous 13 years (yes, that long) was due to her actually not feeling all that great.
My husband adopted MooMoo from the PSPCA the day before we met, 15 years ago. Her propensity to pee on places people generally don't like cats to pee showed up almost immediately. This likely explained how a beautiful cat of roughly 2 years old found herself in a shelter in the first place. She was put on meds a few times over the years for the issue, but whenever stress would appear, it would begin anew. We tried everything we could think of over the years, ultimately realizing that a tightly managed little world was best for her. And it worked for a long time, even while it always made me a little sad for her. But as long as she had enough things and a person (me) who made her happy, it was okay. And then, that summer (2020), the peeing was suddenly not an occasional thing, it was a saturation of every absorbent surface available to her.
At that time, I was a mess. The pandemic had created a world full of uncertainty and fear, I had left a job and industry a few months earlier that left me adrift and traumatized in a way I hadn't expected and suddenly, I was consumed with making sure my cat did not die. The thought of losing her at that particular time was not something my brain or heart could handle. Thankfully, it turned out she could be well managed medically. I kept her litter boxes sparkling clean, we found a food she loved and she tolerated many visits to the vet with more ease than I did, frankly. And over these past 2 years, she and I have developed a relationship I never would have thought possible.
We moved in late 2020 (because moving fixes everything, right?) and in this new home, she set up shop in a 3rd floor room with a skylight, where she could follow the sun as it moved through the sky. I set up shop in this same room to do yoga, write, have Zooms with friends attended discussion groups and watch planes go by through that skylight, always wondering where they are going and silently wishing them a safe flight, something I have done for as long as I can remember. (I also decided early on that all planes I see in the sky are going to Paris, a thing I have no real explanation for.) Over this time, she's been my near constant companion, and up until the past week, when I am at my desk, she was either right next to me on the desk I bought just for her, or sitting directly in front of me, blocking the keyboard or the camera. Her presence in many meetings brought laughter and if she wasn't visible immediately, someone would inevitably ask "where's MooMoo?", I would pat the desk and she'd come running to join the meeting.
She had a vet check on Tuesday. We adjusted her meds again because her kidney levels were not good. And by not good, I mean alarming, considering she had just been checked 2 weeks prior. By Wednesday, she was peeing mass quantities of urine just outside her litter box(es). This came on the heels of a week of nighttime visits, rather than sleepovers. For 2 years, she has slept next to my head, purring contentedly, occasionally reaching out for some petting or the strong, intentional kisses to her head she seems to love. She had stopped running down the stairs to greet me when she knew I was on my way up for our time together. She wasn't jumping on her desk for her first round of treats. On Wednesday, I called to have "the" talk with the vet and she thought we might still have a chance with this new adjustment to right things for at least a little while longer. By Thursday, I could no longer ignore my fears. On Friday morning, I sat down to meditate and she let me hold her, purring away, front legs crossed and resting on my arms and when I put her down, I fully saw her goopy eyes, her dusty coat and flying fur. She ignored the treats I put down for her and climbed back into her pod, facing away from me. I called and left a message for the vet, spoke to a vet friend who has been a lifeline through all of this and then Lap of Love, a service that provides in-home euthanasia to schedule an appointment.
It was while I was waiting for someone to assist me in setting up the appointment that I once again had the thought "how am I the one who has to make this decision?" but this time I realized, I wasn't. MooMoo was telling me. My expert friend told me. My husband told me. I knew the vet would agree. My heart knows. When I look at her, I know.
And then. After the phone call, something in me just broke. I felt like MooMoo has been the only thing I have gotten right for the past 2 years. That's not true, but healing her, building this relationship with her, has in many ways, healed at least part of me. Her slow blinks and headbutts. Sitting directly in front of my phone as I try to watch a movie, deciding that though it was annoying, her proximity and purring were more important. The way she would come running when she heard me in the bedroom and the sit by the water bowl, waiting for me to refill it with fresh, clean water. After that phone call, I wondered how much room I have left in my heart for loss. And then I held her and cried into her fur and realized that though I wouldn't wish the pain of the loss of a beloved companion on anyone, I wouldn't trade these past few years for anything. And I remembered that though the pain is sharp now, it is temporary. The deep grief will turn to fond memories, that one day the sun will come through the skylight at a certain angle and I'll remember thinking how nice the warmth must feel on her face with joy rather than sadness.
I have more room for loss. Because I have plenty of room left for love. And you can't have one without the other.
I promised myself I wouldn't get preachy about this, but I feel very strongly about a few things when it comes to sharing our lives with animals. Let them bring joy into your life because you bring it to theirs. There is no spoiling an animal who is 100% dependent on you. It's called love. It's called meeting needs and sometimes exceeding them because it feels freaking good to make another being happy. When it is time, let them go. Do it with grace and do everything you can to make their last days comfortable and as happy as possible. I like to tell my animals stories (I've told MooMoo stories about how I loved when she played with her "kickers", watching her go nuts over catnip and asked her where she is hiding that little stuffed elephant she loved to carry around), give them their favorite foods (MooMoo is getting lots of salmon this weekend) and be with them as much or as little as they want. Don't force yourself on them. Cats, especially, may hide or avoid interaction. That's okay. It's not a reflection on you. Before, but when you know the time is coming, start doing quality of life assessments. This is a great tool for that, created by a friend of mine. And most of all, be with your pet when they pass. I know it's hard. But that time is about them, not us. It's about honoring the trust and the love. It's about giving those 10-15 years of joy and companionship the respect they deserve. It's about our beloved pets, our constant companions knowing that our presence was surrounding them, sending them off, with their needs and not our wants at the forefront of our minds. It's about recognizing, that perhaps, in the loss, our love has never been stronger.