Thursday, December 29, 2011

Earlier this year—just a few months ago, actually—I did a calculation regarding my aging mother, my very old dog, Kate, and my old cat, Memphis. Accounting for human years, dog years, and cat years, they were all in their late 80s. There is grief, and there is anticipatory grief, and I experienced some of the latter when I reckoned up the numbers.

I should rush to point out the problems with an implication that the grief over the loss a pet can be equated to the loss of one’s mother, or any person close to us. Rather, I will write that the calculation had me thinking about grief when it occurs in clusters.

I’m not going to write here about my mother, who died in September. I’ve done that already, elsewhere and am glad I did. Instead, I want to write about the love of pets. My love of pets.

(Careful readers of Right Hand Pointing, the online journal I founded and have edited for nearly 8 years, will recall (and be amused) that I specifically exclude writings about one’s pets in the submission guidelines. Fate, and Cortney Bledsoe have intersected to hand me a little punishment for that callousness.)

We decided to have Kate euthanized in November. She was old and suffering and was helped in life and into death by her fine veterinarian. Sad, indeed, but, you know, a long life, etc.

I’m writing this at 3:00 a.m. as Christmas approaches, awake because of a dose of night air and adrenaline. Here’s the story. Memphis, the cat, is 17. She’s got renal insufficiency. Lately she’s been walking around the house, crying loudly and in an unfamiliar way. It’s the sound I can only associate with a feline in heat, and I’m confident that she’s not in heat. I took her to the vet today and he assured me he could find nothing to lead him to believe that she is in pain. Her crying, he said, was probably the result of a touch of cat dementia, maybe some transient discomfort. Otherwise, he said, apart from the kidney problems, she appears in decent shape for an old cat. I drove her home and let her out of the car to spend a little time in the unseasonable warm we had today.

We have family with us for the holiday and they brought their dog Louise. Great dog. Louise had just slipped out of the house through an unlatched door and we didn’t realize she was in the yard. She went after Memphis, as her species is prone to do, and it was a terrifying thing to see. I was sure Louise was killing Memphis. My daughter and I finally broke up the fight. Memphis looked completely dazed and traumatized. I brought her in and put her under observation. When she seemed settled down and unhurt, I let her out to pee in the yard. She never leaves the yard. Hours later, she was missing. I walked the neighborhood before bedtime with a flashlight.

At 2:30 a.m. I woke. Still, she was not on the porch. Unheard of. I got dressed, backed my car out of the driveway and searched the neighborhood. I had a bad feeling. I feared she had died from internal injuries or that, traumatized, she had run away. As Christmas approaches in a few days, I feared we would all be anxious and grieving. I felt guilty for not keeping her away from the dog. For not returning her immediately to the vet. For letting her outside after the fight and then again, later, to pee.

The climax of the story is anticlimactic. When I pulled up in the driveway, feeling miserable, there she was, petitioning for reentry. I scooped her up and I thought about our love for pets. Actually, what I thought was "I love this cat."

A few years ago I was in Boston visiting Harvard and attended a Mark Doty reading at the Harvard Bookstore. It was from Dog Years, his wonderful book about the dogs that were his companions during the loss of his lover to HIV/AIDS. During the Q&A a man said, “Here’s what I don’t understand about you dog people, or you cat people, either. You get the pet. You develop this bond. The pet lives a relatively short life and dies. You go through this grief. And then, what do you do? You get another pet and go through it all again.”

We all chuckled, but not Mark Doty. He thought for about two seconds and said, “The agreement to participate in this life is a pact with grief. Isn’t it?”

My mother’s body lies in Grant County, Arkansas. Kate’s ashes are—I don’t know where they are, actually. Memphis sits with me on the couch, interfering with my ability to operate the computer mouse by nuzzling my mouse hand, looking for me to scratch her chin. In nine days, New Year’s Day.

* * *

Dale Wisely is the founding editor of Right Hand Pointing and also co-founded and co-edits White Knuckle Press (digital chapbooks of prose poems, and the new journal (topical poetry, Day job: He has been a clinical psychologist for 30 years and currently serves as Director of Student Services at Mountain Brook Schools in Alabama.


Anonymous said...

Careful readers of Right Hand Pointing, the online journal I founded and have edited for nearly 8 years, will recall (and be amused) that I specifically exclude writings about one’s pets in the submission guidelines.

I mustn't have read your guidelines well enough, since I submitted a story ("After Gilda") about, among other things, a pet. But you mustn't have read the story well enough, since you published it (in Issue 34). There must be a lesson there.

I'm right now suffering anticipatory grief over my cat Lucy, 17, who has been on death's door four times and is more active now than ever. After reading your article I gave her yet another anticipatory hug, as I do frequently every day. I think she wants me to knock it off and let her sleep. Except when she, like your Memphis, interferes with my typing by settling on the arm of my office chair and petting me, at which time she also wants her chin (and neck) scratched, and body stroked. But not her tail. Never her tail. I only get a couple of brief pets of her tail a day before she loses patience with me.

I also had a dog come to stay with us (a long story, and a long time ago) and I also felt the guilt when he collided with my cats. The dog ended up in a no-kill shelter that night, for the bargain price of $100 (they told me two weeks later he'd been given to a rural farm family where he'd have plenty of room to run off his energy. I worked hard at believing this was true). All cats involved (including Gilda) lived for years thereafter. I'm not sure if they ever forgave me, but I think so. Maybe that's the difference between people and animals.

My sincere condolences on the loss of your mother.And thank you for this lovely piece, it meant a lot to me.

F. John Sharp said...

As fiction editor of issue 34 (and many others) I can assure you that there was hell to pay for letting that cat slip into a story. In my defense, it wasn't really about the cat. Or the penis.