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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Loss...And Life


Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Image and written content, except quotes.

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened. ” - Anatole France

They come into our lives, small, innocent and utterly helpless.  In those first weeks, they are completely dependent upon us for food, shelter, health, and most importantly, love.  After a while, we no longer look at them as animals, but family; even children.  In return, we receive their complete love and devotion; playmates, soul mates, and on sad days, the perfect companion.  They make us laugh, give us comfort, and when it seems that the whole world has turned on us, they greet us with unbounded joy when we return to the sanctuary of home.

Humans first began keeping animals somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago.  They were, of course, working animals, helping the humans in various ways, including providing security.  We found that once an animal identified a family as their "pack" they would protect the members of that group, even at the risk of their own lives.

Today, when a person brings a pet into their home and life, it is mainly for companionship.  Over time, a lot of love becomes invested in such an animal, be it dog, cat, snake, or parakeet.  But the lives of these animals are short.  Even the most long-lived of them is less than two decades.  So there will inevitably come a day when that beloved pet passes from this life and we are left with a particularly aching sorrow.

A couple of weeks ago, we received a text from one of our daughters in Colorado.  Her cat, named Leia, had been found in intense pain.  At the Veterinary Hospital, she was diagnosed with a kidney stone.  Further tests showed that Leia had been in chronic renal failure for some time.  One of her kidneys had apparently shut down perhaps as much as two years ago.  As the hours passed, her condition became more acute.  Finally, her last kidney ceased to function and this 13-year-old beloved pet passed away.

This cat had led an interesting life.  Our oldest daughter, Nikki, and a friend were out in a classic Missouri thunderstorm when they heard mewing sounds coming from beneath a porch.  There they found a feral mother and a litter of her newborn kittens.  Knowing the ways of wild animals, the two women donned heavy gloves and moved cat and kittens to a safer place.  But somehow in the transfer, two of the kittens had been touched.  Now, with the smell of human upon them, the mother abandoned the two.  The kitten that our daughter adopted was all white with dark eyes.  As any true Star Wars fan would have done, she was named after George Lucas' star-crossed princess.

She was tiny and unbearably cute.  Nikki took care of her as best as she could, but she was living the Haight-Ashbury life at the time and eventually for her safety, Leia ended up with us. 

As she grew, she displayed some endearing personality quirks.  She was affectionate, but only on her terms.  She wouldn't tolerate being picked up and cuddled.  But if you sat still long enough, eventually she would jump up on the opposite end of the couch, and slowly work her way down until the point where she would crawl into your lap.  She lost fur in impossible amounts, perhaps due to the stress of living in a household with three teenage humans, three dogs, and two other cats.

I don't have to tell you that we didn't do much entertaining.  Of human guests, anyway.

When I changed careers and my wife and I moved to Pennsylvania, Leia came with us, yowling every mile of the long trip.  Once in PA, she settled in and lived what could have been termed a normal life.  She was much more affectionate now, I guess only having two humans, a dog and another cat gave her fewer beings among whom to divide her attentions.  On those long weekends when we would drive to Maryland to visit our son and his family, she would stay alone in the house, looked in on by a kindly neighbor.  But as soon as we returned, she would stand at the top of the stairs, glaring imperiously while she meowed her disapproval.  Once, after being gone for an entire week, her vocal reaction was so vigorous that I told my wife that it had been the first time I'd ever been cursed at by a cat.

She lived with another cat, another case of reverse-inheritance, a coal black cat with bright yellow eyes and the restless spirit of a college frat boy.  Ebeneezer, or "Ebbers" for short, got along well with Leia for the most part.  However, our neighbor, the kindly cat sitter, would tell tales of watching Leia asleep in the sun on the back porch being stalked by a panther-like Ebbers.  At the climactic point, Ebbers would take a flying leap and land on the sleeping Leia.  Our dog, Tweeter, one more reverse inheritance, handled life with two cats pretty well, although for some reason once in a while, he would charge out of a dead sleep, chase Leia twice around the house and out the pet door in back.  Why he did this was mystifying, since at all other times they seemed to enjoy a friendly relationship.

Then one morning, Ebbers didn't come home.  We had given up hope of trying to keep him confined inside at night, and around midnight, out the pet door he would go for his nightly galavant.  Somerset has a rather large herd of feral cats, which he had fought with on numerous occasions, often arriving home at daybreak with a collection of cuts, yet wearing a look of smug satisfaction.  We never found him, and had to assume that he had finally tangled with a cat that was just too much for him.  Leia and Tweeter both mourned Ebbers' loss, seeming to find comfort with each other.  

One night, we were in the basement watching television when Tweeter sprang out of a sound sleep and ran baying up the stairs as if pursuing the hounds of hell.  I followed him up and watched as he stood before the pet door, his bark changing from alert into full-combat mode.  I flicked on the porch light, and saw Leia cowering under the lawn furniture, her back arched at a painful near-right angle.  Then I saw what had upset them both.  An enormous black cat, 30 pounds at least, a member of Somerset's feral tribe, had cornered Leia, and apparently was about to make entry into the house, an invasion halted by the insane canine just inside.  With the light on and it's night stealth gone, the cat turned it's evil and malevolent eyes towards me in a cool and calculating way, and then vanished at a speed that left me breathless.  Tweeter, having saved Leia's life, heroically gave chase, but by the time he got through the pet door, the cat had cleared the yard.  I recalled Tweeter, and gently picked up the quivering mass of nerves and falling fur that Leia had become and brought them both inside.  From that night on, I locked the pet door.

About this time, Our youngest daughter asked us to bring Leia to Colorado for Christmas and she would then re-adopt her.  Surprisingly, she handled the flight very well, not complaining until we put her in the car at the airport.  Having lost Ebbers, we were saddened to have to leave Leia, but it was clear that there with Jamie and Frank she would be loved and lavished with attention.  Plus, for her there was a real benefit.  In the living room sits an aquarium built inside one of those big, hulking wooden television consoles, circa 1970.  In front of this furniture, Leia would sit for hours, watching the languid motion of the tank's inhabitants.  She had found the aquarium channel.

The year after, we did Christmas again in Colorado and had a chance to see Leia again.  After convincing her to come out from underneath the bed, she welcomed us in her own inimitable way.

And now, she's gone. 

We will never know why or how these animals are able to so completely get under our skin and into our hearts.  Maybe because they are so dependent on us, and freely give so much of their affections and loyalties in return.  Perhaps because of all the relationships we have, this is one in which there is never any judgment.  Only love.

Over the years, our pets come in and go out of our lives, always leaving behind memories which will resonate forever.  Leia's "brother" Tweeter will be 15 this year.  His health is good, save some arthritis and the beginnings of cataracts in his eyes.  But in the days since Leia left us, I have spent more time with him, talking with him, stroking his fur, and going on walks now that warmer weather is finally upon us.  I don't know how long he'll be with us, but I feel I must begin to prepare myself for that inevitable moment when he leaves us as well.  In a lifetime of hard days, that will be a particularly tough one.

But he, along with all the other pets who have touched my life, has taught me something important, a lesson that only a pet can teach.

The absolute purity of unconditional love.

“Love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.” - Khalil Gibran
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