Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Loss and pet-love

The first picture I ever took of Winnie, about two days after she came to live with me. She had refused to come out from under the bath tub. One evening, she crept downstairs while I had the fire on, and hopped onto the back of the sofa cushions, and that has been her Spot ever since. 

I feel guilty. I've been distracted, out of sorts and unable to concentrate (more than usual), emotionally fragile and whatnot.

Every night that I've spent at home for the last seven years - which, of course, has been pretty much every night, since I hate to leave the house - I have had the same routine. I feed the cat her dinner, make sure there's water in her dish, power down the house, and say, "OK cat, time for bed." We get in, she walks on my head a few times before she either takes up her spot in the crook of my knee or burrows under the covers (depending on the time of year).

Every morning is also the same. She walks on my chest and meows in my face for her breakfast and I wake up and say, "Oh, hi Fur-face."

If I stay up too late, she starts meowing and circling the furniture: "Go to bed, Monkey. Why are you still up?"

All through the days, we have kept each other company in the kind of companionable and understanding quiet that I think most old married couples aspire to. Cats aren't complicated creatures. You feed them, pet them, play with them and give them a warm, safe place to sleep and they bond with you.

Unfortunately, as soon as you decide to get any pet, you are taking on the future inevitability. One day, and sometimes not too far off, the hard days will come. You will be emotionally and psychologically attached to the pet that is bonded to you. Your life will have revolved to some degree around looking after it for years. Your routines will have your pet integrated with them in a very intimate way.

And the day will come when all that structure will have to be abandoned.

Winnie doesn't like sudden noises, or loud noises. We've had a very quiet life, and she has made it clear that loud music of any kind is unacceptable. If I have dropped a pan or closed a door too sharply or made some other noise, I have fallen into the habit of automatically saying, "Sorry, cat."

I've sometimes thought about what these habits are going to do when there is no longer a Winnie to hang them on.

Tonight is the first night Winnie has slept over anywhere but home in the whole time I've had her. I've been away sometimes, but she's always been here. When I was moving over to Italy, she had to stay for a short while in a cattery in Cheshire. I found myself talking to the empty room in the same way I would have if she were there. For seven years, every time I've opened my front door, I've said, "Hi sweetie!" (like a girl, I know.)

I don't know what to do with myself. And though I know she will probably come home from the hospital tomorrow and we will carry on, it will, I fear, not be for much longer, and this feeling of being uncomfortably alone and at loose ends, will become a permanent state.

Add to this discomfort the feeling I have that this is inappropriate, that I am somehow transgressing in the moral realm by having allowed myself to become so attached to a pet that the thought of her death is distracting me from work and other important things. I keep saying, "She's just a cat." Cats aren't people. We do wrongly to become inordinately attached to them, and the whole of our civilisation has done wrong in trying to replace our children with our pets.

This hyper-sentimentalisation of pets is something I have struggled against. I've had conversations with friends who refer to their cats as "my babies". They're not your babies. They're cats. I know that farm people don't have such attachments, even though I know that they do become fond of their animals.

I've been struggling with this for some time, and all the while Winnie has been sick. How much money is appropriate to spend on vet bills and medicines? How far is it appropriate to go to save her life? Dr. B. told me about a couple who brought their cat to him. The cat was suffering kidney failure, and as he put it, "was already more on the other side than this one." He mentioned that in Paris they are actually doing kidney transplants on pets. He was shocked when the husband pulled out his phone and started looking up flight times to Paris for the same day.

I got Winnie at a time when I was very keen to become settled in life. I wanted to become more involved in life and with my family and community. I had felt, since the death of my friend John Muggeridge, that I needed someone to care for and be responsible for. And having Winnie has certainly made me a better person. It's going to be very difficult to let go of all that.

Anyway, I've been reading a bit of theological stuff about the affections and how they are to be correctly ordered by the intellect. Thomism 101. But I keep looking up in the midst of this and not seeing little Winnie perched on the back of the arm chair, and it all falls apart.

One thing I have decided to do is not wait. When the day does come, I'm going to give it a few days, maybe a couple of weeks at most, then ask Dr. B. for a new cat.



Paolo said...

There's a lot to be said for clear thinking and being honest with ourselves. This post demonstrates both - not something that is often encountered on the internet.

For what it is worth, you sound like you are juggling competing emotions and demands sensibly and admirably. I hope that your cat has a few more lives left in them.

Anonymous said...

Loss of a dear pet is difficult. You will know when you are ready to get a new pet. I have found, after loss of one of my cats, that it did not feel right to get a new one for months afterward. It just didn't feel right. They are part of your life and when they are gone grieving is natural.

Louise L said...

Grieving a beloved pet is quite right, IMO. Pets are "taken up" into human life. Yes it's true that other people are pretty stupid about pets, but your grief is natural and right. A new cat, when you want one, sounds like a good idea to me. Please be extra kind to yourself, Hilary.

Anonymous said...

Every thought which has run through your head has also run through mine when thinking about my pets. I would put aside St Thomas for the time being - it is not particularly helpful in this situation.

I agree with Louise: your grief is natural. Forming a bond with a creature which depends on you, and which has shared your life for seven years, is a sign of emotional health, not a sign of a disproportionate attachment. A cat is not a table: Winnie is a living creature who is capable of responding to you with affection, and that affection is obviously reciprocal. Pets can be particularly important to those who live alone as they help to alleviate loneliness.

Please don't be hard on yourself. Allow yourself to grieve her loss (and when the time is right, get another cat).


Mary Kay said...

When my parents died, and my two sons left home (all within the space of about 18 months), I was devastated. Had I not had my dear little dog, Bob, needing me so much, I wonder if anything could have made me get up and move. But he needed me to take him for walks, and feed him, and give him attention, and treat his medical problems. I believe God has given us our pets so that we can be good husbandmen (& women) and treat our little creatures the way we have committed ourselves to treat them when we adopted them. And God, in turn, allows us their attention and devotion to help partially fill those voids we experience, and to get on with life. God bless you while you experience this sorrow. And enjoy the new cat, who will also need a home, and who will help you to be generous to those around you.

Anonymous said...

I've been so down and my heart is broken after the pet cremation seattle wa Missy was my first cat and we've been for 7 years. I'm hoping i will overcome this.

Kevinpo said...

Most of us are genuine pet lovers. We love to keep animals as pets for our enjoyment and companionship. Over time, these pets become a regular part of the family.