Thursday, March 25, 2010

Mutt and Squeak: An Homage to Our Animals

Our pets are getting old.

We're kind of preparing, as morbid as that sounds. It's not like we're treating each day as if it's anyone's last, exactly, but the signs of age are spawning almost daily dialogue. With two curious and insightful human youngsters in the house, it feels honest and appropriate to talk about our furry family members' mortality, and how important they are to us.

The eldest of five children, I had the big sister I always wanted growing up in our family dog, Mitzi. I give her some credit for raising me; she died an old, regal grandma of a German Shepherd/Collie mix when I was fourteen.

Our cat and dog were my husband's and my first kids, too. The Russian Blue was a gift to me from my sister after I moved back to California and into my very own house, sans roommates, for the first time. She was a tiny abandoned kitten the local veterinarians rescued, and they fed her with an eyedropper and cared for her until she was adoptable. In San Diego at the time, local attention was focused on a rescued wayward baby grey whale named "JJ" who was being raised and readied at Sea World for her return to the wild. The vets named their little grey kitten "JJ," and she became mine. I renamed her "Koshka," Russian for "cat" (clever, I know).

That fall, on a walk with an out-of-town friend, a German Shepherd puppy in the window of our flagging pet store caught my eye. Her ears were her most distinguishing feature besides her sad, beseeching eyes. I was smitten, and made my friend keep walking back to the storefront to give her another look.

I remember him sighing, "You're totally going to end up with that dog."

I never intended to buy an animal from a pet store, especially the proverbial "doggie in the window." But my resolve was weak, and it wasn't long before I took that little runt of the litter home. We treated her for worms, fleas, and kennel cough, and learned that she was the last pet sold from that store before it changed ownership and ceased carrying live animals. Amani (Swahili for "peace") was welcomed skeptically by her feline sister.

And then my pet-friendly landlady let me know that she was selling her properties, including my sweet little pink cottage with a yard. With the help of another property-owning friend, my pets and I moved into a pretty big apartment with a pretty small patio. Husband-to-be joined the clan, and we moved one more time together before buying our current home and adding our two daughters.

Many people don't know we have a cat; Koshie decides when and to whom she'll reveal herself. She saves most of her appearances for when she's hungry, and in winter when she uses me as a hot water bottle. Much to our youngest daughter's chagrin, she occasionally amuses herself by lurking around the corner in the kitchen, only to pop out and scratch her unwitting victim on the ankles.

Her most distinct characteristic is that she doesn't meow; she squeaks. She squeaks when she's hungry, irritated, and when someone sneezes. Ours is not a snuggly feline; she's quirky and a bit bitchy. The one time years ago when I agreed to rescue a friend-of-a-friend's unwanted cat, I had to give it back. Koshka made quick work of that kitty, and it wasn't pretty.

Amani's puppy-like enthusiasm is belied by her grizzled muzzle, but we can still surprise folks at the dog park with her age. She will manage to leap over the ottoman during lively living room dance parties, but she's slowing down, spending more time on our bed. And lately, the couch, furniture she's known all her life to Keep Off. Now she dismounts the cushions to come to the front door like the creaky Great Aunt of family operations she's become, with certain entitlements like refusing to follow rules made for youngsters.

Amani and Koshka were puppy and kitten together; together they are morphing into old age. They collaborate daily, starting with their morning nuzzle and head-butt in the kitchen. They seem to coordinate puking and potty traumas as well. I worry that they're too close in age, too close in life stages. Their bodies and hair are thinning as our daughters' relationships with them are deepening.

My parents' Grand Dame of a Golden Retriever died last year, and in the car last week my youngest daughter was thinking about Maggie and asked me why she died.

"She was very old, honey," I explained.

"Amani is getting old, too," she noted.

Yes, she is. And I know that our eldest daughter in particular gets this, and that when she lies on the floor next to her dog, petting her and deep in thought, she's mindful of this time and her bond with Amani.

It's bittersweet to set ourselves and our kids up this way: adopting pets means acknowledging the finiteness of life and the pain of love when its object is absent.

But, oh, that love! So worth it. And that's what I want my kids to know.

1 comment:

Karen said...

I lost a 13 year old kitty in August. From early on I told her,"You have to live forever!" Alas, that of course is not to be.
My husband (then fiance) lost a beloved dog the prior August, and now we tell our almost-2-year-old Cairns Terriers that they have to live forever! So early on we prepare ourselves for that loss that is so painful because of how much we love our animals and because of how much pleasure, comfort, and joy they bring us every day.