Family pets. They can be a source of great joy, immense frustration and inevitably… incredible pain and sorrow. Anyone who owns a dog or a cat knows this. And hey, even people who have a hamster, lizard or budgie know exactly what I’m talking about. I know pets are not people, but it never ceases to amaze me how incredibly easy it is to get attached, to get emotionally invested and to feel like they are a true and integral part of your family. Pets, or CATS in our case, have been a near constant in our household for the better part of twenty years and we wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Lianne and I are cat lovers. After getting married, we decided to have some cats before we had some kids. They were our furry “practice” offspring, and they ruled the roost for almost seven years before Abby and Daniel arrived on the scene. Ivy (our first born) loved us dearly but didn’t like most other people, and shunned both of our kids from day one. The younger, friendlier (and fatter) Sammy, was easy-peasy and liked everyone, including our human offspring.
However, Abby and Daniel were never really attached to those cats. They didn’t love them the way Lianne and I did. They didn’t play with them, they didn’t take care of them, and they didn’t really need them in their lives. Just like Donald Trump is #NotMyPresident, Sammy and Ivy simply weren’t their cats. #NotMyCats.
What they wanted, what they really needed was KITTENS! As soon as they could walk and talk, they hounded us to get them their own cats to love. We would always respond that we had two cats already, and we wouldn’t be adding any more furry friends to the family until our senior felines finally “ran out of lives”.
Their response was always comical, if not slightly morbid:
“But WHEN are Sammy and Ivy going to die???”
It seemed they simply couldn’t wait for the pet version of the grim reaper to come knocking on our door to take our four-legged practice kids to the cat afterlife. And then, after several years of deflecting the issue, it finally happened. About five years ago, the health of our lovable, bowling ball shaped Sammy-boy started going south. He was the first to go. Then Ivy, our beautiful soft-coated girl who nearly reached the ripe old age of seventeen, suffered kidney failure and left us the following year. Ironically, about twelve months earlier, she finally decided it was OK for Abby and Daniel to pet her.
Were the kids upset? Sure, but they were both still fairly young, and their sorrow wasn’t the kind that ripped your heart out. They shed a few tears for their part-time cat companions and even hosted a couple of very classy memorial services in our living room. Lianne and I obviously took their departures much harder, and when the kids pounced on the opportunity to ask for replacements ASAP, we actually pushed back.
After sixteen-and-a-half years of planned pet parenthood, Lianne and I needed a break.
You must all be thinking: “I get it. Surely this is the ‘Tale of Two Kitties’ referenced in the headline of today’s blog. Great story, Greg!”
Well, actually… no. Sorry, but you’ll have to keep reading to get there.
Over a year had passed without the pitter-patter of furry feet in our home, but after Abby and Daniel’s “Give us Cats or give us Death!” campaign really ramped up, we finally relented. In the summer of 2014, we adopted two kittens… a brother and sister combo from the Humane Society. “Sasha and Duff” were abandoned three-month old bundles of fuzziness and finally Abby and Daniel had furry babies they could call their own! Daniel claimed Duff, and Sasha was scooped up by Abby. Once again, we were a family of six and happy days were here again.
And so, for the next two-and-a-half years we all enjoyed watching the “twins” grow up and grow into very different personalities. Sweet Sasha was smaller, slightly squatter and loved to lick and “groom” us as a sign of her ample affection. She was usually shy with strangers, enjoyed sitting in the sun under our lilac bush outside, and was a bit of a scaredy cat. Duff was handsome, outgoing, athletic, a successful hunter of small animals and could seemingly leap tall buildings in a single bound. However, he reserved most of his affection and attention for one person: his good buddy Daniel. When it came time to call Duff to come inside for the night, I would yell his name from the back deck… and then, nothing. I would enlist Daniel’s help and sure enough, handsome Duff comes trotting home in about 90 seconds.
Now, you must have it all figured out, thinking: “Surely this is the ‘Tale of Two Kitties’ referenced in the headline of today’s blog. I get it! Two stories about two generations of family cats. Great story, Greg! Bravo!”
Again… sorry, but no. Bear with me friends, and I promise I’ll get there.
This is where the story becomes difficult to write, where the lump in my throat forms and the “Tale of Two Kitties” actually begins. About ten days ago, we started what we thought was a very regular day… but noticed that our handsome Duff looked very lethargic. He wasn’t moving, he wasn’t eating and he was throwing up every few hours like clockwork. I hoped maybe he ate a rotting animal or had some kind of stomach “bug”, but the next day he seemed worse. So, to the vet hospital we went and after a few hours of waiting for a diagnosis, the blood and urine tests revealed a horrible truth. The news hit me like a truck. Duff was suffering from acute kidney failure, brought on my ingesting a deadly toxin… antifreeze.
The vet recommended putting him down within 24 hours.
I remember driving home in utter disbelief, with a sickly Duff quietly sitting in the front passenger seat right beside me. I was a devastated pet parent. We always knew the risks of letting our cats outside, but I couldn’t wrap my head around this. Antifreeze? Really? Are you kidding me? I was always concerned Duff would chase a squirrel into traffic and suffer a swift end to his carefree lifestyle of enjoying the great outdoors. But this? This just seemed like a cruel joke.
I was absolutely floored. I couldn’t believe we were losing this young life, this family member, this best friend of my son! I was absolutely dreading what had to happen next. I called Lianne at the office to let her know about Duff’s dire condition. That phone call was extremely difficult to get through but I knew I wasn’t out of the woods yet. Not even close. School was letting out in a couple of hours and didn’t know how I was going to break the news to Abby and Daniel.
It was a an extremely warm February afternoon, and I was waiting in the parking lot at the kids school with the windows rolled down, anxiously waiting. I was completely sick to my stomach, as I knew the kids would ask me about Duff the second they got into the car. They were well aware I had taken him to the vet hospital and I knew they were both quite concerned about him. Abby was first to arrive and immediately asked how Duff was doing. The words stuck in my throat. I couldn’t talk. My daughter’s eyes widened. My voice cracked, and I finally forced out a very raspy: “Duff is dying”, and Abby started wailing. This was all unfolding as Daniel arrived. We tried to hold our shit together for a moment, but Daniel knew right away that something was terribly wrong. When I broke the news to him, they were both in the back seat, screaming in anguish. There were no words, just a massive unleashing of raw, tormented emotion. I just slouched in the drivers seat, head down… with my red, puffy face in my hands, letting my kids fill the car with their pain for several minutes.
All I could do was croak out the occasional “I’m so sorry” between my own sobs. It was the most emotionally charged event I’ve ever had with my kids. Remember when I said the death of our senior cats “wasn’t the kind of sorrow that ripped your heart out”? This most definitely was.
The next 24 hours were even rougher, as now we had our beloved Duff, lying on our dining room chair, slowly dying before our very eyes and there was nothing we could do but say goodbye. Having a beloved pet in the house that has been scheduled to be put to sleep is something Lianne had to endure with both Sammy and Ivy, but Abby and Daniel really didn’t feel the full weight of those situations, as they were not nearly as invested. This time, it’s arguable they were more invested than we were and it was heartbreaking to watch them say farewell to a pet and companion they helped raise from kittenhood to handsomeness.
We were especially heartbroken to watch Daniel interact with his furry best buddy, as he and Duff shared a special bond that the rest of us didn’t have. It just wasn’t fair that our eleven-year-old boy had to take on this much crushing sorrow.
None of us slept very well that night, as we all knew what was coming the next morning. After the kids bid a final, sombre farewell to their beloved pet, Lianne drove them to school while I drove Duff straight to the vet hospital. My mind was filling up with fond memories of our handsome Duff while my heart was filling with sadness. With Sammy and Ivy’s final goodbye, we had our trusted family veterinarian visit the house and put our cats to sleep in the comfort of their own homes, encircled by loving faces and familiar surroundings. Unfortunately, our vet was out of town and I decided to take on the unenviable task of guiding Duff to the next life all on my own.
This time, it wasn’t a senior cat that had lived a long, happy life. This time, it wasn’t happening in our home. This time was different, as the circumstances surrounding Duff’s demise were obviously unexpected, and infinitely more painful. To be honest, I was a little worried about getting through this difficult, yet unavoidable farewell to Duff all alone, but I shook it off by thinking about the bigger picture: by going solo, I was sparing the rest of the family one final emotional episode. It was time to man up.
At the vet hospital there was plenty of waiting… and there were forms to fill out… and then there was more waiting. The entire process was taking much longer than I had imagined, and I was getting restless sitting in the “quiet room” where they perform the procedure. They were supposed to bring in a heavily sedated Duff, ready for the final injections that would end his life. Instead, they brought in a boy who seemed curiously like the Duff of old. The amount of sedatives they gave him obviously wasn’t enough to settle him down, and the strange animal smells and odd surroundings of the vet hospital had him full of the beans and eager to explore the room. To be honest, it was actually kind of nice to see the bright-eyed version of our handsome Duff one last time, as he had spent most of the last 48 hours wasting away on a dining room chair, barely moving. The veterinary assistant eventually took him away to up the dosage and brought back a very sleepy cat that looked ready to put the suffering behind him. Duff and I quietly locked eyes as I gave the vet the OK to proceed. No more words had to be said at this point.
Watching a living creature that you dearly love slowly slip away while cuddled up close to your heart is an experience that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, but in the end I felt fortunate to be there for our beloved family pet in his final moments.
I was moderately proud of myself for holding it together for a vast majority of my visit to the vet hospital… that is, until I got in the car to go home. I put Duff’s cat carrier on the passenger seat, looked down at the empty box then completely lost my shit for several minutes in the privacy of my Subaru. So much for “manning up”, but I’m sure those of you with pets of your own will give me a pass on this one.
With the worst behind us, it was time for our family to begin the healing process. We talked about our memories of Duff, we all shed a few more tears, and we promised Daniel he could have another kitten when he was ready. He told us that he may never be ready, and we completely understood.
We also talked about death, loss and grief in broader terms. I was hoping to show the kids that going through an excruciating experience like this can actually make you stronger, and can help prepare you for a more traumatic loss – the kind that involves actual family members – the kind that you can’t replace at the Humane Society, Petland or at a breeder. It may sound strange, or even a tad insensitive, but Lianne and I saw this family tragedy as a teachable moment in the young lives of our children.
The following day was a bit easier, and it certainly helped that it was the kids’ final day at school before a full week break. As I picked them up, a rather sheepish Daniel had a rather significant request. He freely admitted that just one day earlier, he told us he couldn’t imagine replacing Duff, but now he had changed his mind. He wanted to visit the Humane Society right away, “just to see” if they had any male kittens up for adoption. Lianne and I were not so sure about this “quick fix” solution to our son’s suffering. We always wanted to be a two-cat family, so we felt this was going to happen eventually, but was it wise for Daniel to try and fill up the hole in his heart so quickly? Should we refuse his request just to teach him the value of patience – the patience required for a true journey to healing?
After some serious discussion, the overwhelming urge to ease our son’s pain won the day. As a parent, it’s very difficult to watch your kid suffer, so we chose the path Daniel so desperately wanted us to… the path to immediate restoration and rejuvenation of the soul.
So, the entire family piled into the car and hit the road, excited to see what was available at the Humane Society. As luck would have it, they had one male kitten left. And, wouldn’t you know it, the little guy had almost the same black and white markings as our recently departed. Luckily, he had a skinny white stripe running down his face that set him apart from his handsome predecessor. After just a few minutes of interaction, Daniel immediately fell in love and asked if we could bring him home. It was kind of surreal to even consider it, as we had been a one-cat household for all of 29 hours! Was this way too soon? Was this the right thing to do? Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. Lianne and I were definitely struggling with the decision.
Maybe teaching Daniel that there’s no shortcut to recover from “real” grief, the kind that only comes with human suffering and human loss, is secondary. Maybe the death of a pet, no matter how traumatic, doesn’t necessarily have to translate into a life lesson about how we can mentally prepare ourselves for some future, theoretical family tragedy.
We decided to say YES to add a new furry member to our family and noticed an immediate and welcome change in the happiness quotient of our children. This super cute boy certainly has filled a void with Abby and Daniel, but what about Lianne and Greg? Well, to be honest, not so much. Our hearts are still very heavy for our fallen friend, but our home is happy again, buzzing with the activity that only a playful kitten can bring and that’s a very good thing after enduring a very tough week.
We said goodbye to Duff on a Thursday. On a Friday, we welcomed little Domino to our home. Two family pets… two kitties separated by only a day, never to meet but forever linked in our hearts.
Finally, this “Tale of Two Kitties” I’ve been yammering on and on about has come to an end. Thank you for allowing me to share our story of undeniable loss that mercifully morphs into an uplifting tale of renewal.
It’s been over a week after Duff’s passing and there’s only one thing left to do. I’ve been purposely avoiding it for a couple of days now, but I’m overdue for a trip back to the vet hospital to pick up the cremated remains of our forever handsome boy. Once Duff is back at home, I’m actually looking forward to attending another classy memorial service in our living room, hosted by the ever-popular Abby and Daniel. We’ve all given a warm welcome to our new edition Domino, but we still haven’t said a formal and proper goodbye to Duff, the one who was so handsome, outgoing, athletic, a successful hunter of small animals and could seemingly leap tall buildings in a single bound.