June, over at Aging Gratefully wrote a beautiful post about pets and how they enrich our lives and the heartbreak of their loss. Like good writing often does, it got me to thinking about the animals who shared our family life. Thanks June for the memories!
My daughter was in elementary school when we bought her the Siamese cat she named Edna. Edna tolerated the rest of the family, but she was Sarah’s cat. She was Sarah’s playmate. Dressed in baby clothes and wrapped in a blanket, Sarah would push her around the house in a toy stroller. Her furry head covered in a white lace bonnet, Edna was content to be babied. Edna sat in Sarah’s lap when watching TV and slept on Sarah’s bed. When Sarah was upset, Edna listened to the litany of complaints about how unfair life was. Edna’s fur absorbed Sarah’s childhood tears. Edna showed her love to Sarah by leaving her gifts of dead mice in her shoes. Sarah learned to never put her feet into her shoes without first checking for surprises.
The years went by and Sarah spent her junior year of high school as an exchange student in Spain. This was before internet access was widely available. We communicated the old fashioned way, writing letters and an occasional expensive trans-Atlantic phone call. Edna started sleeping at the foot of my bed. I worried about a lot of things that year that my 15 year old daughter studied in Spain, and a big worry was that Edna, who was showing signs of age, would die and I would have to tell my daughter that her pet was dead. I couldn’t imagine telling her in a letter or over the phone and not be able to hold her while she sobbed.
Edna lived on. Sarah returned home for her senior year and Edna moved back to spending the night in Sarah’s room. A year later Sarah left again, this time to attend college. Once again I worried that Edna would die and Sarah wouldn’t have an opportunity to say goodbye. When Sarah came home for vacations, Edna immediately shifted her loyalties to her. For her four years in college, every time Sarah left home, she said goodbye to Edna as if she would never see her again.
But Edna lived on. She was a little slower and her days of mice catching were behind her. On her infrequent trips outside she usually went only as far as the first patch of sunlight on the deck. She wasn’t as active, but she was still a loving family member.
After college graduation Sarah lived at home for a year and Edna settled once again into Sarah’s room. Edna could no longer make the leap from the floor to the bed so Sarah arranged furniture so Edna could climb up on the bed.
And then Sarah went off to work on a small atoll in the Pacific. Her time off from work she spent traveling. She’d been to Hermiston; she wanted to see the rest of the world. She got engaged and we started long distance planning for a June wedding in Hawaii.
One morning we noticed that Edna was having trouble walking and then she couldn’t walk at all. The vet told us she had had a stroke. He treated her with steroids and we nursed her back from the edge…holding her upright so she could use the litter box and feeding her fancy canned food that she could easily eat. She regained the use of her legs and no longer needed our help with the litter box, but she never gave up the fancy cat food. I emailed Sarah daily with medical updates. Edna pulled through and went back to her routine of sleeping in the sunlight.
Sarah came home in the spring for a visit so we could shop for the wedding dress. She came in the door and immediately called for Edna. A week later Sarah was flying back to Johnston Island. Once again she said goodbye as if it was the last time she would see Edna. It was.
Two months later it was obvious that Edna’s health was failing. She was thin and moved awkwardly. It was painful for her when we picked her up. She started having trouble getting to the litter box. Her systems were failing. She had been a member of our family for more than 15 years. It was hard to let her go, but it was the right thing for her. My husband took her on her final journey to the vet and brought the cat carrier home empty. That weekend we flew to Hawaii for the wedding.
Before we left home I struggled with what we would tell Sarah. A friend advised me not to say anything. “What will it matter” he said “if in her mind the cat lives happily on another few weeks?” We didn't want to cast a shadow over the joy of the wedding.
We didn’t tell Sarah that her cat was dead and during the two weeks of wedding events and family vacation activities we managed to avoid all conversations about pets.
There just never seemed to be a good time to tell Sarah that Edna was gone and the weeks went by. Sarah and her new husband were still living and working on that island in the Pacific. Not long after the wedding their jobs ended and they were moving back to the mainland. We were driving to the airport to pick them up and we still hadn’t told Sarah.
There’s an old joke about a Dumb Guy telling a child about a death. The advice given to Dumb Guy is to break the news gradually. The first day the child is told that the cat is stuck in a tree. The next day the child is told that the firemen are trying to get the cat out of the tree but aren’t being successful. The third day the child is told that the cat is dead. Dumb Guy thinks this is pretty good advice and decides to use this strategy. Dumb Guy tells his child “Grandma’s stuck in a tree.”
It was too late to break the news gradually. We told her in the car driving home from the airport that Edna wasn’t there to greet her when she got home. We all agreed that Edna had a good life. We loved her and she loved us back. Although there is that ache of missing her, there are the memories of that special time in our lives when my children were small and Santa, the tooth fairy, and Edna all left surprises.