I’m in the back seat while my wife is driving. There is no one in the front passenger seat. We are driving along scenic country roads on a beautiful, quiet Sunday morning in June. June! The best month of the year as far as I am concerned.
We pass few other cars, or people. Instead, we roll easily by verdant farm fields unnoticed by the horses and cows gently feeding on this gentle morning. It is an idyllic scene and yet our hearts are heavy.
Beside me on the backseat is a wide, open-topped cardboard box – the kind you get from grocery stores. In the box, resting upon a hastily prepared bed of old towels and mats, is my little friend Boots – a cat of 9 or 10 years age. He is lying quietly, despite the bumps and jolts of the winter-heaved old road. This is the first sign that something is very wrong. Boots hates car rides. He usually wails nearly continuously, in a low-pitched rising meow like a question, when he is forced into the car, which is one reason it is a rare thing and usually kept as short as possible. The question in his rising meow seems to be: “why are you doing this to me?”
Because he hates car rides, we usually have to first force him into a cat carrier, which in itself is usually a difficult endeavor. But it does have the advantage of keeping him contained for the car trip – otherwise he would be wandering all about the vehicle, up on the dash or onto your lap with his front paws against the side window peering out. All in search of an exit.
But there is no low meowing today, nor the need for a cat carrier, nor 4 furry legs wandering about the vehicle. For Boots is sick. Very sick. The mess in the laundry room we awoke to, and the sight of him panting on his side on a rug was proof enough of that. He has been ill for about 5 or 6 weeks, but the twice a day dosage of medicine we were giving seemed to have stabilized him. He wasn’t eating much, but he was generally comfortable and active for a cat that is getting perilously thin. So, we were surprised at this overnight downturn. Our first thoughts were that this may have been a bad reaction to some sliced deli turkey my wife had fed him the day before. This is not something we would normally feed him, but when he showed an interest in her lunchtime sandwich she eagerly tried a little on him, so happy were we to see him eat something. When he gobbled it up and looked for more, she gave him as much as he would take, which wasn’t a lot as it turned out. But perhaps it was enough to upset his stomach?
Boots and I had first taken this drive together about one month earlier – four days after my mother’s funeral. We knew there was something up with him but with the events surrounding my mother overshadowing things, I probably overlooked some of the signs. But now that he no longer took his morning saucer of milk, which he had previously waken me for each morning, and in fact was not eating anything, I could ignore it no longer.
I didn’t have much confidence in the vet we had seen locally. He took x-rays that indicated kidney stones and made some vague references to kidney surgery in Guelph but I just wasn’t getting the right feeling about him. But his reference to Guelph reminded me of the wife of an old university pal who was a vet in Guelph. Guelph had seemed too far to take ones’ pets for vet visits before, but now I wanted to go somewhere I had strong faith in.
During that earlier drive Boots was still strong and active enough to find an opening in the carrier and escape, making the last bit of the drive along the freeway unnerving. He was also keen to explore the examination room in Barb’s clinic, so I probably didn’t pick up on the undertone of concern in her voice when Barb confirmed kidney disease but discounted surgery. Instead I hung upon her anecdotes of other patient’s cats living for years without even the medicine she was prescribing for Boots, along with a new special diet. With these, he would be sure to do okay, I figured.
The first few days on the medicine saw a remarkable transformation. He loved the new food and gobbled it all down. He was actively wanting out the door to explore the neighbourhood just like the Boots of old. We even heard tales from neighbours of him winning a faceoff with a fox that had recently made himself at home in our area. But the feasting soon slowed, as did he. Still he didn’t seem too bad. True, he wasn’t eating a lot, and he was getting awfully scrawny, but he still liked to hop up on my lap in the evening and give me head butts to the chin – his version of a love bite. Really, he was doing okay, I tried to convince myself. I was more concerned about him taking on another fox than with his kidney condition.
So as we drove to Guelph that Sunday morning, neither of us knew that this was going be his last trip in that hated car. He sat quietly beside me on his blankets, my hand draped gently over him. My fingers gently stroking and scrunching his fur from time to time. When I lifted him in his box out of the backseat and carried it across the clinic parking lot, he lifted his head and caught the fresh breeze and warm sunshine. He looked with a little interest at the beautiful outdoors he would normally love to explore. But he did not rise from his box.
There was nothing she could do. His kidneys had failed.
The drive home was very tough. There were only two of us in the car now. Two people, and an empty box. The morning was as beautiful as before but was impossible to appreciate with tear-streaked eyes and a huge, clenching pit in my stomach. A gripping emptiness that had ensnared me tightly only a few weeks before and was renewed again. I am not saying the grief at the loss of a beloved pet is as bad as that of a parent – this is no attempt to grade each. Just that they’re all of a kind.
Some people scoff at people getting upset at the loss of a pet, or even at spending considerable sums for their medical treatment. “It’s just a cat”, they’ll say. “It’s just a dog”. “You can just get another one.”
I feel sorry for such people, as they’ve obviously never known the loving bond that can develop between a human and an animal. That one-of-a-kind, ‘best friend’ relationship. And indeed in this society of increasing isolation and loneliness, for many people pets may be their only friends.
And best friends they can be. They’re always glad to see you come home and tell you, in their way, how special you are. You don’t need to shower and dress up to see them, nor worry about keeping your conversation sparklingly interesting for fear of boring them. Nor worry about whether your dinner setting is stylish enough, or consider what conversation topics are likely off-limits. There is no tabulating of reciprocal social invitations. These friends are happy to sit on your laps, purr and give you love taps regardless of how you look, sound or feel. They come to cuddle with you at bedtime and greet you happily in the morning. And they’ll never talk about you behind your back. How can anyone seriously scoff at all that?
And so when they leave us, inevitably much too soon, it hurts. A lot. Just like the indescribable loss of any other loved one.
Halfway home, we stopped at a country park and took a walk on the high trails away from the crowds. We walked slowly along a trail on a high ridge running beside a farm fence. Tall grass swayed in the clean, gentle breeze. Boots would have loved to explore here I thought.
Later, on a bridge over a river we stopped and looked down at the water flowing by below us. This river had run through this valley and under the adjacent forest long before Boots and I, and my mother and everyone else around us, arrived on this planet. And it will continue to do so long after we’ve all departed. We truly are just visitors here for a short while, I reflected. As insignificant to this river, to that forest, to that ridge and meadow as any other passing dust cloud in the wind.
So we had better try to make the most of our short walk upon this earth. Be good. Contribute somehow. And most important, love and be loved; by any and all best friends fortune blesses you with.