When you ‘ve been married as long as my wife and I, it seems as if you believe the confluence of life suggests you know most of what there is to know about a person. But to my surprise I’ve learned something new and so wonderful, I just had to write about it.
Cindy and I have been at odds the past couple of years about two of our three animals. We have a dog and two cats. The dog, Peanut, is now over 15 years old and the cat, Sweetie, is estimated to be 23 years old. The children are grown and kind of gone (you know that boomerang thing the sociologists talk about does really happen), but here we are with these very old animals. I don’t know if you’ve had much exposure to old cats, but they’re unsightly to look at as they get older. The hair loses its luster and comes out in clumps. I joke about how the kitchen floor reminds me of the wild west , somewhere in the desert of Arizona as the combination of hair of the three animals coalesce into a tumbleweed like ball and they blow about the kitchen bouncing and rolling in the wind when people and animals move about the room. The cat’s existence for the past 5 years consists of laying on a small rug mat in the kitchen for approximately 23 hours each day. She only moves for two reasons. One is to plead with someone to give her a very small dish of milk and the other is to scurry to the basement to do her business. But 23 hours she does not move for anything. Sweetie was an incredible hunter in her day. She loved to catch all sorts of small creatures, bite the heads off and then deliver them on the stoop of the front door. She was so pleased with herself and wanted all to share in her accomplishments. But I remember the day she decided to use her stealth and creep up on a rather large Canadian goose in our back yard. What Sweetie didn’t see was the 3 or 4 other geese not too far away. As she moved in on the goose, the other geese quickly formed a circle around Sweetie and the hunter was now at risk of being the hunted. Once the geese were in position around Sweetie, they moved in unison, gradually tightening the circle around the cat. Sweetie could see what was happening and looked for an opening and jumped over one of the geese and sprinted up the dirt road between properties to the safety of the barn. Peanut, has had trouble the last couple of years. She developed a tumor and when we took her to the vet and the professional opinion was to make Peanut comfortable because she doesn’t have long. The dog was having trouble keeping her food down and on more occasions than I would like to count, could not make it outside in time to do her business, leaving a trail of urine from one end of the kitchen through the hall and into the foyer on her way to the door. A solution that my wife devised was to grind up Peanut’s dog food in the blender to soften it and then feed her very small portions 4 times a day. This kept the dog from throwing up her nourishment. To handle the incontinence, Peanut was put outside many, many times a day. We tried to read any and every cue that she may need to relieve herself. Peanut is a full-bred English Shepherd with an incredibly loving temperament. She definitely had that herding instinct going and would nudge any one of us as if to push us through the gate of the pen where dogs put humans to keep an eye on them. She was great with children, all children regardless of age. It was almost as if she knew small children were frailer. Small children would tug and pull on her tail or long hair and occasionally poke at her with toys. But she’d not respond unless they were being too intrusive and then she’d just remove herself. Peanut was also an athlete. She was a powerful, speed demon and if you weren’t careful, you’d find yourself on the ground pushed over by this small train. Once when we were catching Frisbee, Peanut decided to get in on the action and leapt in the air to take a throw from one of the children. When the kids saw this, they immediately began training the next amazing Frisbee catching dog. And Peanut could catch everything high and low. She’s speed past the Frisbee and slow down to catch it by slightly turning her head. She could jump three to four feet in the air to snatch the throw almost effortlessly. But being an English Shepherd she hated to be alone. We would joke that if Peanut had her way, she’d be in one of our pockets peeking outside, completely content that she was almost attached at our hip.
So, with the health and age of the animals moving in a deteriorating direction, my wife has had to go to great lengths to care for them. And this means recruiting other family to care for them if we went out of town. I have no trouble enlisting someone to look in and feed Peanut and let her out, but remember, this was a several trips a day proposition. I didn’t think it was fair to inconvenience people to that extent. Cindy’s sister, Julie and Julie’s daughter, Katie, are saints in that regard. I would like to say that I loved these animals, but when they became more work than I thought was reasonable, euthanasia sounded like a great option. So, the tension between my wife and I has been brewing and intensifying around the animals for a few years.
Now, I do admit that on more than a few occasions, I would make insensitive comments about the animals, show my disdain for them when I had to use a toothbrush to scrub the stains Peanut left in the carpeting and a general disgust developed. Cindy would become frustrated with my attitude telling me that how I treat these animals in the last years of their life may foreshadow what my experience may be. And in a sarcastic but joking tone, I commented that “If I ever get this bad, you have my permission to just take me out back and shoot me.” Cindy would respond, “Buzz, be careful with what you say. You know, you’re going to reap what you sow.”
Well, through a series of negotiations, Cindy finally agreed that it was time to put the animals down. Peanut could not get up or down easily as her hips were giving out, she had trouble with steps and the tumor was getting quite large creating an asymmetrical lump on her backside. Cindy began calling vets and humane society to check on options. She decided that she wanted to be present and have Peanut and Sweetie go at the same time. Now you may ask yourself, “why would Cindy want to put them down together?” I failed to mention that Peanut and Sweetie became best friends over the years. It wasn’t always that way, in fact, I played a game and would tell Peanut to “get the cat” and she would run around the house frantically looking for Sweetie and then paw at her, lick her and engage in a kind of animal roughhousing. Sweetie would have none of it and generally showed her contempt by smacking Peanut on the snout with her clawless front paw as if to say, “don’t touch me!” Our third animal is a cat, Millie, that came to be with us when Natalie, our daughter, could no longer keep the cat because her husband did not like this particular animal. Well, we decided to accept Millie into our family. The dyad of Peanut and Sweetie quickly turned into a triad and Sweetie wanted nothing to do with this new animal. Millie would get frustrated trying to play with Sweetie and for some reason, Peanut began running interference keeping Millie from Sweetie. It got to the place that Sweetie would sleep near Peanut because she could ensure that Millie would leave her alone. And when I would play my game telling Peanut to “get the cat,” she would go up to where Sweetie was lying. Then she would turn and look at me as if to say, “don’t make me do that, I feel sorry for her. “ In fact, Peanut got to the place where she would not listen to my command at that point. She would go to Sweetie and stand there. And no matter how many times I said it or how I intonated the command, she would not comply. Her loyalty to Sweetie went beyond protecting Sweetie from Millie. And Sweetie would occasionally show her affection by rubbing herself on Peanut’s chest as if to say thank you. So, Cindy wanted them to go together.
For whatever reason, as the arrangements were being explored I offered to be there when this was supposed to happen. But my wife’s response was different than what I expected. Cindy said, “I don’t want you there. It would be hypocritical. They way you have bad-mouthed these animals, it wouldn’t be right.” I had never thought of myself as hypocritical in this matter, but I knew I was officially in the “dog house” in our relationship. She was correct that I had little empathy for the animals at this point, but that does not mean that I did not value them or the contribution they had been to our family all these years. Cindy wanted Peanut and Sweetie to be put down together and then buried together in our back yard. Well, I told her I didn’t want to dig a hole to bury these animals right now, but I did want them put down and sooner the better. That was not the thing to say. I was actually digging a deeper hole for myself than the one I would have dug for these animals through the frozen tundra. Back and forth we went, talking about how to do this, mis-communicating every step of the way. For example, I told Cindy I would do whatever she wanted with regard to the animals. I suggested that maybe we should cremate the animals as opposed to bury them as it would buy us time for the winter to end and the ground to thaw. I thought Cindy said she thought this was a good option. She thought I said I would dig the hole even if it was frozen. We argued about what we thought each had agreed to and somewhere she decided the cremation option was ok, as long as Peanut and Sweetie were cremated together.
The day arrived to do the deed and my sons decided they would join their mother so say goodbye to the family pets. Just prior to their leaving, we prayed in a circle and thanked God for these precious animals and their love and loyalty all these years. My wife invited me to join them at the vet’s, but I could not bring myself to go. At this point, it was more about my concern that I would say something stupid and ruin the moment as opposed to being stubborn given her dictum. I am not above being stubborn, but I don’t think that was the case here. So, they left!
About an hour and twenty minutes later they came through the door and I was surprised to see them so soon. Scott came in first and although he was not crying when he came through the door, he began to cry. He was followed by Cindy, then Tommy, both with red faces and tears that suggested they’d been crying for some time. Everyone came in and I asked, “How’d it go?” Cindy spoke about how great the vet and hospital were. “They gave us all the time we wanted or needed. Noone tried to hurry us along.” She went on to describe the process. An attendant took Peanut into another room and outfitted her with a catheter in her front leg. And from what Cindy reported, Peanut did not fuss. Then Sweetie was taken into the same room, but the process did not go as well. Cindy and the boys reported hearing “blood-curdling cat screams” coming from the room as Sweetie fought the attendant’s efforts to put the catheter in. In fact, Sweetie scratched the vet’s assistant with her back claws and drew blood. The animals then settled in with Peanut on Cindy and Scotty’s lap and Sweetie on Tommy’s. They put in three different needles starting with something to relax the animals. Peanut went peacefully and closed her eyes. Cindy reported that the attendant commented on this stating, “She was ready to go.” Sweetie died with her eyes open in some ways symbolizing the catheter scene just moments before.
I was moved by this experience, but not necessarily in the way you would think. As my wife and I layed in bed together that night holding one another, I commented to her on something I’ve intuitively known but saw in a more tangible way. “Babe, You know something? You know how to love well.” She began to cry again in my arms. “I’m not trying to make you cry, but watching the way you love me, the kids and even these animals, I marvel at how well you love!”
I can’t help but think about God’s love during this occasion. On one hand how his eye is on the sparrow including Peanut and Sweetie and on the other that these animals represent a different interpretation of “the least of these.”
Imagining Peanut in the arms of my wife, I can only hope that if I die first, and assuming that it is not with a catheter in my leg to deliver my demise or me looking down the long barrel of a shotgun, I would like to die in the arms of this woman who knows how to love deeply.
What a fortunate man I am! Thank you, God. I love you, Babe!