Monday, October 20, 2008

On grief and growing up

Just as my husband and I were getting ready to go on vacation, our first one in several years (you animal people know what it’s like trying to break away from the menagerie), our oldest son called from his home, some 300 miles away. His cat, Big Al, had taken a turn for the worse, necessitating a visit to the vet the night before, and the news wasn’t good. Al was developing renal (kidney) failure and our son wanted a little “feedback” on the situation.

Patrick is 26, Big Al is 19, so it isn’t hard to see that their relationship has easily been one of the longest Patrick has known. Longer, even, than his relationship with me, his stepmother. And now, for really the first time in his adult life, he was facing one of the most adult moments a pet owner has to face. It was time for “the talk”.

It was, for the most part, a gentle conversation, albeit a little one-sided. I spoke of how very, very fortunate Big Al was to have been able to spend his whole life with one family, and that by any stretch of the imagination it had been a long life, indeed. I reminded Patrick of the love and care he gave to Al, always making sure he had quality food and proper veterinary care when it was needed. Big Al was one of the lucky ones who lived his whole life loving one family and being loved in return.

Now it was time for our son to face the last, most painful obligation a pet owner has to their fur-bound friend. It’s a deal we make with the universe when we choose to bring a companion animal into our lives, knowing that we will almost certainly outlive them. In exchange for their love and devotion, we have to be willing to accept the pain of their loss, and to be strong enough to make that decision on their behalf when it is necessary to do so.

My heart broke for Patrick as I reminded him what a wonderful pet owner he was, and how proud I was of him and the dedication he had shown in caring for Al. As we talked, though I heard the voice of an adult, in my mind’s eye I saw the child I had known for so many years, groping for the fortitude one needs to handle adult issues.

The veterinarian provided fluids so that Al could be comfortable a little while longer. Patrick called his brother and invited him to come home from college so that he might also be able to say goodbye. The appointment at the veterinarian’s office was scheduled, and Big Al was peacefully seen into the night, surrounded by those who loved him. In this, his last act of selflessness on behalf of his pet, Patrick stepped over the threshold separating a childhood friendship from the adult guardianship of a lifelong friend. Would that all childhood pets should be so honored.

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