When I was a child, my best friend was a cat. This dark brown Siamese was, in almost every way, as much my soul mate as any friend, sister, or boyfriend. He shared the long hours of my childhood, followed me devotedly around the room as I brushed my teeth or tried on endless outfits for the first day of school, and purred in my lap as we watched The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family on Friday nights.
But he was also occasionally, unpredictably adventurous. He left me without warning, foreshadowing my future with human men. He brought back peace offerings, mostly dead birds and mice, which he dropped carefully in my bed (under the covers – ewww).
He also sometimes didn’t come home at all.
These were the worst times. As an eleven year old, I spent hours walking the neighbors’ backyards, weeping and calling his name in vain, imagining his furry body bloodied and motionless under a car’s bumper. Usually he had just gotten trapped in someone’s basement or wandered a bit too far.
Despite my fears, he always came home.
This surprises people who didn’t grow up with pets, but having a childhood pet taught me much about love, trust, and loyalty — in doses I could handle as a kid. My cat lived a long, peaceful life. I ended up being the one to leave him for good (more foreshadowing). I remember the day in college when Mom called to say he had died peacefully on the front porch.
But as a parent I know that kid-pet relationships don’t always end so smoothly.
Today, each of my three kids has a cat. We have a feline to spare as well, so – advanced math here – this means we have four cats. And a dog. The cats stay inside. The dog has a fenced yard. So car accidents, dead rodents, and runaway pets are not a big worry.
But as the parent here, I have known since the day we got each pet that their death would be an inevitable part of my children’s childhood.
My kids and I found out last week that our 10-year-old German Shepherd/Black Lab has tumors running from his throat to his groin. We adopted him from a shelter when my youngest daughter was two. For years, he uncomplainingly let her dress him up as a Redskins linebacker, tie him in the hallway “stable,” and jump on his tail. Now we have to pick a day, before sleep-a-way camp starts and number one son’s basketball trip to Spain, to put him down.
The house is filled with small bags of his favorite cheese treats, and large boxes of tissues.
The farewell to a child’s pet invariably comes when no one is ready. Death may be unavoidable, but it’s a shock every time. It always arrives years earlier than feels right to say goodbye. But to me, and I hope to my grieving kids, the only thing worse than saying goodbye would be not having a childhood pet in the first place.