“He has an obstruction in his intestines,” the vet said over the phone, his accent strong, some of his words difficult for me to understand.
I was $600 into veterinarian bills, over my head in pandemic fatigue and only parenting fatigue and politics fatigue and general life fatigue, an x-ray, a barium test, and three days of cat throw-up.
I squinted, as if that could help me hear him better, kind of like how I turn down the music in the car when I’m trying to figure out directions, pulling all of my senses on board to troubleshoot a problem.
“Surgery is the only way,” he added.
That part I heard crystal clear. “Uh…surgery…I mean…what will that cost?” I croaked. I had been raised in a household where an animal would have been put to sleep before the first $200. My first wave of shame-riddled thinking was: what would my parents say?
I did the math in my head: what I had already spent and now this. Whaaaaat. The lump in my throat doubled; a time constraint loomed over my head. Teddy, our orange tabby pandemic rescue cat, had been throwing up bile for three days now. His time was running out.
“There is no choice,” the vet continued. “If you want to do it, come sign the papers. I must cut him open tonight. Even then…it might not work.”
It was already late afternoon on a Sunday. Of course. These things always happen on the weekend. Or when you’re least expecting it. Or when you don’t need it. Of course.
I hung up, tears streaming down my face, still not entirely sure what my decision would be. I had never spent that much on an animal before, and I’m a natural ditherer. But it’s not like I didn’t have experience with life or death matters. Eleven years ago my first born was a 29-week preemie and spent 53 days in the NICU. There was also that time when I woke up one morning to my husband unexpectedly dying, leaving me behind as a young widow with a 13-month-old, 3-year-old, and a 6-year-old. In these moments, there are decisions you have to make despite your shock and despair. Your brain will start processing as slow as molasses, but people will pelt you with questions and keep talking at you. It will feel like you are trying to respond from the bottom of the ocean. They ask questions like: how do you want to dispose of the body? I never knew that was a thing. Or maybe it was just something I assumed I would never have to deal with until I was really, really old. Not anything to bother thinking about now. Nothing prepared me for that kind of decision-making. But there I was, being handed a list of places with prices, calculating where I’d spend thousands of dollars on this unforeseen event as my spouse laid stiff on the hospital bed nearby.
Of course *this* decision was different. A dead husband and a decade of motherhood had not prepared me for *this.*
This was a cat.
And I never, ever in my entire life loved an animal. I didn’t even bother to say goodbye to my childhood dog Rust E. when my family took him to the pound to be euthanized. I can’t even say that I missed him when he was gone, nor was I particularly eager about replacing him with another dog.
Maybe this is an embarrassing admission, especially around the majority of people who seem to like animals more than humans, but it’s the honest truth. I was a vegetarian with absolutely no interest in taking care of animals. My dad took over ownership of our Goldendoodle last year and I’m slightly embarrassed to say that I haven’t missed the dog since he left. Not even a single day. Just like I never missed Savannah, the German shepherd whose sweet former dog walker volunteered to take ownership after too many of the dog’s grief-stricken episodes that I couldn’t handle anymore as a flailing widowed single mother. I never missed Buddee, the miniature pinscher/chihuahua my husband and I adopted when we were still dating, the one we re-homed five years later when he bit our toddler and we realized we had no idea what we were doing with him. I am a failed pet owner. I even forgot to feed a parakeet when I was a kid and it died of starvation. I have tried and failed–many times over– to be the kind of person who likes animals, but I could never understand the appeal of pets. I thought people who loved their animals were a little crazy. I love animals in the wild, but as far as believing an animal was part of my family– that feeling never happened for me.
But just when I didn’t think life could get any harder or sadder or more difficult, just when I thought I had all of the nonsense figured out and I began to become encased in a hardness, hello! There was more. A global pandemic. Cancelled summer vacation plans. Lots of worry and sadness and anxiety and disappointment. Too many unknowns. More of life not going as planned.
And in the middle of everything we didn’t want in life, I got something I would realize I did want: our little Teddy. A few weeks later, we’d even take in his calico sister Clair de Lune.
My daughter had been wearing cat ear headbands for the past 3 years, lobbying me to let her have the cat of her dreams. She knew she wanted an orange, striped kitten. That was her dream. Eloise, being the artist of the family, spent her time doodling adorable cats. Everything was about cats. She kept pressing me, until finally I was in the middle of a pandemic and wondered…why not?
All of this time I thought I hated cats, but it turned out I LOVE cats. I’m a cat person! My dad hated cats and he gave me his aversion to felines, but me and cats were meant to be. Eloise was right. Cats are great.
This may seem like a small detail in the grand scheme of life, but for me this was a huge discovery about myself. I mean, how can you go almost forty years and not know? I know that I hate swimming in cold water and that Reese’s peanut butter cups are my favorite chocolate, but I had absolutely no idea about cats– yet I thought I had it all figured out. I thought I knew, but I didn’t know a thing.
It’s fascinating to uncover something new about yourself. It feels like mining for gems. And to know there are more gems buried somewhere inside of me that I haven’t discovered yet– that there is so much more in life I can and will enjoy– it feels incredibly invigorating and hopeful, especially during these uncertain and anxious times we find ourselves in.
Maybe the conditions were ripe. If that was the case– and if the conditions are always changing– then that means life is still full of potential. I don’t have it all figured out. Even if I do figure everything out today, it all might change tomorrow. This means there are endless amounts of new possibilities on the horizon. The future is full of potential.
Recently I was reading something written by Thich Nhat Hanh in the book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. He argued that a lot of people think Buddhism interprets life as suffering. The opposite is true, he argues. Buddhism helps us recognize the natural existence of suffering in life, but it’s main job is to help us change our perspective and enable us to see the joy. Life is not suffering or joy– they both exist and are both part of our journey. But we’ll get more happiness out of this journey if we are able to excavate joy whenever possible, wherever we see it. On my forearm, I have my late husband’s journal scribbling, “I am responsible.” I’ve shared before that this was his favorite affirmation, one in which I admit I regularly made fun of him for because he would write it everywhere and I thought it was kind of corny. My son Ethan just opened one of his father’s old books today and a note fell out in his dad’s handwriting: I am responsible, I am responsible, I am responsible.
No matter what happens, I am responsible for my interpretations and actions in life. That is the only thing I can control.
Cats are joy.
I am so happy I decided to take a chance on them. I am so grateful my daughter Eloise is persistent and self-assured, and that she knew cats would be a good addition to this family. Teddy and Clair de Lune bring us so much joy.
We love to watch them play.
The cats think every package that gets delivered is literally a box for them to sit in. Everything is about them in the world of a cat.
I love that they have a knack for finding the best sunny spots in the house for a nap.
They take the time to gaze out windows.
Beg to be pet under their chins.
Cuddle when they want to.
The cats let us know with no uncertainty when they want nothing to do with us. Cats are the OG of self-care and boundaries.
The other night, Teddy came in bed right between me and Peter Jack. I swore when we got these cats that they would not be allowed in my bed, but somehow they have worn me down and make their way into the bed every night and I can’t say I hate it. Teddy nestled himself between us, in a position where he could touch both of us with some part of his body. He threw his head back onto Peter Jack’s belly, promptly falling asleep. He had just gotten his stitches out and was back to his usual self. I felt grateful that he was here to spend another night with us. None of us are guaranteed tomorrow.
Amidst all of our cat drama, the kids and I watched My Octopus Teacher. It’s beautiful, and the documentarian’s thesis at the end is that we are all part of this world. He talked about how the octopus he befriended– and the diving he did– helped him repair a strained relationship with his son. It reset his mental health and reinvigorated his life. All beautiful experiences.
I kept thinking about Teddy as I watched the film. My Teddy, who was healing from having his abdomen cut open. Me, the anti-animal person, now lovingly administering medicine twice a day and cleaning the wounds for a sick little cat, experiencing a kind of love that makes your throat constrict at the thought of losing it.
Teddy is a friend. He’s a teacher. He’s a loved one. I don’t know if he makes me feel more part of this world– as the octopus guy asserted– but he definitely makes me understand the potential of all kinds of love. Unimaginable love. The bond between sentient beings. An interconnectedness that gives us meaning in an otherwise meaningless wild and strange universe.
A few days ago was my late husband’s birthday. He would have turned 57-years-old. This is the fifth one we’ve celebrated without him. Peter Jack, my 5-year-old, has been asking me lots of questions about his father.
“Was my dad a superhero, villain, ninja, or criminal?” he asked.
“He was a teacher!”
“That’s it?” he said with a sigh. I sensed he was weaving together a story– a picture– of who his father was. A father he would never remember from his own memories.
We celebrated Kenneth’s birthday with a trip to the cemetery, a family movie, dinner, and a cake complete with singing and blowing out candles. Sometimes I feel my late husband’s absence in the worst way, especially when I’m dealing with stress like the vet decision and staying up late every night doing homework and the tedious tasks a single parent has to manage alone, especially during a pandemic. I miss conversations with him about politics– especially during an important election– and I miss his Netflix recommendations and how he would send me news articles. But in other ways, time has healed my jagged wounds of grief and I have reached a level of acceptance that comes after lots and lots of practice, many days, weeks, and eventually years of learning to live with it. There is emptiness to be sure, but it also never really feels like he is gone. His existence is somewhere nearby– in the rays of sunlight, the conversations I have with him in my head, the incense we burn on Sundays, in the apple tree he planted. He is nowhere and everywhere. That’s what I feel like love is: boundless and eternal.
“Is Daddy happy?” Peter Jack asked me on another occasion.
“Yes, I’m sure he would be very happy if we could ask him. He would be happy because he has such nice kids.”
“I wish I could talk to him,” he sighed.
I agreed. “I wish I could talk to him too. But he’s–”
“I know, I know,” Peter Jack interrupted. “He’s in my heart. I know.”
“I think Daddy is everywhere,” I continued. “All over the universe.”
Peter Jack looked at me skeptically.
“In our hearts, in our brains, in his students’ brains, in the work that he did. You know. Everywhere.”
“I know,” he agreed. “But it would be better if he were here in real life.”
How do you answer that? There is no good answer. But I know that it is something we need to prepare for in life: love and the loss of love. Having and not having. Here and not here. Impermanence. Learning to feel comfortable with the discomfort of change. Tory Eletto said, “I remind myself often of this with my children: the point isn’t to make their journey painless, it’s to be present with their pain so they aren’t alone.”
I think Teddy–and Kenneth– remind me that love is everywhere. Love is fragile. Love is impermanent. Love is unimaginable. Love is tedious. Love is suffering. Love is joy. Love is work. Love is safety. Love is feeling good. Love is pain. Love is taking a risk. Love is loss. Love is eternal. Love never really goes away; love is a shapeshifter. It might look different, but love is love. No matter who you are, wherever you are, and no matter what has happened to you, right around the corner is more love. Love is our humanity.
That’s what my Teddy has taught me. He has made me softer and brings me back to my humanity. He reminds me of my capacity to love, and that is something perhaps we all need a little reminder about once in a while.