Every time I go overseas for a while, I only think about two things on the flight home – seeing my Dad and seeing my cat, Clifford. I can’t help but smile wide when Cliff goes through his routine of greeting me at home after several weeks apart : chirpy meows for a minute, then walking away with a stiff tail pointed skyward, turning around, more chirpy meows, then trotting back to me purring and rubbing my legs. Oh sure, he’s excited I’m home, but before he can display that he needs to let me know that I fucked up, he knows it, and it is unacceptable.
There is no bigger fan of my jet lag than Cliff. A couple days of my not wanting to do anything and constantly finding the couch for naps is like his Christmas. When it happens in the winter time and I have the fireplace on, you can see the torment in his face as he has to make Sophie’s Choice between getting on the couch with me or plopping down in front of the fire.
Cliff turns seventeen years old this year, and although he’s still in amazing health for his age, the odds tell me he won’t have many years left. There’s a part of me that hopes my neurotic oversight of his veterinary care and his, ahem, ‘relaxed’ lifestyle will make him some kind of life expectancy outlier, and he’ll make it well into his twenties. Unfortunately I’ll be lucky to get a few more years.
Especially now, as I spend more time than ever at home and with him, I think about what it will be like when he’s gone. It is going to suck, and suck hard. If I’m lucky enough to be a self-employed writer at that time, I’ll likely go on a bourbon and beer binge for a few days and write a 30,000 word tribute to the life of Clifford the cat. If I was working in an office, I would probably need a couple days off.
Then I played out that scenario some more, the one where I had a‘real’ job in an office. What would I tell my boss? What would I tell the coworkers I was friends with? Would I tell them I needed a day off because my cat died? I know damn well that would become an inside-joke-cum-legacy for all the macho manly douchebag types in the office. Hell, you catch flak for being a single guy with a cat as it is – taking time for grieving would be epic fodder for them. But then again, that’s why I quit.
If you look at a corporate bereavement policy, it’s usually something along the lines of three days for a ‘close’ relative or spouse, and one day for extended family. I won’t even get into the ridiculousness of the fact that a) there’s a written policy for this, and b) they presume to know your emotional connection to people based on their percent DNA shared. Of note is that there isn’t – and likely won’t ever be – such an accommodation for bereaving pets.
I have heard often, and seen firsthand, how a pet can slide in its emotional value to an owner when said owner has kids. They can go from the baby of the household to just another chore to tend to when a real baby comes along. That’s certainly understandable – I mean, even though they don’t stay furry and cuddly forever and they cost a lot more, I can sort of see the appeal of raising children.
What about, though, when there aren’t kids in the equation? Or more so, when there’s not even a spouse in your life? For better or worse, that furry little bastard becomes the only living thing you can count on to be there for you no matter what. Oh sure, you’ve got friends to talk to, you obviously need that, but what about that shit day at work where you just don’t want to talk about it, and no one wants to hear you bitch about your boss anyway? Yep, there’s your four-legged friend to make you smile. Every day. Every time.
Doesn’t that mean something? Shouldn’t that mean something? How can you not get deeply attached to a thing that loves and accepts you unequivocally? Frankly, I feel you’re a little suspect as a human being if you don’t. But why, then, is there such a taboo to admit that kind of connection?
There are good parents and bad parents, uncles that were more like fathers and crazy estranged aunts you’ve never met – and expressing a connection to even the worst of them is considered more ‘normal’ than feeling the same way about an animal, even if that animal was completely dependent on you for survival and unflinchingly loyal and loving to their last breath.
Maybe a lot of this is rooted in Creationism religious beliefs, who knows. I tend to think that any living thing that can show love for another living thing is pretty damn special. It seems like bullshit to me to have to dance around the reason for your sadness when you experience that kind of loss. I can’t say I honestly expect, nor want to start, an epic campaign to raise social awareness about the grief of pet loss. But next time you know someone who just experienced something like that, give them a call, show some support – you never know how much they meant to them.