Saturday, July 7, 2012

No longer pet owners

Psalm 100 (NIV)

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
   come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God.
   It is he who made us, and we are his;
   we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving
   and his courts with praise;
   give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
   his faithfulness continues through all generations.
Jack’s fish tank is empty. He had three zebrafish for quite some time, then two, and for many, many months now it’s been just the one. But today was the end of the road for the last one. It lived a long life for a little fish, and I don’t know if anyone in the house was emotionally attached to it, though I found myself feeling bad for the little guy as he took a turn for the worse the last few days.

I would love to write about my mother today, on the occasion of her birthday, because there are many wonderful things to say about her and her role in “the family,” both the nuclear family I grew up in and as the oldest of her siblings and grandmother to my three boys. But her birthday — in addition to being the day Jack’s last fish died — is also the one-year anniversary of the day Jack and I drove to Wisconsin to deliver our cats to their new home.

Aug. 29, 2001: Meeting Ashlyn and Jeri on the farm in Independence, Iowa.
I got the cats in August 2001 when I was living in an apartment in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I was never much of a cat person — the cat my parents had when I was very young was pretty much evil, and eventually it moved to my grandparents’ farm. (When I was young and learning animal sounds, I knew a cow says “moo,” a pig says “oink” and a cat says “meow hiss!”) I enjoyed playing with the other outdoor cats my grandparents kept, but pretty much all the pets I knew from home life were dogs.

But one of my roommates earlier that summer after I graduated from college had a kitten at our apartment. When the summer ended the cat left and I felt a void. A lady at work had in-laws who were trying to get rid of some cats off their farm by any means possible. There were two kittens form one litter, both female, and I brought them home. They were probably too young to be weaned, as their eating, drinking and litter box skills attested, but we got them normalized and, eventually, litter trained, and I never again came home to an empty apartment. Some times I came home to toilet paper in the living room still connected to the roll in the upstairs bathroom… but I was never alone.

I had the cars for nearly 10 years. I’m not going to recount the complete relationship, but it boils down to this: some time after we brought Jack home from the hospital, at least one of them began peeing by the front door of the house. Eventually we relegated them to the unfinished basement, where they absolutely destroyed (with urine) a section of carpet we’d brought in that used to be in Kristie’s parents living room. I thought it was because the carpet smelled like their cat (far more evil than my parent’s old pet), but Kristie felt it was more or less tied to the baby.

When we moved in 2007, I talked myself out of renting a house or apartment for a few months while we house shopped in part because no place would accommodate the pets. Buying the house we bought at the time we bought turned out to be a colossal financial mistake from which we have not fully recovered. At least their litter use in that basement was a lot more regular than in our previous home.

Ashlyn, named because she is the color of ash.
When we moved in 2009, we ended up in a house with a fully finished basement save for the laundry room, so their world became a lot smaller (though it did get pretty darn exciting the two times a bird flew into their room through the furnace ductwork). We let them upstairs on occasion, and Jack in particular loved to go down, let himself in their room and just hang out. One of the two would gladly hop in his lap and soak up the attention.

In early 2010, one of them got sick with some sort of skin condition. After some medical work it cleared up. (You’re getting the ultra condensed version.) The next winter, the illness returned and did not respond as well to the same treatments. We also, by then, had learned Max is highly allergic to most things, including animals. And we had switched to cloth diapers and Charlie was born, which meant many more trips into the laundry room for Kristie, who was understandably far less tolerant of the situation.

The writing was on the wall: the cats could no longer live with us. Had I tried to find them a different home several years earlier, I might have had an easier go of it. But it is pretty difficult to find someone willing to take 10-year-old cats with litter box avoidance issues and a skin condition, though I did eventually get that cleared up (at no small expense, of course). I will spare you all the details, but finally I found a woman who works at her local Humane Society who has a son and daughter (age 6 and 7 at the time) who agreed to take the cats as long as I paid her landlord the pet deposit fee.

Jeri, named because she has only a touch of grey.
It was a long drive to Wisconsin one year ago tonight. I found the town just fine, but had a heck of a time getting to the right apartment. During my mad dashes up and down the same street (looking for North Whatever Street instead of South Whatever Street) one of the girls threw up in the pet carrier. I’m not sure Jack understood entirely what was going on (even a few weeks ago he asked if we’d ever see them again) and I’m sure he didn’t pick up on my emotions as we drove away. It proved to be more difficult than I expected — it was very hard to let go, but I found peace in knowing I’d kept them from a shelter or worse. And in some recent social media stalking I saw the woman posted pictures of each cat within the last three months, so it seems everything worked out for the best so far.

I was sad our cats had to go away. But as Kristie has pointed out in recent months, it’s a real shame for Jack, because they were becoming his pets, too. He loved to play in the basement of our Ottawa house, and they loved his company. Here in Gurnee, it was a privilege for him to go play with them because Max’s allergies made him ineligible. He enjoyed the responsibility of feeding them before school each day. They were so sweet and loving, they’d always fall all over him whenever he checked in. For a kid who can get pretty worked up at the drop of a hat, it would be wonderful if we could send him downstairs for some feline therapy. Now that he shares a room with Max, he’s really got no space of his own. He can go places to be alone, but nowhere Max isn’t allowed to be. That can be difficult for an oldest sibling to handle, and it will only get worse as they get bigger.

I don’t especially want any other pets. The experience of coming to accept we had to get rid of the cats and everything it took to find them a home and then actually driving away was draining. Plus, Max is still pretty allergic, and his physical health is going to come before just about anything. But it’s hard to ignore how many wonderful things can be said about the chance for positive experiences when a good pet is part of a young family. It’s been written about endlessly, but each family’s experience is unique and potentially wonderful.

In the long run, I think our family will need to find a different way to tap into such things. We’ll get more fish eventually, but that won’t ever be the same as an animal with which a kid can forge an emotional bond. I’m not sure what the ultimate answer will be. I do know I loved those cats and the decade we had together. I hope they’re happy now and that they live out their natural days in comfort. For a while there we needed each other, and I’ll always be happy I decided to bring them both home. But it’s also good to have moved on.

A prayer for July 7:

Lord, maker of all creation, I thank you for the ten years I got to spend with my cats. I am grateful I was able to find them a new home and to know they have done well with the transition. I pray you will help me find a way to give my children a similar opportunity for emotional connection, for learning responsibility and simply for enjoying the splendor of your creation in animal form. Surely there are more serious issues, but I want my kids to have as good a childhood experience as possible, and for them to learn you are the one from whom all blessings flow. Amen.

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