Winter 2011 Magazine

Cat Chat

Animal Teachers

By Nancy Marano

Our house is sad this year. Within the space of five months we lost Rocky, our youngest cat, and Maggie May, our Westie. It has left all of us in the dumps including Sammy, our white, domestic, long-hair cat who is lonely without his friends. This is the first time in twelve years he has been an "only animal." We plan to remedy this situation by adopting another cat or two after the holidays but until then Sam is Velcroed to me. He goes everywhere with me and sleeps on top of me every night.

Rocky's and Maggie's ashes rest in a carved, wooden box in our living room. Sammy never paid too much attention to that part of the house but he does now. He sits in the chair next to the box containing his friends' ashes. Sometimes he meows. He is making it quite plain that he is mourning them and wishes they were still here.

Losing Rocky and Maggie made me think about other animals I've shared my life with and gifts each gave me. Our animals teach us many things about ourselves and life if we let them.

My family has always been "bi-petual." We've lived with cats and dogs and occasionally a rabbit, fish or parakeet. The first animal I remember was a dog named Tippy. She lived with us but was the neighborhood dog. At the time I lived on a street where there were a lot of children my age. Tippy was a fox terrier mix who adopted all of us children. She played with us in the back yard and eagerly awaited whatever game we devised. When Tippy died, none of us was old enough to understand the concept of death. All of us missed our playmate. We discussed it and decided we needed to dig her up so we could tell her good-bye. My mother caught us digging up the grass and explained Tippy wasn't buried there. She said Tippy was sick and died. She told us Tippy wasn't going to come back.

Tippy was my first brush with death. I doubt I grasped what death meant except to know it took my playmate away. It made me realize love wasn't always permanent and could disappear. We went on with our backyard games but from then on there was something missing. The small brown and white dog no longer licked our faces, or chased us across the grass or joined in our fun.

Puddy, a large, black cat with a white chest weighed in at 25 pounds of muscle. Luckily he was a very gentle cat. He lived with me during my college years and moved with me when I had apartments of my own. He learned to share his home with Shukie, a tortoiseshell cat I found.

One day I needed to give Shukie medicine. She protested, as most cats do, with strange yowls. Puddy came out of nowhere and jumped on my back digging all 20 claws into my skin. There was no way I could remove him without help. This gentle, loving cat went against his better nature to protect his friend. I was amazed at the tenacity of his friendship with Shukie and I think he was surprised at what he'd done. It made me think about the depth of friendships and whether I would be willing to leap into the fray with such abandon for a friend.

Shukie suffered a stroke when she was 14-years-old that left her blind. She accepted her diminished physical abilities with equanimity. Once we learned to put her near her food bowl or litter box, she made her way through the house easily. If she was confused, we'd put her back where she could get her bearings and she'd be on her way again. She taught me, as Maggie May did recently, that disability can be handled with grace by not fighting the small stuff and doing whatever you can. Animals have a remarkable capacity to deal with difficult situations by taking events as they happen and not worrying about things that might never be. A good lesson for all of us.

Heidi and Zeke, my Himalayan brother/sister team brought joy back into my life following my husband's death. These two bundles of fluff were barely eight-weeks-old when they came to live with me. They were inseparable. Zeke was the more outgoing of the two but also the more cautious. He sent Heidi to investigate anything new. If she came back unscathed, it was all right for him to take a look. But he shared with her. They ate from the same plate. Heidi didn't pay much attention to food. She was more interested in what was floating in a sunbeam. Zeke would eat exactly half of whatever was served. Then he'd walk away. If she didn't eat anything in a reasonable amount of time, he came back and halved the food again. This continued until nothing was left.

They traveled with me to New Mexico. The distance didn't matter to them as long as they were together and with us. Zeke was only here a year when kidney cancer overtook him. But Heidi lived to be 16-years-old. Her gentle ways showed me how desperately gentleness is needed in an increasingly antagonistic world. Her shyness forced me to look beyond bold gestures and quick antics for deeper meanings. A distant look in her turquoise eyes reminded me she enjoyed visions and knowledge not readily available to humans.

Rocky and Sammy enriched my understanding of unconditional love. During a series of surgeries, they stayed right with me healing with their presence, their purrs and their love. They checked on me before they went on to other things and slept with me often. I could feel the healing power in their kneading paws.

Maggie May and Rocky each had a tenacious will to live. Each continued to live their lives to the fullest despite incredible odds. Rocky barely survived kittenhood since he contracted panleukopenia when he was eight weeks old. Most kittens don't survive this disease and our veterinarian did not believe he would make it. He proved everyone wrong. His strength of spirit and our love brought him through that crisis. As he grew, he became a stoic cat who quietly manipulated most situations. Usually Sammy, Maggie and we humans, finally did what he wanted. He demonstrated every day that steady perseverance could win the race.

Maggie suffered from fibrosis of the lungs for the last year of her life. A spirited Westie, she enjoyed her yard, chasing anything that moved in her territory and helping to feed the birds. She raced at top speed to the gate where she could watch and bark greetings to anyone passing by. She was a sensitive, sweet dog who survived a difficult start with an uncaring breeder. We rescued her from that situation and worked with her until she allowed us to love her. As her breathing worsened, she cut back on her activities. But she never lost the sheer joy of barking at the garbage collectors or clearing her yard of invaders or making us mute any TV commercial to which she objected. She showed us deep fear and distrust can be overcome by love and difficult beginnings can turn into devotion and love returned.

These are only a few of the animals who've taught me lessons I needed to learn. Our animals constantly teach us if we are silent and listen. They exude love and trust with everything they do. They show us joy in the small things whether it's watching a bug crawl across the window sill or barking hello to kids coming home from school. And most of all their love allows us to take a chance with another cat or dog. The pain of losing them doesn't disappear but it changes into love for the next cat or dog that comes into our life. Don't ever let the grief stifle the love. Your animals expect nothing less from you. For information on dealing with pet loss see our pet loss resources page.

Nancy Marano is an award-winning writer who is owned by a cat named Sammy. She is a member of the Cat Writers' Association and Dog Writers of America. Currently she is waiting to see who the new cat or cats in her life will be.

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