Posted on 3 April 2014
Death, apparently, gets easier.
Which isn’t to say it’s easy. It never is. Tears have been shed today. Full-body sadness. But even as it’s happening you recognize that this is one of the stages you go through towards getting better.
I’m probably writing in the third person to distance myself from the events. Let me be clear: this is my experience. I don’t pretend to speak for anyone else. But I imagine I’ll lapse into the universal rather than the personal tense again before this post is over.
Today, for the sixth time in five years, I’ve said goodbye to a pet. Nine times if you count those I bonded with who lived with other family members. I know that sounds like a high number, but it’s a combination of family pets from childhood getting old and the emotional toll that comes with rescuing abandoned animals, some of whom were abused, some who were on their last legs when previous owners gave up on them. We’re not a hospice, but we are definitely not having these guys come into our lives at a young age and in tip-top shape.
Look, I know: people lose worse. People lose family members. I’ve lost family members, though, blessedly, not immediate ones. Grief isn’t a zero sum game. There’s enough of it to go around.
Gus the ferret came to us five years ago. He came from a loving home, but his owner got a job long-haul trucking and couldn’t keep him or his sister. So they came to live with us. This was the first time I had ferrets. There’s a lot to learn.
We lived by the ocean at the time. Gus enjoyed going for walks out there. One time, he decided he would try to go for a swim, so we had to run out into the water after him. Another time he decided to go poking around the place we were renting and wedged himself between a lead pipe and 100 years worth of new walls, built layer upon layer of each other. It took a combination of power tools and olive oil, plus a full day’s work to get him out of that one. He was a lucky guy.
Some ferrets have trust issues. They don’t know how to play, and their reaction to people is to bite them and/or hide. Not Gus. He was basically the definition of happy-go-lucky. And he was tough, so that if some other animal decided to try and pick a fight, he could shut that down pretty quickly.
Not that he was ever aggressive. Just that he could stand up for himself. Which meant that when we would get a ferret with an attitude problem, Gus was our helper in rehabilitating them. He was friendly and playful and didn’t freak out if attacked- he would shut it down, then start playing again. If there was a ferret that was scared of everyone else, they would go with Gus and he would gain their trust. He was also our go-to for classroom demonstrations or information days– people who didn’t like ferrets for all the usual reasons people don’t like ferrets would like him. And he liked everyone else. Even our cats, who are the “don’t touch me” variety most of the time, found him tolerable.
Last summer, we found out Gus had cancer. Cancer in a ferret is pretty much untreatable because of how small they are. It’s definitely a case of the treatment not necessarily being better than the disease.
We didn’t know how long he would last. He made it through the rest of the summer, then through Christmas. We thought he was on his last legs after that, but he rallied and kept on going. We had two “we don’t trust anyone” ferrets come in, and he helped turn them into affectionate adoptable pets. He just kept going.
Then he didn’t keep going. He lost his ability to walk, and stand, and most of his appetite. His breathing was laboured. He couldn’t sleep properly.
The hardest part about it was his spirit was still strong. You could see he wanted to walk around and explore, but physically couldn’t. We even had an appointment for him to be taken away peacefully, and then he rallied again. But just a little. Just for that day.
The decision to say goodbye is a tough one. Rationally, you know it’s time, but emotionally you’re holding out hope for a miracle. You do battle with yourself over what’s best for the pet, second-guess if you’re taking the easy way out, even though you don’t know whether it’d be easier to choose euthanasia or watch them slowly get weaker and weaker and weaker until they die a more painful death that you didn’t make an appointment for. Every time they raise their head on the drive to the vet you question if you’re doing the right thing, and every time they wheeze because they can’t breathe properly you wonder how long you’ve been making them suffer.
The decision to have a pet in your life is a decision to feel pain one day. Every time this happens I look at my other animals and think “I’m going to have to go through this again, soon.” And then you think of friends and family and loved ones and realize it’s going to get even worse.
And yet we keep letting people and pets and children and causes into our lives. We get married to people we can’t imagine life without, even though every love story ends with a loss. It’s inevitable. The only people who don’t lose their parents are the ones whose parents lose their children. Someone’s going to be the last in their circle of friends to keep on living.
All around us people have lost. Car crashes and miscarriages and escapes from war-torn countries and murders and suicides and, in the best case scenario, gone peacefully in the night. When you’re in the immediate aftermath of a loss, or at least when I am, the mere fact that the world continues to function despite all this sadness seems not only miraculous, but downright impossible.
But I’ve been down this road before. I know it heals. I already feel better than I did an hour ago, and by tomorrow I’ll probably be pretty close to normal. It’s quicker now, probably because I’m so practiced at it. I wonder if that’s the case for other people. I know many who have lost more than me.
I’m writing now, and without a filter, because having been here before I know that as it heals, you forget. You forget how precious it all is, how when you were saying goodbye you wished you had done more before, before you knew just how limited time was. But if you’re always sitting there remembering how limited time is, how do you function? How do you move on with the day thinking every moment you spend with someone could be the last? It’s all too crushing. So we put it off. We don’t say the things we want to say. We surf the internet and watch TV instead of picking up a phone and asking how your day was or taking a moment to remember how lucky we all are to be here. How lucky we are to have each other in our lives.
We don’t think about it because this isn’t the last time. Not this one.
We’ll see you again.
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