What my furry friends taught me about living and dying.
Kanga Ru was the second to go, the second in two months. I was away and it felt terrible. I hadn’t known he was sick. He’s a horse by the way, or was.
I received the call around seven in the morning. He had one of the worst kinds of colic. He was in pain and I was being asked the question no one ever wants to be asked, especially from miles away when you can’t say goodbye. Wrought with sadness at the day I knew would come some time, but too soon, I agreed, and the veterinarian said he went quickly.
Every time I had left him at the barn, just in case it would be the last, I scratched his forehead or neck and told him I loved him. But it wasn’t enough. I never thought I wouldn’t be there. This was two years ago, and I still can’t even imagine bringing another horse into my life; it’s difficult to even watch other horses.
I was 12 when we became partners. We went to local horse shows and did western and English classes. We galloped through fields when the farmers were through with harvest. He was reliable. He stopped and turned around for me the few times I fell—I mean slid off gracefully.
Every time I removed his halter or bridle I would rub his ears, face and mouth, and then let him use me as a scratching post even though this was admonished by others for teaching bad manners. When he got older and had a bit of trouble in his hocks (back knees), I supported more of his weight when I cleaned his hooves. In total, I probably spent more hours grooming than riding. He was the calm, solid, dependable and humorous relationship in my life. He gave a lot and I learned a lot.
This is the list I keep in my wallet:
- Don’t take things personally.
- Have a shared vision (with autonomy), where you look so will your partner.
- Keep it humorous and light.
- Grooming and snuggles matter.
- It’s okay to be dirty, you’re still loved the same.
- You probably love and need each other more than you know.
- It’s okay to be strong and it’s okay to be vulnerable, you’re loved the same.
- Communicate clearly and calmly, be connected to the Earth and gather energy from there.
The first to pass that fall was Simba, a beautiful and adventurous red cat. Her sister, Serena, a calm tri-colored cat, joined her, just three weeks ago. When we brought them home, they were six weeks old, I was nine and my sister was three.
Simba loved the outdoors, even in the dead of winter; she would sit on the porch and look out, checking on the weather and the rest of the world. We would go on walks. Someone once stopped and asked if I was walking my cat and I said yes, but I should have said “no, we’re walking together.” She would also climb up on the garage roof when I went there to look at stars. She was independent yet attentive; once when I had a stomach and headache, she sat on my head and purred us both into a meditation that took the pain away.
When she was getting ready to pass, she lost weight and hid in unusual places, sometimes outdoors. We found out she had cancer; an inoperable lump in or near her lungs. The veterinarian gave her two to three days. I started making her food by hand, made her new favorite spot more comfortable, petted her, sent her good vibes and sang. For hours and days, softly, mostly the Gayatri mantra “Om bhur bhuvas svaha…”
Trying to will the tumor to shrivel up and return Simba to full health or simply to bring her peace and comfort, because that was all I had: love, will, a prayer and homemade cat food. She stayed a couple weeks more. Then I left on a trip, and the next day, so did she.
She also left these things for me to remember:
- Check in on nature, watch the wind, listen to the birds, smell the air, take notice.
- Ask for what you want and keep asking for it until you get it.
- Play, have fun!
- The top of the refrigerator is actually an interesting place to sit.
- Explore, be adventurous.
- Walks are better with buddies.
Serena was a credit to her name. She preferred the indoors and had the ability to put someone to sleep by sitting on them. Peaceful, patient, forgiving, she was a nurturer.
I was thankful I was present for her passing. I wanted to do my best to make sure that without a doubt I had done everything I could, and she knew she was loved. I sat with her all night in a rocking chair and held her in my lap, petting her and giving her kisses whenever she looked up at me. She never closed her eyes; instead she stared but didn’t seem to be looking at anything or seeing anything except on occasion. I kept her warm with blankets and gently massaging her paws and body. She was really thin.
When we noticed her dropping a lot of weight, slowly at first after Simba’s death and more so after a year, she was diagnosed with diabetes. Relieved it wasn’t cancer, we were going to see if modifying her food would help. She loved her new food; it didn’t reverse much but maybe gave her a little extra time.
As I held her, I scribbled in my journal what I learned from her. I tried writing other things but it seemed inappropriate to be anything but fully present. That was probably her number one gift: presence.
Serena taught these things:
- How to be peaceful.
- How to go to the relaxed, loving and meditative kitty cat place that makes all well.
- How to allow love in and be okay with needing people. Loving and needing someone at the same time is possible and they will probably want to help and love you back.
- How to be present and attentive with peaceful healing love.
- How to care and heal.
- Be open and authentic. Ask firmly and politely for what you want.
- Cuddles are important and necessary.
- Patience, kindness and sereneness for myself and others.
- A good nap can be healing.
I’m not sure of the level of upset most people experience when their animal companions pass; my friend has assured me it’s normal to be very upset. I was pretty shattered when Kanga Ru and Simba died. Being able to spend every moment possible with Serena was a gift. Presence is a gift. Several months ago, I realized that instead of worrying about what happens if and when they go, I could enjoy and treasure every moment, spend every ounce of energy on love.
I visited my aunt a couple months after Ru’s death. I broke down and asked what one does when someone dies. I’m the oldest of two and the second oldest cousin and felt responsible to be prepared for future deaths, to be the one that has it all together or can get things done despite pain.
She said that when someone dies, “you have time.”
When I sat with Serena through the night, I checked often to see if she was still breathing and to feel her heart beating. In the morning, I wasn’t exactly sure of the moment she left, she was still warm for a while, so I sat and allowed time. Time for love, for grieving, for transition, for gentleness.
My three companions are never far from my mind and I often think about what they taught simply through being fully themselves. To continue to love, to learn and be present myself are the best ways I have found to honor them.
Now, it’s just Spirit dog and me. He’s really my mom’s devoted companion, but she is away so he is in my care. Because of that, I get to learn from him too. So this time is special.
This is what he has shared so far:
- Greetings matter. Big, joyful, happy, I-haven’t-seen-you-in-so-long-even-though-it’s-only-been-a-few-hours-oh-my-gosh-you’re-here hellos are pretty wonderful.
- Stop working so much and take a walk.
- Leaves, snow, grass; it’s so much fun to roll on the ground.
- Enjoy smelling.
To these loved ones, I will always be grateful. My heart will always have a furry, warm and present place for and because of them.
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Asst. Editor: Edith Lazenby / Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: (Wikipedia Commons)
Editors: This was author’s title: Heart Treasures from Animal Companions,