“Can you believe that guy?!” my coworker lamented. “You know he took off almost a whole week when his dog died!”
I was just trying to get some work done and was not looking for a tirade, but there we were.
They asked, “I mean you have cats, right?”
“And how did you get them?”
I couldn’t recall how the conversation started, but I answered, “I bought them for my husband as a birthday present.”
“See!” For some reason, every word came out like a triumphant screech. “Pets aren’t people! You give them as a gift, like plates or a DVD!”
Who gives plates as a birthday gift? But I digress.
It hurt hearing that—a bond diminished to something transactional or something so simple. I once found an injured bird and tried to save it. Sadly, I couldn’t, but I gave a lovely speech at the funeral, which I also organized—at age seven.
Animals are a gift. And yes, I paid an adoption fee to rescue two kittens, but they gave me far more.
They entered our apartment on a summer night in 2008, tiny and curious. One gray tiger-striped and one black and white—brothers.
I had recently read The World According to Garp, and a name was stuck in my head. The black and white moo-cow-looking kitten was dubbed Duncan.
To this day I tell him, “America runs on you, buddy.”
Meanwhile, my 6’5” giant Viking husband lifted the tiger-striped one into the air and proclaimed, “Phineas!”
The gazelles cheered. Toucans circled the sky. Hyenas slunk off in fear.
Human folly is a funny thing.
We genuinely thought that the ones we named would in turn be our individual cat. They flipped the script when they claimed us.
Phin played fetch with toys, his tail wagging the whole time. He turned water faucets on but refused to listen when I tried to teach him how to turn them off. He came when called. Especially at night.
“Phineas!” I would cry out after getting under the covers. From a room away I’d hear a thump, followed by quick paw-steps, all ending with an ooof! forced out from my lungs as he leapt onto my chest.
Side note: I made sure to never make him feel self-conscious about the weight.
After my birthday one year, while I sat quietly on the couch, a helium balloon came strolling by without a care in the world. Phin had grabbed the string and was parading around the apartment.
If I was derelict in my feeding duties, he would remind me—forcefully. A tiny paw would tap my head, basically saying: “Did we forget to put food out?!”
Time slips by so fast, like an ex who owes money. There were nights when dark thoughts wouldn’t leave me be. I’m a realist—which is just a pessimist who’s occasionally right. Anxiety would whisper in my ear, “You know you’ll have to say goodbye someday.”
Racing to find my Phin, I would hold him close and softly whisper, “I love you. You’re my best friend. Forever and always.”
He’d purr and nuzzle my face, hopefully understanding the sentiment if not the words.
“I mean you have cats, right?”
Had. Past tense. Eleven and a half years—gone in an instant. Cancer took hold in the pit of his stomach. Pills. Ointments. Nothing worked. Weeks before Christmas, Phin collapsed on the floor. I laid him down where he liked to sleep. He left us, surrounded by family and knowing he was loved.
“I bought them for my husband as a birthday present.”
It was a sunny Saturday, and there was an adoption fair going on near my job. I spent everything I had made on shift to pay the fees for two kittens.
Fun fact: Phineas was on sale thanks to a hernia that would require surgery. He was considered damaged goods. Best $50 ever.
“Pets aren’t people! You give them as a gift, like plates or a DVD!”
I‘ve never sobbed over a broken plate or scratched disk.
But who cares if someone does? Whose job is it to determine what is worthy of grief? Invisible gossamer threads weave their way around us all, connected to any manner of things and emotions. A cut string still leaves a frayed edge regardless of what it held.
After he was gone, I would hunch over the spot where that last breath was exhaled. My chest rocked with tears-streaming-snot-flowing-difficulty-breathing sobs. Anguished wails came through my raw and hoarse throat. “You were right here!”
The smallest thing could trigger an onslaught of pain. I don’t recommend listening to Diamond Rio’s “One More Day” while grieving. Or do if a heart-wrenching cry is in order. Night was the worst. That furry warmth that was always nearby—that I couldn’t imagine being without—was gone.
In defense of the person who said those awful things: they were also my greatest champion at work, standing up for me when I could not. People are complicated.
Grief is complicated.
I know the five stages. There wasn’t any denial. Nor anger. How could I be angry at a universe that let our paths cross in the first place? Or at the vets who did all they could? Even the disease that took him was mindless. As for bargaining and depression, those alternated sitting with me. I would graze acceptance, only to be pulled back.
Grief and loss are part of the human package. There is a paw-shaped hole in my heart that still hasn’t completely healed. It’s been well over a year, and I still miss Phin. His brother has changed a bit in his absence; Duncan now smacks me in the face when it’s dinner time.
The other part of the package is choosing to love again knowing that it may end in grief. Two new kittens wandered into our backyard—Natasha and Nibbler—and were welcomed inside to join Duncan.
We went through old pictures of Phin. Silly and cute moments frozen in time. My husband showed me one I didn’t even know existed. I had fallen asleep on the couch and Phin had climbed up beside me. I guess some instinct to protect my fuzzy boy took over—even deep in slumber— and I pulled him toward me.
And I was loved in return.
So, I say, “Phineas, I love and miss you. You’re still my best friend. Forever and always.”