Mama Madison: Saying goodbye to a pet

...and thinking about when to get another one

She was just shy of twenty. I have no idea what that means in people, or even dog, years. But according to the vet it was very old. Izzy spent the last five years of her life looking very much like a real-life version of Grizabella, the geriatric alley cat from Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Memory"-producing musical. She was matted and scroungy; I am not sure she ever weighed more than 4 or 5 pounds. We were just waiting for a sign that it was time. I felt blessed the vet could take her last Saturday morning. The sign, that she could no longer use her hind legs, came on with a vengeance on Friday night.

This wasn't the first time my kids have been through the loss of a pet. This coming January will mark the two-year anniversary of when we put another beloved cat, also 19, to sleep. And in many ways that one was much harder. We may have had three cats, one more than acceptable if you don't want to be considered "crazy cat people." But Emmy, a soft, sweet black and white shorthair, was the only one who paid the least little bit of attention to the children. The other two, an angry orange tabby we inherited from my father-in-law and Izzy, who was already starting to keep to herself in her twilight years, weren't particularly affectionate. Emmy was their lap cat. She was their pet in the very best sense of the word.

A few weeks prior, my husband noticed she had slowed down significantly, and then one Friday, this time in the morning, she was having a hard time standing. We let everyone stay home from school so that they could come to the noon vet appointment. I think I knew that it was a goodbye, but hadn't brought myself to be so sure when talking with the kids. We had discussed that the vet might tell us "it was time." But it was clear they were quietly praying that the cat doctor would have some miraculous cure that would allow for a "tenth life." They had hope--and I may have incorrectly encouraged it. At 11:45 a.m., we wrapped her in a blanket and climbed into the car for the five-minute ride. All three kids took turns holding her, no cat kennel, in the back seat. I told them she wanted to be cuddled. But the truth was I knew there was no way I could drive an empty carrier home.

The vet was kind, but direct. While it was possible Emmy's advanced kidney disease would allow her to live another couple of weeks, it was an equally compassionate choice to put her to sleep as part of this appointment. For me it was like pulling off a bandage. I just wanted to get it over with, to get to the other side. The idea of going to sleep each night worrying that my daughter would awaken the next morning to the cat lifeless in her bed sounded dreadful. The kids and my husband all said their goodbyes and left the room, where I stayed to hold Emmy as she gently drifted off.

The kids didn't go back to school that day and when we got home I asked them what I could do to help them feel just a little better. My oldest son didn't miss a beat. "The only thing that will make me feel better is to get another cat." And within two hours of one of the worst moments of their lives we were off to a different vet"this one with a sign out front advertising kittens for adoption. It was ridiculous, I knew, to even entertain the thought. We still had two cats at home and we certainly hadn't engaged in anything close to a respectable mourning period. But ice cream, my usual fallback for the hard times, wasn't going to cut it. And we welcomed Desi into our family that night.

It was different this time, though. The signs were so obvious and the kids didn't feel the need to hear the "Circle of Life" speech again. We all went quietly to the appointment knowing exactly what was going to happen. Everyone gently kissed her fur, and I again held her in her last moments.

This time we came home and reminisced about what an exciting life Izzy had led. We remembered how she had been purchased for the equivalent of 27 cents in a Mexican pet store. We remembered that she had traveled throughout North America spending quality time in Mexico City, DC, Boston and Chicago before becoming a Cheesehead kitty. We remembered how in her final weeks she'd taken to sleeping upstairs in the boys' room again, reclaiming the space annexed months earlier by the new kitten.

And we remembered that this time we probably didn't need another cat, especially that evening. But that isn't keeping my husband and daughter from talking about getting a dog. And I guess I'm open. Because that's what loving and losing a pet teaches you. That you can adore them with all your heart and that your heart can be broken. But you also learn that hearts open up again, especially for warm furry things that curl up on your lap.

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