A pet's death opens our eyes to mortality

May 17, 1994|By Elise T. Chisolm TY. COLUMN

The worst thing about that day, a month ago, was that it was dreary and raining hard.

It was the day of our appointment with the veterinarian to put our cat of 13 years to sleep, or "down" as some people call it. I don't like the term "down." I like to think she went upward, if you know what I mean.

Sophie was beautiful. She was a long-haired, snow white cat with green eyes.

For months we had been thinking about how and when to do it. I felt like Dr. Kevorkian planning an EXIT.

Sophie had multiple ailments from which I will spare you the details. The doctor had done all he could to make her better. She was suffering.

I asked a good friend to take her to the vet for me. I could not stand to do it, I thought. What a coward I was. Yet I knew I had to be the one to hold her when she got the fatal shot.

Even though she was terminally ill, she didn't look sick enough to enable me to do it with courage and conviction. Intellectually I knew it had to be done, but emotionally I fought it. So I did it with guilt and a breaking heart.

I wonder what it is with us humans that we become so in love with, so attached to our pets? What makes us reach out and want to be loved by them, even though they don't help around the house, bring in any money or tell us we are beautiful every day?

Many philosophers with knowledge of the human psyche have dealt deeply with this subject. The medical world reports that petting or loving a cat or dog lowers blood pressure, calms us and makes us feel better.

Yes, she did calm us. Let me paint a picture. She was loving, and she knew when I was sick or sad. Then she would come up to my room and lie down next to me and purr, as if she shared my heaviest secrets. She sat on my husband's lap every night, especially after his heart attack, and later when he broke his back. She instinctively knew -- "I have to help here."

Sometimes her ills seemed emblematic of our private lives.

On her exit day, my husband drove, and I held her. Usually she went ballistic in a car; this day she purred. She lay still in my arms with one of her favorite blankets wrapped around her.

She loved the chin rubs I gave her during the 20-minute drive, which seemed like hours to me.

What hurt most was when I looked into her soft green eyes. Selfishly I saw my own mortality -- my own progression into old age, from youth to sickly and worn-out. Reaffirming that time does not stand still for animal or human.

The doctor was there to meet us. I kissed her goodbye and whispered, "I love you," and turned from her then. I started to cry but held back, so that my husband wouldn't cry, because he had to see to drive home.

But when I got home, I ran to my room and lay face-down on the bed and cried and cried.

I found out the strangest thing. I had not cried like that for years, and I suddenly realized I was crying for the whole world. I cried for the children of the Balkans, Rwanda and the impoverished in our own country, and for the transgressions of us all.

I was selfishly crying for my own soul with its internal longings; at my husband's recent illnesses -- his pain. And for the fact it had been the hardest winter of my life, as far as ice, snow and personal traumas.

But when I was through, I felt better. Thank you, Sophie: Even in your death, you comforted me.

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