“Do you want to get a drink tonight?” My friend texts me at the end of a busy work day.
“Sure, let me just wait for this dog to die and I’ll be right over,” I respond. Because this is my new life.
I started working at an animal hospital a few months ago after fleeing yet another soul-sucking downtown business casual job I’d held for years. It was time for a change. I love dogs and cats, cats mostly… but dogs too—not really pugs—but all the other dogs, so this seemed like a great fit for me. Although I did have two major concerns: 1) Would this job be too sad? and 2) Was I going to end up with a house full of sick kittens because my heart was too big to let them sit in cages?
The answer to both concerns has been a surprising and resounding “NOPE.” Turns out my heart is not that big, because I currently just have the one cat I started with before getting this job, and it looks like there’s no risk of getting carried away one night and carting a wiggly meowing handbag full of kitties onto the CTA. Minimal chance, anyway. Ok fine, there’s still maybe a slight chance.
I’m not in the business of marginalizing anyone or falling prey to lame stereotypes. However, I see a lot of (what’s the PC way of saying this?)… women who are eccentric feline aficionados? Women of a not young age who maintain a certain number of companions of the feline variety and have a certain level of unique quirks? Cat ladies, you guys. I see a shit ton of crazy cat ladies. And they scare me to my core. It’s hard to explain the difference between a lady who owns cats and a cat lady, but I’ve developed a reasonably simple math equation to help.
One lady over thirty, plus x (when x = greater than 0 cats) minus one spouse multiplied by the number of cat photos she posts on Facebook each day = one cat lady.
It’s not a lifestyle I’m willing to embrace… yet. Therefore this job has really been a cat-collecting deterrent as opposed to pushing me down that slippery slope of kitten hoarding.
So back to that issue of my sad heart. This is a hospital, not a shelter, so the animals are all well-loved. And the majority of them come in with their tails between their legs looking scared, but then leave jumping around and happy. I saw a baby kitten that could barely breathe or eat get a giant polyp removed from its throat and two hours later scarf down a huge bowl of food while purring uncontrollably! I saw a really sick cat come in that went right to surgery and was opened up like a piñata to reveal all sorts of crazy things he’d eaten off the floor that week. He went home healthy! I saw an old blind dog get its one remaining infected eye removed and then still tear down the hall joyfully running when he heard his elderly owner calling to him! So it’s actually a pretty happy place to work. Plus I got to hold that eyeball later, which was awesome!
There are some sad parts; we do put pets to sleep. For the most part though, the euthanizing that happens is done for beloved old animals that have lived long happy lives, and for that I’m more grateful than sad. Also, not to be an ice queen, but it happens EVERY DAY. I literally see a dead dog or cat every day at my job and so it’s just part of the daily cycle. My internal dialogue is pretty basic. “Cute! Not cute! Cat lady! Sad! Why is this asshole harassing me about how much Heartgard costs? Aw, dead dog. Aww, new Puppy!” Weird as it sounds, death is part of the job.
“Want to get a drink after work?”
“Sure, just let me wait for this dog to die and I’ll be right over.”
All of that being said, there are still the rare times where I am completely blindsided. It’s an unexpected flash flood of tears and emotion that come shooting out, generally at the least appropriate times. That’s also part of the job.
I’ve had a lot of cats and dogs in my life, but have only been present for the death of two of them. The first was my cat Jasper who was the best goddamn cat that ever walked this earth. He was our family cat and we all loved him like crazy and he only really loved me like crazy. When it was time to put him down, we went as a family and did it together—it was a communal event. We grieved together and talked about how sad the house felt without him. Jasper died not long after my dad passed away, which had also been a communal family grieving process. My dad had been sick for many years and we were prepared, though no one can ever really say “ready.” It helped that in my large family we had each other to lean on and it was comforting to know that we were all going through the same loss together after Dad died. We were all softer and easier on one another and ourselves. A lot of my friends had lost parents to disease. Or knew that one day they might. The empathy was overwhelming. After Dad and Jasper died I thought to myself, “So this is death.” Terrible, but manageable. Heartbreaking, but in a way that breaks your heart wide open, making it available to receive more love than you ever thought possible.
But Dad and Jasper aren’t the ones who come to mind in those moments at work where my emotions take over.
Eight years later, on the anniversary of my dad’s death I went to a small dinner party with a number of my closest friends. It was an unseasonably warm evening and we were having a great time until I got a text from my sister asking me to call her immediately—urgent. I excused myself to another room to call her and all I can remember now is a blurry haze of words on the end of the line like “Police tape, coroner, blood, drugs, vomit, paramedics, chaos, body.” She was hysterical and crying and suddenly I was hysterical and crying and it was like each of us was holding this handful of jigsaw puzzle pieces, frantically trying to put together what had happened and only having one fact between us—our little brother was dead. I was heartbroken. But this time my heart didn’t open up, it slammed itself into a cage, like the animals at work who have “Don’t touch, will bite” tags attached to the bars. Everyone was so amazing to me, but there was no possibility of being the recipient of any sympathy for a situation you can’t even comprehend yourself. My family all flew to be together once again, but this time we mostly just sat quietly. It didn’t feel right to reminisce about someone so young. The weekend of Dad’s funeral my siblings and I had piled on top of my sister’s bed hugging each other and laughing through tears. But now crying happened privately between all the work there was to do. Clearing out his room. Going through emails. Looking for evidence for the police. Dividing up his dvd collection. A small rift about who should keep his dog. Everyone avoiding sitting on the couch where he had died until finally my stepmom dragged it outside and turned a hose on it, then finally just threw it away. Watching my older brother tear up and choosing to look away instead of comforting him. “So this is death,” I thought. Isolating. Confusing. Angry. Crazy-making.
No one could possibly understand what I was going though, not even my own family because the experience was so different for each of us. So I went home and spent a great deal of time alone in my apartment with my cat, Lucy. Lucy was the best goddamn cat that ever walked this earth. I got her when I was in college and she was just mine. She went through everything with me, moving to Chicago, break-ups, a hundred different studio apartments. She was this chill Buddha blob of a cat that would just sit on me like, “Hey, it’s cool. You’re cool. Everything’s gonna be cool.” And I loved her like mad. During the first initial weeks of grieving the loss of my kid brother, I clutched tightly each night to a stuffed monkey he had given me, a flannel shirt he had worn in our last family photograph, and my cat Lucy. I remember in the very darkest times thinking, “I can’t lose it, I can’t go completely insane with grief, I have responsibilities, I have to feed this cat.” I poured all of the love I had into that big fat cat and shut out the rest of the world.
And so, of course, my “oops, that one got me” moments at work are not provoked by the families who all come in together to tearfully say goodbye. They are triggered instead by the single women, some young, some old, some of the cat lady variety, who come in all alone because it’s time to part with a friend that only they really knew, and only they really loved.
When a family member dies, either expectedly or unexpectedly, there is a complex series of safety measures your body has in place. The grief is like this mountain you’re pushed off of, and sometimes you freefall and sometimes you sort of slowly float down, and always always always when you think you are about to crash to the bottom the ground opens again and you keep going further. It’s slow and it changes you, forever. But when a pet dies, it’s very different. The grief slices you straight in half so it’s unbearably painful, and then, suddenly, it’s done. When it comes to a pet there’s nothing more complex than “I loved you, you are gone, now I miss you.” I don’t have to ask why or wish I had done things differently or play the game of trying to figure out how old my cat would be now, years later, and what it would be doing with its life. When I went by myself to have Lucy put down the day after Christmas a few years ago, I wept rivers until finally my heart exploded out of its cage and I could feel it inside of me again, hurt as it was. My friends could understand this type of death. I could be comforted. I could heal from this.
So I walk into Exam Room One with the portable credit card machine because it’s time to cash out a euthanasia client, and then I’m gonna order lunch. I wait quietly in the corner as the vet tech scoops up the cat, wrapped in a blanket and begins to head out of the room. The owner, a woman in her mid-thirties and alone watches the vet tech leave and whimpers a quiet “Bye, Rosie” and I am officially “gotten.” Realizing you are about to cry and panicking because you absolutely must not cry is a thousand times more impossible than knowing you are about to laugh in a place where you must not laugh. So I avoid eye contact, awkwardly hand her the credit card slip to sign and tell her I’m sorry for her loss, while frantically wishing to escape. But then I remember how lonely this feels, because I’ve lived this, so I decide instead, “Fuck it.” I turn around and a tear runs down my face and I ask her if there’s anything else she needs or that we can do and she looks at me and says “No, but thank you.” I really want to hug her but I’m almost certain that’s not allowed so instead I say, “Of course, I’ve been through this, I understand.” And then I exit the room.
“Are you ok?” asks my co-worker.
“Yeah, that one just kinda got me.” I say.
“Oh I understand. I have those sometimes too.” She says.
“Yeah. Death can be tricky.” I say. And then after a moment I turn to her and say, “Should we get Jimmy Johns?” and the day continues.
And the week continues.
And life continues.
And now I have a cat named Fig who is the best goddamn cat to ever walk this earth. She is crazy and funny and fills me with joy. I’m going to keep wallpapering my Facebook page with photos of her so that everyone will know her and love her as much as I do. So that we won’t ever be alone. And also because she really is a lot cuter than all of the other cats on the Internet. Like a lot cuter. Oh man, maybe I already am a crazy cat lady after all.
So this is life.