Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Kristen the Yellow Lab Has Left the Building

If you've reached my age, you've most likely lost a pet at some point in your life. Maybe that "pet" was a pail of tadpoles you scooped out of the local drainage ditch or the praying mantis you collected in a shoe box and fed fresh grass clippings and crumpled leaves for half a day. Maybe it was the best pet in the history of man - a pony. Or the worst pet ever - the rabid raccoon living in your grandmother's potting shed. It doesn't matter. When it died, you cried.

I have no jokes to add. This is a sad blog post. Have your hankies at the ready. Clean ones, preferably.

Grieving a pet is different from grieving a human loved one because we are not given bereavement days. I'm not demanding that be added to the agenda of raising the minimum wage. However, it would be nice if we all acknowledged that people who have just lost a pet are as capable of flying an airplane, performing surgery, counting out change, and pouring your beer as someone who has just had their heart ripped from their chest and put through a meat grinder. There's nothing like trying to fill a prescription when your eyes are so blurry with tears that b.i.d. (twice a day) looks suspiciously like p.e.t.y. (Poison everyone, then yourself.)

Back in my day, there was a school of thought about giving children animals to love that basically said pets were a good way to teach a child to handle death. Say what? What kind of screwed-up mind came up with that hypothesis? Josef Mengele?  I'm 57 years old, have personally witnessed the death of loved ones, have mourned countless aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, friends, and neighbors. I'm here to tell you that the death of my parakeet, Chip, in 1966 did nothing to prepare me for any of that. Chip and all the other pets we had as children, might have taught us that life is short and does come to an end (even if that "end" involved going to "the farm,") but they did not make it easier to deal with death, be it human, pet, or Ali McGraw in "Love Story."
Well, unless you lose your son's butterfly. But, that's another story.

When my son was in 2nd grade, he became a Cub Scout. His den did an overnight trip at our local science center where they were each presented with a butterfly cocoon. The care instructions stated that, after the butterfly emerged, they were to feed it pear juice, keep its container clean and give it exercise by letting it fly around a restricted area. My son watched that cocoon like he was waiting for Santa. One morning, before school, he ran downstairs to tell me that it had happened. Francis the Butterfly was born! He hovered over its container, making sure I knew exactly what was to be done as far as butterfly care. He wasn't sure he trusted me with his new baby, but he really had no choice. School was calling. 

For a few weeks, we fed the thing pear juice and let it take wing around his bedroom several times a day (with the door firmly closed and one of us in the room to monitor its whereabouts.) Francis was just a butterfly to some people, but to our son, he was a cherished being.  As for me, I did my best to follow the care instructions, but privately referred to him as "that damned insect" and wondered how long I was going to have to keep buying pear juice. I confess to even demanding of my husband, "Are we actually going to have to find someone to butterfly-sit over spring break?"
"Immediate opening: Butterfly Whisperer. $10/hour. Must provide own pear juice. Bonus if butterfly "accidentally" dies during tenure.

Then, one day, I went up to his room to let Francis have a fly-around. The phone rang, so I went down to the kitchen to answer (no cell phones back then, folks!) After an hour long chat with my sister-in-law, I hung up and went about the business of housework. Then, I heard the sound of the bus roaring down the road, squeaking to a stop at the corner. Oh dear God! FRANCIS! I'd left him out of his container and had left the bedroom door open. I rushed upstairs and did a frantic search. He was nowhere to be found. 

I broke the news to our son as soon as he walked in the door. He was stricken, did a prolonged, heartbreaking search of his own, then shed some tears. I apologized over and over, and he forgave me. But, he added, with a quivering voice, "I'm not mad at you, Mom. It's just that I don't know how I'm going to live without Francis." (Why, yes. I did curl in a fetal position in my bed that night consumed with mother guilt. Why do you ask?) 
"Please, son! I know I lost your pet butterfly back in 1998, but you can still lead a full, productive life. Francis would want you to!"

Some say, when they hear of someone hurting over the loss of a furry, scaly, or winged friend, "It was only an animal. Good lord, get a grip!"  They have either forgotten or have never known about The Pet. The Pet was there forever. The Pet was there when you didn't make the team or get asked to the prom. The Pet was there when you got fired from your first job. The Pet was there when you came home from the hospital after visiting your dying father. The Pet was there at 2 a.m. when you were sure you'd never sleep, again. The Pet was there when you got into college, got the news that you were finally, happily pregnant, or that the you got the job. The Pet was there when you kissed your baby, laughed with your children, decorated for holidays, hosted a party, drank wine on the porch with your love, or curled up to read a good book. Most importantly, The Pet was there every single time you came home. Every time. Waiting. For you. So, "I don't know how I'm going to live without Francis" is about as real as it gets..

I know this to be true because we just sent our beloved yellow lab on her final journey in this world. The overwhelming sense of grief I felt for days after seemed wrong, somehow. After all, "she was only an animal." Hadn't I, in the past four years, endured losses most would see as far more traumatic?  Well, grief does not deliver on a sliding scale. When it descends on you, pummeling you in the gut until the tears flow, making the world a watery grey, it does not waste time measuring out appropriate doses based on social mores. It hurts so badly. But in the midst of the pain, you know it's worth it. The love from The Pet was as pure as it gets, and all it asked in return was that you show up.
"You are here. My life is complete."
By the way, the Francis story has a happy ending. A full week after he went missing, I was doing some spring cleaning. I went to remove the curtains in my son's room for washing. There, clinging to the inner folds, was Francis the Butterfly, alive and ready for some pear juice! We celebrated the happy news that night, and when he finally took his final flight another week later, we were able to give him a proper farewell. He was soon replaced by a guinea pig named Freddie, and later, a yellow lab puppy named Kristen. 

So, I ask, "How am I going to live without Kristen?"  Well,  I am going to try to live with the joy she found in the very act of waking up to each new day. I'm not sure that's possible for me, at least until I've had my coffee. But, I'll try. Meanwhile, in her memory, I've made the video, below, that reflects both her personal joy and the joy she gave to us. I think Francis the Butterfly would approve. 


  1. Beautifully said, Susie. Lovely video of her, she had a great and happy life. And so nice to hear the Francis story again, I loved him way back in the day, hiding out in the curtains :-)

  2. As usual your talent for telling a story has me laughing and sobbing simultaneously for all the fur and non-fur babies I've had the pleasure to know in this life. Watching Kristen's video is pure joy, thanks for sharing your story and your love for your pets.

  3. Oh, Susie ... what talent you have for capturing. Yes, for capturing. You know what I mean.

    I love you, Cuz.

  4. This is so well written and heart touching. :(