Sunday, November 9, 2014

Pet sounds

The BF’s youngest daughter was in a talent show at her high school, so as a dutiful GF I went along. He thanked me profusely for doing so, even though it wasn’t all that awful. That said, let me repeat: high school talent show. Yeah. That said, I can quite honestly and objectively tell you that the BF’s daughter was one of the stars. She belted out a magnificent “I Will Survive” so as to leave no doubt of that fact (though she told me afterward the song is in no way personal, as she’s never been in the situation described therein—“I guess I’m just good at singing angry,” she grinned). She was deservedly one of the crowd pleasers, as was an earnest young man—for there is always at least one earnest young man in any high school talent competition—who sang that Adele song. You know, that Adele song? The hell if I know the title; do I look like I know the name of any song written in the 21st century? In any case, it’s about love and hurting, which narrows it down not at all, but I doubt it matters much.  

Ah, sweet sorrow. Thing is, I haven’t got much of a sweet tooth anymore, not for leftover Halloween candy and certainly not for any song that romanticizes suffering. This is personal taste, not a moral stance. It certainly isn’t “wrong” to sing about the pain of love—on the contrary, some great tunes and a whole lot of catharsis have resulted from doing just that. But leave me out of it. At some point in a person’s life, sorrow no longer has even a tinge of sweetness. At best you shrug it off; at second-best you respond with a weary sigh. Never is the sigh filled with yearning; you’re tired of yearning, plus if you’re lucky you don’t need to yearn because you’re truly satisfied with what you have.

It’s tough for some people, myself included, to get to that truly satisfied place in life, and it’s not because (as I have so often been accused) I refuse to be happy. I don’t happen to think it’s always a bad thing to be dissatisfied; it means you see how things could be better, thus you always have a goal. The problem is striking that delicate balance between the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Because I continue to pursue long distance running, obviously I have not taken up pain avoidance full-time. That said, there are some types of pain I’ve tried very hard to keep out of my life—mostly unsuccessfully. The other reason there are so many songs about sorrow, besides the fact that their listeners love the delicious swell of emotions they induce, is that it’s universal and pervasive. We’re born crying, not giggling, after all.

One particular type of pain I’ve tried to avoid I’m now stuck dealing with in ever-increasing quantities: the sorrow that comes from losing a beloved pet. I refuse to read The Art of Racing in the Rain. Ditto Marley and Me. And Where the Red Fern Grows? Don’t get me started. The hell kind of book is that to give to a child? These are all popular and esteemed books, but anything that features a dying dog or dogs, nope, not gonna do it. This is why I have never gotten a pet in my adult life, even though as a child we always had animals around—rabbits, guinea pigs, dogs, birds, tanks of fish. In retrospect I find this a little odd given how pragmatic and no-frills my parents were, but then I guess they both grew up with animals around too, so perhaps it just became an expected part of life. I loved our pets. I hated losing them. Natural emotions, yes, but at some point later in life I decided I was losing too many things, that life was becoming more about losing than anything else, and I didn’t want to add to the losses. So for years when I went home there was no barking or purring, no squeaking or squawking, not even the blub of an aquarium. I thought I had at least managed to dodge that particular bullet of sadness.

Now I live in a house with a boyfriend, a dog, a turtle, and two macaws. The macaws will outlive us by a lot; the turtle will probably go when we go, and the dog, I know, may have only a couple years left. Even though she annoys the hell out of me sometimes, I don’t like thinking about the time when she won’t be annoying the hell out of me ever again. I have to, though. My sister’s dog is the same age as ours and has been experiencing increasingly severe GI problems over the last few months, which could mean a number of things from ulcers to tumor. If it’s a tumor, surgery would be the only way to address the problem, and even that would be iffy. My sister has already decided not to put the dog through that kind of pain, a decision most people would agree is the right one—and, most people would further agree, is the hardest one to make. It is probably just about killing her right now to think of making it.

Of all the sentimental tear-inducing stuff posted on facebook, few have made me bawl the way this one did, from friends who went through something similar with one of their dogs: Today we took Pearl for a walk in the woods. Tomorrow she will have roast beef. Next week we say goodbye. I’ve read vast gloomy Russian novels and shed nary a tear, yet three sentences and a photo of an aged canine sitting in the sun and I’m blubbering all over the keyboard.

There are times when the attitudes of animal lovers bother me. Whenever someone says they find their dogs/cats/birds/iguanas far superior to most people, I kind of want to shake them a little and suggest that this may not be most people’s fault. People are difficult and complex and hard to get along with, yes, but we have to get along with them or the world will be even worse off. It’s a cop-out to say you prefer animals to people; it’s a bit like saying you prefer reading a book to holding a job: big duh, now deal with it. Reading takes a certain amount of effort, yes, but it generally represents effort done voluntarily, with immediate and obvious rewards. Likewise, pets don’t care for themselves, but they’re easy to love. People, not so much. Cue Adele song.

Animals may be easy to love but they are not at all easy to lose. I’ll admit that sometimes when the BF tells me about all the elaborate procedures and treatments being given to a hamster or a canary, I’ll have a moment of thinking, seriously? But I’ll know, of course, that it isn’t just a ball of fur or feathers to someone, and I’ll unwillingly feel that chest-tightness, that surge of sorrow, because I know what they must be going through and I wish I never had to go through it again.

But I will go through it again, as will my sister, as will anyone in a similar situation; it can’t be avoided. And yes, we will survive, though we won’t feel like singing a triumphant song about it. We won’t feel like singing much at all. Instead we’ll be listening—for the click of paws on tile, for the swish of a tail, for something to fill the silence. It will be filled eventually, not by sounds, but memories. It is not what we want—we want our friends back—but at least we don't feel empty.




  1. After our dog died when I was in junior high, my parents bought me a snare drum (I was in band). I hated that fucking drum. All it did was make me remember that Meg is dead. There's a parenting tip in here somewhere.

    1. I think I still haven't forgiven my father for giving away our dog Leo when we had to move. That was over 30 years ago. The pet thing runs very, very deep, it would seem