Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Learning to Say Goodbye

I feel like that kid in class at college. The one who never spoke up. The one who never ventured an opinion or offered a plausible answer. The one, who sat quietly for week after week after week, until when, in the last week of the semester they raised their hand and attempted to speak it seemed like not only time within the classroom froze--time throughout the world did too. Everyone was waiting, with baited breath, what would The-Silent-One say?

So here I sit trying to think of something profound to share while my house echos with drum beats like the movie Jumanji. My kids got the Wii Taiko Drum game from Santa this year. (Yes, Reno, now nearing the age of 12 STILL believes.) But, now that I've got your attention, I've got to plow on ahead and say something.

I washed the cat yesterday.

There, I've put something out there; admittedly it is on a par with The-Silent-One's typical end of semester question, "Will the final be blue book exam or multiple choice?", but we've got one fluffy Russian Blue in house. Who smells rather floral. And is still glaring at me every time she enters a room in which I am.

We used to have two cats--Melon (the American Shorthair) and Happy (floral fluffy stray who looks exactly like a Russian Blue). But we lost Melon just before Christmas. She was only 8 years old, but died from kidney failure.

Melon is currently very much still part of our household. Physically, her bones and ashes are in an urn, in a Japanese funeral urn box, in her old pet basket on top of the cat cage. In front of the pet basket is a bowl of her dry food, a cup of water (she always preferred drinking out of cups she found on the sly left on the table, rather than drinking from out of her water bowl on the floor in the kitchen), her favorite mouse on a stick toy, and several photos of her. In the pet cage, crowding around the box holding her urn, are pictures of her that the girls have drawn and several letters to her as well as one properly bound (with yarn and tape) picture book about Melon authored by Saki.

She was cremated at a pet funeral home on the 19th of December. On February 5th or 6th we will intern her ashes at the pet funeral home. That will mark 49 days since her cremation--Buddhist tradition. I still have to check with Masa--is it 49 days counting the day of the funeral or 49 days counting from the first day after the funeral?

If anyone had ever told me that I would pay to hold a funeral for a pet, I would have laughed, anxiously. I would have had anxious thoughts flooding my mind like, "good lord. Will my life be that pathetic? Will I treat a pet like a human loved one? Will I try to make others honor my pet as a "person" too?" Flash back to my parents' home six years ago when we visited them for three months: My father accused me of causing their dog to fall into a deep depression during my visit. Because I treated Caylie (the dog) like a d-o-g. "He's not a dog. He is much more. He is as much a part of this family as either you or your brother were when you were growing up."

Disturbing statement on several levels which triggered anxious questions, the most immediate being, "We were like pets to you and Mom?"

I love my pets. I have always had pets. I loved Melon and I love Happy fiercely. But I love my pets as pets. In fact, were they people to me, I'd probably have much more complicated and difficult relationships with them. As it is, I am free to love them unconditionally as pets. They vomit up a fur ball on the kitchen floor? I love them unconditionally. They shred a favored section of the couch? I love them unconditionally. I scream, "BAD CAT!" a lot, but the love remains unconditional.

The bottom line is: I love animals, especially pets, but I love them because they are animals/pets.

Which is why this past summer when we visited my parents for two weeks, I took the opportunity on more than one occasion to fall on bended knee, look deep into their new dog's (a spirited little terrier) big black glossy eyes and say, "Tucker, you are a dog."

Saki kept asking, "Mommy, why are you doing that?" and I told her, "Because honey, he is a dog. Isn't he a cute dog?" My Dad winced in the background, but I think he got my message.

So if pets are pets, then why an elaborate funeral for Melon? An elaborate funeral which cost quite a bit of money no less.

When Melon first fell sick, it was obvious that the kids were in distress. The cat was in acute physical distress, but my girls were in acute emotional distress. It wasn't the first time that Melon had been critically ill. Five years ago, when Masa was first diagnosed with RA and sent to a hospital for three months to start treatment, Melon took the opportunity to suddenly begin vomiting non-stop. I took her to the vets where they did emergency surgery (expecting to find a blockage in the intestines, "perhaps a bit of sting, or part of a cat toy") which turned up nothing. My cat couldn't stand, eat, drink or use the litter box on her own. I expected the vet to suggest euthanizing her. He didn't. When I suggested it, he was appalled.*

So for the first month that Masa was in hospital, I was taking Melon to the vets daily for IV treatments and feeding her liquid food with an eye-dropper. She drooled non stop, couldn't stand and I had to wipe up her and her cage several times a day.

For the second month that Masa was in hospital, Melon started to stand up, although she tended to fall over on her right side a lot. But she started to eat a bit of wet food on her own and drink some water which decreased the frequency of the IV treatments.

By the time Masa came home, Melon was nearly normal. The vet proffered that they thought we should take her to a big Veterinary Hospital in Osaka to have an MRI done on her to determine if perhaps the cause of all of this was a brain tumor. But as Melon continued to regain her strength and her former feline self, we never did.

Why didn't I fight harder to have her put down? The poor thing had a quality of life that was non-existent for at least two months. The vets never offered any hope of recovery. The vets couldn't even give an educated guess (except for their final, "brain tumor?" theory) as to why Melon had become so ill. It was a "mystery disease that appeared incurable."

Because with then six-year-old Reno it all sounded so similar to the diagnosis that her Daddy had just been given. For five years Daddy had had health problems that were mysterious. Doctors didn't know what was wrong. Even with the diagnosis of RA they confessed that they couldn't be absolutely sure that it was RA and not a combination of another immune system disease coupled with a spine disease and maybe a few others. The only thing that they told us with certainty was that it was "incurable". . . but "treatable".

And Reno made those connections. Having the cat put down seemed tantamount to announcing, "and perhaps we'll have Daddy put down next."

And Melon recovered. And Daddy came home. And he is home and in treatment and doing well.

But now, this past December, Melon started to vomit non-stop again. Masa was out of country on a business trip. It all felt so familiar. Back to the vets (a new vet, but like the one in Osaka, against euthanasia). This time the diagnosis was confirmed with a blood test. Her kidneys were in failure. We did IV treatments for a week. Then one day we skipped the treatment--Masa was back from his trip by now--and she spent her last day at home, in her pet basket. Saki sat next to her on her final evening and sketched her, telling her what a good cat she was, how much she was loved. That evening, Reno disobeyed my order to "go to bed!" and stayed up with Melon for about two hours, petting her and talking to her.

In the early morning, around 2:30 a.m. I heard a terrible noise and came downstairs to find Melon dying. When she was done, I picked her up, cleaned her up, and put her in her cat basket, curled up and quiet. The girls found her that way in the morning.

I cried in the kitchen in the early dawn. The girls cried when they woke up and came downstairs to find that she had passed on. But it was a school/work day and after the girls were off on their way to school, I took Melon's body and placed it in a towel, which I placed in a cardboard box, which I took out back and put in the shed in the back yard. It had been snowing steadily for over a week and so the chances of an outdoor burial were nil. The ground, besides being rented, was frozen and buried under snow and ice.

We called the vet and she referred us to the pet funeral home. So two days later, that is where we had Melon cremated. Masa and I debated the merits of paying for such a ceremony. It was Masa who really decided in the end that it was worth doing--for the girls. It would be a kind of lesson in death and learning to say goodbye.

And it has been a lesson, a progression, a process. Especially for Saki. At seven years of age, she kept asking if Melon was really dead. At the pet funeral parlor, after sending Melon off for cremation she wept and cried. As we passed Melon's bones around and put them in the urn she was silent but alert, open. On the way home, with the urn in the car with us, Saki clutched a photo of Melon to her chest and continued to weep.

We've gone from that day of the funeral and weeping, to telling each other stories about Melon. Remembering Melon together. Saki has spent a lot of time breaking down what happened to Melon. How she first got sick, how she died, how we cremated her. Reno, more familiar with the idea of death hasn't been as verbal about it all as Saki has, but yesterday as I rearranged the letters around the urn I was surprised to discover that many of them were poems about Melon and letters to Melon that Reno has written and quietly, unobserved, slipped next to her pet's memorial.

Masa looked over at me on the day of the funeral and told me, "It's important that they learn how to say goodbye so that they can go on with living." that and, "If they don't learn to live with the emptiness of loss then they are bound to choose bad men on the rebound in the future when they break up with a boyfriend."

I think he was right. On both levels.

*Most veterinarians in Japan are against euthanizing animals, believing that it is going against the natural order to do so. Unless a family can present an air tight case for not being able to afford treatment/care they are very reluctant to end an animals' life prematurely, albeit, humanely. Ironically, most Japanese also believe that neutering or spaying animals is against the natural order. Although most vets will gladly do it.