Amy and Robert

Rats, ripples and reflection.

This week's blog is dedicated to my close friend Amy and her brood of now departed rats; Xena, Callisto and Gabrielle.

Amy, I love you and the vulnerability and love you showed to these rodents.

I talk at length about loving cars, starships, transformers, video game consoles and food. Rarely do I ever admit to loving actually humans, let alone animals. Am I an uncaring monster? No. But I am a slightly damaged one when it comes to love. I do love and I feel it deeply but I also fear it. Letting it in opens us up to the pain of loss. Traditionally, pets teach children about loss and death from an early age and I myself had a pair of female gerbils in my youth; Lucky and Sarah. They lived for around three years and one night I found Sarah dead in the cage, with Lucky clinging onto life. We took her to the vet and, bless the vet, the writing was on the wall in bold font and highlighted that this gerbil would not see the morning. I remember the vet taking Lucky away and being given a small cardboard box with her corpse inside. That night, my room was silent. No noise coming from the empty cage. The next day Mum held a "funeral" for both gerbils. The things parents do for us. Mum, thank you.

A few years later, we got a puppy. A miniature Schnauzer called Cara. It was summer time and Mum got a bright orange Volkswagen Beetle too. It was an amazing time. Cara settled into life in our family rather quickly. She was rapidly trained and slept outside in a comically huge kennel that Dad had built. She was a happy, if somewhat lazy dog with lazy owners. We lived five minutes from a large park and hardly ever walked her. Schnauzers are hairy dogs that don't shed their coats and need to be brushed on a daily basis. We never brushed her. Every time she was taken to the groomers, she was scalped, coming back to us looking like a  mutated creature with a thin snout and huge ears. She reminded me of Gizmo from Gremlins. We were borderline dog abusers, but this canine was happy and always affectionate. I would snuggle her to within an inch of her life and on occasion she would run away from me in short order. She would also snore and get smelly as her hair grew and was neglected. Neighbours called her the dog with blood on its beard. The "blood" was, in reality, Mum's spaghetti bolognese. As she got older, I acquired a driving license and in her later years, I took her to the park weekly to try an atone for the lack of care we gave her in the past.

I saw her struggle to get upstairs, walking at a brisk pace but not running as her joins were now arthritic. I knew the clock was ticking. The whole family did. She faded gradually over a six-month period. Mentally slipping away before her body gave out. The last few weeks were torture. She pissed in the house, walked in circles and didn't know who any of us were. Mum called the vet on her final night as she was struggling to breath. We all arrived at the animal surgery (the same vet that had but Lucky to sleep) and we were taken into the back room. Cara was put on the table and the vet injected her with a purple liquid. Dad and I had to hold her down. Thankfully there was no squirming or whimpering. She just slowly lay down and stopped breathing. We stayed there petting her but I wanted to leave before her corpse got cold. This was the first real "death" I had ever experienced and some part of me died that night. We were led out of the room and told we would get her ashes in a week or two. Cara was toasted with many glasses of wine and we removed her bed and bowls from the kitchen. At some point over the years, the clever dog had snuck into the kitchen and claimed it as her own. This room now felt empty.

I promised her a few weeks before she died that I would never forget her. Never forget owning her and more so, never forget loving her. You see I loved this dog with all my heart. As a stuttering homosexual, I didn't express myself or my emotions with ease or freedom. But with Cara I could. That is the true magic of pets and dogs in particular. We can be truly horrible people, yet our dogs (or other pets) will always love us and show us affection. Even when we don't feel worthy of such affection and I certainly didn't. But Cara could reach the scared child inside me. After she died, I tried to keep my promise and I failed. I did forget, I wanted to forget what I had lost. The pain for me was too much. I decided that love wasn't worth that pain. I shut down part of my heart and never even realized it, until Amy's rats fell ill.

Imagine the scene, twenty years after Cara died, I was on a bus out to Surrey. I don't drive in Vancouver and a trip out to Surrey involves numerous trains and buses. It was the height of the summer and the bus stank of sweat. I had to get to the vet by 12pm, the time Amy was due to bring Xena in for an emergency checkup. She had been sharing on social media the night before that Xena was ill and she may be putting her down. I saw the post and my initial instinct was to ignore it. After a long three minutes, I phoned Amy and told her I would be there with her in the morning. No one should have to put a pet down alone.

Amy arrived with Xena and we went into the surgery. She was convinced Xena was doing better. I knew that look on her face. We all hoped Cara was doing better on that final trip to the vet too. Xena was having seizures. I could tell where this was going. The vet talked about medication and turned to me. She said it would buy time but there were no guarantees and that putting her to sleep might be the kindest thing we could do. I froze. Partly because I didn't know what to do or say. I looked at Amy and she was in tears. I was now beginning to well up as I was having flashbacks to Cara. I didn't want to be involved in this decision in any way and I wanted to leave, now.

The vet left us alone and Amy cradled Xena in her sweater. She loved this rat so intensely and freely. I remembered petting Cara and the relief it brought. That decision to do the right thing versus the selfish thing sucks. Amy said she wanted to be there when they put Xena to sleep. I didn't feel the need to see that but I knew Amy had to. We were brought into another room, with a glass box filled with soft carpet or a blanket. Xena was placed in the box and the anesthetic gas was pumped into it. The rat began squirming slightly before falling asleep. Amy was crying and now I was too. All I could think of was Cara and that final moment as she was put to sleep. We were led out and Amy and I sat for a few minutes. I left her be and just sat on my chair. This was her time.

I was so relieved it wasn't me feeling her pain and yet, seeing her love that rat the way she did had me look at my own relationship to love. I have never loved in that way since Cara. I'm not talking sexual love, I mean real uncensored, vulnerable love. I have bragged about my dating prowess over the last year and I've met many men and I've been with may men and none have stood a chance. Even my two ex-boyfriends, who had dogs, never got close to me like Cara. Amy was ready to leave so we collected Xena's cage and went to eat. I had no idea if Amy had eaten anything over the last 24 hours and I wanted to be a good friend to her and my own stomach. We ate and laughed and tried to pretend we were both fine. I knew Amy would be, but I was unsettled.

Seeing Amy with Xena and reliving Cara's death had sent a out an emotional ripple and it forced me at look at myself. I genuinely believe a part of my heart shut down when Cara died and I had become numb to it. Perhaps I wasn't picky, looking for mister right, perhaps I was numb to love. It was more than that. It was the choice to never go through that pain again that kept love at arms reach. Seeing Amy cradle Xena, I knew I was denying myself something. I was denying real connection and vulnerability. Cars and video games are great but they don't keep you warm at night. Hook ups are fun and last for minutes, maybe hours but in the end they all leave and I'm relieved that they do.... and I wonder why I am alone.

Amy had two more rats and Callisto was the next to pass way and did about a month later from cancer. Now this week Amy lost her last rat, Gabrielle. She has cleaned the cage and is ready to donate it and is now left with two cats in her house. I could say that after three rats it gets easier but I doubt it. I could say they were only rats, but that is unfair. Love is love and pain is pain. I would argue, regardless of the situations, the emotions are the same.

Amy, I want to thank you for letting me be there that day and for Xena and later for Callisto. I am sorry I wasn't there this week for you. I also want to thank you for showing me something I've been missing and afraid of all these years and I want to acknowledge you for your courage and love. You are one of the bravest people I now.

Finally, to anyone who owns a pet, I see now that the journey is worth it. The pain we feel at the end of the journey should not stop us making the journey in the first place. Love involves loss and that is the package. Perhaps it is like life and death. The secret to a great life is to live big, or not. In the end it is a choice and ultimately we will all die.

Where does that leave me? Don't worry, I'm not going to run out a buy a puppy or kitten, that would be irresponsible and potentially disastrous. But maybe a goldfish?...