Loving and letting go

April 01,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

I've always considered myself a dog person--all my life. Growing up, we had the most amazing, human-like dog in the world, and she lived to the ripe old age of 16. Our current dog is sweet and wonderful in so many ways, but she's a very doggie dog and can't come close to matching the intelligence and human-like character of our old family dog. But that's okay, really, because with how crazy and chaotic daily life is around here, it's somewhat refreshing to come home to just a regular old smelly, doggie-sort-of-dog.

My husband, though, is a cat person. He likes dogs, and grew up with them, but I think he gravitated more to the cat members of the family. When we first moved in together, a year before we were married, our charming little apartment seemed empty without a pet. A cat seemed like just what we needed--a mysterious, elusive cat who would perch on the window sills, and chase the shadows around at night. For my birthday that year, Scott wrapped up a litter box and scoop and I couldn't have been more excited. We scoured the papers daily and ended up one Saturday afternoon in the heart of a very scary part of Washington, D.C., chasing down an ad for a litter of kittens. When we did find the address, we sat outside the row house, engine idling, wondering if we should just call it quits and drive away. The place looked scary--really it did; we wanted a kitten, but not at the expense of our own lives. In the end we parked, though, and rapped at the door and were shown down a long hallway lined with sleeping cats, to a crumbling back porch. There, in a dog crate, was a pile of kittens. A large middle-aged woman sat in a metal folding chair next to the crate, peeling off strings of raw meat and tossing them into the cage.

The mother cat, as it turned out, belonged to a young man who had run into some trouble with the law and disappeared. The mother cat had also disappeared--perhaps on the run from the law herself. The other cats and kittens were being sold to make some money for something--the details of that part were somewhat unclear.

"We have to spring one of these kittens," I think we whispered to each other. The situation seemed so dire for them.

In the end we decided on a speck of a black and white kitten. We paid the large meat-doling woman the 20 dollars and got out of there, the kitty nestled into a towel at the bottom of our laundry basket. I held her on my knees the whole way back and she mewed at me, her tiny mouth flashing white teeth, and a pink and curled up little tongue. We named her Izzy; later she became Baby Sweet--mostly in fun, though, because she grew up to be completely un-sweet to almost everybody in the world and, sometimes, even to us.

She's been a part of our family for almost 13 years now, this crotchety and mysterious cat. She likes nothing better than to ponder the children's crazy antics from the safe distance of a stereo speaker, or the back of the couch. At night, after the kids are safely in bed, she stretches and walks from lap to lap, claiming again the two people she loves so much--the ones who threw her life upside down seven years ago, when they brought that first baby home. Yet our days with her are numbered. Yesterday we found out she most likely has mouth cancer, and today she's having surgery--hopefully to remove the mass growing under her tongue. Deep down, Scott and I know this is the end--that her life with us is reaching a closing point--one we weren't quite ready to think about just yet.

Pets can add so very much to a family, and take so little in return, really. We have friends whose child desperately wants a pet, yet they steadfastly refuse to give in. Pets, they tell us, are messy and, well, they grow old and DIE, leaving you behind to explain away the loss, to shoulder your children's grief along with your own. But isn't this the process of life itself? A mess of loving and letting go--the loving part being so joyful and sustaining, and the letting go part grabbing at you always, in the heart? Opening your home to a pet, and your children's hearts to loving one, is perhaps one of the most profound ways to teach them about life--that it's filled with good parts and bad parts; that to love always means to let go in the end.