Life is a series of goodbyes, often sad ones, or, as Shakespeare’s Juliet lamented, “sweet sorrow”. Anyone who followed my previous blog*, which morphed into a book**, knows that, when each pet-sit ends and it’s time to bid adieu to our newfound furry friends, I am a big, fat, blubbering baby. I don’t know what it is. I arrive at each sit a complete stranger to the pets, but leave as if I’ve raised them from birth. Which is strange, considering how much I love this peripatetic lifestyle. I enjoying moving on, traveling from place to place, caring for a new critter. But when it comes time to say good-bye, I look into their fuzzy faces and dissolve like kibble in the rain. Sweet sorrow indeed.
And so here it is, after five months — my longest pet-sit, by the way — “it’s crying’ time again, I’m gonna leave you (to mangle a Ray Charles song). I can see that far-away look in your eyes…” In reality, while I’m wiping away tears and believing they’re just as sad at our parting, that far-away look is really saying, “I wonder if she’s going to feed me now.”
Animal behaviourists are divided on whether or not pets feel emotion, and particularly love. Some believe they simply operate on instinct and are, essentially, users. They know you control the kibble so they naturally suck up to you, rubbing against your legs, gazing lovingly into your face, even licking your hand. Once they get their grub it’s “see ya later, sucka.” Others believe whole-heartedly that pets not only feel love for you, but a wide range of emotions, including anxiety, anger, frustration, sadness and depression. There’s the recent example of a dog that lay down at the casket of his owner, a Navy SEAL killed in Afghanistan, refusing to leave. There’s also ample evidence of cats, at the loss or absence of their owners, refusing to eat, yowling at doors, pacing or going into hiding. Extreme cases have documented cats dying of what was assumed to be a broken heart. Then there’s “psi-trailing”, a term coined by Dr. Joseph Rhine of Duke University, to describe those incredible journeys you hear of pets traveling great distances to reunite with their owners after being abandoned or lost. One case told of a cat that trekked 2,300 miles over five months, from New York to California, to demand an explanation from the human who left him behind. Another told of a cat that hiked through 75 miles of mountains to track down its owner who had joined the military. If that isn’t love, what is? (And while not nearly as dramatic, we did hear that Scratchy “pouted” for days after we left.)
When we first arrive at a pet-sit, we understand that the fur balls will feel some degree of separation anxiety from their owners. To ease the transition, we maintain the same rules and routines that they’re used to, and heap on the love and attention to make them feel safe and secure. Extra treats don’t hurt either. Since Bonnie and Ben have been wintering in Mexico for many years, both Squeaky and Scratchy are accustomed to strange humans coming into their lives to care for them. Still, for the first few days they were obviously unsure of us. With patience, assurance and calm energy, within a week we were their new best people. Once they knew their basic needs would be met, that cuddles, belly rubs and head scratches were free and often, they settled nicely. And then it was over.
On our last day, we took Scratchy for his final walk, through the woods and down the trail that over three seasons turned from the mosaic of green, gold and red maple leaves of our first walk in autumn, through to the blanket of snow of winter, to the dusty dirt path lined with trees sprouting new buds on a warm spring day. As we crossed the dam we stopped to watch a pair of buffleheads gliding across the pond, back from their winter retreats in the south. We trundled down the road, Squeaky obediently at our feet in his new harness that we bought him to lessen the pressure on his trachea. We beamed like proud parents as he resisted the urge to rear up like a spooked stallion at the old dog on the corner or bark like a pit bull at the slathering hound dogs behind the fence. He even ignored the blue house yapper that, on cue, raced out of his yard to yip-yap at us as we strolled by. While each of these dogs continued their conditioned response despite our daily encounter, Squeaky was, impressively, a good boy. Progress! We wish we could say the same about his unbridled scratch-athons but, after a torrent of tonics and meds failed him, at least his chest hair had grown back and he was looking healthy — and he not only didn’t stink, he actually smelled sweet!
As for Squeaky, over the weeks and months, the fluffy fireball had warmed to me such that each morning, without fail, he would clamber up on the couch and plop in my lap for cuddles and kisses. On this final day, as he nestled his head into my neck, my hair falling over his face, he leaned extra heavily into my chest, our heartbeats melding. I whispered to him how much I would miss him, our morning cuddles and our evening fishing pole games. He didn’t understand, of course, but I got a lump in my throat just thinking of how he would react tomorrow morning when he came looking for his hugs and I’m not there.
As pet-sitters, it’s part of our job to comfort the cats and dogs in our care. So often, it’s the pets who comfort me when I struggle with the sweet sorrow of our parting. But if life is a series of goodbyes, if we’re lucky, it can also be a series of hellos. As the crooner sang to The Goodbye Girl in that 1977 flick, “Goodbye doesn’t mean forever. Goodbye doesn’t mean we’ll never be together again.” If the fates allow, next year I’ll be saying, “Hello kitty.”