Thursday, April 17, 2008

Go Not Gentle Into That Good Night

There's a lot you can learn from your pets.

Take our last dog and current cat, for instances:

Our dog, Missy, was the outdoors dog's outdoors dog. She gloried in snow storms, rejoiced in rainstorms, and whenever the occasion arose, revelled in running free with the steers on the in-laws' ranch.

She was never trained as a hunting dog, but she knew how to hunt: she did so to survive and feed her pups. That's how she came to us in the first place; somebody had dumped her, either pregnant or with her puppies, out in the middle Weld County. They lived a semi-feral existence until a farmer family found them. The farmer was able to find homes for the pups easily enough, but with the uncertain history of the mother was unable to find a home for her. Until my wife came along.

Our family at the time (specifically the two girls) wanted a dog. I'm not a dog person, and my wife, due to childhood traumas, detested dogs in general. But, the girls wanted a dog for Christmas, so my wife set out to look for one.

Missy saw my wife, knew that she had to win her over if she was to find a new home, and did her level best to do so. My wife took the dog home, and while we brought her home for "the kids", she remained forever my wife's dog.

Mike the Tomcat was the only one to have any real misgivings. Eventually they settled there differences and agreed to disagree, staying on opposite sides of whichever room. Since Mike was my cat, this made for some interesting moments when my wife and I sat side-by-side on the sofa: we would cuddle a bit, the dog and cat would growl, we would have to break up an alley fight in the living room, then go back to trying to get some time together again. Sometimes the dog went outside, sometimes the cat was sent to the basement. Sometimes we just sat on opposite sides of the room. (In compromise, nobody wins, everyone is merely equally unhappy.)

I guess I'll have to include Mike, though that was not my original thought. Mike died sometime before Missy did, being quite old when Missy came to us. Even though he had cataracts, he still wanted to go out, especially at night, to 'cat around' a bit. At this point, he'd stay out most of the night (except for bad weather) and be waiting at the door in the morning.

One morning he wasn't there.

I won't go into detail as to what went through my heart and mind. We called and whistled for him every day for the next three days. Our kids had given up on him and were beginning to think I was a little nuts to continue to whistle for him, especially since the weather had turned cold. I knew he couldn't see well enough to find his way back from where ever. But I knew, if he could hear me whistle, he would follow the whistle home.

On the evening of the fourth day, while I was whistling for him, I heard a plaintive "meow." And there he was, cold and bedraggled, but generally healthy. I was never so glad that I had taught him to come to a whistle than that night. After getting a good supper, he alternately shivered and purred himself to sleep on my lap, Missy notwithstanding.

After that, his catabout times were restricted to about ten-minutes' time in the evening. I think he understood, a little, that it was for his own good. But he always drug his heels (unless it was raining) on his way back in.

He died a couple of years later when he was seventeen years old, his old cat body finally wearing out on him, just after Easter that year. We buried him under the peach tree. For what it's worth, that was the first year that tree put on fruit.

Missy, as I said, threw herself into enjoying life, protecting the family from steers at the ranch, and even a bear, once, while on a camping trip. She never walked when she could run. The squirrels were never safe in our yard as she leaped to catch them. They generally gained the height of a tree or the top of our privacy fence in time. but they were certainly a good deal slimmer than they would have liked.

What laid her low was a stroke early one Sunday morning. By this time the kids had moved out, and Missy was very much 'our' dog now. I say 'our', but really, she liked me, but she loved my wife. She was too big to be a lap dog, but she tried to be one anyway.

I awoke early that morning, and walking into the kitchen to find Missy lying on the floor, staring sightlessly, her legs making scrabbling motions as if she were running (like dogs sometimes do when they're dreaming). She yipped occasionally as if in fear, running as fast as she could from the darkness overtaking her, as if she could out run death itself. With a final shake, she stopped.

I put my ear to her side, and listened as her heart ran down from it's racing to nothing at all, like an old wind-up clock ticking it's last tick. I told my wife, who had joined me by that time in trying to comfort Missy, that it was over.

Uncharacteristically, she started to cry (I'm more likely to, and I hadn't), berating herself for crying over a "... Damn, Dumb dog!" There was not much left to do but hold my wife and cry with her.

I've written Missy's elegy some time ago, so I won't repeat it here. I'll try to post a link to it later.

The last two lines of Dylan Thomas' poem reads: "Go not gentle into that good night./Rage, rage against the dying of the light." I think that just about sums up Missy.

Snuggles, our current cat, is on her way out. I can say that in full certainty. She has developed a cancer on her abdomen that would surely qualify her for euthanasia if I took her to a vet. Yet she still lives her life as best she can as an old lady kitty, not quite up to her kitten name of "Fizz Kit" any longer, except when the three-year-old comes careening through the house.

I ask her, not really expecting a reply, whether it's time to be put down, to end it. The only reply I get is her steady cat stare, and her steady purr.

I take that as a "Let's keep it going a while longer." We can learn a lesson from that cat.

"Go not gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Yes, You Can

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I had no idea that we got Missy that way. To this day, I thought Santa Claus brought her to us. And I had no idea how she passed on. I am glad you were there to help her. And I hope little miss kitty ( Snuggles ) is comfortable.