I got out of my truck after work, intent on getting in the house as soon as possible since it was what Arizona considers "warm" outside -- somewhere in the neighborhood of 105°. Then I saw my neighbor. We chit-chatted for a moment and then she said she needed a shoulder. Sure, I told her, let's get in the house where it's cool.
My neighbor was having a very rough day. She was facing the loss of her dog, a dog that had been her husband's companion in the last years of his life. The neighbor was full of stories about making him dinner or taking him out for a meal only to have him divide whatever it was in half and give it or bring it home to the dog. Stuff like that always makes me smile, and even she smiled a bit through the tears. Now the husband had been gone for some years and it was time to say goodbye to his dog, and, other than their children and grandchildren, her last link with him. The pain was almost palpable and even the boys were a little less insistent on checking her out than usual for them. Animals know when something is amiss. Often they have more tact and sensitivity than humans, I think.
I've had to say goodbye to a lot of pets over the course of my life. It's hard. It's more than hard. They're very much members of the family, like four-footed children (unless they have fins, shells, scales or forked tongues). Somehow I have trouble with feeling much empathy with the pets with fins, scales, shells or forked tongues, but I know that to the humans with whom they share their lives, they are just as much a member of the family as the cat, dog or even the kids.
I know that the one thing I have hated were the well-meaning comments of, "Well, s/he was only a dog/cat, and s/he had a long, happy life. You'll be ready for a new cat/dog soon, you'll see." Obviously the person who makes such comments is seriously akin to the person who approaches a grieving family on the church steps and tells them, "I'm sorry s/he is gone, but now you and your family can get back to normal." I remember a preacher at an uncle's funeral making the statement during his eulogy, "All these years Olin has walked by her side, and now Edie has to walk by herself." Mama nearly jumped up and strangled him, she was so incensed at what seemed to be such an offhand and unthinking remark. Like the people on the church steps or the well-meaning friend, I'm sure he meant to comfort, but just didn't know what to say or, even worse, how to say it. I'm pretty sure my words to the neighbor hit more than one land mine in that respect, but I hope my shoulder and sympathy (and empathy) helped a little.
A little bit ago I saw her walk the dog out of her house and into her daughter's car. The dog wasn't hesitant, and got into the car with no struggle, tail wagging the whole time. I felt I was seeing a dog who was confident that the ride would be enjoyable, and that something good would be at the end of it. I know the neighbor and her daughter were in distress, but the dog seemed just bent on enjoying the ride.
It's hard to lose a pet. They worm their way into your heart and then, after living with them, loving them and being loved by them, you have to let go of them. It's losing part of your heart, and, like any major loss, there will always be an empty place where they once were. There are memories, to be sure, but the purrs and pants and soulful eyes are gone and can't be replaced, even if another pet comes into the family. You can't replace the original, any more than you can replace the loss of a beloved spouse or child or family member or friend. There will be healing -- eventually -- but nothing will be exactly the same as before.
But then, the love is still there, stronger than death and lasting longer than life itself. It is a love that is worth giving and receiving, even though loss is inevitable. Don't tell my neighbor it was only a dog; she'd tell you it was a part of her life, a bridge to a lost love, a giver of a different kind of love and the receiver of love as well. Love isn't measured by the number of legs upon which it walks, and the loss isn't either.
I think God knew what pets would mean to us. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if God were looking through their eyes when they look at us -- with love.
For B and in memory of Sierra.