Why We Love Them
In Memory of Cali
By Faye Rapoport DesPres
Last Wednesday I woke up in the morning, got dressed, and was about to head downstairs to feed our small herd of five cats when I noticed something strange at the bottom of the stairway. The backside of one of them, Cali, was visible, unmoving, beneath the bottom stair. It was unmistakably Cali – our oldest girl had unusual gray, white, orange, brown and black markings, part tabby, part calico -- the New York shelter that I adopted her from twelve years ago referred to her as a “Tabico.”
Cali and her brother, Tribbs, the tuxedo-colored boy I took home the same day, have been my constant companions. They moved with me to Colorado not once, but twice before I settled near Boston, Massachusetts, five years ago. When I got married, Cali and Tribbs were joined by Hamilton, my husband’s rescued silver tabby. A short time later, when my mother-in-law became ill, Cali, Tribbs and Hamilton accepted the addition to our household of her two Scottish Folds – Duncan and Fiona – if a little begrudgingly.
Now Cali was lying still at the bottom of the stairs and I knew something was very wrong. Without thinking I screamed out in fear. My husband jumped out of bed and ran past me and down the stairs.
“What’s wrong, what’s wrong? Can you take her to the vet?” I cried as my husband picked Cali up, shielding her body from my sight and rushing her into another room.
“I’ll take her, I’ll take her,” he answered from below, but I knew from his strained voice that there was no point.
“Is she gone? Is she gone?” I said, realizing that I was still screaming but unable to control myself. When he confirmed it, I broke down. I crumpled to the floor and my husband raced back up the stairs to hug me while I cried.
When I had calmed down enough to somewhat handle what was happening, we put Cali in a pet carrier and drove her to the veterinarian’s office, where I stood in the parking lot, unable to bear going inside with my husband. He told me later that the staff behind the desk could only guess what had happened – possibly a heart attack or a stroke – since my much-loved cat had been fine the day before. They took her body and he arranged for cremation.
Four days have now passed since that awful morning. The first few hours were the toughest; I have cried a little less each day. I am slowly getting used to passing by Cali’s favorite spots in the house and noticing that she is not there. I have almost stopped listening for her meow at the kitchen door, where she used to beg to be put on her halter and leash so she could enjoy the sunshine in the backyard. The hardest part has been climbing up the stairs at night knowing that Cali is not following me. She won’t be jumping onto the bed or curling up on my pillow for the night. Cali was attached to me in the special way cats often are when you raise them from a very young age; she wanted to be with me everywhere, every minute that she could.
I’ve been thinking, as acceptance slowly sets in, about why the loss of a beloved animal runs so painfully deep. All animal lovers understand that the bond we share with our pets is special and unique. Their love is unconditional, their companionship a joy. They make us laugh, bring us out of ourselves, offer company on lonely days, stick close when we are sad or unwell. For the small amount we give, they give back exponentially more.
I have realized something else over these past few days. My pets bring out the best of me because they accept every ounce of love I offer without argument, and that makes me want to offer more. I feel a sense of satisfaction from the smallest things, like placing a food dish on the floor and watching a cat gobble up his breakfast. It is an incredible feeling to know that I have saved a little life by taking it in, and I am able to make another creature happy.
When everything else in life seems complicated or difficult, this is the one thing that is simple -- I am capable of caring for an animal and offering it a good life. I can pour a tremendous amount of love into my pets, and that helps me know that I have that love to give.
It is safe, in a way, to love animals, in the sense that when you love a fellow human being you risk all kinds of conflicts and demands and difficulties and rejections, although it is usually worth it. With an animal, however, you don’t risk much…a well-cared for pet will love you even on your worst days, when you can do little but love them back.
But the truth is that loving animals is not as safe as you think. I thought Cali would be with me for at least five more years; I guarded her health carefully, taking her for her annual injections, making appointments if she seemed unwell. Just a week and a half before she died I took her to the vet because I noticed she was limping. The doctor declared that she seemed to be in good shape; her heart and her lungs sounded good and he could find no indication of any problem or distress. Soon Cali stopped limping, confirming that it had probably been just a mild muscle strain.
All was well…until she collapsed and died a week and a half later in the middle of the night, at the bottom of our stairs.
I will never know what happened to Cali. All I know is how much it hurts. But just now, as I was trying to figure out what else to say about this, Duncan wandered up to my chair. He lifted his head and waited for me to lean down and scratch his chin. When I did, he meowed a few times with pleasure before stalking off with his tail in the air.
Watching him go, my heart lifted just a little. Somehow you keep going because you learn something about yourself. Just when you think there is nothing left but an empty place and pain, you discover you have more to give – and there are so many animals out there that need all the love that you have left.