A few weeks ago, we had to put down our cat.
Her name was Cleo. She was a beautiful old girl, both inside and out. My husband and I aren't really cat people, but the kids maintained they were cat people, so of course getting a cat was inevitable. Since I lean towards excessiveness in all that I do, I went to the humane society and adopted not just one cat, but two. They were sisters, one black, the other gray, both soft balls of long-haired fluffiness.
Years later, the black cat snuck outside - the first time she had ever done so - and never returned. Cleo sat at the patio door and cried for a week. I wish I were lying when I say it was one of the hardest weeks of my life. My kids were upset, and we all felt sad together, but it was Cleo's reaction that broke my heart and woke a gentleness in me that I never knew existed.
My five children? I love them with a fierceness that burns, but I won't hesitate to tell them what's what. My dogs also frequently encounter my more militant side. Did one of them just dare to look at me? While I was eating? I'll banish them to a room across the house for showing such impertinence.
But Cleo? I've never been so gentle and patient with another living soul. She was soft and dainty, afraid of her own shadow. She hid from other living beings so efficiently that when I told a friend who regularly visited our house our cat had passed, her first response was: "You had a cat?"
But at the end of the day when all was quiet, she would slink into the bedroom and curl up between me and my husband. She'd be on high alert for any sudden movements, but begging for a scratch behind the ears. We knew how much she wanted the contact, but also knew how much she feared it, so we lay as still as possible. She needed a safe space where those two emotions met. When she finally shut her eyes, her breathing giving way to a steady purr, it felt as though my soul relaxed, too.
That's the thing with our pets. If they are truly part of our family, and we truly love them, they are part of the give and take of our lives, rather than "just a pet." My dogs, for example, though they rarely witness the gentle side of me that Cleo monopolized, seem to effortlessly bring out my child-like excited side. Even if I am in a terrible mood, when my dogs go into a frenzied excitement over the miniscule treat they STILL receive after a decade of going outside to do their business, I join in and get excited with them. And why shouldn't I? They just pooped, and it wasn't in my house. That seems worth a small show of excitement.
The dogs are aging now, too. I am bracing myself for the day they no longer care about the treat. When their day comes, I will spend those last few days doting over them and reminding them of how loved they are, just as I recently did with Cleo.
It's the give and take of life. Those last few days - if I am fortunate enough to know it is their last few days - will revolve around me giving and them taking. They are never, to some of us, "just a pet."
I am more gentle from loving Cleo. I am more gruff from loving my adorably exasperating dogs. I am changed because they were family.
Kathleen Murphy is a freelance journalist who lives and works in Duluth. Write to her at email@example.com.