I originally posted this a few years ago as a way of honoring my parents. They say that story telling is good for the soul. I am re-posting it here in advance of the 5th year anniversary of my mom's passing and as I reflect back on times shared and values forged through family bonds.
I’ve often told people that I grew up in an animal-friendly household. Thinking back, that’s probably an understatement. It was more like an animal-integrated household. We never had a dog. I just recently learned the story behind that and while I’m a huge dog fan now (often accused by my husband of speaking with a “cat accent”) it all makes perfect sense to me in hindsight. We always had cats and sometimes had many of them. In our childhood home, animals were family members to be loved and respected - quirks and all - just like humans. It started with Spot and led to Callie and Mark and Leroy and Barbara and Annie and Dave and Tommy and Batty. Most had “people names” and that pretty much reflected their status in our house. We never questioned how animals were to be treated and the fact that my siblings and I all have animals as adults (all of whom are rescues) speaks to the values taught to us at a young age.
In the Fall of 2009, Time’s Winged Chariot took two swipes at our family. Dad’s lung cancer was diagnosed in September; mom’s stomach cancer diagnosis came in December. To say we were all in shock is another understatement. Dad’s cancer was somehow easier to rationalize. He had been a long-term smoker and had worked his entire life in an industry which was at one time replete with carcinogens. Mom’s was less fair somehow. She was a 20 year breast-cancer survivor and I think I had allowed myself to believe she had paid her dues to The Fates and would live for decades.
Both of our parents were in really good health before being diagnosed. No serious chronic conditions. Very physically active. That state of being “otherwise in really good shape” served them both well in the months to come. They began this dueling schedule of chemo and radiation as they tried to keep balance and make sure one of them was in reasonably good shape at any given time. At one point, dad’s oncologist (whom mom later worked with) commented that our parents really were taking the whole concept of doing things together way too far. My sister and brother, both of whom live close to our folks, were there each step of the way and I’m eternally grateful to them. I can only imagine the juggling acts they both went through as they tried to retain a degree of normalcy in their own lives - work and family - while being there for mom and dad and doing everything possible to help keep our parents in their own home. With the cats. No one really talked about how long the arrangement could be sustained. We knew they wanted to be in their own house and we all pretty much assumed that dad would outlive mom by years. I distinctly recall a conversation with dad at Scripps Green in La Jolla (mom was doing prep work to have a power port implanted) in which dad said he really thought he had another good 8 to 10 years left.
I made multiple trips back in the ensuing months to see my parents and to help in some small degree. Each time I’d visit, I’d marvel at their strength. Dad said he felt good. Mom was as funny as ever. During that time, I came to have an even greater appreciation for creatures who can only be described as Feline Therapy on four legs. I know that the concept of therapy animals is normally associated with dogs, but the cats were as empathic and as nurturing as any mutt I ever met. Batty loved to stretch out on dad’s legs as dad sat in his favorite chair with his feet up on an ottoman, sometimes pushing whatever book dad had been reading out of the way and demanding attention. Mom couldn’t rest in her bed or sit on the couch near dad without at least one therapy cat at her side, providing comfort just through breathing and the touch of hand on soft fur.
Time’s Winged Chariot returned in the summer of 2010. We didn’t know exactly what was wrong at first, but dad’s cancer had moved to his brain. We lost him in late October. It was quick and it was awful. And it was only then that the subject of the cats came up. Mom was devastated, of course. She and dad had been together pretty much their whole adult lives and as she tried to process the loss of her life partner, she also knew she had to make plans for the cats. They would outlive her. I remember her asking me in a phone call if I had rescue contacts I could reach out to who might take them together. She did not want them separated. I said, “sure, mom. Don’t even worry about it.” She had a similar conversation with my aunt (who was also doing the back and forth visiting routine), soon after and the deal was sealed: the cats would move to Austin and that’s just the way it would be. A great weight was lifted from mom’s heart by her sister and she was able to return her focus to her own treatment as we all grieved the loss of dad. Mom had one condition on the relocation of the cats: they could not be transported in a cargo hold. She just would not hear of it. We assured her that we would come up with some other plan.
And we did. Mom left us in April of 2011, less than six months after dad left. It was quick and it was awful. But I guess there’s a degree of poetic justice to that. Together in life, together beyond. As we began the “what do we do now?” process, the cats were a priority issue. We had to relocate them soon and had to come up with a plan. In the end, it was better than our folks could have ever hoped for and was totally in keeping with how we were raised. They could fly on American Airlines in the cabin but each cat had to be in a separate crate and each had to have a human escort. We had two friends who were willing to escort the cats, having been offered an all-expenses paid trip to beautiful Austin, Texas. My brother had a lot of frequent flyer miles and while I’m not sure how they work, he was able to get flights quickly even though the flights were almost fully booked. Each cat took a separate flight with a separate escort and both Feline Relocation Operations went off without a hitch. How'd he get seats on such short notice?
Not to worry, mom, dad. The cats flew first class.
I am an animal welfare advocate. My goal is to help people understand some basic issues related to companion animals in America. Awareness leads to education leads to action leads to change.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson