A friend’s cat died over the weekend. He was not a very old cat, fourteen, I believe, which veterinarians nevetheless say is a senior feline. But this cat had not been well for some time, and his life ended with help from his closest human.
It made me think about people and their pets, or, rather, why people have pets. I don’t suppose many humans consider the end of an animal’s life, when bringing a cat or dog into their home for the first time is so much like the beginning of it. Yet we live longer than cats and dogs, and, in almost every case, we outlive the pet whom we welcome as part of our family.
It is a strange bargain we make with these beasts. It is just that, a bargain. We become friends, and friendship is not a gift, it is not free. It is a blessing, but it comes as a deal. “I will be your friend, and you will be mine,” we tell these animals. We take care of them, provide them with food and shelter, medical care when necessary; we see them through illnesses, changes in address, additions to the household, and the neighbour who doesn’t like them. In return, they give us companionship, entertainment, joy. We give each other love. Like marriage, this contract’s most important clauses are not written but felt.
Part of the bargain is about what happens when our pets grows old, become irreparably sick or assailed with great pain. We know it will happen but we try to ignore it for the greater part of the animals’ lives. Yet it intrudes at last, and finally. Not every cat or dog will die in his sleep, full of years, knowing nothing of discomfort. Too few end their lives this way. The majority, it seems, need us to help them at this time.
A human who is infirm of body can still use his mind, for it’s the mind that sets us apart and above the rest of life. A futile body, useless limbs, rebellious organs, are tragic and terrible, but people have risen and continue to rise above such afflictions. A cat or dog cannot. He is smart, cunning, clever, thoughtful - but not enough to live only in his head. So when the body fails, we, their friends, must make a horrible decision. We help our loved ones die.
This is the price of the bargain we make. To end their pain, we must endure it ourselves. We hope that it lessens with time, and it usually does, but it lasts forever, regardless.
And yet, those of us who make these bargains and pay their cost will go on to make more. We adopt another cat, another dog; not as a replacement, but as a successor. We know how this bargain will end, too - the same way the last one did. And when that one runs its course, we make another, and another; sometimes several at once. We will keep making these bargains until the bargain we made with our own Guardian is called to account.
We do this, knowing well the consequences, because the bargain is worth it. It is suffering and agony, it is sorrow and loneliness. It is joy and amusement, strength and comradeship. This is the bargain. This is love.