“Why do you want to adopt a pet?”
This was a question halfway down the adoption application form at a local animal shelter, somewhere in between “Do you have any other pets in your house?” and “Do you have a regular veterinarian?”
The past year has brought a lot of death. Favorite musicians from my childhood and adolescence. My father. Several kids we’ve met along our way.
When your child is very sick with an unexplainable illness that eventually turns out to be brain cancer, you spend a lot of time thinking about the worst. You don’t even have to try to imagine the worst because the worst surrounds you. And sometimes death isn’t even the worst.
Once last spring, either just prior to or just after Shawn’s diagnosis, I spent a Saturday afternoon Googling pages that parents had written describing the moment their child died. They aren’t hard to find.
Shawn’s love of animals is no secret. When we decided to make a public Facebook page for him, he was excited to give it an animal theme name. When he finished treatment, we began to think that perhaps he should have a dog, his favorite animal. The rest of us are not really dog people, although we do know how to take care of dogs. A dog is a big responsibility. We suspected that Shawn would be ready, but are we all?
We started with fish. An aquarium for Bill’s birthday in November. The kids and I wanted to give it to him, fully stocked, as a gift but we soon realized that we didn’t know nearly enough about aquariums to make it a surprise. Bill did, though, so we told him the plan and we all went together to get the supplies and the fish. Picking out your own birthday gift isn’t such a bad thing when it means that you are encouraged to get exactly what you want, even if it isn’t necessarily the most practical decision. He chose two Angel Fish and a Plecostomus, to keep the tank balanced. The kids named them Zebrah (pronounced like Deborah), Goldie, and Cheetah. Everything was great for a couple of days. Then they began to slow down, float more than swim, and soon enough Zebrah and Goldie were dead, too. We went to an aquarium hobbyist store, figuring that our mistake might have been getting the fish from a mass market pet store. We talked to an expert there. Our aquarium was good, he said, we were doing all the right things. We brought home Grape and Warrior. They looked even better than the previous fish, graceful and strong. They, too, were dead within two weeks.
The plan had been fish, then a cat, then a dog. In that order and after each got established in our home. A clear and clean progression. But the fish were dying. Despite all our efforts and doing everything right, the fish continued to die. The aquarium plants were doing great, but the fish kept dying. Death wouldn’t let us be.
At my father’s local memorial service a montage of the music that had been in rotation on his car stereo when he died played quietly in the background, including the Peter, Paul, and Mary version of Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind. Shawn picked up on the line “how many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?” and told me that he is going to be one of the last people in the world to have cancer. Later he told me that he wonders what new diseases there will be when he’s twenty years old. Shawn thinks about some pretty big things for an eight year old kid.
What to do about the cat? The fish died. Can we get a cat when the fish died? How stupid of an idea is it to get another cat anyway? Our 12 year old cat, Kitty, that Bill brought with him from Chicago hates other cats. She finally seemed happy here as the only animal. Our last cat got out and never came back on the day that we moved into this house. Shawn and I weren’t even here. We were inpatient at CHOP. We suspect that he became disoriented and couldn’t find his way back to our new house. The cat before him died from cancer when he was 6 years old. At the time, we were in the middle of getting our house in Philadelphia ready to sell. We didn’t even notice that he was sick until he curled up next to me one night and he was skin and bones. He was dead two weeks later.
We went to the ACCT animal shelter inside our local PetSmart about five times in the last few weeks. Sometimes we visited while getting the fish, other times just to say hi to the animals. I found an instant affinity with a four year old cat named Waffles. She had recently been in foster care and was renamed Peggy but the shelter rep kept the name Waffles along side Peggy on the card outside her crate. She was usually asleep when we visited. I asked more and more questions about this cat. She had given birth to kittens in August and was brought to the shelter with them soon after. All her kittens had been quickly adopted. Kittens are cute and they usually go fast. Waffles remained behind. A parent’s job is to raise their kids to become independent adults and Waffles seems to have done just fine at this life task. She seemed perfectly content. My desire to get Waffles grew stronger every day.
Bill wanted to give me Waffles as a surprise for my birthday next week. Like the aquarium, this quickly became an logistical impossibility.
Lilly was resistant, worried about what had happened to our last two cats.
Cancer and disorientation had taken them from us. It’s no surprise that she worries about this. Cancer and disorientation have taken over our lives in the last 15 months. Skittle was one of those “special cats.” We spent a lot of money trying to keep Skittle alive. It didn’t work. And what would Kitty do with a new cat around? She had finally grown back all her fur after spending years overgrooming from anxiety. What if the new cat was aggressive after all?
The kids and I had developed a joke about getting Waffles and we ate a fair amount of Eggos in the last couple weeks. Eventually we were all ready to get Waffles. Well, maybe not Kitty. We couldn’t really ask her in any meaninful way.
We adopted Waffles in the dark pouring rain on a Tuesday night. We brought her home and let her out into our house, ignoring all the recommendations to introduce her gradually. Kitty growled at her. The kids played with and petted her. She ate the leftover cat food on the kitchen floor. Bedtime came and we all found our place.
The next morning I read the details of Waffles’ history on the paperwork that the rep had given to me. She was brought to the shelter in North Philly on August 18th, shortly after giving birth with hair loss on her face and neck from an old wound. Shawn also had no hair on August 18th and he and I were elbow deep in shit and vomit, four days into the next round of chemotherapy. Bill and I were surprised to discover her traumatic history, given how affectionate she is just three months later. She and Kitty have already developed an unspoken agreement to share us and the house. In fact, Kitty has also become more affectionate with everyone. Waffles is likely a special cat.
“Why do you want to adopt a pet?”
Without much thought, I wrote “To include more life in our home.”