Last night, my family and I suffered through something that pretty much every one that has ever lived with a beloved pet, has had to do. After a startling decline in his health, we found it necessary to put our kitty-cat, Licorice, to sleep. Now, I know just reading that will elicit a pang of sympathy, because most everybody I know, has gone through this. Like many people do, my daughter and I both posted a short message on social media, accompanied by a photo of our bright-eyed companion of 14 years, and then gratefully accepted the comments from our extended friends and family, offering their love, support and care.
He was, by all accounts, my daughter’s cat. Oh sure, we fed him, watered him, cleaned his crummy litter-box, and when he barfed on the rug (or anywhere, for that matter), it was your’s truly, or my wife, that cleaned up after him; but that damned cat would abandon our laps the moment my daughter spoke to him or called his name. He adored her, watched over her, and was her constant companion as she grew.
My time as a paramedic taught me many things, but one of the most valuable is to not be afraid of grief. Yeah, it sucks and it’s tough, and most of all, it’s difficult to give yourself permission to grieve when there is so much else competing for your attention. Even knowing this, I have chastised myself for being such a wimp, I mean it’s just a cat, right?
Yesterday was a bad day. I tried to be chipper at work, and not let anybody know about the hard knot in my stomach. I knew the appointment at the vets had been made, and every minute that passed was filled with dread. Throughout the day, I reassured myself with the usual platitudes about how he was suffering, and how it was the right thing to do for him. I was also dreading my daughter’s reaction.
[d12-notice]I have to take an aside here and note that my daughter Bridgette was totally a rock-star last night. Like I said, Licorice was her buddy, and I knew this would be particularly hard on her. Bridgette could have elected to stay home, or even not go into the exam room with the Vet; her mother and I would have completely understood. Well, there was never any question she was going to be there, and so she was. She was determined to see Licorice through his final moments, to stand by him and be a comfort to him. When you see a child, whom you’ve nurtured through all manner of life’s ups and downs, exhibit such strength and resolve to do the right thing even when it breaks her heart, it is truly breathtaking. So yeah, rock-star.[/d12-notice]
Before we started off to the Vet’s office, I set about the grim task of digging Licorice’s grave in our back yard. I knew we’d be arriving back home near twilight, and the last thing I wanted to be doing at that hour, was digging. My wife and a friend joined me shortly before I finished preparing the site, but mostly, I did it alone and in silence. The shovel sounded hollow and harsh against the ground as I dug. When we returned, Bridgette and I lovingly placed his still, warm body, zipped up in the biodegradable burial bag provided by the Vet’s office, and covered him up with the soil.
Then we busted out the ugly cry.
You know which one I mean; the snot-drooling, shoulder-shaking, chest heaving gully-washer type of bawling that, once started, must run its course. I leaned on my shovel and Bridgette hugged me fiercely while we both sobbed.
So, hard life-stuff always makes me think, because I think hard life-stuff is supposed to do that, but I can never be sure what I’ll end up “thinking” about. This time, for no real reason, I began to calculate how many times in my life I had ever had occasion to cry like that.
I remember distinctly, when I was around 11 or 12 years old, thinking that I shouldn’t be such a cry-baby. Just as any kid, I wore my heart on my sleeve, and the least, little provocation was an excuse for tears. Favorite cassette tape turns into a tangled mess in the player? Moaning and wailing. Stern words from Mom or Dad because I was being a little shit? Tears and pouting. Lima beans with dinner? Sack-cloth and ashes.
For some reason though, one day it just clicked with me. I was being stupid for crying all the time, and what did it get me? Nuffin. So that was the end of that; my resolve was absolute, and from that day on, I’d have to be in a real pickle before I burst into tears.
About a decade later, I began to once more understand the value of crying. The day came, when as a newly minted New York State EMT in Saratoga Springs, I responded to a call for a gentleman who had hanged himself. When I arrived, I was met at the bottom of the driveway by his wife. I will never forget the look on her face as she walked with me, and pointed toward the small wood shed at the end of the drive. She stopped about half way, as I made my up and into the tiny shed. There I found her husband, his face bloated in asphyxia, cold as the morning mist.
I did not know the patient, I felt no kinship with him, I did not know what brought him to this dark shed, to put a belt around his neck and die.
My partner came in and looked over my shoulder at our patient, we both stood in silence. This man had been very determined to die, because the little, ramshackle shed was barely tall enough to stand fully upright. In order to hang himself, he had to literally kneel down and lean forward into the belt tightened around his neck; he could have saved himself at anytime, by simply standing up again.
I did not know the patient, I felt no kinship with him, I did not know what brought him to this dark shed, to put a belt around his neck and die. I remember being keenly impressed, and I suspected that whatever it was, he had done this thing because he felt it was the correct thing to do.
I walked out of the shed, and went to his wife. She stood, stooped over in the driveway, quietly wringing a cloth of some sort, in her hands. She looked me in the eyes, and we both knew the truth, there was no need to say anything. I don’t know why, but I reached out and took her hand in mind, and we turned to walk together to meet the police officer walking up the long driveway toward us. She leaned into me, and we wrapped our arms around each other’s waists like old, familiar friends, as we walked. She rested her head on my shoulder as I quietly explained to the officer that her hasband was deceased. He went to his car, and we stood there, his new widow and I, as her silent tears soaked into my shirt. Eventually, a concerned neighbor arrived and hurried up the drive to us.
“Is he gone?” she asked me in a hushed tone.
“Yes,” I said. The neighbor explained to me that the gentleman had been diagnosed with an illness that would gradually rob him of his independence, dignity and probably most of their life-savings if allowed to run its course. His suicide in the face of such a grim diagnosis, apparently surprised nobody who knew him. He did it for his wife, to spare her his dwindling.
I did not cry then, but later, in a moment of privacy and solitude, I did.
I was confused and wondered why I was being such a ninny; after all, what kind of an EMT was I going to make if I started bawling every time somebody died? This emotion stuff was for the birds, and I was kind of angry at myself for being so weak. It took me too long to figure out that I was reacting not only to the overwhelming sadness of the situation, but for the woman who would now bury her husband and their lives together.
I never saw her after that day, she’s probably long dead now herself; but I think about her every now and again.
She taught me a lesson, one of many I would learn throughout my career serving the sick and injured, but her’s was the first.
Do not be afraid to cry and do not be afraid to share your tears with someone else.