The Hole in my Heart

Before having kids, I considered my cat to be my baby. I mean, I knew he wasn’t human obviously, but I enjoyed doting on him, taking pictures of him, and buying him new treats and toys. Of course unlike a human baby I could leave Toots for hours by himself and for the most part he was self-sufficient.

One of my biggest pet peeves was parents who insisted that people couldn’t POSSIBLY know real love unless they had a child of their own. I scoffed at this condescension which was usually followed by some story of martyrdom about how much they sacrificed for their little cherubs. I not-so-secretly judged people who rehomed their pets after their “real babies” were born. “Who could give up their pet like that?!” I wondered in disbelief.

I’ve perused parenting forums enough to know this is a major topic of contention. The question of “Do you *really* love your pet like you love your kid?” is floated around all the time. There’s the side that says, “No way. I thought I really loved my pet but then my kid was born. I birthed this baby, it’s a human, and it’s much more responsibility than an animal.” The other side insists they love their furbabies equally, that they are dependent upon them just like their kids and having children hasn’t changed those feelings.

When Lena was born, I’ll be honest, I probably fell more squarely in that first camp. I still loved my cat, but I mean this was my child. And man did he make things more difficult sometimes. He would meow (loudly) as we tried to put her to bed, attempt to eat all the food from her plate and the floor below her high chair, and sometimes at night when he wanted to snuggle, I was just touched out and wanted to be alone. Then Toots got sick. When things went downhill last weekend and we weren’t sure he was going to make it, I did my best to stay at his side, offering my presence when I couldn’t offer anything else. The night before he died, we spent much of the night, just the two of us, cuddled together on the floor. It was the only part of the night he wasn’t crying out and I could have sworn I felt a faint purr. I am SO thankful we had that time together.

The next day we made the decision to put our kitty to sleep. He was suffering and we were in agony watching him. I lost several childhood pets over the years but my parents were always the ones who had to make the grownup decisions and handle the hard parts. This was the first time I had to be the grownup. I wondered how I could watch such a thing happen. Then I imagined the only thing worse than being there would be for him to be alone. So Scott and I held our baby and each other as he went peacefully to sleep in the most dignified way we could offer. ┬áIt was literally the last thing I could do for him and although it may be the hardest thing I’ve ever done I would do it again in a heartbeat. He wasn’t alone and we were right by his side, loving him.

Now that I’m dealing with this loss, I’m refining my view on the baby/furbaby debate. No, Toots was not a human baby. I didn’t carry him in my body for 9 months. I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the responsibility of raising him to go out into the world. When I adopted him, I fully expected that one day he would die and I would have to say goodbye. This is not something we plan on when we have human children. In fact, it’s one of the worst things imaginable. So yes, it’s different. But he was the first thing I got to name, the first life that I had the great task of nurturing and protecting. He was wholly dependent upon me and needed my love and affection in much the same way as Lena. And for that, he will always be my first baby. When he passed, he took a piece of me that I’ll never be able to share with anyone else in the same way.

I am beyond grateful that we had 11 wonderful, loving years together. Toots taught Lena how to say “meow.” (She literally learned the word from hearing him). He came into my life when I felt broken and lonely and remained one of the few constants in my life over the next decade. I carry some guilt that I didn’t spend as much time with him this last year, that I should have been more patient with him. But I’m trying to take the long view–he had a comfortable home and a dedicated kitty mama who did everything she could to provide for him right until the very end. Every fiber of me hopes that he knew how much we loved him, at least in the way cats can know these things.

Losing Toots has left a huge hole in my heart and my daily life. The house feels emptier and I feel sad every time Lena says “meow” or I see his food sitting on top of the refrigerator going uneaten. I’m also a mom who needs to take care of her kid, so I can’t ball up on the couch and cry all day, as much as I might want to. While the sadness is big and real and hard, I’m afraid of it going away, too. Like all of this will start to seem normal and it’s just not normal without him.

Toots, I miss you buddy. This sucks. Thank you for letting me love you and take care of you. While I don’t know what happens to us on the other side of this life, I hope with all of my heart that we’ll find each other again and catch up on our couch snuggling. Until then, we’ll think about you and all the silly, wonderful memories we have.

My boy.