Photo credit: Jeff Borchers

One day, a few months past, I sat in the clinic waiting room. A woman emerged from the back, bent over, a friend’s protective arm wrapped around her shoulders. Her face was pressed into the folds of her jacket that muffled her weeping. The two crept past like aged sand crabs making their way to the door. Through the glistening paneled window, I watched as the friend opened a car door and gently shepherded the woman in. She reached toward the back and pulled a blanket around the woman, still bent, still weeping.

After shutting the car door, the friend turned and walked back to the clinic, through the chiming door up to the front desk where the receptionist stood holding papers. They avoided each other’s glances, respectful of the pain that lingered in the air. Then, after signing and collecting the papers handed to her, the woman’s friend looked up and said: “Parents should never have to live to see their children die.”

Another door opened and a voice called out my name, beckoning us to an exam room. A smiling nurse said: “The doctor will be in just a few minutes.” She smiled again and closed the door.

We sat there, waiting, the room apprehensive, as if unsure how to hold us in the uncertainty of health and sickness. The door jerked open ushering in a white-coated doctor. He gave a warm greeting and shook my hand asking: “How is she doing today? Let’s have a look.” Tenderly lifting her from my lap and transferring her to the stark exam table, I felt the warmth from her body on mine evaporate into the room’s cold. A slow sick feeling of dread roused from its coil in my stomach and I held back the tears that welled.

Two weeks later, she passed. Her beloved, sweet body weary of cancer’s ravages wound down and surrendered to death, showing only a last moment of struggle—a testimony to her love of life.

As we buried her, facing west toward the setting sun at the foot of the garden she cherished, I thought of what I had heard at the clinic. No, she was not my biological child, nor was she a child when she passed. She was a full-grown woman, wise and worldly, despite her occasional kittenish outbursts. The reality was that we were many things to each other. In part because of the cycle of life, but also because of humanity’s species segregation and condemnation of those daring to differ from Homo sapiens, her imposed dependence lent a sense of filiality.

When she first came to live with us, I naturally played the role of mother and she, child. She had been abandoned well before normal weaning onset. I stepped in as surrogate, coaxing formula into her weak mouth and stroking her fragile, tattered body to life. As she recovered, I wore the robe of mentor introducing her to home living with dogs, parrots, rabbits, and other strange ways of human domestication.

I next played therapist and she, trauma victim. At times, the soft blanket of night would explode with pain and screams as she clawed the darkness struggling to escape menaces from her dream. We spent those nights—one body tense with frenzied fear, the other relaxed with forced calm. The night held its breath as we sat between confused terror and reorganizing present. Gradually, over the years, her symptoms of psychological trauma subsided. She was able to hear the sound of a rattling bag without starting wildly in panic. As a kitten, she had been pushed into a bag then stuffed and forgotten in a cupboard. It was only by chance that she had been discovered and saved.

As time went on and she matured into a full-grown feline, our relationship blossomed into friendship. We shared the exhilaration of spring’s first day when flowers, tired of winter’s cold restraint, burst forth in dazzling color and scent. Reveling in summer’s dusk, we lay side by side, in vigilant study of ground squirrels and birds who danced before us, unaware that we hid behind the field’s golden curtain.

Our roles metamorphosed yet again as she become patient teacher to my ungainly human ways: I learned to hear the hiss of a garden snake’s progress through grass and anticipate the coming of rain. Other times, I played witness to her joyful surprise and pleasure at discovering a new path or relishing a particularly delectable repast. Her roles morphed as well, she becoming my priest and solace, patiently listening to the trivial trials and tribulations of human living that I insensitively poured out. We mutually celebrated the lyrically romantic chords of Ella and Louis singing the blues, intuiting beyond time and space. No matter what, she did not waver, did not doubt, and remained without judgment, always open with love.

Then past hardships began to take their toll and our relationship took on another form. I became her voice. We braved visits to doctor and clinic. Shyly and uncertain, we exchanged looks and renewed pledges of trust as we withstood the unfamiliar, intrusive violation of the outside world. We nervously took wordless council as decisions pressed upon us.

Finally, maturity moved into old age and she gave authority of her care to me. The months that followed saw shifts from the careless days of the past to a regime of remedies designed to support her weakening constitution. Our transition to this new phase evolved seamlessly, but it was not without challenges. Her changed health and capabilities and my interventions and ministrations were not so much a point of conflict, but a searing awareness of the impermanence of life together.

There were bitter-black nights when her body rebelled. Like good soldiers, we were reluctant, but committed to our duty. I would gather her into my arms and carry her downstairs while she emitted a small cry of protest. When our feet met the frozen ground, we walked under cold starlit skies, an effort to persuade her body to rally. There were moments when I would break down in terrified frustration when her body would and could not respond. We lay awake together, her, silent in physical pain and me, soaked in grief, impotent to alleviate her suffering.

Photo credit: Jeff Borchers

Her day of passing came upon us suddenly, as a surprise, because we would not believe that separation would truly transpire. I think of her daily in the myriad ways that I love her, as friend, soulmate, ardent admirer, acolyte, and yes, as mother-daughter. But we lived beyond, indeed we rejected, labels forced upon us by hearts withered and minds closed by fear. What mattered was the open space of love that lay between and connects us still.

Those of us who live with and care for animal family are condemned to suffer what the woman at the clinic intoned, to witness the death of our children, those, who by humanity’s indifference, are forced into a life of inequality, their freedom denied. I, like  many others, am compelled by love to bear witness to those who shine stellar bright in life and death. In return, we have the chance to hold Heaven’s hand.

Children are the hands by which we take hold of heaven. — Henry Ward Beecher.

About the Author

G.A. Bradshaw, Ph.D.

G.A. Bradshaw, Ph.D., is the author of Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us About Humanity.

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