[TAE] The Paradox of the HeartPet

Monday, September 15, 2014

What exactly is a HeartPet? A HeartPet is that once-in-a-lifetime (maybe twice, if you’re lucky) pet that becomes far more than a pet to you. The pet who is also your best friend, your confidant, the one that you can’t imagine living without.
An animal that deep into your heart and leaves pawprints there that feel fresh and new, sometimes even years after that pet has crossed the rainbow bridge. The terms “Heart Dog” and “Heart Cat” are fairly common, but I believe the term should be extended to cover all companion animals – hence my use of the term “HeartPet.”

But the HeartPet is a paradox – while everyone would love to have a pet that is “the one,” it’s undeniable that an animal’s lifespan is usually much shorter than ours. (“Unless,” as George Carlin once said, “you’re 80 years old and buying a tortoise.”) As a result, when you do find this amazing creature that “gets” you like no one else, it is unavoidable that you will also one day say goodbye to your friend. And when you lose a HeartPet, the hole they leave is much larger than most.

I’ve had and lost quite a few pets over my life – and I’m still young. Everything from short-lived newts and goldfish, up through longer-lived cats and dogs, I’ve loved and lost. And yet there is only one who I’ve come to realize was a HeartPet.curled

My first HeartPet (I am optimistic that she won’t be the only one I have in my life) was a cat named Smokey.

I’d had a pet rabbit, named Jack, who died early one year – not long before my birthday. Jack had been a rescue – I’d gotten him from the Houston SPCA, and saved him. He’d been days from being euthanized for having been there too long. I gave him about four more years that he wouldn’t have had, and I loved him a lot.

Jack lived in my room in a cage, but we let him come out and have the run of the living room every couple of days. He was litterbox trained for these excursions.

About a month after he died – some time around my birthday, a tiny kitten followed the outside cat my mom was feeding on our porch at the time up to our door.

I remember the first time I saw her. Mom had put her in the cardboard carrier box we had brought Jack home from the SPCA in, and given her a little food and water. She had fleas – despite her dark colored coat, that was easy to tell. And before we took the kitten to the SPCA (as we tended to do with any kittens and mom cats we found, to give them the best chance of finding a home instead of getting hit by a car), we wanted to get the fleas off her.

I sat at home with the box on the floor, and watched the little kitten toddle around. She was weaned, but only barely, and seemed more confused by the kitty kibble than able to eat it easily. We bathed her – only to find out that she had so many fleas that their little bodies turned the surface of her bathwater black. As we dried her, we decided to keep her, and I named her.

Ten years later, almost exactly, I said goodbye to my first HeartPet. It was an unavoidable medical situation, complicated by her age and size (she was always small, never over eight pounds, despite the obvious Maine Coon Cat blood she carried), and what was worse – I wasn’t there when it happened. I had moved out of my parent’s house the past September. She died in January.

Losing Smokey hit me harder than any other pet loss I had experienced. I’d said goodbye to birds and fish, newts, a turtle, a rabbit, a mouse, and a hamster, and even one dog by that time…but Smokey’s death broke me in a way I hadn’t experienced up until then.

Now that I have things to compare it to, I realize that it’s comparable to losing a very close family member. My aunt’s death hit me this hard, and my wife’s father’s death was another similar blow. Still, there’s something unique about the crater losing a HeartPet leaves in one’s life. And you’re always faced with a question that is never brought up by the loss of a family member: should I get another pet?

I’ve been watching my best friend go through this exact paradoxical struggle since the loss of her HeartPet, a cat named Taru. Taru was fifteen years old – quite a long run for a former alley cat – and Nyx had known his end was coming as long as I’d known her.  We’d talked about what she would do when his time came quite often, and what kind of memorial and urn she wanted for his ashes. In other words, Nyx was as prepared as anyone could possibly be for the death of her HeartPet.

TaruSkullAnd yet, when the day came, it still broke her. She knows she’ll get a new cat, some day. There’s even a possibility that her new cat is currently in the foster care of one of our mutual friends at the moment – it will depend on if he’s still available in a few months when she can make the journey to bring him home, as she was the second person to express interest.

However, we’ve talked multiple times now about how different this new cat will be – because, when it comes down to it, he won’t be Taru. Something in her died with her HeartPet, just like something in me died with Smokey. If you have had pets, and look back on your life with them, there will usually be one who was everything to you, and who’s loss you may find yourself tearing up over years or even decades after the loss should be a scar mark on your heart.

HeartPets are random – you never know if your pet is going to be a HeartPet when you first bring them home. Some that you think aren’t might prove you wrong in time – such as the titular dog of the famous Marley & Me. Others you know right from the moment they look you in the eye and tell you in no uncertain terms that they’re yours, like the star of my favorite book, Merle’s Door: Lessons Of A Freethinking Dog.  Likewise you may be one of the lucky people who have more than one HeartPet in your lifetime.

The truth is, every pet owner would love to have a HeartPet – despite the pain that will eventually end the relationship on the physical plane.  And somewhere out there, there is a HeartPet waiting for their human. That doesn’t change that this overwhelming desire for that deep, spiritual bond is a paradox. You want it – but even in wanting it, you know that you will lose that beloved pet one day. And while you don’t want that pain, you do want the pet. Therein is the paradox.

May it be one we as pet owners continue to face for eternity.