This morning I dropped off my young cat Clark at the vet for his neutering surgery. It has been I day I’ve dreaded and worried over, bringing him in for a procedure requiring anesthesia. Due to his liver condition, he may have trouble tolerating the surgery and can’t have any pain medicine afterward. He’s been doing well on his special food and medications, becoming an almost normal kitten once again. So the thought of possibly disturbing the equilibrium he seems to have found has made me more than a little nervous.
We arrived early at the vet’s office on this dreary, rainy day, weather which did not help me feel more positive about our trip. But I tried keeping my thoughts and energy positive, which I know animals pick up on. He had been good in the car, quiet, resting in the fuzzy bed I placed in his crate. I hoped the smell of something from home would help him feel better when he woke up.
Waiting in the lobby of the vet’s office was a very nervous, upset mother and daughter. They were cradling a tiny kitten, I saw, a small calico and white little thing. It’s face appeared distorted somehow when I glanced at it. By the tone of the mother’s voice and the story she was telling I knew something awful had happened.
I set Clark’s crate down on the bench and listened. He seemed calm, so I relaxed a bit. The woman was saying the family dog had bitten the kitten in the face earlier this morning over a squabble involving a food dish. She was crying, talking about how their dog had been with other cats all its life and had never done anything like this. She was as much upset about the dog, worrying over it’s unusual behavior, as she was about the tiny ball of fur she held.
After they had filled in the veterinary staff, I went over and asked to pet the kitten. Her name was Rosie, they said, a female they’d just adopted after having to put the daughter’s cat to sleep a week ago. Rosie was so small and colorful, a little patchwork quilt of fur. She sniffed at my fingers and began to lick them a bit. I could see her nose was a bit bloody, her left eye slitted shut, her head directly over it quite swollen. But she looked comfortable laying there in the mother’s arms.
Petting Rosie, I told them how pretty she was, which regrettably caused the mother to cry a bit. Then I started to speak to them about Clark. I told them what he’d been through, a broken shoulder at 5 weeks old courtesy of my dog, then an apparent seizure followed by months of not knowing what was wrong with him, many tests and expensive vet bills, and finally the diagnosis of his liver shunt that would probably require medicine and special food the rest of his life. I said it had been worth it, though, and that the vet he was seeing today had saved his life. I told them how tough I’d learned kittens were, and that Rosie was very lucky to have people who cared so much about her.
The little girl was listening to me intently. I said to her that even if Rosie lost her eye, she probably wouldn’t mind so much. That animals seem to be able to bear things often humans can’t – a missing leg, being deaf, being blind – and adapt, without self-pity, anger or remorse (we should follow their example more often). I said she would have to become Rosie’s missing eye, maybe, and give her extra special love from now on. I said that animals can always feel that, and they give it right back.
This seemed to make the woman and her daughter feel much better. The girl smiled, petted Rosie, and came over to meet Clark. I told her he was here for his “special surgery” (she knew what that meant), and that it had taken a long time and lots of that extra special love, but he seemed to be doing okay now. Okay enough for me to leave him today and have the procedure done.
The little girl gave Clark a pet, then walked back to sit with her mom and Rosie. Clark was still calm in his crate, watching one of the office cats who’d come to check him out saunter away. Standing there I realized how much better I felt. My nervousness was gone, dissolved in meeting Rosie and her owners and sharing with them the stories, the triumphs and failures, the joys and grief only people who love and keep animals ever understand.
Maybe it was the nurse in me, too, I realized. That even though I was facing a stressful and difficult moment, I could put aside my own worries and fears to try and help someone else through theirs. It felt necessary to do, like breathing.
Throughout my life that impulse has grown stronger, become a constant, a way to help myself feel better through helping others. Most often those ‘others’ have been animals, I’ll admit. People have only begun being included in that group within in the last several years, really. It is a point I think I reached when I finally understood my own human failings, my faults, inconsistencies, my weaknesses, and mistakes, and accepted them, forgave them. When I understood they sat alongside all my good qualities, and realized that was probably true of most everyone around me.
I always found it easy to have compassion for animals. People have taken a long time, and still do. Sometimes it feels like one step up and two steps back cultivating compassion for my fellow man. Especially now, when there is such a sense of divisevness in our country. Being a nurse helps, though. It keeps me seeing we are all fragile and in need of aid sometimes, whatever our political or religious ideations.
When we find the quality of mercy in ourselves, for ourselves, I think it becomes easier to lend it to others, humans and animals alike. Ironically, I think it has been loving and caring for animals that has led to my caring more for other people, that has helped that muscle grow stronger. There is great potential for animals to heal us as much as for us to heal them, and for us to heal each other and ourselves around them. And that is a bond worth honoring, in my eyes.
I was experiencing proof of that today in the vet’s office, I knew. Years ago I might not have reached out to Rosie’s family, might have sat quietly feeling sorry for them or passing some judgment on their treatment of her, of what had happened. But I have learned to reach up, to reach out, far beyond myself and what I think I am capable of sometimes in the name of compassion. It is an exercise always, a muscle that is still growing, one that will most likely have to all my life. And I am okay with that, I believe. There’s not a much higher goal I could imagine striving toward.
My own burden lighter, I left Clark in the care of the vet tech and waved to the little girl as I left. She was still smiling, Rosie was still snuggled in her mother’s arms. I had feeling they would all eventually be oaky.
I’m waiting now for the vet’s call to let me know how Clark’s surgery went. There have been moments when I’ve worried still, when a stray thought or anxiety reared it’s ugly head. But then I think of Rosie. I remember the universe so often conspires to put us exactly where we need to be, and offers us comfort or the chance to comfort others (sometimes both) in our hardest moments, if we allow ourselves to view the events in our lives that way.
Today I had almost called to cancel Clark’s surgery. If I had, I might never have met Rosie and her family, our paths may never have crossed. And neither one of us may have felt our respective burdens lessened today. It was good reminder not to live in fear or worry, but in love, and to trust in the healing power shared between people and animals.