Things that pets give us: broken stuff, healing love

Out pets help define us.
(Michael Glenwood / For The Times)

That crashing noise? It was an antique lamp that had belonged to my parents. And Beau, my hunka hunka burning Siamese love, had just sent it hurtling to the floor.

I wanted to throttle him. After I saw the look on his face, I wanted to pick him up, cradle him and tell him not to worry.

Because in the contest of things versus pets, there is no contest. The pets always win.


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You have only to look around Southern California to see animals’ ubiquity, never mind their elevation, in our culture: the dogs that seem to pop up in so many places where their presence was unthinkable just a few years ago, the cat café that lets you have a cuddle with your coffee, the clothes and adornments with which they are now festooned, making their owners look comparatively dowdy.

Although it’s true that having a pet is like living with a creature that is permanently 2 years old, it is also true that once you welcome one into your life, you have a new roommate that promises unconditional love and is capable of enormous affection and of addressing, if not always curing, many of life’s ills.

These polar opposites may overlap on any given day in my several decades of pet-owning experience.

It’s part of the contract we accept when we adopt or are acquired by an animal. In the U.S., 44% of households have a dog and 35% have a cat, according to the ASPCA, quoting the American Pet Products Assn.

I can promise you that 100% of those households occasionally have some problem with their pets, sometimes involving the destruction of the things you have acquired that your pet has now made you disacquire.

But they are only things. And things cannot greet you at the door when you arrive home. They cannot kiss your face in unfettered joy or sit with you when you are weeping about one of life’s cruelties.

Things cannot make you howl with laughter at their antics. They cannot keep you warm at night (OK, maybe a blanket can, but blankets don’t purr.) And they do not stand by you when it feels like the rest of the world believes you are lower than a snake’s belly.

One of the great truths of life is that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference, which is far worse. I’ve known animals I didn’t love and that didn’t love me but none that didn’t have an opinion about me nor I about them. Indifference is an impossibility.

Even with the monkey.

We found the monkey in a tree, and no, I am not making that up. We lived in a place where finding a monkey in a tree wouldn’t be completely unexpected, not unlike a man becoming president who studied for his law degree while he was in prison for killing his father’s political opponent. (The place was the Philippines, where anything could happen, including Ferdinand Marcos.)

We wanted to keep him but that monkey quickly earned the title Worst. Pet. Ever. If he had papaya for lunch, he ate some, mushed up some and rubbed it in his hair, and flung the rest at us, sometimes worse.

This habit helped earn him a trip to the security guards’ compound where he stayed until his original owners claimed him. The saps.

The rest of my pets have been fully integrated, usually fully functioning members of the household. I am always surprised at the surveys, usually from the vet that ask, “Do you think of your pet like a member of your family?”

I always say no. Because they are much, much better than some of my family members, and I would never think of insulting my pet that way.

Especially when it came to Beatriz, a lilac-point Siamese with one pink nostril.

When we married later in life (my husband and I, not Beatriz and I), he was not a cat person, unfortunate because cats (two) outnumbered dogs (one). He doted on the dog who was sweet but no rocket scientist.

“You know,” he finally acknowledged to me, “this dog couldn’t spell ‘cat’ if you spotted her the ‘c’ and the ‘t.’”

But Beatriz could spell a lot of things, figuratively speaking, including “kidney disease exacerbated by high blood pressure.”

She made my husband Carl her special project. She taught him that no afternoon nap was complete without a cat (preferably her) and that having a cat nearby made reading the Dodgers’ box score less painful. (This was when managers Joe Torre and then Don Mattingly weren’t quite succeeding.) He came to embrace the notion that a cat in the bed provided a physical and psychological warmth unlike any he had known.

His doctor kept a close eye on a blood pressure that medication often failed to control. About 18 months after Carl’s conversion to cat personhood, he had a checkup at which his reading was normal.

His doctor asked him what was different in his life. Was he taking some off-the-books medication? Was he practicing meditation? Had he taken a vacation?

No, he said. He was now owned by a cat.

His doctor—now dead, by the way—was dismissive, but science backs this up: Researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo found that owning a cat or a dog reduced stress levels in people already taking medication for hypertension.

Even the most amazing animal cannot stave off the ravages of renal disease, but Beatriz did give us a gift that no one else could: By her caring, unceasing love, she gave us the gift of time — hers and, perhaps, ours.

As Carl was dying, he asked that his ashes be mixed with Beatriz’s when her time came and that they be placed by our two favorite rose bushes.

A little more than a year after his death and three months after hers, Carl and Bea are together, just as they always were.

The saucer-sized blooms from that bush remind me almost daily that love comes on two feet as well as four, and that sometimes, if you’re very, very lucky, as I have been, both.

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