Case in point: In the morning, if his bowl was not filled with food quickly enough, Smoky would let out a pathetic whine, back up toward the wall and piss on it. And though he lived with three other cats who preened and groomed constantly, Smoky never learned to bathe himself. He grew dreadlocks that had to be removed by the veterinarian. He rolled in gravel and dirt to express his pleasure at being alive, and when petted, he emitted a little cloud of dust, just like Pigpen in the Charlie Brown cartoons.
We found his body laid out on a quiet side street on a sunny Sunday morning, apparently hit by a car. I theorized that he was probably sleeping on the road overnight, something I'd seen him do before, and being black, was not visible to the driver. To this, Aaron replied: "He was dumb, Mom, but he wasn't that dumb."
We buried Smoky deep beneath one of the new, raised flower beds in the backyard and sowed seeds of poppies, marigolds, cosmos, and black-eyed Susan on top. I imagined him smiling in contentment, enveloped forever in mud.
In the days that followed, when the subject of Smoky came up, everyone I spoke to shared a story of a pet whose passing came as a relief, easing my guilt somewhat. There were confessions of pet owners stuck with animals they could barely tolerate. There was the snake of a neighbor family, inherited from a friend who couldn't bear the smell of it any longer. Now the adoptive family wants desperately to get rid of it but can't find any takers.
I remembered my own relief when one of my kids thoughtlessly left the hamster cage open one night, and I found it empty the next morning. The remains of one hamster were found; we buried it and the neighbor's dog dug it up. The other one became a little ghost rodent, lost forever somewhere in the walls of the house.
I remember another pair of hamsters. My daughter named them Martha Washington and Eleanor Roosevelt. One day Martha caught her foot in the crack of the rolling plastic hamster ball, then gnawed it off. My husband, a medical student then, gave her miniscule injections of antibiotic every night so she wouldn't die of infection. She survived, hobbling on three legs. A few weeks later, Martha cornered Eleanor in the nest in the corner of their cage and disemboweled her. Yep, killed her and ate her guts out. Our ethical dilemma? How to tolerate life with murderous Martha until she passed away of natural causes. My daughter couldn't sleep in her own bedroom, site of the murder, for a year. Did we love Martha? Hell, no.
Some smart entrepreneur needs to devise a confessional therapy for people who don't love their pets and harbor guilt about it. I can see it now -- a room filled with stuffed animals, recordings of plaintive meows, the scent of cedar shavings saturated with hamster urine, a safe place, the therapist assures, to let out all the suppressed hostility and disgust. "I didn't love him enough, and now he's gone," the bereaved pet owner cries. "And dammit, I'm glad!"
There's no place for people like us in a culture where others carry pictures of their pets in their wallets or, yes, in lockets worn around their necks. I'm aware of a family who loved their pet so much they staged a memorial service for him when he died, complete with music and a round robin of shared memories. They would be appalled at my confession, would likely judge me a crass, cruel human for my lack of grief over Smoky.
But, hey. I figure Smoky got a 5-year reprieve from death row. He was, literally, the butt of our jokes since he never learned to clean himself and was generally smeared with his own shit. We gave him food, shelter and medical care, but no, we didn't love him.
Come August, when flowers are waving over his grave, I'll think what good fertilizer he made and maybe my hard heart will open just a crack for old Smoky. I'll leave animal adoption to those with bigger hearts than mine. And cleaning the kitchen wall, I'll whisper a small confession: Forgive me, for I did not love my pet.