Below is an approximate transcript of my remarks at Pet Memorial Sunday last weekend. I don’t prepare a written speech because I just can’t follow it, but give myself a list of reminders in the order I’d like to give them, then hope I can stay on track. I was especially uncertain about this year because I had an idea what I’d want to say but it wouldn’t come together, then a moment with Smokie Sunday morning gave me the answer, but I had little time to prepare. It all came out well.
My presentation comes near the end of the event.—I am the last speaker, and after me Deb reads her closing remarks and a poem, and I can be feeling pretty emotional by the time I arrive at the podium, but the most people tell me is to “speak up”.
After Deb welcomes and begins the event, Dr. Brad Carmichael speaks about the veterinarian’s perspective of losing your pet, about making the euthanasia decision, and remembering all the years you spent with your pet, and not just the day you lost them. This year he shared the poem What is Dying? by Rev. Luther F. Beecher*.
I am standing upon the seashore.
A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze
and starts for the blue ocean.
She is an object of beauty and strength,
and I stand and watch until at last she hangs
like a speck of white cloud
just where the sea and sky come down to mingle with each other.
Then someone at my side says,
“There she goes!”
Gone from my sight . . . that is all.
She is just as large in mast and hull and spar
as she was when she left my side
and just as able to bear her load of living freight
to the place of destination.
Her diminished size is in me, not in her.
And just at the moment
when someone at my side says,
“There she goes!”
there are other eyes watching her coming . . .
and other voices ready to take up the glad shout . . .
“Here she comes!”
Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW follows with a presentation entitled “Our Initial Grief Response” which outlines from a clinical perspective the physical and emotional changes you endure as you walk your grief journey, information that is comforting and easy to understand. She is also one of Deb’s families, and this year remarked that as she watched her two cats helping her prepare her presentation she realized that she had a completely different animal family from when she first met Deb and first spoke at Pet Memorial Sunday in 2006, a touching addition and one that reminded us that everyone grieves a loss, and we can recover from the grief we were feeling at that moment.
Deb and I and often a third person gather at the podium to read the 50-word tributes families have submitted, one by one, turning a rain stick in between each one.
We then light candles and read a recitation about loving our pet but letting them go while promising to never forget them, then we step outside the tent and gather to watch the dove release, each of us touching the lead dove in her owner’s hands before he gently lets her go and opens the cage for all the rest of her flock to follow, circling among the trees and up into the sky on their way home.
Then it’s my turn to speak.
I am always glad I have the opportunity to photograph the dove release because it is so emotional that if I wasn’t able to put a little distance to the event and focus on my photography, I’d never be able to speak afterward, when it’s my turn to share my thoughts.
In past years here I’ve spoken about my own experiences with painful losses and grief passage, of losing all my oldest cats in one year, and then the loss of a kitten immediately after that, of losing the last two of my “first” rescues, my tortie girls Cookie and Kelly at the ages of 19 and 20 both in the same year breaking the link with my earliest animal family and a good bit of my past, and last year the loss of Lakota, a 20-year-old foster who’d lost his home and everything but his fur sister but still managed to get back on his feet and conquer another human in his last few weeks. This year I remember his fur sister Emeraude who likewise lost everything but contentedly made herself a home with me and was quietly very happy and lived until February, and also Kennedy, a black cat found having seizures on a street in Kennedy township but was rescued and who I fostered for his last weeks. His right side bore the evidence of some major trauma with bent-up legs and a stiff back and a swollen, cataracted eye, but the seizures stopped after a day, he was unhesitatingly friendly and gained strength and personality over several weeks and eventually mingled with my household, who readily accepted him as a brother.
And I would take a lesson from these animals for us today. When we think of adopting, we think of ourselves first, and that’s natural because we haven’t met our match yet, and we are the only part of the partnership we know just then. But that adoption, and the resulting relationship, is a two-way street, and both sides come into this with our own baggage, we with our grief if we’ve lost a cherished companion, and sometimes we don’t want to let go of that pain. But remember that those animals also have baggage as well, whether they are leaving a happy home or they’ve been directly rescued from abuse or abandonment. You too are a stranger to them, possibly seen as a source of pain and fear, and if not then you are simply unknown, a stranger, and they leave a life they’ve known, even if it’s not perfect, for something completely unfamiliar. And we expect them to accept this.
And most of the time they do. I have another foster kitten now, Smokie, who was rescued with a sibling at five weeks, fostered and cared for to socialize until they were ready for adoption. The sibling came along fine and found a forever home, but 14-week-old Smokie was so fearful he couldn’t go out on the adoption floor, and in the middle of August, the busiest month of the year at the shelter with dozens, sometimes over a hundred, animals surrendered each day, with legal limits on the numbers of animals they could hold, there was no room for a kitten who was too frightened to face the public. You know what his fate would be. I was asked if I could give him a chance and see if he could be socialized for adoption, and since I had lost Kennedy a few weeks before I had the room and would be glad to give the little guy a chance.
He was frozen in his little carrier, plastered in the back, a black kitten in the dark, just huge round eyes. He wouldn’t even come out to eat for two days, but with time and patience, day by day, he left a little more of his fears behind, quit hiding from me, let me touch him, pet him, brush him, pick him up, and started to play and talk to me and greeted me at the door each morning, and was totally curious about the ninjas he could see outside the bathroom door. He greeted visitors with increasing confidence and love.
This morning, only two-and-one-half weeks after he’d come to me, a terrified kitten, I picked him up, warm and soft and purring and cuddled him in my arms while he reached up to tap his nose against mine and touch my face with his paw, then fell back with his long legs and big kitten paws tangled in the air and his fluffy tail fell over his face. Looking at that little face with blinky eyes and paws in a tangle I thought, it’s a miracle, you were going to die two-and-one-half weeks ago because you were too afraid to trust and love, and now you’re ready for a long happy life, expecting love and affection all the way. That’s when I knew what I would say today.
If that little kitten could let go of his fears and not only trust me but love me and everyone else he met, if Kennedy could leave behind whatever horrible trauma he’d suffered, his pain and abandonment, and make his place in our family for how ever brief, if Lakota and Emeraude could turn around and make a new life at the ages of 19 and 20 and in failing health, surely we can set aside our pain and grief and love again.
We need to follow the example of these rescued animals who have often suffered horrible physical and emotional traumas, or lost a human they had loved and everything they’d ever known, and yet turned around and let go of it all, and loved another human family with no guilt or regrets.
And that’s a good thing because there are so many homeless pets in shelters who need your love.
. . . . . . .
.Here are the tributes I wrote for Emeraude and Kennedy. Deb read them, not me.
If only for your last weeks, so glad I could provide you with a loving home and a feline family who saw you as a brother. Wherever you came from, my handsome rover, you have our love and blessings, and many others’ too, wherever you’ve gone from here.
Bernadette and the Five
You’re never too old to fall in love. Such a brave girl at age 19 to start all over again, and I am so glad to remember your quiet happiness. I and your adopted fur siblings will never forget you.
Bernadette and the Five
. . . . . . .
This white feather was left on my front porch to greet me this morning. It is not from a white dove as it has a slight tone of gray on the edge, but the mourning doves who visit have some white on them. I was very moved when I saw it, just one feather, right there on my porch, the down gently moving with the slightest breeze. Possibly to celebrate World Peace Day, but I’d awakened thinking about this article.
. . . . . . .
The poem What is Dying? has been variously called On the Seashore, I Am Standing on the Seashore and Gone From My Sight and attributed to Henry van Dyke and others. This poem is too touching and too significant to let it be misattributed. For more information on this poem, please read this interesting article. For more on Elizabeth Babcock’s presentation, visit this page on her website.
And tons of thanks to Elizabeth Babcock for taking my photo while I was speaking! Finally I know what I look like when I’m talking.
As a final note on a long and emotional day, just after the dove release, as we all stood around thinking and crying and watching the doves, a butterfly fluttered in and landed on a tree branch right above the carrier where the doves had been just a few moments before. It was the same species, a red-spotted purple, as the one in the photo I’d used on the invitation to the event. Butterflies are symbols of transition, metamorphosis and change, and their presence is often considered to be the spirit of a being who has transitioned into another existence. The humans gathered, watching the doves, longer than usual, and the butterfly stayed on the leaves as long as we did.
Read other articles in the category of Pet Memorial Sunday and Pet Loss
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Weekly schedule of features:
Sunday: Essays, Pet Loss, Poetry, The Artist’s Life
Monday: Adoptable Cats, TNR & Shelters
Tuesday: Rescue Stories
Wednesday: Commissioned Portrait or Featured Artwork
Thursday: New Merchandise
Friday: Book Review, Health and Welfare, Advocacy
Saturday: Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat, Living Green With Pets, Creating With Cats
And sometimes, I just throw my hands in the air and have fun!