When I was in nursing school I went to therapy for the first time. I had recently broken up with a long term boyfriend and was feeling very isolated and depressed. The therapist was at my school, he was clearly very experienced and had been doing individual therapy with college students for decades. I felt very comfortable with him and felt nothing I could say would ruffle him. About three sessions in he asked when in my life I felt true grief.
I didn’t really understand the question, and he rephrased and said “When have you cried? I mean true gut-wrenching cry?” We had been working on the wall that I kept around my emotions, as I was and still am to a degree, able to compartmentalize my emotions. I remember thinking about it and then I said only twice that I could remember. Once when my Grandfather died, and once when my cat died. Then I started to move forward with the conversation thinking this was a dead end. I remember he sorta waved his arms, and was like “Wait, one of the two times you’ve ever cried down to your soul was when you cat died? Tell me more about that.”
So I did. My cat came into our home when my mom was pregnant with me. He slept in my bed every night after I was born until I was seventeen. We put him to sleep on December 23rd, 2002. He was 21.
Through fifth grade when I was bullied for an entire school year by a group of girls he was literally my only friend. He would sit next to me on my bed while I cried every day after school. He was a big cat, bigger than some small dogs, and very intuitive. He would follow me around the neighborhood if I was out playing with other kids. He would wait at the road if I went into a neighbor’s home. He waited at the fence for me to get off the bus every day. He saw me through middle school hell and was there for me when I started dating and growing up in high school. He was a constant in my life for seventeen years. He at times was my only reason for being.
It seems so silly looking back on it. It seems ridiculous that though I was surrounded by a family and eventually some good friends, all it took was chronic bullying in fifth grade to devolve me into a soul who felt totally alone. Kids take this crazy unspoken oath of silence. I couldn’t tell anyone about the bullying. My teacher knew, but didn’t intervene. I never told my parents. I suffered silently and Cookie was the only one I let in. He was also the only one who comforted me. He truly showed me unconditional love. His entire existence seemed devoted to my existence, and it was incredibly powerful. He was there for my first broken heart, he was there for so many happy and also painful times in my life.
When I talk to kids now in my practice who are bullied my heart just aches for them. I know the pain that builds over time as day after day you have to face the same people with the same insults. I know the isolation, the fear, and the feeling that you can’t tell anyone because adults only make things worse.
I explored all those memories with my therapist and I remember the day we had to put Cookie to sleep. He was in pain, he had tumors, and he came and laid on my lap on the couch as I cried because I knew it would be the last time he would lay his big furry head on my knee. He looked so peaceful. I remember he closed his eyes and purred and it was like he was telling me it was going to be okay, that his job was done because I had made it through high school and I had this big future ahead of me already having been accepted to my top choice university.
I held him as our veterinarian gave him the injections. He let out a small meow, and then was gone. He looked peaceful in death and I was glad his suffering was over. I remember telling my therapist about his last meow and I was sobbing at that point, and I looked up and he had tears streaming down his face. I remember I stopped crying because I didn’t think therapists were allowed to cry.
He looked at me and said, “It’s just so profound that your one friend, your one true friend, was a cat. He sounds remarkable.”
And he was. Cookie dying marked the end of my childhood. I graduated high school that Spring, and moved on to college never looking back. I think back and I hate that he died, but I think it was for the best because it would have been incredibly hard for me to go to college knowing he was at home.
When clients tell me about pets I take them very seriously and I never put down anyone’s reason for being whether it be a cat, a snake, a friend they’ve only talked to online, etc. Everyone in middle school needs a lifeline. I was lucky to have Cookie as mine.
Some years later I was in a shelter in upstate New York looking for a cat. They sat me in a meet and greet room and brought in a few nice looking cats. I wasn’t feeling a connection with any of them. Then the girl brought in this ratty little thing (I learned after three baths she’s white, I thought she was brown) with double eye infections, a ratty tail, and she set her down on the floor. The cat walked over to me and crawled right into my lap and laid her little head on my knee and purred. I told the girl I would take her.
She follows me everywhere, sleeps with me every night, drives me batshit crazy, takes showers with me, and is trying to crawl onto my lap over the laptop as I type this, and I just can’t help but think it’s my Cookie back to life in the form of Rajha. Rajha has seen me date men and then has been here from the start of my relationship with my wife. She was with me through the horrible fertility journey and pregnancy. Now she knows my sons, sort of hates them, but knows them. My sons yell “Rawa Rawa” as they chase her through the house. Pets at their core provide unconditional love. Cookie and Rajha never gave two shits about my sexual orientation. They existed to solely bring love into my life. That is a gift to be treasured and mourned when it is lost.
To those people who have lost a pet, I know your pain. It’s profound, and it’s okay to mourn the loss. To those people who identify your pet as your reason for going on, been there. To those kids out there facing the daily grind of bullies. Hang in there.