I still remember the first time I saw Sinja. It was March of 2002, on one of those grey, winter days in Tennessee when the sky never got brighter than it usually is at dusk. Just before I met a coworker in the parking lot, it began to drizzle, but I didn’t care. She was bringing two kittens from a recent litter for me to choose from, and I was buzzing with excitement.
Little did I know, she was bringing twins. When she stepped out of the truck, she held a tiny, orange kitten by the scruff in each hand. The one in her right hand wasn’t having the dreary, winter weather. He cried out, his front paws reaching toward me.
Of course, when I tell this story, my mother jokes, “And that’s the one you chose. The one making all that noise,” and she laughs. But, of course I chose him. As soon as I saw him, I knew I was his mom. I was 20 years old, and I was finally getting a “real” pet.
Growing up an Army brat didn’t leave much room for pets, plus some members of family had allergies. There were rare exceptions over the years, but it wasn’t the same as a dog or cat.
We had a blue parakeet when I was 5 or 6 years old. My child brain remembers my grandma toting it out of the store in a cardboard box, and my parents didn’t seem thrilled about it. Maybe because the bird was mean, and not too bright. My only, and perhaps skewed, memory of him is the time he pecked my dad. Dad was holding him while mom cleaned his cage, but my father let go after being pecked. The bird immediately flew into the wall over the couch and stunned himself.
One morning, the cage was empty. My parents had buried the bird before we’d woken up, and explained the concept of death to my brother and me for the first time. Though I don’t remember this part, my parents say it affected me for months afterward. All of a sudden, I’d burst into tears at the dinner table (maybe thinking of the absence of his cage). When they’d ask what was wrong, I’d cry about “my bird.”
In my late teens, I had a hamster named Cow. She was black and white splotched and lived in an aquarium on a bookshelf outside my bedroom door. When I’d come home, she’d stand on her hind legs and dance for my attention. Cow also loved carrots, so much so that she’d occasionally fall backward while shoving a strand of it into her cheeks.
While she had personality, she didn’t leave her cage often. Hamsters aren’t wildly affectionate, like some pets, and they don’t live long. After a year or two, they swell up– an indicator they’re about to pass away. When Cow died, I held her in my hands. She screamed, a final death rattle before going still.
I also worry all the time. At least, more than usual. I think: How will I know when it’s time to let go? What if he’s just holding on for his mommy? How will Sunny react, having never been without her brother? What if I step out of the house, fall asleep, or go out of town and I’m not here for him in his last moments? If I’m not there, I’ll never forgive myself; I’ll never recover.
I’ve dealt with death and sickness before– in humans and in animals. But I can’t explain how much it hurts to consider living a world where my fur baby doesn’t exist anymore. A world where I have to let him go. My heart feels raw, and when I cry about how sick he is, I feel like my ribs will crack under the weight of all that sorrow.
Until then, I’m loving and cherishing every second our little family has left together. I need him here, headbutting me in the mornings, stealing water out of the glass on my nightstand, and laying on my chest as I try to write or work, just a little bit longer.