No Pet Left Behind

When the unimaginable happened, I found comfort in making sure that my furry friends, at least, would be okay.

When I pushed open the door to my mother-in-law’s kitchen, I was hit full on with the smell of cat urine and feces, despite my efforts to keep Caspar’s box enticingly clean and accessible. I wasn’t surprised. Since my mother-in-law had moved to a nursing home after a stroke two months earlier, I had become Caspar’s jailer, locking him in the house instead of allowing the cat to roam free during the day, as she preferred.

Initially, my husband Glenn faithfully drove to his mom’s every morning to feed the cat and let him out, then returned in the evening to let him back inside as Glenn’s mother had done for years. It wasn’t ideal, but though Glenn and I discussed bringing Caspar to live with us and our two cats, we worried that Caspar, a grizzled warrior feline, would bully and possibly attack our pampered cream puffs.  

We never had the chance to reach a decision. To my shock, almost before the ink dried on his mother’s nursing home admission papers, Glenn suddenly died from heart failure at age 51.  In the days that followed, mourning the loss of my husband of two years, I could barely take care of myself and our own cats, much less Caspar. Overcome and overwhelmed, I put Caspar under house arrest, effective immediately.

Ironically, I’d long been a volunteer with a small animal rescue organization. I was familiar with—and exasperated by—families who had no plan in place for pets when an elderly owner died or entered a nursing home. Now, I was the one without a plan. Once a few weeks had passed and I could think more clearly, I issued a desperate plea to family and friends to help me find a good home for Caspar, but I wasn’t hopeful. The cat was older and rather aloof, and I couldn’t promise that he’d do well in a household with other pets. Otherwise, Id be taking him home myself.

Meanwhile, if I ever doubted that animals feel grief, my own cats gave me a daily demonstration. For a long time, they loitered near our back door in the late afternoon, waiting for Glenn to come home from work and give them too many treats. Confused by his absence, they alternately shadowed and avoided me.

I found the whole situation so distressing that I convened a family meeting with my parents and sister to hash out who would take care of our respective animals in the event of another tragedy. As I well knew, the unthinkable can happen when you least expect it. My family quickly agreed that we needed to make decisions so that none of our ended up in a shelter.

My mother’s cat, Pumpkin, was the easiest to place. A beautiful tabby with a very sweet disposition, Pumpkin ruled my mother’s home and had grown accustomed to being spoiled rotten. My sister and her busy family could never give Pumpkin that kind of attention, so I decided that I’d be the one to inherit her if need be.

Then there was my dad’s dog, Sweetie, a young, high-spirited hound and one of a number of strays he’d taken in over the years. A close friend of my dad who knew and loved Sweetie volunteered to take her, and my sister agreed to take care of my two cats in the event something happened to me. As for my sister’s menagerie—two dogs, one cat, a bird and a hamsterthe animals would be parceled out among family and friends in the unlikely event that something happened to her, her husband and their three sons.

Nothing was put in writing, but it didnt need to be. We simply promised to take care of each others furry family members and make sure that our loved ones loved ones would be safe and cared for. Isnt that what being a family is about?

Not everyone feels a similar anxiety about what might happen to their pets after they pass away. My ever-practical and unsentimental mother-in-law suggested that I have Caspar euthanized instead of fretting over what to do with him. Some people simply dont see pets as true family, which makes me very glad I get to decide what happens to my animals and not someone else.

As it turns out, I didn’t have to make any further decisions for Caspar. Glenn’s good friend James called to tell me that he and his wife would give Caspar a home. I nearly cried with relief as I thanked him. The cat lived with James and his wife for several years until he was about 17 years old and starting to go blind. The last time I saw him, a few months before he passed away, the retired warrior, who had once left a trail of dead birds and mice in his wake, was sunning himself on James’s patio. He had trouble getting around because of his arthritis, but James still let him go outside every day.

As I scratched Caspar’s head and he peered at me through clouded eyes, I wondered if the cat remembered his old life with Glenn’s mom, or me for that matter. I had been his jailer but also his protector, though I doubt he saw it that way. I hadnt been prepared for the sudden responsibility at the worst possible time, but, just as I once promised Glenn I would take care of his mother if something happened to him, I had to find a good home for the pet they both loved.

As we both basked in the sun, I sang Caspar the silly Caspar Song Glenn had made up years ago, letting myself imagine that the cat would recognize it. All I know is that as I got up to leave, he gave me one last look through half-closed eyes, his tail flicking contentedly.

Samantha Drake is a Philadelphia-based writer who has written for The Washington Post, Forbes.com, Smithsonian.com, and Quartz, among many other outlets. You can find her work at samanthadrake.com

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