A reminder from my daughter: Pets are part of the family

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I often wring my hands over what gift to buy Karen no matter the occasion, mostly because no gift I buy could ever truly represent my feelings toward my wife of 12 years and the mother of my two children.

Christmas was fairly easy (instead of gifts for each other, we sprung for a Wii system for the family) as was our anniversary last month (dinner at Volt in downtown Frederick), but for the last month or so I’ve been stuck on what to buy her for Mother’s Day.

After all, I was by her side for the births of both our children, and figure I owe her quite a bit.

Then I opened my e-mail and saw what I normally ignore (special deals from companies) suggesting a canvas photo collage.

Perfect! I chose some photos we had taken in the last year, and was pleasantly surprised with the quality when it arrived. I told Celeste, our 8-year-old daughter, about it that night, only after she promised to keep it a surprise.

Her eyes lit up. “Did you include a photo of Obi?”

Obi is our 12- or 13-year-old gray tabby cat, and Celeste considers him as much a part of our family as her younger brother, Gavin, though probably more so on the days he irritates her. Once she asked the question, I knew my answer would disappoint her, but I had no way around it. I didn’t include Obi, and couldn’t. The gift had already arrived.

I quickly thought of an alternative. “No, but that’s OK,” I told her. “You can draw a picture of him in the card you want to make for Mommy.”

“Good idea,” she replied.

Phew!

But the notion that Celeste would ask about Obi in the context of family photos gave me pause, and makes me think about how one defines family. Of course, I consider Obi (yes, he’s named after Obi-Wan Kenobi) part of the family, but I would not think about including him in a family photo spread.

He’s just a cat. I’ll feed him, clean his litter box, and force my finger in his mouth to stick a clump of hairball remedy in it, but for some reason I did not think of him when I chose the photos to include on Karen’s Mother’s Day present. Yet that’s the first question Celeste asked.

Obi is not an afterthought in her mind, as he is in mine. Her sense of family is not as confined as mine.

I’ve always known that to be true. When she names her family members, she still includes Princess, our other cat who died in 2006. (Yes, she was named after Princess Leia. Hey, I wouldn’t name my kids after “Star Wars” characters, but pets? Obviously.)

I had Princess years before I met Karen, and deciding to put her to sleep was not easy. She developed diabetes, had sustained nerve damage to her legs, and was in great pain. Treating her would have involved days of intensive medical care, treatment far beyond anything I would ask an animal to endure.

As much as I loved Princess, I could not justify putting her through such an ordeal. She was just a cat.

Her death was a shock, mostly because we did not expect it. We knew she hadn’t been feeling well for days, but we had no idea what was wrong with her. She wasn’t eating or drinking, and kept hiding under the couch — abnormal behavior for her.

I took her to the vet hospital one evening after dinner while Karen stayed home with the kids. I expected to come home with Princess meowing loudly from the carrier in one hand and a bottle of medicine in the other.

Instead, I came home with just her hot-pink collar and an empty carrier. I felt horrible. We told Celeste that Princess was in heaven. She was sad, but accepted it.

Obi took her death incredibly hard. In fact, he would not leave her bed for days, even though he never went near it while she was alive. He just sat there curled up in a ball sulking, amid all of the hair Princess had shed through the years.

He mourned the loss of his buddy for days. I would not have believed it had I not seen it. Grief is an emotion I had ascribed to people, and he’s only a cat. Yet Obi missed Princess as though she was part of his family, just like Celeste considers Obi (and Princess) part of her family.

I suppose he isn’t just a cat after all. He’s part of our family. How fitting to be reminded of that on Mother’s Day.

This is a re-post of a column that first appeared in The Gazette on April 29, 2010.

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