Technically speaking, my nest has been empty for four years. Both children, a son and daughter are, as I write this, completing their last semesters as undergraduates. My son, the older of the two, has taken a bit longer to complete his college journey. Nevertheless, he’s done it, almost, and that was all his father and I wanted. Yet I realized recently that while the children have gone, they left their pets behind and each year as the kids move closer to adulthood and financial independence their pets are tying my husband and me to home more than they ever did. Our nest isn’t empty. It’s filled with expensive, aging animals.
Barf, poop, pee. That was the subject line of an email I wrote to my husband last week while he was in Washington, DC, for a conference. We both wanted to go but one of us needed to stay home with the animals. Two dogs, two cats, three backyard chickens, and some fish in a small outdoor pond. The chickens are mine and don’t require much care, plus they’re an asset since they lay eggs. The fish are pretty much self supporting.
The dogs each belong to the children: Belle is a 15 year-old pug who can barely walk. Even as a youngster she pretended to be hard of hearing and I’ve never trusted her eyesight. Anyone who owns a pug knows what I mean. Now, however, I have to tap her on the shoulder to get her attention. Sometimes when I wake her she doesn’t seem to know who I am or where she is. She has to be carried outside. My husband says it’s like lifting a cinderblock but harder. There’s no place to really get a good hold and when you put her down you never know whether she’ll stay standing.
When my daughter was in second grade Santa brought Belle to her for Christmas. She calls Belle “her heart,” and I dread the day I have to make the call saying Belle is gone. How I’ll feel about Belle’s passing, however, I’ll keep to myself.
Molli belongs to my son. She’s a 12-year old golden retriever who suffers from severe arthritis and bad skin. She’s always been a bit nervous and fearful of new situations. Now, however, she only goes outside with much cajoling and coaxing. She spends her days in my husband’s study pressed between the bookcase and his heavy chair. If she hears someone unfamiliar in the house she growls but doesn’t move. Take that, robbers!
My son got Molli when he was just entering adolescence and their vulnerability and mischievousness seemed perfectly matched. They were both cute, but at times oh, so bad. My son often spent time with Molli in her crate. I’m not sure who was sent there first.
The cats, brothers whom we rescued from the shelter, belong to my daughter. One year for her birthday she asked only for a really big fat cat. As if fate had brought them together, a really big fat cat had just days before been surrendered to the local shelter along with his not-so-fat brother. My husband said we couldn’t take one without the other and so my daughter got a double birthday present that year. She and my husband renamed them Minnesota Fats and Fast Eddy.
Their age has never been determined. The only thing that’s clear is that they’re getting on in years, cat and human. Fats, the older of the two, has taken to gorging, then moving through the house like a drunkard until he heaves and heaves and heaves, leaving a trail of half digested kibbles and permanent brown spots on the carpet behind. He moves slower each year, his hindquarters swaying and dipping, as much from his girth as from his unfortunate encounter with the back wheels of our car. After the accident, his hips were reconstructed but never functioned quite the same. His brother finds his constant neediness tiresome and often puts up a paw and whacks him as he walks by.
I know that Belle and Molli and Fats and Eddie are family pets, too, and I love them. But from the beginning, it was the children who asked for them and who, to a certain degree, cared for them. Nevertheless, we might be called indulgent parents when it comes to pets. My son, for example, had Stan Lee, the turtle, in a beautiful aquarium in his room. Stan was really playful and very attentive to my son. When my son decided Stan needed a change of scenery, he put him in a small pond, more a water feature, in my garden in the side yard. We never saw Stan again. My son posted signs around the neighborhood: Come Home Stan Lee, I Love You.
Both children went through a hamster phase. I called them the damsters. We invested hundreds of dollars in specially designed “environments.” Although we were assured we had only purchased females, at some point someone had babies, including a hairless one that was nicknamed “Ratty,” that even the pet store wouldn’t buy back. At one point, they all got loose (neither child admitted to letting them out of their “environments”) and several found their way into the walls of our historic home where in the middle of the night you could hear the crunch, crunch, crunch as they ate at our home’s wooden foundation.
We also had rabbits and guinea pigs, and my daughter asked, again for birthday or Christmas, for a miniature horse that could live in the backyard but also come into her room to play. Amazingly, my husband said no. But she did have a pet mouse who had a Perrier water cap as a feeding bowl that he’d tap against the side of his plastic living container when he was hungry.
Neither child was interested in snakes or spiders, which I’m thankful for. But I did give each a baby chick for Easter one year. My son named his Donnie Darko. The chicks were both hens and turned out to be very prolific egg layers.
I’m certain there were other pets but I’ve blocked them from my mind. The four that are with us now have been a part of the family for many years and according to the vet, will be with us for many more. They each take more pills than my husband and I combined.
So we don’t feel comfortable leaving these pets, in various stages of decline, even for a weekend. The son of a friend does a good job looking after them when we do manage a day away but the cleanup afterwards makes it almost not worth it. No matter how good your caretaker, they often miss, or overlook, some of the nastier messes. And the whole time we’re gone my mind reels with worse-case scenarios.
I’ve resolved not to worry any more about the carpet or the wooden floors. There’s not much I can do about it anyway. The carpet will be replaced some day and the wooden floors can be refinished. But I was sad about missing the trip to Washington and we’ve decided to decline the offer of a house swap with a friend who lives in the mountains. Our friend, like us, has the occasional creaky knee and bad back and we just couldn’t see her physically being able to take care of the menagerie.
There are those who would say our children should take responsibility for their pets, and maybe they should. But there’s a part of me, too, that might be holding on to my not-so-empty nest, unwilling to completely let go of that time when children and pets filled the house with a cacophony of noise and activity. Caring for our children’s aging pets may be a way of letting go a little at a time, accepting change, and then moving on.
Or we’re just suckers, home-bound with aging animals. Our friends with adult children are off rekindling relationships or discovering new hobbies or traveling, or maybe even saving for retirement while we sit in our little nest surrounded by our pets’ pill bottles and our cleaning rags, sending each other our own kind of love notes, subject heading: barf, poop, and pee.