June 23, 2015
While my wife’s mother lay dying in a hospital, her animals lived alone in her house. The waterfall still spilled into the swimming pool, the fish still hid in the corner of the tank, and the dogs still gathered on the cool, kitchen tiles to nap. The tabby cat remained comfortably isolated upstairs in the master suite while the birds pinged around their cages, and Martin, the African Box turtle, hid inside his short garden fence, sunning daily beside a palm tree. The trickle of the water and the click of canine toenails on marble floors coalesced with the chirping. In this way the home remained alive.
What was lost was the sound of the woman humming in the mornings to feed the cat, the shuffling of her feet on the hallway runner by the first birdcage, the creaking of the wood floors beneath her.
When my wife, Sam, and I stayed at her house, my mother-in-law entered our room and we'd murmur good mornings. Then, a torrent of birdfeed cascading from the plastic jug into the bowls in the outdoor cage. In this moment the harsh morning sun saturated the room. She chirped at the birds before closing the cage, sliding the door and pulling the blackout shade into place. My mother-in-law scooped up our two barking Pomeranians and descended the stairs to sprinkle fish food into the saltwater tank. Soon the back door squeaked open, followed by the clamor of dogs circling the pool as she hosed down the yard. I liked feeding Martin, and when I visited she saved the task for me. I never grew tired of watching him eat sliced bananas.
But then she got sick. Friends helped care for her pets. Still, there was no plan set in place for her—or her animals. A woman who doesn’t know she’s dying doesn’t know to make a plan. Then there were platters of lox to order, family to call, and a house down on the Gulf of Mexico filled with pets that now, officially, belonged to no one. Sam and her brother Jonathan and the menagerie too: All motherless.
We flew south the week after her funeral. The conversations swelled with urgency. We need to do something about the animals, Jonathan reminded us, as if we’d forgotten. With two dogs of our own in a small New York City apartment, we could not house another. We’ll find them great homes, I insisted with feigned certainty, guilt wetting my eyelashes. But the dogs, Sam said, they’ve lived here their entire lives. That night we brought them all into our bed.
When I met her nearly ten years ago, my wife's mother had six dogs and a pair of cats, two aquariums' worth of exotic fish and a couple of bearded dragons—Jonathan’s lizard pets, later left behind for college—cages of birds including a house in the backyard for Clyde, the parrot, lovebirds in the hall and a Goffin named Kai on the second-floor veranda. Sam and her mom laughed when I tried to memorize all the names, ticking them off on my fingers.
The family loved a house full of life, but no one more than the matriarch. The animals were amassed over many years; a call from a long-forgotten breeder, a quick trip into the pet store after lunch, just to look, even a feline Mother’s Day gift. When Sam completed her freshman year of college she flew home with a young pug in her backpack. Her Lincoln Park landlord wasn’t happy, so her mother kept the pup. There had even been a pig once, during childhood, adopted from a neighbor. No more. She’d say. I’m done. But she was the mom who could not say No to fuzzy chicks or a fleecy puppy. The animals remained when the kids grew up and moved out. They were reassurance; Mom is not alone in the house. They were her comfort and her dependents. When a cat or a dog died he was cremated and added to the small shrine in her office. Sam’s mother was in a mausoleum before we had a plan for her pets.
Jonathan took Gretel, the tabby, to live in his Jersey City high-rise. Martin went to a friend who gave him to a friend and we’re not sure how to find Martin now. The fish and the birds were donated to Sarasota Jungle Gardens, an animal sanctuary frequented by tourists and their young children. The three remaining dogs—Darla, the French bulldog, Dexter, the Boston terrier, and Hank, the pug—were difficult to place. We didn’t want to separate the aging animals, but no one wanted all three. I wish we could keep them, Sam told me. I know, was my only reply. I understood these animals as part of her family. With her mother’s death came their displacement.
We drove Dexter to a small ranch-style home in a neighboring town to live with two little boys. Hank moved in with two little girls, and finally a single woman drove from Florida’s east coast to pick up Darla. She sent photos of Darla, her nails painted pink. I took her to the spa, read the caption, and we said, Good for Darla! A few weeks later the woman called to tell us Darla peed on her couch, could we come pick Darla up and take her back?
We cursed the woman. A ten-year-old dog uprooted from her life. We threw up our hands. It’s a transition. But we wouldn’t try to convince her. Who takes a dog to a spa anyway? We flew south and met the mean lady halfway between her coast and ours. We loaded my wife’s mother’s Wrangler and drove Darla north to New York and moved her in with Sam’s godmother in a prewar building on the Upper East Side. Darla took to city living, tugging the leash as she pointed her bowlegs toward Central Park, slimming down quickly, amassing fashionable raincoats and sweaters. We nicknamed her Darlarella. Orphaned pooch finds fairy-tale ending, we laughed.
Hank died in winter. His adoptive owner emailed in spring. The girls were devastated. Dexter’s owner divorced her husband. We heard she gave up Dexter, but we don’t know where he went. He’s lost, like Martin. Darla, we whisper, is old for a Frenchie. Sam and her godmother ward off her impending death. She’s Mom’s. My wife says. She’s all we have left.
Jewelry and furniture were sold and divided, and her house rented out, but my mother-in-law adored her animals. Darla’s incessant licking, occasional nervous shivers and bouncy gait are proof of her beating heart, a life left unwillingly behind. While the animals live they are an extension of her. Without them, there is little left to love that she loved.
The only sound in the house when we unlock the door is the waterfall trickling into the swimming pool, our own voices filling the rooms. I look around at the once lively space and think, No wonder Darla peed on the mean lady’s couch. She missed the sounds of life.