From Cat Lady to Dog Mom
A redneck burial service, new angels, and the lifelong practice of saying goodbye
Six years ago, I walked into my vet clinic with a cat named Fancy.
Born in a barn and named for a prostitute in a country music song, her start had been equally destitute and her rise as improbable. A friend found her and handed her off to me instead of taking her to the shelter. Just graduated from college, working as a daily reporter in small-town North Carolina on my own, I took in the rowdy kitten, and we grew up together.
More than a decade later, I had an established career and was married with a 2-year-old. Fancy, much chubbier than her barn cat days, tolerated the toddler and still enthusiastically came when called. But she began to show signs of illness.
It wasn’t long before she stopped eating reliably, despite food changes and meds. Not long after that came the cold December day I made the call to put her down. I made a late-afternoon appointment, so I could give her as much of one more day as possible. I remember that being important to me. As animals sometimes do, she perked up that morning and sprung onto the bed like she hadn’t done for weeks. She propped her front paws on my ankle as she snoozed, just as she had done since she was a kitten.
It is a weighty thing to have another being’s life in your hands. My parents had always shielded us, not from the fact of our pets’ deaths, but from the physical act of them. On that icy day, the weight was squarely on me.
I knew it was the right thing to do, but as she waltzed around the house like a spry young thing that last day, I struggled to stay the course.
In the end, I took her in, held her in my arms, and let her go.
It was then the conversation shifted very quickly to the nitty gritty of death logistics. It’s a jarring hard turn I’d come to understand very deeply later— the way life can go from the cosmic consideration of one’s just departed friend to the comically mundane details of the aftermath.
“I know you’re pondering your part in this sweet creature’s life and whether you repaid her half as much as you could have for her kindness, and also the idea of mortality, and the enormity of life, and growing up, and responsibility. And, here is your $75 bill.”
The vet told me I had several options. I could pay a middling fee and get a pile of ashes back, some of which might be Fancy’s. I could pay a much larger fee and get a pile of ashes back that were probably mostly her. Or, I could take her collar and go home.
The vet seemed puzzled by my puzzlement. She was further puzzled by my rejection of all three options.
Tearful and with a re-emerging Southern accent (it does that when I’m upset), I said, “Ma’am, I’m from North Carolina, and I’m gonna take my cat and I’m gonna dig a hole for her and bury her in the back yard like a normal person.”
She warned me that it was cold and it would be hard to dig a hole.
“Yes, I know.”
She warned me that if I didn’t bury her deep enough…
“Yes, I’m from the South. I know, critters will get her.”
The vet, perhaps reading my resolve, relented and I carried her out the back door in a cardboard box.
I dug alone. It was indeed cold and extremely hard to dig a hole. My husband, Jake, was working and my daughter stayed with the nanny while I muscled a clump of cold earth from the ground. I got blisters and thought it was a fitting tribute. I put her in and put down a heavy paver to mark the spot and foil the critters. The sweat helped.
I had done the hard thing, the adult thing, the heavy thing.
At the time, I didn’t know it was just the beginning of the heaviest 12 months of my life.
In that year, I buried my cat, had an early miscarriage, got pregnant again, lost my husband of four years in a tragic bike wreck, and had a new baby. It was, to put it mildly, a lot. Looking back, it’s amazing how little I knew of loss the day I dug that hole. And yet, I’m equally amazed it still makes me tear up to think about it.
In the aftermath of Jake’s death and the birth of our second daughter, I didn’t think about getting another pet. I knew myself well enough to know I was barely eking out a professional life and raising two kids. Unless a pet wanted to feed itself on Cheez-It crumbs and the remnants of my wine bottles, I couldn’t handle it. Which, to be fair, a cat would probably have been happy to do, but there was something else, too.
Getting a pet means knowingly making a best friend you will only have for a decade or so. A friend’s beloved Bernese Mountain Dog had died at six years old. Six! After so much loss, I could not imagine signing up to say goodbye to someone else someday. So, there were to be no pets in our house. I vaguely wondered whether it would make my kids weird to never have a pet, and decided they’d be fine.
Then came another heavy 12 months, for everyone. 2020.
I remarried in early March of that year, to a man who is, to understate it significantly, a dog person. He joked about my being a cat lady, and frankly, I’m not ashamed. Cats are great and independent. But I was open to the idea of a dog, and my husband had been wanting one since he’d had to give up his working dog/partner when he switched jobs six years ago. (Speaking of things that will make you tear up.)
Steve has a favorite breed— a Belgian Malinois. A Mal is a working dog with endless energy, proud posture, and perfect loyalty. It’s basically a dog version of my husband.
We missed out on two litters of puppies over the summer, as America’s demand for lockdown doggies went sky-high. Then, my husband went to a work training course in rural Washington State for a month in the fall.
While there, one of the people in his course heard about a dog found by a nearby shelter.
“They have this great dog, but they won’t let anyone adopt him who doesn’t have experience with the breed. You worked with Belgian Mals, right?”
(Mals can be a handful even for experienced dog owners, so sometimes shelters are careful about adopting them, lest they be returned after owners realize just how energetic they are. As a friend put it, “Pros: Will eat terrorists. Cons: Will also eat your couch.”)
I told Steve if he had come across a Mal on a trip to a small town on the other side of the country, maybe it was a sign, and he should check the dog out. I trusted him to make the call. He has experience assessing dogs, and I knew he’d be clear-eyed enough to know what would work for our family, even when faced with puppy-dog eyes.
He called me after 20 minutes with the pup, running him through tests and looking for aggression over food or toys.
“This is an amazing dog. You trust me?”
He flew home 18 hours later with a 1-year-old Belgian Malinois named Scout. Well, Scout Waylon, as I felt I should continue my country-music naming tradition. Scout had been abandoned and found starving. When the shelter handed him over to my husband, he had one possession— a little black teddy bear that he still carries around the house. He carries him gingerly, fraying his ears, but sparing him the destruction he reserves for other toys.
He has been with us for almost six months now. I know a lot of people say this about their dogs, but this creature is truly an angel on earth. He plays well with dogs and kids of any size, and is a favorite at doggy daycare (even though they probably say that to all the dogs, but they really mean it about Scout, you see). He runs at least a half marathon a day around the backyard or playing fetch. We joke that he gets his energy from his father and his social IQ from his mom. I have gone full dog mom, easily making more appointments, doing more food monitoring, and framing more portraits of him the last half a year than for my daughters.
He had a minor surgery this week to prevent bloat. The procedure isn’t much to worry about in a young, healthy dog, but anytime someone you love is under anesthesia, there are dangers. I spent all damn day stressing about that dog, and waiting for the call to come in that he was fine.
I’ve faced mortality before, and it had a way of making me both tougher and more tender. Tougher in that I know I’ll march through whatever life throws my way because I’ll have to. More tender in that I’m apt to see the possibility of that dark march in more everyday activities than I ever did before Jake died.
But I go out and invite new angels into my life, even knowing I’ll have to say goodbye to them someday. Because that’s life, and wow, is it worth it!
Scout is recovering from his surgery now. He is disciplined and observes strict rules elsewhere, but — and this surprised me from my husband— he is allowed on the bed. He usually prefers one of his three— count ‘em three!— dog beds around the house. (Scout Waylon has come a long way from his outdoor, vagabond beginnings.) But right now, he wants to hang with me. I’m more than happy to let him, as it’s the only way to keep him under 10 miles a day while his stitches heal.
He has a way of snoozing, propping his front paws on my ankles, that reminds me of another angel I once knew.
Editor’s Note: That’s me. I’m the editor. I will try not to spam y’all too often, nor intend to be the “This is Us” of Substacks, with the crying all the time. I strive to find the humor and heart in tough subjects and hope I’m doing that, and I’m happy to hear from you about how it’s working for you (or not, in constructive ways.) Thanks for reading!