Daze of My Life: Paws for Reflection

Daze of My Life
Paws for Reflection
by Kenneth B. Lourie

Growing up in Newton Centre, Mass., a mere seven miles from downtown Boston, my exposure to and experience with animals, other than squirrels and birds of a feather, most of whom flocked together and flew south for the winter, and the occasional dog or cat, was fairly limited. As much as I would have loved to have a dog, especially as a child, the chance of that happening while I was living in my mother's house was somewhere between slim and none; it was never.
Eventually my mother relented and consented to my having two types of pets. In succession, there were two parakeets (Birdie 1 and Birdie 2) both of who died in relative anonymity and in relatively short order. Birdie 1 died while I was away at summer camp. My mother found him lying on the bottom of his cage one morning. Next came my two turtles, Murtle and Yurtle, bought at the local Woolworth's for a grand total of one dollar. They didn't live very long either. Their deaths may have been caused by a virus that allegedly affected these 50-cent turtles, and before too long they were no longer available for sale.
I imagine the turtles' existence in their round, water-filled plastic bowl, with the fake, green, plastic palm tree was hardly idyllic, but I guess they were lucky to be alive. And though they were going nowhere, slowly, except in a circle or occasionally onto that center, console-type mound in the middle of their bowl--for rest and recreation, I suppose--they were fed regularly, as were the Birdies, and given shelter as well.
Having the turtles in their bowl with a container of turtle food sitting atop my bureau, and the Birdies in their cage hanging from a pole at the foot of my bed, as my responsibility, sort of (in all fairness, my mother did most of the heavy lifting; she cleaned out the bird cage), acquainted me with a world with which I was previously unfamiliar: pets in the house.
I can't say that the lack of a real pet experience adversely affected my childhood, but I was happy, if I recall, to at least have the opportunity to nurture, well, wake up to and come home from school to, the Birdies and the turtles. And though I understood that their lives were in my hands, I don't think I ever felt truly responsible for those lives, as I've felt for the dogs and cats that I've parented as an adult. The emotional attachments are completely different and are of a depth and intensity that, had I experienced them as a child (especially their deaths) when I was less prepared to deal with them emotionally, I might have been less inclined to expose myself to them yet again as an adult.
But what did I know? Caring for parakeets and turtles was like attending kindergarten, compared with caring for dogs and cats. I wouldn't say kindergarten prepared me for college, but I had to start somewhere. Feeding the turtles or talking to the parakeets may have been a beginning, but their passing certainly wasn't an ending, for me anyway. So as an adult, I was eager to add a puppy and a kitten to my life. First came Tillie and Gus (in college), then Blimpie and Brandy (when Dina and I were newlyweds), and then Smokey and Bailey, now (when Dina and I are oldyweds).
As you regular readers know, our Persian cat, Smokey, died somewhat unexpectedly on Dec. 23, and it's taken Dina and me a while to recover. I can't help wondering, however, if as a child, I had already dealt with the loss of a dog or a cat, instead of a parakeet or a turtle, would I have been any better prepared for Smokey's death, or would I have been less likely even to bring another cat or dog into my life?
I've often heard it said that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Unbeknownst to me, until Smokey's death, I never realized that this sentiment also had to do with having dogs and cats as pets.

Lourie is a regionally syndicated columnist who resides in Burtonsville, MD.