I am child-free. My babies are different.

(On my relationship to parenting, and the pets I’ve parented instead of people.)

Back in the first year of my relationship with my wife, back when we were still just dating, we sometimes talked about whether or not we wanted to be parents one day.

I remember that during our first few such conversations, my reaction sounded idealized and nostalgic. “Aw,” I’d say, with a vague feeling of warmth and optimism, “I think I’d be a great Dad. I’d love to have a kid!”. My young optimism was in full bloom, and I was probably really saying “I would like that dream to be my dream” or “I would like to have a chance to re-visit childhood from a new perspective, and be part of someone’s happy childhood”.

Back at that time, I was about twenty years old, barely an adult, and absolutely not ready to be a parent, either financially or emotionally. I think the idea of it, the happy vision of parenthood, made me feel open to the possibility, but inside me, closer to my true nature, was the idea that I needed to pursue my own development as a person, to learn all that I could learn from the world, and to find answers to the many existential questions that my upbringing had tattooed onto me. I grappled with big questions, like “who am I?”, “why did all the bad things that happened to my family have to happen at all?”, “what will my future career look like?”, and “will I succeed in life?”.

So, when my girlfriend and future wife expressed no interest in having kids and convinced me that I didn’t really want them either, it was a splash of cold water in my face. Soon afterwards, I admitted to myself that I really did not want kids; I didn’t want all that extra responsibility for another person. I realized that what I wanted at that point in my life was to continue growing myself up.

Maybe deep down inside I worried that I’d be a selfish or negligent parent, or even an alcoholic like my parents. I didn’t know what weaknesses were woven into me, but I did know that I wouldn’t want my own kid to go through any of the bad childhood experiences that I and my sister had gone through.

I also felt independent and didn’t believe that I owed my parents or my wider family any offspring. My name and line, short or long, were my own. I think I just decided it and then pushed the idea off to the side and got on with my life. Being child-free would soon become a core part of my identity.

But, there was an alternative for me…

At various stages throughout my life, my family adopted pets into the household. My mother had a strong love of animals, and in her youth, she’d always been surrounded by dogs, cats, birds, and even an occasional horse. My Mum and her parents had always loved animals.

My Dad could ride a horse and had worked in a stable in North Vancouver in his younger years. He also always seemed to have an affinity with dogs, using his strong personality with great success to leash-train them. In any group of men, it seemed that my Dad was often the “Alpha Male”.

In the forties, back when my Dad was in his twenties, the Love family lived in Vancouver. Dad’s mother always kept a canary named “Tweety” singing in a little cage in the kitchen of the Love family house. Dad said his mum would say “I love you Tweetie!” and get a chorus of chirps in reply. Grandpa Love would not, and was known to say “That bird never says a damned thing to me!” (Grandma Love was a quiet, gentle woman, and in her final years living alone in her little flat, she kept another canary named Tweety in a little cage in her kitchen.)

In Saskatoon in the early sixties, before my mother got pregnant with me, my parents filled their new house with a collie, a cat, and a budgie. Dad used to enjoy telling the story of their collie, Lassie, racing around the house, with the cat riding on its back and the budgie riding on its head. It always sounded like such an idyllic little scene to me.

Our dear Sheba, in 1974.

When I was seven or eight, my Dad brought home a female german shepherd named Sheba, as a gift to us kids, and I noticed how much Mum and Dad loved her too. Weaning Sheba’s new pups in our kitchen was one of the happiest family moments I can recall. My sister and I were raised to love our house pets, and this love came from our parents.

When I was ten, we adopted a young male cat from the SPCA. My mother soon named him Velvet and declared that he must be part Persian because of his soft, fine fur. Velvet was with us from about the age of one until five or six, when he got blinded (either by a female he was trying to mate with, or in a fight with another male).

For about five years, Velvet was the little prince of our house. Remembering him blissfully laying on his back with his paws in the air in the middle of our livingroom carpet is one of my favourite memories of him.

My own pet family

Tiger and Sylvester, BFFs

By 1991, two years after I married my wife, we adopted two cats, brothers, whom we named Tiger and Sylvester. I’d grown to prefer cats over dogs, for their independent nature, smaller size, and quieter behaviour. We were apartment dwellers, so indoor-only cats were also the most practical for us. What I hadn’t been prepared for was how insane and energetic young kittens could be, and how deeply in love I’d fall with both of them. Tiger and Sylvester were truly our kids.

Tiger came to us first, aged only six weeks, right from his Mother’s side via an in-law. Back when he was just a tiny little newborn sitting easily in the palm of my hand, I’d picked him out of the batch because he appeared to be the “runt”. He also seemed to be the most alert and responsive of the lot, straining to smell and see me as I said hello to him, even before his little eyes had fully opened. (I named him “Tiger” after the nickname that my Dad had called me once when I was five. It was kind of a father-son thing.)

We took baby Tiger home with us and I enjoyed almost constant play time and bonding with him while I was part-time employed, working from home. Within a month or two we adopted Tiger’s brother, whom we named Sylvester.

As they grew up, their different physiques and temperaments became apparent. Unlike his fat, muscular sixteen pound brother, Sylvester was light and lean and only about eight pounds. Although different in stature, the boys were extremely close and remained best friends, cuddle-mates, and active rivals for our attention for the next nineteen years. Overall, they enjoyed very long, happy lives with us.

Sylvester in sunshine bliss…

In his last year of life, our little Sly developed kidney problems and needed regular water infusions to stay hydrated. I couldn’t do this myself, so we would take him to the Vet. After returning home, he’d have a giant water hump on his back that would sometimes make him stumble off-balance like a feline Quasimodo. Every morning, I’d grind a kidney pill into his wet food too. But even though we did our best, over time Sly’s condition worsened and his kidneys practically stopped working altogether. Soon, the increased toxicity in his little system began to give him scary seizures that twisted him into terrible shapes for a few moments. By that point, he didn’t have much time left.

Sylvester passed away from complications from renal failure at 19 years old (equivalent to about 92 in human years). He died at home with us, wrapped in a blanket on our couch, with his brother nearby. It was a terrible evening, watching him struggle and strain against unseen pain and fear. After maybe forty minutes, he grew still and his eyes stayed wide open. I believed that he’d gone blind and stopped seeing. He felt motionless and a little cold. By the time we removed him from his spot on the couch, he was as solid as a statue – well-gone into rigour-mortis. We sobbed as we took Sylvester’s little body to the late-night animal emergency hospital where they confirmed his state and we arranged to have him cremated and his remains returned to us.

Walking back home dragging his empty carrier slackly at my side, I was emotionally gutted and exhausted. Tiger was visibly and audibly distressed the moment he saw us walk in without his brother. Tiger’s face and voice said “where is he?”. It was a terrible night and I hoped it would never come again. We cried over and over for days and as time passed, it hurt a little less. It’s incredible how deep my bond with Sylvester had become. The loss of our little boy was the most I’d suffered since losing my Dad back in 1989.

Around the same time that Sylvester had been struggling with kidney disease, Tiger was diagnosed with feline diabetes. The vet told us that our cats were elderly now, and our good care was adding to their lives. Every morning before breakfast, Tiger would tolerate me giving him a tiny injection of insulin. He hated the needle but he remained good-natured about his health burdens. He was always happy with his mum, his dad, and his favourite napping place in the laundry basket on our love seat.

Unfortunately Tiger followed his brother about 8 months later at the age of 20 (almost 96 in equivalent human years). One evening, Tiger landed on his head when jumping down off the love seat, and we saw that he could not walk without stumbling or falling over. Watching him lay on his side on our carpet, we decided that he was in real trouble and took him to the emergency animal hospital at around 11pm. This might finally be it for him, I worried. That dreaded thought was becoming real again…

Tiger’s spirit was good but he seemed to be very tired. When we got to the emergency clinic, the vet supported Tiger’s belly while he tried to walk. He would take one step and then fall over. His face showed that he was bewildered that his legs wouldn’t work. The Vet determined that Tiger might have suffered a stroke. He wouldn’t be able to feed himself or go to the bathroom or do anything on his own at home during the day. After watching what a difficult time Sylvester had with his health decline, we couldn’t see any quality of life in the future for poor Tiger either. We really didn’t want him to suffer or possibly even die at home alone while we were out during the day, so we decided that it would be kinder for him to take one last nap with both of his parents holding him close. So that’s what we did.

We cried while praising him and telling him how good he was and how much we loved him. He wasn’t in pain and he fell asleep peacefully with a big sigh and a smile on his face. It was a peaceful exit for a loving, gentle guy.

Best bros, side-by-side…

Our two boys had enjoyed long happy lives, joining us through a move to our condo, and little road trips to Hope or downtown to hotels that were pet friendly. In their young, healthy years, they often entertained our house guests with their running and jumping antics. They greeted each guest at the front door and saw them off at the door when they left.

Tiger and Sylvester had always been known to our friends and family simply as “the boys”, and by 2012 both of them had passed on after long, loving lives.

I’d be lying if I said that the years living without our boys were easy ones. Twenty years with the pitter-patter of paws, night-time cat opera, hairballs, and unconditional love scratches all added up to a beautiful era, and our lives felt very empty after that bittersweet era had finally passed.

The Next Generation…

I ached with missing my two boys and I really hoped that one day we’d adopt another bonded pair of cats. We had lots of love to give and I liked the idea of keeping a couple of siblings or bonded BFFs together.

A few years later in August 2016 Grace finally agreed, and we went to the SPCA looking for a couple of bonded young cats who needed a good home. We’d searched online to see who was available for adoption, and had seen one or two kitten pairs who might be good candidates. However when we got to the Vancouver BCSPCA we found a different situation. In an isolation room at the back of the Vancouver shelter, we were introduced to a brother and sister named ePo and Peaches. They were about five years old, and immediately familiar-looking to us: they were similar to our boys in that one of them was friendly, forward, and big and fat (which was like Tiger), and the other one was shy, small and slim (like Sylvester).

We were told that these two were staff favourites and had been in the shelter system for a few months after their previous owner had given them up. ePo, the large male, was nicknamed “Hippo” by some of the staff because of his huge girth, being well over 18 pounds. When we entered their little isolation room, he came up and greeted us first. His sister Peaches was a smaller and thinner, only about 8 pounds and very fearful, preferring to watch everything from one of the little wall shelves where she could keep a safe distance.

They felt familiar to us and it seemed like we were winning them over as well. It didn’t take long for Grace and I to decide that these two were the ones for us. While Grace went out to the front desk to find a staffer to get the paper work started, I stayed back in the little room with the two cats and let them smell my hands and get used to me. Within a few minutes of petting and talking to ePo, I sat down and patted my knee. He leapt right up into my lap and pushed his big body firmly into my chest. That was his way to give a hug, saying “I like you. Please take us home”. I was so touched! That sealed the deal for me: they were coming home with us right away.

At first, Peaches was very scared and she found an impossibly tiny corner in our sunroom where she wedged herself under some boxes and wouldn’t some out. ePo sat calmly on the corner of our living room carpet where he could enjoy the warm sunbeam from the window. He sat there as proud as a Sphinx, with his head in the air and a smile on his face. He was home and very happy about it.

Every twenty or thirty minutes after that, he walk over to where his sister was barricaded, and poke his nose in to try and coax her out. After five or six hours of this, Peaches finally emerged, and a little while later she drank some water and ate a little food with her brother near her side.

Peaches and Blue, sharing the sun.

We’d both thought that ePo was a weird name. After a chat with my sister Kim about his large size, quiet nature, and the hints of cool grey in his coat, she suggested “Blue”, inspired by the colour of Paul Bunyan’s beloved Ox

From then on, it would be Peaches and Blue.

A few years later, in 2019, Peaches started developing strange symptoms. Initially, throwing up and seeming listless at times, by the last week of April 2019, she seemed tired and unable to jump up into her favourite sleeping spot in our towel rack. She remained affectionate but lacked energy and enthusiasm. By May 2nd, she’d stopped eating and drinking, and her breathing was rapid and laboured, so we took her to the Emergency Animal Hospital.

It turned out that our little girl had a giant tumour filling up to 90% of her chest cavity. It was a real shock to learn that the tumour was so large that it had pushed her heart and lungs to back of her body, and pushed her esophagus up near her spine.

Usually an enthusiastic eater, Peaches had loved her wet food but her appetite had gradually waned as the tumour started to interfere with her esophagus. We had no idea how long the tumour might have been growing inside her. She’d lost a pound of weight, which would have been like one of us losing twenty pounds.

We were told by the Vet that cats are often adept at hiding illness, and when they finally get to a point where they can no longer hide their symptoms, the decline is rapid. This is exactly how it had been with Peaches. She’d probably held on for a long time. It came as such a shock.

The diagnosis was that the tumour could not be surgically removed as her heart was under a lot of strain and she’d be at risk for a heart attack or might possibly not come out of the anaesthesia. The tumour was deeply integrated around her lungs and heart, we learned later. There was no getting better from her condition, and there seemed to be no future for our poor little girl, so we made the decision to end her dear little life as gently and peacefully as possible, so that she wouldn’t suffer.

Unlike human palliative care, in the world of domestic pets, palliative care is a brief process. They brought Peaches in to us, with an oxygen tank so that she could get some air. She hated the oxygen tank with the little tube blowing air into her face (she never liked the wind), but she cozied up in her Mum’s lap easily and settled down to let us pet her and tell her what a good girl she was. We told her how much we loved her, and stroked her neck and scratched her chin. She was just relieved to see us after being separated and in a strange place all afternoon. It’s impossible to know if she understood what was happening to her, but she was very likely completely exhausted. When the time came, she fell asleep immediately.

In her few years with us, Peaches built a reputation as a loving little girl with a gravelly meow that reminded me of a 1940s waitress who’d smoked too many cigarettes. Peaches was always kind to her brother, and other than killing one mouse, she never hurt a fly. She was also an excellent stylist of her Dad’s nails and hairline.

Her brother misses her but seems to be adjusting well to all the extra love and attention that he’s been receiving.