Papillon was a jungle cat when they found him. That’s not a metaphor. That curious, lithe little guy with the fierce vampire-like teeth actually lived in the wild in Costa Rica. One day he walked onto my brother and sister-in-law’s property, they formed a mutual attachment, and that was the adoption process. They named him Papillon, or butterfly in French. A perfect name for a being who flitted around with a childlike sense of wonder.
(They did discover much later that he was someone else’s cat and they were like oops haha, but they never considered giving him back. He had joined the family.)
Papillon lived in Costa Rica, then Idaho, then Costa Rica again, then Idaho again. He traveled more than many humans. A true adventurer.
Last week I got a text from my sister-in-law saying “Papillon is dying. We have a couple days to spend with him and then we’re saying goodbye.” He had suddenly gotten very lethargic so they took him to the vet, where they discovered that he had advanced kitty leukemia. It was too late to do anything. He had likely had it for years. They were crushed.
My sister-in-law called me and just sobbed. Her pain was palpable, and my heart broke over and over that day and the next and the next, partially because I love Papi and was sad to hear he was leaving the earth, but even more because I was feeling their pain, and wishing I could take it away.
When she was able to choke out words, she said she just didn’t want to feel like this anymore and didn’t know how to get through it. She also said, “Sometimes I think I feel too much.” This hit me right in the heart because I feel way too much too, and while it can be a gift that allows us to be empathetic and sensitive and forgiving, it’s also a curse.
My brother always said Papillon was his best friend. This was a little tongue-in-cheek of course — always with a smile acknowledging their interspecies relationship and the fact that yes, he does have human friends — but it was also true. And when they said goodbye to Papillon, he told me, “I’m struggling. It’s so incredibly sad to see the light leave his eyes… At least it was at home with his little head on my lap.” And it is. It is so incredibly sad. And of course, in addition to saying goodbye to a loved companion, losing a pet brings us face to face with the fact of our own mortality and that of everyone around us, whatever their species. The fact that eventually, though I hate thinking about it, the light will leave all of our eyes. We have limited time to let our light shine.
Through these last several days, I’ve been reminded that I have no tolerance for my brother being in pain. Every time he’s hurting I’m transported back to childhood. I become Captain America’s shield. You fuck with my brother? Come at me. I’ll do my best to fuck you up. It probably won’t be a very good fucking up because while I’m feisty as hell I do not actually know how to fight, but that’s not important here. Come at me. I’ll bite you or something.
None of this is to say we didn’t fight as kids. We fought. Sometimes violently when we were little, but one time he poured milk on my head and this is our favorite shared fight memory.
When my brother is hurting, I’m taken back to the time when I tried to prevent him from experiencing the worst of the pain happening in our family at a tough time. I tried to hold it all myself, and I would do it again if it would help him. I’m also reminded of the time I was sent away from home for my last two years of high school then going straight to college, leaving him alone. He needed his big sister then, and I wasn’t there. The grief I feel about that time may never fade, but I was lucky because after those years we reconnected and he’s been one of my best friends since.
I think there’s a tendency for people who aren’t “animal people,” who have never had pets and don’t want them, to diminish the pain of losing a pet. It’s not a human, after all. (And it’s perfectly ok to not be an animal person. As long as you are kind to them. You can tell a lot about a person by how they treat animals.) But comparing the two is irrelevant in the midst of that grief. Grieving a pet doesn’t mean you value them more than your human relationships or humans in general. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I would argue that the love we feel for our pets only enriches our love for humanity. Love grows our hearts.
And at the same time, humans really fucking suck sometimes. They can be mean, vindictive, hurtful. They can be bigoted and hateful. But not our pets. Not Papillon. In the same way that grieving our pets is in part about facing and grieving our own mortality, our pets represent the most pure parts of ourselves. The most loyal, loving, curious, and playful.
The connections we form with our pets is powerful. It’s real. Saying goodbye to them can be shattering. So I want to honor that.
To my brother and sister-in-law, I love you, and that’s all I have to offer, aside from funny videos. I can’t take away your pain but I can be a constant in your lives. To Papillon, I love you too, and you will be missed.
Go fly, little butterfly.